The Transborder Immigrant Tool

Description (in English): 

"Transborder" could (and does) refer to any border: political or otherwise. Yet the use of "border" and "immigrant" in a project emanating from just north of the US-Mexico border, unmistakably signals engagement with incendiary border politics that demonize the undocumented as "illegals," as an incursion of dangerous, job-stealing invaders. This artwork inverts that narrative by marshalling empathy for the border-crosser who has already passed into the United States but who is about to die of thirst. Its tactic: drawing the audience into a ritualistic enactment of that perilous journey. However, by presenting the journey, the work does not aestheticize the undocumented as avatars for first-world observers, but instead, by reframing the journey in life-or-death terms, helps to deny the rhetorical construction of "illegals," by recasting the travelers as immigrants in search of the most human needs: water for their bodies and poetry for their souls.

The Transborder Immigrant Tool is a mobile phone application being developed by the Electronic Disturbance Theater in residence at UC San Diego as the b.a.n.g. (bits, atoms, neurons, genes) lab. When deployed, the application, or app, will help a traveler crossing the desert to the north of the US-Mexico border, presumably on foot, to find water by means of a simple compass navigation device, aural, and haptic cues. Once the device finds a water cache nearby, the tool begins its wayfinding process, leading the traveler, likely dehydrated and disoriented, to the nearby cache. These caches have been placed in the desert by volunteer organizations, specifically Water Stations, Inc. and Border Angels, humanitarian organizations that work to fill brightly-painted barrels, labeled "agua," with gallon jugs of water, organizations that draw volunteers from the right and left of the political spectrum in America.

The app uses GPS information from an inexpensive Motorola phone to find the traveler’s location. Although this tool will not provide sustenance for an entire trip across the border, it does attempt to aid the traveler in what its developers refer to as the "last mile" of the journey. The traveler activates the phone in their moment of extreme dehydration, since the phone has only approximately an hour’s worth of battery charge, and after locating its position, the phone searches for nearby water caches. It is important to note that as of the writing of this essay, the TBT has not been used by undocumented immigrants dying in the desert but instead has been tested by the EDT team and has been implemented rhetorically by fans and foes alike, for whom the mere mention of the Tool stirs strong emotions.

(Source: Mark C. Marino "Code as Ritualized Poetry: The Tactics of the Transborder Immigrant Tool" DHQ 7:1 para 1-3)

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Scott Rettberg