Stop building the border wall: why designers should reject the border industry.

This month saw the launch of Building the Border Wall — now with an added “?” — an international design competition which takes as its premise US presidential candidate Donald Trump’s notorious proposal to build an anti-migrant wall across the span of US-Mexico border. Citing popular support in the US for the idea, the competition description calls on architects and designers to take Trump’s proposal seriously and engage the “formidable challenges” that such an idea presents “for the architect”. Pointing to questions of feasibility, including diverse terrains, land acquisition, materials, cost, and maintenance issues caused by, among other things, the “vandalism perpetrated by illegal crossers”, the competition challenges designers to “bring creativity and innovation to bear on the idea of a border wall”. Elsewhere the state of existing border infrastructure is described as “a confusion of fencing, corrugated metal sheets, concrete slabs, surveillance cameras, drones and other structures and devices (not to mention 21,000-plus border agents) — is dismal, inefficient and inelegant in a way that respects neither side of the debate.”

Prizes for winning include $5,000+ cash (to be funded by the entrance fee), press kit distribution by v2com, and the promise of print and publication in “the most important online architecture and design publications”, a claim that is supported by the expectation of “significant press coverage of this highly charged political issue.” The competition is organised and supported by the Third Mind Foundation, an ominously titled organisation who describe themselves as “a group of architects, designers and artists, who wish to remain anonymous.” The chief organiser and public spokesperson for the organisation and competition is John Beckmann of Axis Mundi a New York based architecture and interior design firm.

The competition has come under fire from a number voices within international architecture and design networks, a useful survey of which is provided by Nicholas Korody in a piece for Bustler. A standout contribution is that of Fabrizio Gallanti and Francisca Insulza of the Montreal-based FIG projects who initiated a call to #BoycottArchDaily after the media platform began circulating Building the Border Wall? Algiers based architect Nacym Baghli has also linked opposition to the competition to the #NoBorderWall tag. As reported by Korody a day after the call to boycott, Bustler editors declined to post the competition citing their “fear that it promotes xenophobia”. This initial pushback proved effective, with both ArchDaily and Third Mind Foundation scrambling to amend to their wording and justify their position. “Neutral”, apparently.

In the wake of these initial events, however, a number of architecture and design media platforms continue to circulate the Building the Border Wall? call out, often citing the associated “controversy” as a point of interest with the potential to “open up conversations”. Unsurprisingly, these calls, premised as they are on the inclusion of racist views, have not only attracted the support of Trump enthusiasts, but have also given license to bigoted joking and concern troll apologetics from more “respectable” figures within architecture and design circles. A supposedly neutral report on the competition in Architecture and Design, for example, one which failed to represent critical voices and calls for boycott, attracted a comment that encapsulates in vulgar terms the kind of racial, gendered and sexualised sense of entitlement that borders themselves help to design:

whilst it should primarily be like entering a thorny bramble bush, there should be special gateway for botoxed blondes — willing to [do] anything an American woman wouldn’t do

It is worth noting that the commenter in question appears to be a previous National President of the Australian Institute of Architects.

My argument here is that architects and designers who identify with anti-racist, anti-fascist, decolonial, anti- or cross-border politics ought to see Building the Border Wall? as a pitch to valorise a resurgent and violent nationalism within the international Anglo-sphere, a version of what Angela Mitropoulos has called the “racial speculative”. As the anticipated payoff for “engaging” — that is to say, inviting, legitimating, and profiting from “both sides of the argument” increases, organisations like Third Mind Foundation and ArchDaily look to position themselves as “neutral” facilitators of designs that otherwise support and extend the violence of the border. To this we can add What Can Design Do’s attempt to generate propaganda for the design industry by deploying the rhetoric of “integration” — a pathologisation of difference and displacement of “crisis” on to migrants — in the company of the UNHCR and IKEA Foundation. The speculative border futures solicited by Building the Border Wall? and What Can Design Do ought not to be read as separate from or incidental to “real” violence but, rather, as a constitutive part of the border’s “cultural” or visual and affective violence. In these circumstance, the pitch to include “alternative” views functions as an alibi to racist kite-flying. The political efficacy of “alternative” interventions within the competition itself has been pre-emptively accommodated and accounted for, and directed towards supporting efforts to profit off the border. The only way to truly pose an alternative direction, I suggest, is to position oneself beyond the terms and platforms of the border industry.

Following the position taken by FIG Projects, I suggest that the appropriate move in these circumstances is to refuse engagement, cooperation, or collaboration with groups, events, and media platforms that look to align themselves — either explicitly, tacitly, or through obfuscation — with the interests of the border industrial complex. In what follows I address some of the arguments deployed in order to fudge the distinction between an anti- and pro-border position, a move which otherwise facilitates the normalisation of designers’ involvement in the border industrial complex.

Who’s laughing?

Perhaps Trump’s fascist appeal is that he promises to make racist violence enjoyable and entertaining again. — Angela Mitropoulos

A number of people — some of whom are genuinely shocked by the appearance of Building the Border Wall?, others who it seems are searching for a public way of enjoying the buttons it pushes — have floated the idea that the whole thing is a more or less badly executed spoof. The evidence cited includes a jury page composed of deceased cultural and political figures such as Rachel Carson, Frida Kahlo, and Rosa Parks, glaringly offensive descriptions of migrants, and a repellent promotional video.

The jury page, however, also includes a “to be announced” tag line, and Beckmann himself has been quoted as affirming the seriousness of the competition and the intent to assemble a jury that reflects the “diversity” the placeholder figures.

In considering the level of detail that has gone into competition description alongside Beckmann’s efforts to save its reputation, my feeling is that the spoof claims are, at best, wishful thinking. That said, there is a more substantial point to be made here. At some point it does not matter if the competition is “real” or not as the effect of the ambiguity is itself a means of normalising the violence of the border. This is to say that even if Beckmann were to turn and declare the competition a joke the subtext of the exercise is still a declaration that violence against migrants, POC, or Indigenous peoples is a legitimate play thing of the “creative class”. Whether or not this premise leads to “spatial innovation” or offensive jokes, the cultural violence at play is real and palpable.

This point was clarified for me by New York based artist Sukjong Hong:

The vast difference in affect & emotion when immigrants hear about a border wall competition & those whose belonging is never questioned

Hong’s comment makes it clear how the political boundaries of the competition brief have been designed to court and, thus, activate the affective registers of nationalist violence. This connects with observations made by writers such as Zoé Samudzi that those who feel most inclined to make light of these issues are those who feel that their interests are unthreatened or indeed supported by the prospect of a more chauvinistic, if indeed architecturally “refined” white supremacist nationalism. For those who are less secure about their position within the nation, the very existence of Building the Border Wall? adds to a climate of fear and intimidation. Similar to the way in which Trump’s ascendancy has been the occasion for episodes of classroom racism and state-level anti-immigration policy proposals, the very existence of Building the Border Wall? acts as an extension of the threat that the border wall stands for, which has real effects in and of itself.

Speculative racism, fascist cultural probes.

A similar dynamic to the “its just joke” ploy is found in the claim that the competition is inconsequential because the wall itself exists, even if in a shambles, and that Trump’s proposal is otherwise completely impractical.

While it is possible to point to the thousands of deaths associated the US-Mexico border I suggest that the claims concerning the “ineffectiveness” and “impracticality” of the wall can and ought to be contested on their own terms. If wall exists to design a climate of threat and intimidation as much as anything else it does not need to be fully complete or impenetrable in order to act both as both a weapon and a source of profit for border industry, including its “creative class” faction.

In taking the wall as a premise for designerly speculation, Building the Border Wall? offers a chance to workshop “solutions” that test the imagined limits of the existing border system. The risk here is not simply that such a proposal excites those who wish to see Trump’s idea represented as a serious and “realistic” possibility. This is indeed the case, but the entire exercise also operates as a cheaply run workshop for ideas that could otherwise be taken up in more toned down or fragmented ways. This is precisely the Most Advanced Yet Acceptable model of designerly salesmanship once promoted by Raymond Loewy, the prominent figure of a design movement that, among other things, also encompassed fascist proclivities. Furthermore, the circulation of the competition entrants in this case would act as a kind of cultural probe to test audience appetite for images of what the border is and how it works, the results of which can be folded back into strategies for maintaining the border and the profits it produces.

The ‘multifunctional’ border is still a weapon

The political hedging at play in Building the Border Wall? is also reflected in Ronald Rael’s more subtle but no less definitive plea for architects to have their wall and eat it too. In a piece that sets the current competition in relation similar events in the past (to which Rael has contributed), Rael claims that “we must end the embargo on multifunctional design at the border”. This odd line arises from Rael’s attempt to weave a position between unconditional acceptance of the wall and the deflection of architects and designers who can afford to flee the scene for less contentious political ground. The position that Rael arrives in within this limited binary is to sell the anti-migrant wall “as a possible armature for design” by considering its potential as a “vehicle of delivery” for such things as “water, solar, environmental, and social improvements”.

The strange logic guiding Rael’s argument is symptomatic of a more general failure to contest the rule of liberal pragmatism within architectural and design practice. While it is true that the wall encompasses a substantial infrastructure that ought be considered for retrofitting, any decision to take this option — as opposed to something like disassembly, relocation, or recycling — ought to follow from priorities other than a desire to retain the wall as barrier. In other words, if the issue at play is the provision of something as vital as water, what kind of designer posits the wall as a premise to the solution before having determined that such option is the best strategy for delivery? It is worth noting here that while Rael might object to what he sees as “bad policy” he is not opposed to using the wall as a security device, with many of his own proposed changes pitched as additional to this very function. In a video from 2010, for instance, Rael argues that an advantage of adding solar panels to the wall is that it would create “doubly secure border” as private security for the solar installations would coordinate with Homeland Security. These kinds of arguments are precisely why Third Mind Foundation have found it useful to promote Rael’s work in support of Building the Border Wall?

To be clear, the issue here is not about whether or not existing infrastructures should be turned into something useful. The value of this kind of thing is obvious. There is also an urgent need to design pathways towards something that might be called post-border futures. While at one point Rael makes an ambiguous gesture at this option — and this is a generous reading — it is notable that he does not spell it out as distinct from the preservation of wall’s security function. This is move is subtle but significant, for the trajectory of these alternative briefs flow from an entirely different and, in the case of the post-border, opposing premise to that of maintaining the wall as deterrence against free movement — multifunctional or not. If the design brief is not clear on its intentions to disable the wall as a weapon — as is the case with Rael’s argument— what results cannot be expected to support an anti- or cross-border politics. The refusal to legitimate architectural valorisations of border violence is thus entirely distinct from any imaginary embargo on multifunctional design. Rael’s efforts to confuse this point have no value other the effect of, whether by implication or design, obfuscating the distinction between pro- and anti-border activism.

Censorship, free speech, creative license

intention, prefiguration, design and things bring freedom or destroy it — Tony Fry

Calls to boycott or no-platform are often opposed on the grounds of censorship or free speech. In this case the silencing effect of the border itself must be brought front and center.

The border industrial complex turns a profit from enforcing the death, suffering, marginalisation, and exploitation of migrants and Indigenous peoples. In this way it is itself inherently hostile to the voices and experiences of anyone who cannot comply with the normative profile of citizenship. The silencing produced by borders impacts artists, designers, and architects as much as anyone else, a case in point being the 2014 murder of Iranian architect Reza Berati whilst being held in Australian immigration detention. As with the question of ridicule, calls to refuse engagement with the border industry are experienced as threat to only a very particular and demonstrably privileged class of designer.

While there are sound arguments to be made regarding the rights and responsibilities of platform organisers to curate the voices that have access to their audiences, what is decisive in this case is that the “free” speech of border apologists is diametrically opposed to the freedom of movement, speech, and creativity of the majority of people in the world. To put it bluntly, the “creative” license or “right” to speak afforded by imperial/colonial borders only has currency insofar as it is backed by white supremacy. Against this, calls to boycott or no-platform the border industry are grounded on a pitch for freedom guided by practices of anti-racist solidarity.

Disrupting the value flows of the attention economy

In the comment section of the Architecture and Design article, reporter Nathan Johnson attempted to argue that the position taken by Bustler only contributed to the publicity of Building the Border Wall? What Johnson failed to distinguish, however, was a key difference in the terms of engagement that FIG Projects and Bustler produced. In being open about their decision to boycott and no-platform Building the Border Wall?, FIG Projects and Bustler challenged the wager on the part of Third Mind Foundation that other architects and designers would legitimate their pitch to valorise xenophobia, including by the consent of political ambivalence. While the move no doubt garnered a great deal of attention, the stand taken by FIG Projects and Bustler worked to undermine the “reputational capital” of Third Mind Foundation, a tactic that was also effective in the 2014 boycott of the 19th Biennale of Sydney over its sponsorship by Australia’s largest detention centre contractor (see also “Cross-Border Operations”).

As with the Sydney Biennale Boycott, the decisive point is to break the chain of value that connects the business of the border (and the racism it relies upon) to the work of architects, designers, artists, critics, journalists, and academics. The actual intensity of attention is incidental to the mechanisms by which this value circulates as symbolic, financial, and political profit. In rejecting Building the Border Wall?, the likes of FIG Projects and Bustler prove the significance of making ethico-political distinctions count insofar as they disrupted the flow of value to Third Mind Foundation. Calling out appeals to xenophobia has turned heads in the appropriate direction.

In this respect I suggest that the greatest chance of making an impact in this context is to refuse the terms of engagement solicited by Building the Border Wall? in the most public way possible. Because this also amounts to a refusal of the terms of nationalist exclusion the fallout of such a disruptive move has the potential to ease the pressure on those who are threatened by the border wall. Whether any such impact turns out to be great or small it would still be nonetheless real.

A view from the Walter Benjamin memorial at Portbou. (ht Angela Mitropoulos, image by Awersowy)

With thanks to Ece Canlı, Angela Mitropoulos, Pedro Oliveira, Luiza Prado, and Cameron Tonkinwise.