Political Equator 3: Report Back from Liz Losh

21 Jun

Elizabeth Losh of UCSD has generously shared a report back with SOTA about her recent experience with the Political Equator conference and gathering. See her website here.

Not every art event requires a valid passport, but participation in Political Equator 3 involved a carefully orchestrated border crossing through the Los Laureles Canyon from the United States into Mexico. Under the watchful eye of U.S. Homeland Security agents on hilltops, Political Equator attendees made the arduous crossing that tens of thousands of people make each year in reverse, but as privileged guests they did it with conveniences like air-conditioned buses, lavish tents, and buckets of icy bottled water.   Many found themselves turned back if they lacked clearance from the two governments that had temporarily allowed for an improvised border crossing station in a corridor through the Tijuana River Watershed that also bridges the two nations in a journey from bleak no-man’s land to dense, improvised housing.  Those who had been documented were lined up – oddly by first name – to wait to cross under a massive border fence through a storm drain before scuttling past an improvised shrine of trash and up a trail to an old military checkpoint. Parsons Dean William Morrish of the School for Constructed Environments drew the landscape between the “no people past” and the “informal future” shown above.

The event was the brainchild of Teddy Cruz, an architect known for incorporating elements of informal architecture into his own building practices and for validating the ingeniousness of the inhabitants of shantytowns who appropriate and recycle elements of discarded suburban architecture. As Cruz made the crossing, he wore a camera on his head to document the process, and a balloon high above with another camera captured the progress of the transborder traverse.

As this video explains, Cruz is concerned with creating dialogue across what he calls “the political equator” that spans the globe where border hotspots between the “functioning core” and the “non-integrating gap” cause conflicts around migration, citizenship, and property in a line that runs from the Tijuana/San Diego checkpoint to the walls that separate Spanish and Moroccan territory to the contested zone between Israel and Palestine to the highlands of Kashmir to the places where China has tried to assert its presence as a superpower.

This political equator is not merely a thought experiment for Cruz; it is a site of fieldwork and situated debate.  Unfortunately, not all of the stakeholders Cruz had hoped to have participate were willing to engage.  Cruz had planned to have representatives of the Department of Homeland Security engage in a conversation with environmentalist-activist-educators like Oscar Romo and innovative urban planners like Damon Rich around a large three-dimensional model that showed the territory around the militarized zone that currently thwarts both human and animal inhabitants, but this component of Political Equator fell through.  Nonetheless, as this video shows Cruz was still able to use the model for dramatic effect.

International experts on border regions and the flow of citizens and natural agents arrived from all over the world to attend the event in the estuary. Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha of SOAK in India came as authorities on landscapes that were “shifting, living material phenomena that demand an attitude of negotiation rather than unilateral control” and explained their philosophy about designing with temporality rather than spatiality in mind.  Video artist Cynthia Hooper showed CESPT, a film about the journey of water from the Colorado River to Tijuana and back to the United States.  Alessandro Petti of Decolonizing Architecture showed how the gated privatized housing of Israeli settlements could be transformed into Palestinian community buildings rather than merely be vandalized as the objects of political scorn.

The occasion of the border crossing inspired others who took the megaphone from Cruz as the Tijuana traffic whizzed by on a highway nearby.  Ricardo Dominguez of UC San Diego’s Bang Lab, which was made notorious by their invention of the Transborder Immigrant Tool, a reappropriation of mobile phone technology to help immigrants from Latin America find water caches in the desert, took the megaphone, as did artist Omar Pimienta, who welcomed visitors to his own independent country and offered to stamp their passports with his private nation’s seal.

The day ended with a community meal of tamales on a soccer field that had been reclaimed from a dump in the Parque Frontera as former mayor of Medellin Sergio Fajardo showed the amazing range of innovative public buildings that were built during his tenure, all by architects from Latin America, which he described as an underutilized reservoir of talent.  UCSD MFA student Benjamin Lotan documented the scene in the image below.

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