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Posted on Sun, Feb 24, 2013 : 5:11 a.m.

U-M exhibit offers an engrossing look at struggles of undocumented migrants

By John Carlos Cantu


A Richard Barnes image from "Exception"

Humanitarianism collides with today’s front page in the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities exhibit “State of Exception.”

Based on the U-M’s “Undocumented Migration Project,” the exhibit, says Institute for the Humanities Communications Specialist Stephanie Harrell, traces “the human experience — backpacks, water bottles, border patrol restraints, and other objects left behind in the desert by both undocumented migrants on their journey into the U.S. and the law enforcement agents who seek to keep them out.”

A seriously packed multimedia installation, the exhibit consists of video taken by New York City-based photographer/videographer Richard Barnes and artifacts collected by U-M anthropologist Jason De Leon, as coordinated by Institute for the Humanities curator Amanda Krugliak.

Following up, Harrell’s statement says, the collaboration between Barnes, De Leon, and Krugliak “considers the complexities and ambiguities of found objects and what they may or may not reveal in terms of transition, human experience, culture, violence, and accountability.

“The ‘Undocumented Migration Project’ is a long-term anthropological study of undocumented migration between Mexico and the United States that uses ethnography, archaeology, and forensic science to better understand this clandestine social process.”

Millions of migrants journey from many points south in Latin America across the Mexican/United States border seeking relocation in violation of immigration law — and, ultimately, American sovereignty.

The numbers are not known, but it’s estimated there are between 7 and 20 million people living unauthorized in the United States today. Some believe enforcement is too tight; others, too loose.

Rather than take a direct side in the debate, “State of Exception” lays out evidence De Leon calls a “state of exception” taken from the theory of conservative political philosopher Carl Schmitt and contemporary Italian biopolitical theorist Giorgio Agamben, defining this strategy as a process “whereby sovereign authorities declare emergencies, often with the stated goal of protecting the state, in order to suspend the legal protections afforded to individuals while simultaneously unleashing the power of the state upon them.”

Toward this end, as De Leon shows, the U.S. border patrol policy of ‘Prevention through Deterrence’ has been established with the goal of “rerouting unauthorized aliens from urban areas and towards more remote areas of the (U.S.) Southwest border, making the journey more difficult.”

“State of Exception” graphically illustrates the journey and the hardships these people endure. For example, one of the more graphic aspects of the exhibit is a wall-length installation consisting of hundreds of soiled backpacks stacked from floor to ceiling.

The number of these packs is stunning enough — their aged and damaged condition alone testifying to the hardships encountered on this dangerous trek. Meanwhile, a half-dozen video monitors featuring U-M graduate students mounted in rows of two on another wall (sometimes speaking singly; sometimes speaking in overlapping dialogue) recall their professional and personal experiences working on the “Undocumented Migration Project.”

Additionally, two display cases filled with ravaged artifacts — personal effects like coins, bottles, shoelaces, wallets, and the like; mingled with abandoned refuse — illustrate the property these folk carried with them on their arduous desert journey.

Krugliak adds in a short essay contributed to the display, “Many may see this exhibition as a study of aesthetics, materiality, and practice. However, ‘State of Exception’ attempts to consider the journey of migrants through the deserts of Arizona from all sides, like a puzzle, turning it over, and then again. It emphasizes the ambiguity and complexity of a situation that is as ongoing and endless as the border fence itself.”

Krugliak’s assessment is certainly accurate enough — both sociologically and as public policy. But Barnes’ video contributions are also easily the most artful aspect of this remarkable display.

On entry, a trio of DVD monitors projects a filmed video path of abandoned detritus strewn across a ravine down a narrow path leading into the Institute’s installation space. And in the installation proper are two additional video loops of the Arizona fence separating the U.S. from Mexico.

Barnes effectively turns one of the most controversial aspects of America’s domestic policy into an artful meditation on borders and boundaries. For both videos are shot from a moving car with the metal poles of the fence appearing as a series of metal slats through which the landscape passes.

One of the videos has been shot through the car’s front window during a stormy night, and the border fence dramatically flickers up to the right at a diagonal angle as the vehicle moves slowly down a dirt road. The other video (shot through a side window) breaks the scenery into a flurry of interconnected slices as the car moves relentlessly forward.

In both instances, the motion of Barnes’ looped footage of the border fence is unceasing. There’s no start to the movement, nor is there any rest. The impression given is one of a long, arduous passage with no repose in sight. And such, by implication, is the fate of those who brave the dangerous route north.

“State of Exception” will continue through March 12 at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities’ Exhibition Space, Room 1010, 202 S. Thayer St. Gallery hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday. For information, call 734-936-3518.


Michigan Man

Sun, Feb 24, 2013 : 5:48 p.m.

Could the U of M, with tax payor money, do a feature on the ranchers and farmers of the southwest and how their land and livestock/crops is being run over, littered, destroyed, harmed and otherwise injured by millions of illegals who show no concern toward the welfare of others. Do not think I am out of line in expected fair and balanced reporting.


Sun, Feb 24, 2013 : 3:11 p.m.

I became a US citizen after a very long wait, following the procedures, learning the langauge, and adopting and adapting to the US culture. I'm damn proud of it. I am offended by this PC language of undocumented migrants. They are illegal aliens, no matter how you sugar-coat it.

Jay Thomas

Sun, Feb 24, 2013 : 2:32 p.m.

They would look at it from the migrants perspective. The hundreds of bankrupted hospitals around the south west are a testament to the damage it has caused.


Sun, Feb 24, 2013 : 1:48 p.m.

Undocumented "migrants"? That's a new euphemism. Actually I didn't know that "migrating" required any documents at all. Now "immigrating" is an entirely different story. Next euphemism please ...