In our weekly group meetings so far, we have discussed the various ways Trump’s isolationist, closed-border rhetoric – so shocking in its directness and disregard for the conventions of civil political discourse – is in fact much less incongruous with modern U.S. orthodoxy than the President’s bolshie framing might lead us to believe. We can – in fact we must – acknowledge that Trumpism is a threat and an upheaval while also acknowledging that U.S. liberal convention contains much precedent for his exclusionary, supremacist early policy initiatives, of which the elaborate plans for a border “wall” are both the most obvious example, and an apt metaphor.
As a Film major, I have tasked myself with researching the ways in which the U.S.-Mexico border has been imaged in recent history, with a focus on how the “wall” might have a precedent in the pre-Trump era. This being the twenty-first century, no political discourse can be completely isolated from the way it has been communicated visually (and let us not forget the pivotal role that reality TV, a hyperreal phenomenon if there’s ever been one, played in #45’s rise). The very earliest days of my research thus brought me to a difficult problematic: how can we discuss the ways in which the border has been visualised and aestheticized while retaining a sensitivity to the very serious human toll had by its consequences – which will surely only get worse?
The author Maggie Nelson’s 2009 essay collection, The Art of Cruelty, is composed of thirteen chapters which probe the many ways violence and cruelty have been key in the formation of contemporary U.S. consciousness, her case studies primarily drawing from the visual arts but also from theatre, performance and literature. In the author’s signature hybrid style – it is a work of art criticism, memoir, cultural theory, political critique and many other things – she delineates the ways in which U.S. culture in roughly the late-W. Bush, early-Obama moment could be examined through a focus on its accommodation of senseless and banal violence – in which visual culture must surely play an integral part.
Its third chapter, ‘Great To Watch’, is about ordinary, everyday spectatorship of things that in pre-digital times would have remained unseen. Nelson queries the links which are regularly made between visibility and intervention; throughout the twentieth century, it was popularly claimed that if only populaces could see the ills of the world with their own eyes, those ills would surely be more preventable in future – i.e. that increased visibility must surely lead to an increased progressive engagement. Her conclusions, drawing on spectatorship and the internet, show that hyper-visibility can lead to damaging consequences just as easily; if not moreso.
This chapter brought to my attention the BlueServo project, which set up cameras along the Texas-Mexico border and broadcast the footage on a live stream, with the aim of encouraging U.S. citizens to patrol the border for possible criminal activity from the comfort of their sofas. From a New York Times story at the time:
The Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition (TBSC) has instituted the Texas Virtual Border Watch Program to enlist the public’s assistance in preventing crime along the Texas-Mexico border. This initiative provides real-time streaming video over a web-based network to enable the public to report suspicious activity to the appropriate law enforcement agency via e-mail. Day and night surveillance cameras have been strategically placed throughout the border region to deny drug and human smugglers unobserved access to the United States by placing high-threat areas under public surveillance. The numbers and locations of these cameras will constantly change based on threat. To view the Texas Virtual Border Watch cameras, the public can visit the www.BlueServo.net website.
NPR’s John Burnett reported last month that “more than 43,000 people have logged on” to BlueServo.net to spend some of their free time scanning streaming video of border hot spots and acting as what the Web site calls “Virtual Texas Deputies.”
NPR reported: “Since the program started in November, virtual deputies have yielded four marijuana busts, totaling more than 1,500 pounds, and 30 incidents when illegal crossers were repelled.”
As an example of the insidious ways visual and digital cultures can contribute to hawkish, nationalist politics long before President Trump became any kind of possibility, the BlueServo project and its huge popularity among certain demographics, as well as the many similar projects which emerged in the late Bush era, seemed to me a key prefiguring of the Trump moment. Unsurprisingly, there exists a small body of scholarship on the website and similar initiatives. In continuing my focus on how the border has been politicised and Mexican citizens demonised via the use of digital visual communication, in the weeks leading up to our group presentation I aim to consider further how utilising methods and perspectives from contemporary media and art theory might be a useful way of understanding the role of the U.S.-Mexico border in this uncertain, divisive time.