Sept. 8 2010 01:35 PM

The first in our series on border art looks at the Transborder Immigrant Tool, a provocative art project that continues to make mainstream-media headlines

From left: Brett Stalbaum, Amy Sara Carroll, Ricardo Dominguez, Elle Mehrmand and Micha Cárdenas.
Photo by Kinsee Morlan
When Glenn Beck rolled out his new patriotic-themed website, The Blaze, last week, he featured, prominently, a video about a controversial art project by a group of professors and lecturers at UCSD.

“UCSD professors: Dissolve U.S.—Give GPS phones with explicit poetry to illegals for border crossing,” reads the sensational headline.

The video begins with a radical quote about border politics by UCSD lecturer Micha Cárdenas and continues with a series of confusing snippets presented out of context and edited together with black-fade transitions featuring big, bold white words scrolling across the screen saying menacing things like, “Also included on the Motorola GPS phones, explict [sic] poetry.”

The cause of the ruffled right-wing feathers is the Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT), a GPS-enabled, inexpensive Motorola cell phone meant to help people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border find water in emergencies. The phone comes loaded with custom navigational software and poetry, the latter of which, the creators say, contains both “sustenance for the spirit” and factual desert-survival skills. The tool was created as a conceptual-art project with real-world applications by Cárdenas, Amy Sara Carroll, Ricardo Dominguez, Elle Mehrmand and Brett Stalbaum, an eclectic group of artists and activists who collaborate in the collectives, b.a.n.g. lab and Electronic Disturbance Theater.

TBT was written about as early as 2007, but the story didn't really go viral until the snarky
Vice magazine covered it. Boing Boing picked it up and, soon after, hordes of local and international media caught on to the controversy and began descending on the group earlier this year. Some of the coverage was OK. Other reports, Cárdenas says, were ridiculous.

“It was so obvious that reporters wanted to make it a sexy story that could be summed up in one line,” Cárdenas says. “People kept talking about it like it was an iPhone application—there would be stories about it with a picture of an iPhone next to it. It's not an iPhone application…. It was interesting being inside the media frenzy. The whole process revealed the myths and lies and rhetoric about the border.”

Microphones in hand, Cárdenas says, reporters would approach the crew and pose all sorts of loaded questions:
What is the legality of the cell phone? What if it lands in the hands of Al-Qaeda?

“Well,” says Ricardo Dominguez, associate professor in the UCSD visual-arts program, “if Al-Qaeda really wants to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, they can go to Best Buy in Tijuana and pay $59 for a GPS that will give you very clear, very precise locations of wherever you want to go. [TBT] is not going to help you cross into Phoenix or any place. What happens is that, if you're dying, you turn it on. About four to five hours are on this phone. And basically, it will try to lead you directly to the closest water cache last known within the last four days left by Water Station Inc. or Border Angels.”

Sitting in his closet-size office at UCSD, Dominguez, a soft-spoken bespectacled man who wears sneakers, looks and sounds somewhat relieved. The media storm has slowed to a trickle. He was happy to let
CityBeat be the first to know that a University of California investigation—which sprung from the onslaught of angry letters and e-mails (a few from Republican members of Congress) that came pouring into UC headquarters soon after TBT made headlines, demanding a probe into the use of public grant money for a project supposedly aiding illegal immigration—had finally come to an end.

Dominguez leaned toward his laptop and read the e-mail from the UC auditor aloud, “‘The final conclusion is based on our review procedures. We concluded that neither the university funds nor effort were used inappropriately during the development of TBT or the project.'

“So, that's one victory for artwork,” he continued, sitting back in his chair.

Another victory for TBT is the acceptance of the project into two major museum shows. Four of the phones are currently showing in the
Here Not There: San Diego Art Now exhibit on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego through Sept. 19. TBT has also been selected for the 2010 California Biennial opening at the Orange County Museum of Art on Oct. 24.

“To me, the project is very, very significant,” says Lucia Sanroman, the MCASD associate curator behind
Here Not There. “The importance is not that it really works, but how it engages our sympathies for the immigrants. I was wary of taking advantage of the media attention and saying, ‘Look how cool we are for putting this in the show.' That was not the intention of the show. The intention is to present a sort of local ecology—a slow-food feast for every visitor of what's really going on in San Diego…. I wanted to be very clear that this is a project of cell phones. It's almost silly how controversial it is when it is simply a cell phone—cell phones and intentionality and gestures and poetry, and yet it's created this huge opera.”

The poetry on the phone is the one part of the project that the media have pretty much left alone until the Glenn Beck video exposé.

“When there's been mention of poetry,” says Amy Sara Carroll, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who's a visiting scholar at UCSD and the writer behind the TBT poetry, “it's been rather derisive in the popular press coverage. I think it's often been posed more as a question: Are these people really serious? Did they think this would be at all useful or this is a cover for the project? There's also a way in which the poems have stunned certain opposition into silence. For instance, we were on MSNBC Live—Ricardo and I, right after Christmas—[with] this person, Bob Dane from the Federation for Immigration Reform. So we got asked by Contessa Brewer, 'Is this really poetry?' and I just said, ‘Yes.' And then there were, like, 20 seconds of silence.”

While the artists have started receiving yet another round of death threats thanks to the Beck video, they say they're actually happy about the press. They've begun to look at coverage as the “first stage of deployment.” The second stage, they say, is getting the work into the museums. And the third is handing out the phones.

“My real hope for the project is that it actually functions as a life-saving tool and people begin to use it,” says Brett Stalbaum, a lecturer at UCSD responsible for most of the programming of TBT. “The UC investigation definitely preoccupied us this summer, but the good news is that there's now a fully functioning and actually well-tested working version of this that we think is ready to be deployed, and we're going to begin the process through workshops with NGOs and humanitarian organizations, and, eventually, we'll get these things on the ground.”   

Web Extras

Click here to listen to an example of the poetry that comes
on the Transborder Immigrant Tool or watch the video below.

Transborder Immigrant Tool - Transition from banglab on Vimeo.

*Editor's note: Correction: In "After the Storm" (Sept. 8 ), Kinsee Morlan referred to Ricardo Dominguez as an assistant professor at UCSD. He is actually an associate professor. And Amy Sara Carroll, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan and visiting scholar at UCSD, was misquoted and we attributed a question on MSNBC Live to Bob Dane from the Federation of Immigration Reform when the question should have been attributed to the MSNBC anchor, Contessa Brewer. Also, in the same quote, Carroll requested that we change "before Christmas" to "after Christmas," which is when the MSNBC interview took place. We sincerely regret the mistakes.


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