In their recent book, Border Cantos, landscape photographer Richard Misrach and composer and performance artist Guillermo Galindo offer a visual and online audio reflection about the border through their respective media. Here is a review of their collaborative monograph by photographer and writer Karen Jenkins, with our thanks.
By Karen Jenkins
Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo first crossed paths in 2012 at the line between the United States and Mexico, as ramped-up border politics continued to exact a heavy toll in lives and the landscape, and the wall between there and here, them and us, felt more mute and impenetrable than ever. Border Cantos is the culmination of their subsequent artistic collaboration, building on Misrach’s photographic exploration of the American West and expanding Galindo’s work as a composer and performer. Galindo created musical instruments from objects left behind by migrants, and later gathered by Misrach. He also created musical scores using the photographer’s images of the vast border region as raw material and points of departure. Visual languages play off of sound and music in this multi-media project and texts are presented in English and Spanish, running parallel down opposite sides of each page. Separately and together, Misrach and Galindo’s work deftly reckons with both the powerful physicality of the wall and the artifacts that surround it, as well as the numerous conceptual ways into and through its politics, economics, ideologies and aesthetics.
In sweeping, large format photographs, Misrach depicts the wall as seam and scar, stitched up and spiked, part and protrusion between two sides. Yet these are not necessarily views of an imposing obstacle (he points out that the wall is in fact, relatively easy to climb or circumvent). In shifting perspectives, this barrier is also seen as incomplete, nonsensical and inadequate. The obstacle is in the journey; approaching the wall and leaving it behind, passing through desolate, dangerous desert and mountains on either side of the line. Border control meticulously surveils this illicit movement, while migrants attempt to cover their tracks. Certain modes of this precarious symbiosis are decidedly low tech, such as the appropriation by border control of the Native American tracking technique “cutting for sign.” Old chains or tires are dragged along the loose desert surface to make unbroken gradations of sand or soil, against which footprints and signs of travel can be seen. Misrach photographed these discarded tools and their traces, along with those make-shift shoe coverings crafted by migrants to disguise and deflect. He and Galindo perceptively seize upon the symbolism of the tires—discarded, inert and stripped of their forward motion functionality—reemployed to monitor and thwart the movement of others. In the striations and disruptions captured in Misrach’s photographs, Galindo saw the language of music. He created musical scores inspired by these images and other natural forms in the border landscapes that give these lines new form and expression.
A companion Border Cantos website contains videos of Galindo’s performances with the musical instruments created from objects left behind by anonymous migrants. He uses the loaded symbolism and intrinsic materiality of these finds to give voice and sound to those who took them on their border journeys. Josh Kun’s accompanying essays give rich context to the history of such reappropriation as a “strategy for cultural survival for the conquered and oppressed.” In book and website, we see Piñata de cartuchos (Shell Piñata), inspired by the West African gourd instrument, the shekeré. In Galindo’s version, shotgun shell casings collected at a Border Patrol shooting range replace the traditional sea shell covering, now hung off a spiky form inspired by a soccer ball found near the border. The casings are spent, and this ball won’t roll, but its sounds tell a new story. In Micro Orchestra, small belongings left behind by children become instruments in a tiny musical ensemble, with microphones used to amplify their diminutive sounds, while underscoring the failure to hear the voices of many thousands of kids who’ve made perilous border crossings. Misrach’s photographs of the same—mute, in situ—prime us for such a poignant reanimation.
Human encounters in Misrach’s photographs are rare and mediated, through distance, or the slats of the wall. The scarecrow-like effigies he discovered in the desert are jarring in the immediacy of their anthropomorphic presence and uncertain purposes. With none of the stuffed-shirt optimism of a sentry standing guard over a farmer’s lush field, or the unyielding authority of a border guard, these migrant stand-ins assume dramatic poses of warning and a last stand. They also echo the splintered existence of the border-crosser, both rooted in place and propelled forward. Galindo’s companion piece, Efigie, and others in the series, tap into the history of relic veneration, both indigenous and imported, in his use of discarded personal belongings found along the border in the creation of musical instruments that reanimate highly charged objects. In Efigie, resonating pieces of wood form arms and legs, dressed with a hoodie and pants, in a stance that signifies both protest and surrender. Red stains and splatter cover white pants, suggesting flesh and sinew, and bloody violence. The figure is strung up and splayed open; the instrument strings stretch across its body. It’s pounded and plucked; a bow slices through to create its sound, its voice. This, and Border Cantos’ every echo and reverberation between image and sound, inert artifact and its kinetic reboot, insist upon a reckoning with the wall’s many dark iterations and legacy of loss.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
By Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo.
Aperture, New York, USA, 2016. 274 pp.,
257 color illustrations, 13¼x10½”.
Available at: http://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=DS614.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Karen Jenkins earned a Master’s degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Read more of Karen’s reviews at: http://blog.photoeye.com/search/label/Karen%20Jenkins.
NOTE: This review first appeared on photo-eye’s blog on May 23, 2016: http://blog.photoeye.com/2016/05/book-review-border-cantos.html. It appears here with the kind permission of photo-eye and the author. For more information about this work in this volume and to view Galindo’s performances, please go to: http://bordercantos.com.