Confronting Hostile Terrains

Figure 1. The Hostile Terrain 94 border-wall map is comprised of thousands of geo-located ID tags and constitutes the participatory element of the exhibit.
Figure 1. The Hostile Terrain 94 border-wall map is comprised of thousands of geo-located ID tags and constitutes the participatory element of the exhibit.

With their upcoming exhibition, Confronting Hostile Terrains, Darcy Alexandra and Gerhild Perl aim to raise awareness about the political causes and existential consequences of lethal border politics, and to humanize the often-anonymous victims of border regimes and asylum systems. The exhibition will take place at the Kornhausforum from August 19thuntil September 10th. Students interested in participating in the preparatory events or in mounting the exhibit, can contact Alexandra or Perl directly to get involved. 

Confronting Hostile Terrains will center the participatory exhibit Hostile Terrain 94 from the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP) directed by UCLA anthropologist Jason De LeónTwo more interventions that examine migration and internal bordering complete the exhibition. These include Water from artist Sarah Hildebrand and Living in Direct Provision directed by Darcy Alexandra. The exhibition vernissage will begin with a public reading in Arabic, French and German about death and disappearance in the Mediterranean with Driss El Hadj, Sarah Hildebrand, and Gerhild Perl on Thursday, August 19th and conclude with the public lecture, “Understanding the Politics of Migrant Death along the US/Mexico Border” with Jason De León on Friday, September 10th at the Kornhausforum. 

Exhibition Background

Since the 1990s, the European Union and the United States have increasingly tightened their external borders, ideologically conceptualizing migrants as threats to national security. Consequently, walls have been built, fences erected, military and surveillance technologies employed at sea and on land to prevent people from the Global South from entering wealthier and more stable states. The hardening of border controls, however, has not necessarily led to a decrease of irregular entries. Instead, it has shifted migration routes forcing migrants to undertake dangerous journeys through hostile terrains such as the North American Sonoran Desert (De León 2015) and the Mediterranean Sea (Perl 2018). Over the course of thirty years now, thousands of migrants have died or gone missing in their attempt to cross national frontiers. 

While Swiss and European media report regularly on deadly shipwrecks, smuggling networks, rescue operations and enforced migration policies in the European and Mediterranean contexts, little is reported about border policies and their lethal consequences in the North American borderlands, despite the tragic similarities. Thus, with the upcoming exhibition, Alexandra and Perl aim to open discussions among diverse publics of non-specialists, scholars, students, volunteers and activists about the global phenomenon of border death. To meet these objectives, the exhibition invites research from the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP), a non-profit research-art-education-media collective directed by MacArthur Fellow, anthropologist Jason De León and their participatory art exhibit Hostile Terrain 94. This exhibition is comprised of approximately 3,600 handwritten ID tags that identify migrants who have died trying to cross the Sonoran Desert of Arizona between 1994 and 2020. These tags represent the recovered bodies of those who have perished and are geo-located on a wall map of the desert showing the exact locations where migration researchers have recovered and documented the remains (Figure 1). 

Hosting Hostile Terrain 94 offers a unique opportunity to participate in this global dialogue about border death and our responsibilities as a concerned public. Leading up to the exhibit, we are holding preparatory events in Basel, Bern, Geneva, Lausanne, Nyon and Zürich to involve diverse publics in learning about the human cost of border policies.

Confronting Hostile Terrains is supported by a Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF) Agora Grant, Burgergemeinde Bern, the Intermediate Staff Association, the Diversity Initiative, and the Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Bern.