Consumed, as we so often are, by the tweeted outbursts of President Trump and his fixation on the US–Mexico border, it’s often forgotten that Mexico’s southern border is a site of considerable friction around mass-migration from Central America. ‘Walk the Line’, an exhibition currently on display at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) for this year’s edition of London Festival of Architecture (LFA), takes Mexico’s frontera sur as its focus while provocatively reinterpreting it as a vertical plane that runs upwards through the southern section of the country. A ‘distributed vertical border’ is how the project’s authors – researcher Pedro Ceñal Murga and curatorial platform Proyector (Tania Tovar Torres and Juan Carlos Espinosa) – describe a network of seven sites connected via the infamous ‘La Bestia’ train network. Also known as ‘El tren de la muerte’, the network carries hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing violence, drought, poverty and political oppression – predominantly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
The exhibition is divided into seven sites, running from Ciudad Hidalgo, on the border with Guatemala, up to Tierra Blanca, in the state of Veracruz. Each site serves as a lens to consider specific themes – such as violence and labour – through architectural and other spatial typologies that appear along the route. The second stop, Tapachula, for instance, centres around labour and is represented via ID cards which allow migrants to work on southern Mexican plantations, an architectural model of a ‘Snack Bar’ with bedrooms occupied by sex workers concealed behind a public-facing bar, and a small wooden box used by so-called canguritos (little kangaroos) to display cigarettes and other goods for sale. The canguritos are understood to be controlled by figures in organized crime and are used as messengers, as well as to perform other, more insidious tasks. Elsewhere along the route there are models of neighbourhood plans, train carriages, corporate guardhouses and government checkpoints, as well as UNHCR documentation on refugee status, newspaper reports and more.
When grasped collectively, the intricate research creates a multifaceted picture that is, for the most part, highly distressing. The crossing of scales – from corporeal artefacts such as ID cards and canguritos’ boxes, to physical infrastructure and transnational policy – highlights the varying barriers to personal safety and legal status faced by the Central Americans confronting the journey of La Bestia. In addition, the inclusion of documentation and other non-architectural elements makes evident the intangible forces that determine the migrants’ ability to progress through the country – elements that have little to do with transport infrastructure or individual buildings.
The installation at RIBA, however, makes the comprehension of this complexity somewhat challenging. Transplanted from Proyector’s gallery space in north Mexico City, where the models and artefacts sat atop delicate plinths, the exhibition is on show in RIBA’s awkward Practice Space (essentially a corridor), with objects on a mix of plinths and tables. The particular details of the artefacts are lost somewhat in the space without the exhibition guide. What’s more, visiting the exhibition only two weeks after its initial installation, letters are already missing from wall texts and plinths have been knocked off-kilter.
‘Walk the Line’s’ intricate attention to detail describes the precise dimensions, travel times, laws, applications, dates, costs, rumours and risks of a journey that is most often grossly misunderstood. The show forms a valuable addition to a growing body of artists, architects and researchers working around global migration and mobility justice with a nuance typically lacking in public discourse. Perhaps the show’s most valuable contribution in this regard is to describe the nature of ‘boundaries’ – the theme of this year’s LFA – as devilishly complex processes, rather than simply lines on a map.
Main image: Proyector, Walk The Line: A Distributed Vertical Border, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: RIBA, London