Episode 015: Erasing the Border and the Wall in Our Heads with Social Sculptor Ana Teresa Fernández
This week, news leaked of the Trump administration’s deployment of an unspecified number of military service members to paint stretches of the border reinforcements in the California town of Calexico. The goal: to improve the border’s "aesthetic appearance."
There’s precedent to this. Wall builders go to great lengths to hide and distract from the brutality of border walls. For example, during the Cold War, the East German government ordered the Berlin Wall to be fully rebuilt more than once for the purpose of gaining prestige. That was before visual artists transformed that wall into the world’s largest canvas for expressions of resistance.
For contemporary artist Ana Teresa Fernández, the idea of painting the U.S.-Mexico border is not new. Fernández is a renowned artist and social sculptor. She was born in Mexico and is based in California. Back in 2011, she painted stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border fence blue to resemble the color of the sky for a project she called Borrando La Frontera (Erasing the Border).
Fernández has worked at the U.S.-Mexico border for over 15 years, before the Trump presidency, and has seen the border fence become increasingly militarized.
“Where I became aware and it completely just hit me with a huge bang in my gut when I first saw it and witnessed it.”
We spoke to Fernández about her life growing up in Mexico and Southern California, and what happened when she painted the border near Tijuana in a dress and high heels. We also discussed her continued artist’s practice at global border lines and crossing points for migrant families including the Mediterranean Sea, and her recent collaboration with writer and cultural geographer Rebecca Solnit.
This season of Monument Lab, all our conversations are transcribed and posted on our website, thanks to our partners at Rev.com who are supporting us with on-demand transcripts. Anyone can use Rev to transcribe interviews, first drafts, or almost anything recorded at just $1/minute.
Paul Farber: Ana Teresa Fernández, welcome to Monument Lab.
Ana Teresa Fernández: Thank you so much for having me.
Farber: I'm really glad to have you on the program. You've been someone on our minds for some time. Your work centers on the US/Mexico border and border issues around the world. And you grew up in Mexico until age 11 and then moved to San Diego. Can you describe where you grew up in Mexico, and what you remember about your childhood there?
Fernández: Yeah, Paul, I grew up in Tampico, Tamaulipas, and a lot of people actually ... It's not where the juice is from, actually Tampico is just a punch. It's this really small town. Well, it's now kind of a bigger industrial city. But it was, back then, it was a small town on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. And that's where my father is from, and I grew up there. There's so many things I remember, and more than anything, it's an incredibly sensorial place. Visually it's surrounded by water, there's swamps, there's lakes. It's on the Gulf Coast, obviously, the beach and the ocean is right there as well. But there's so much water that in fact, and there's this lake in the middle of the city where there's actually alligators. And so you're kind of like driving around in the city, and you're driving around next to this lake and you see these alligators just hanging out. And you're like, "Okay." And sometimes they've actually gotten away from the lake and gone into a couple of places around there that have public pools. They ended up in public pools. And there's this really interesting, surreal/magical realism aspect to the city. Because it's for no matter how hard people attempt to manicure nature, it's so incredibly humid, and dense, and tropical that the nature just is in constant combat with humans. And you see all these incredible plants just wrapping around buildings and growing in different, any little orifice it can find. It's an incredibly luscious city. Very, very humid, you're constantly sweating, even when you take a shower. That it's really dense there's always a lot of smells. I remember running when I would come back to visit my family, I would be running as exercise around the city and there would be mangoes like falling. And sometimes you have to be aware of where the mango would fall, similar to Hawaii, don't get banged by the coconut, it was like don't get bombarded by the mango. There was always this, I remember this smell when we would drive around of like rotten mangoes on the street, just because there was so much fruits and vegetation around. That was what I grew up around. And it seemed, like I said, there was this very magical quality. And moving to San Diego when I was 11, it was such a contrast, a very sprawled city, incredibly manicured, very monotone with its colors and hues. Whereas Tampico, there's like a pink house next to an orange house, next to a blue house, next to a green house. It's very much quite extreme opposite.
Farber: If Tampico was lush and the smell of mangoes overriding-
Fernández: Rotting mangoes. (Laughs)
Farber: Yeah. Well, and the air. What was the landscape of San Diego? I know you described it as monotone, but what else from the landscape of San Diego struck you?
Fernández: Well, when you arrive to Tijuana when we first got there, when we were moving, and there's this desert arid landscape, and the airport is actually right up against the border. You see this is, there's a very long fence, almost like it's this sleeping dragon that's just running across the terrain and everything. The first thing I noticed that there was this taste of dust in my mouth, and it was dry. There's these neutral colors, and beige, and brown. Whereas, I would rarely see dust because everything was always so moist that even the soil was kind of darker toned. And then you cross over. And everything is chaotic Tijuana, it's loud, there's cars with a loudspeaker selling trinkets and brooms and whatnot. And you cross the line, la linea, and on the other side it's like, it looks like a poodle. Everything is heavily manicured, and green, and perfect, and the grass begins here, and the cement ends there. You know what I mean? Everything has a finite measurement. You know where everything begins and where everything ends. Where in Tijuana it's like, it may be begins here, and then it joins with something else and everything morphs together. And I don't know what the name in English is, but injerto, is like when you put one patch of skin onto another place, and it's like all of a sudden you have these kind of like multiple skins. So that's Tijuana, it's like a hybrid of just objects blending into each other. Whereas San Diego, everything is very finite.
Farber: When you went to school, did you notice changes or ... Did you notice differences in the style of education, or in just the culture of the school?
Fernández: In Tampico I went to school with all my family members, all my cousins. We all knew each other, we all did afterschool activities together. There was a closeness to my teachers that I felt. They were friends with my aunts and that there was a certain proximity and warmth. Whereas in San Diego, once I started going to school, everything was just distant. There was a certain formality, and not that education doesn't require formality, but I feel like there was a warmth that was missing. It was incredibly institutional in the sense that everything was much more heavily regimented. I went to a private school, a religious private school, which I couldn't be more atheist, and I think it made me more atheist. And I remember one time when I was first arriving to school and I was going to meet someone, and when you greet someone in Mexico, no matter how old you are, you reach over to kiss them on the cheek, and they got scared because I was reaching over, and they pushed me away. And so that was my introduction, someone physically pushing me away. There was definitely this very much like isolation, separation, you're over there, I'm over here.
Farber: Do you recall the first time, or one of the first times you saw the US/Mexico border from the United States side?
Fernández: That I have to be honest with you, that was not until ... I mean, apart from when you're crossing it obviously that you're coming upon it to cross to Tijuana soo, I saw it pretty soon after I moved in the regards of where you're herded like cattle to go into Mexico. But anywhere else that's not the actual physical entry line, the official entry line, the one at the beach for example, on the other side of Friendship Park, I didn't actually see that until I want to say 2004. Which I was pretty much into my mid 20s. It wasn't until almost close to 15 years after I had been there, because it is so well concealed for anyone on the US side. It's out of sight, out of mind. Unless you're going to party in Mexico, of course you through the official entry points, but there's absolutely no vehicular access remotely close. The closest place is two miles away, there's no visual access to this border.
Farber: Is the reason you didn't see it until later in your life because it wasn't a site of intrigue for you, or because it looked and acted kind of differently in the sense of the divided cities of San Diego and Tijuana?
Fernández: Well, to be honest, I mean, because I did have this porous relationship to it in, when I say porous relationship to the fence, where I could go in because I had the papers, I could go in and out and go to Mexico and come back to the US. But at this point I was just a teenager, a student in high school. I wasn't making art. I came into art when I was in my 20s. And when it wasn't until I was in art school in San Francisco when I was 21, where I began working to create a language and to create my language and my description of what I want it to be articulating, that's when I realized I was talking about gender politics, I was talking about the role in women in my life. Because I was telling stories, I was beginning to tell stories of what I felt frustrated with, what I felt friction and disparity. In where there was this level of just anger and discomfort. And so it began with what I knew, which was the role of women, and thus been leading me into immigration and the people surrounding me. And when I began to realize the people the were working with me, and the different stories that they were telling me about their relationship not being porous to the border, their relationship being completely different, which is one way, they can't come back. They risked their life going one way, but a little bit like the parking lots where they have the spikes on the floor where the cars can only go one way unless ... If they go in reverse that it gets punctured. Once I began hearing these stories of people that could not go in reverse, and they were stuck here isolated, then that's what drove me to the border. And my mom who had picked up a camera at a similar time when I was going to school in San Francisco, and she began exploring the border. She was the one that actually took me to Friendship Park. She was the one that introduced me to this area of the border that was close to the ocean and divided the beach in half. And that's when I'm talking about in around 2003, 2004 where I began using the border as a site specific for my work. Where I became aware and it completely just hit me with a huge bang in my gut when I first saw it and witnessed it. And not only that, but actually hearing stories from individuals that were there sleeping at the beach, wanting and attempting to cross the border by swimming at night. And then just being completely open about sharing those stories of how they had tried, and they had been deported. And they tried more around the desert and now they were going to attempt to swim because someone had swam to Coronado, which is this island on a boogie board for a couple of miles. And that you're listening to these stories of these young men that are there with nothing on them. And you just realize, "Oh my God, this wall, this is kind of the original context of the meaning of the word deadline." Deadline first was introduced back in the time of the first prisons in the United States around 1840. Where deadline was a line allocated around the prison that had no physical border. But if a man or an individual crossed it they would shoot at you. And later on the word got transformed to mean what it means now as a time timeframe. But for me, that border became this kind of [deadline]. That's literally what it means, it's a deadline of so many individuals that actually lose their lives attempting to cross it. And that's when I just knew I had to begin introducing it into my language, into my visual language.
Farber: You mentioned this really pivotal moment in which your mother, who's also an artist, took you to Friendship Park and you mentioned that she had a camera with her and was taking photos. I'm curious about the interaction that you had in your conversation, but also as an artist, what tools did you use to take in those moments, and as you say, allow that to kind of filter into your consciousness, into your visual language?
Fernández: Right. My mom, like I said, she became a photographer at the same time that I became an artist. She had been documenting not just that area in Friendship Park, but all along the border at different areas. And at one point when she was younger, she actually had wanted to study archeology. And my grandfather and their family was like, it's kind of not an investment for women to go get an education. She wasn't allowed to go to Mexico City to study archeology so instead she got married, she got a job, she got married. And very, very similarly to an archeologist, she began taking photos. The physical kind of up close shots of them, the differences over the border, the different materiality, how people had placed their marks on it in different areas, and how they were placing their marks, and how they were using it. There were all these a plethora of expressions on it of aggression, of fear, of sadness. She literally took me across the border through her images. And she collected all these stories. Once she would bring me to these areas, to these different areas of the border, it was like a distant, not family member, but this thing that you had kind of grown to know a little bit more just because of her sharing images with me constantly. When I would go up to it, it's like, "Oh my God, I didn't realize you felt this way in person. I didn't realize you smelled like this in person. I would have all these emotions when I met you in person." Similarly to when you see books of different arts, artworks, and then you see the artwork itself, and you're just kind of blown away. But in this case, not in a positive way, in a very kind of tragic way. All of those things, Paul, just fed into my reactions and my visceral reactions that I had with it. And not only that, but not only the physical presence of it, but also the surrounding. Anecdotes, stories, individuals, people that I met through my mom that we're living right up to the border, and using it as a fourth wall that were literally like shanty homes. And like I said, they were duct taping it to other walls, and that was their fourth wall. All of a sudden you're kind of soaking up all this information and how it's kind of the survival mechanism for some individuals, but then other people come and use their home as a jumping point to try and literally and physically jump over it because it was house that's right up against it. And all that was what when I realized, "Okay, I'm ... I thought I wanted to just talk about the gender disparity, but this is laborial disparity, this is class disparity, this is just human disparity point blank." And so I started using the border as a site for my performances where I would go there and kind of have a more Greek tragedy approach to it. What does it mean to try and sweep the sand, and sweep the sand so much that you hope that these things will fall to the ground. And what the things that I'm talking about are these posts that are actually train tracks that are perforated into the sand. And if the government is using these visual metaphors for us like a train track that's placed vertically instead of horizontally as a way to impose and impede movement in journey, what does it mean to try and sweep it, sweep the sand enough so that they collapse. Or try and mock the beach around there to pick up and collect the political filth. And thus began my kind of my exploration of different actions at that site. And it wasn't until 2011 when that site changed, because at Friendship Park, it's where families would come every Sunday. There was this human connection that occurred there. Every Sunday families were allowed to get really close to the border, to the physical border. And through these train tracks, they would share meals, share hugs, share stories. And sometimes share each other's presence after not having seen each other for over three decades, sometimes 40 years. And there were these moments where you would witness people where part of your emotion was incredible joy that they had this connective point. But also this tragic point where it was also like they can't fully hug, it's like with this object in between them. It was both beautiful and incredibly tragic at the same time. But in 2011, sadly under the Obama administration, that's when Friendship Park closed its doors, and there was no more physical contact allowed between individuals. And that's when you would see people literally trying to fit their pinkies across these metal meshes to be able to have human contact with another individual, another loved one. Whether it was their spouse, their child, their grandparents. And before where I had been incredibly afraid of actually touching the fence, I was so incredibly outraged that I said, "This is when I really need to touch it. I really need to do something on it." And that was in 2011, that's when I did Erasing the Border.
Farber: As you are witnessing this closing portal of contact, of connection, did you find yourself kind of gaining your own relationships with people there and families, or did you try to keep a distance to see it more systematically, or to sense the bigger feelings that were going on there?
Fernández: There was a part of me, I don't know, I can't talk for other people, but there's a part of me that you respect people's experiences when you're there. Like you said, I think that was a beautiful way of articulating it, of like the closing portal, because it was a portal. It was their last portal to have human contact. That was their last option. That is the very, very end point where they can begin to touch. And how, you think about, how much strength we gather from each other, from our community, from our tribe when someone hugs you, when someone holds you, it's something that we need, it's something that feeds us. And that being extracted, there is no intellectual or any way in which I can logically think separate myself from having a really deep reactive emotion to that. When you see people losing all contact with their loved ones, that was for me, just incredibly inhumane. You become less than human when you're treated that way. And I think that that was for me the point where I was like, "I need to touch this thing. I need to do something. I need to actually create something on the fence." And I finally had the courage to do so. Because there's no way in which you can rationalize that decision. And things now are even getting worse when at that moment I was like, "This is it. This is like as bad as it gets." And little did I know that that wasn't the worst it got.
Farber: Borrando La Frontera, Erasing the Border, it was urgent, but it was also majestic. And I've been teaching images from it for several years on my Borders and Boundaries courses, and just blown away by the intervention itself. Can you talk about how you prepare to erase the border? What goes into it, what you have to bring with you, and also what you're willing to face in that moment that you're bringing art to this militarized border?
Fernández: Well, first of all, thank you Paul, that's very generous of you to say. It literally was this guttural reaction that I had. Like I said, I had this moment where I just, I knew I had to do something. I was struggling with what does that look like, what does that feel like? And I knew the feeling, but I didn't quite know what it would look like. And one morning I just remember waking up and it just being crystal clear in my mind what I had to do. It wasn't like I went through this process, it literally was like five years of me doing performances there that were completely different, and then one morning it just looked like a totally different thing. And I remember I called my mom really shortly after I woke up and I was like, "I think I need to do this." And I was like, "Mamina, I have this idea. What do you think?" And she's like, "Corrita, you have to come here like tomorrow. When can you come down? When can you fly down?" And I said, "Well, maybe in two days after I teach." And she's like, "Do it, just come down here. I know someone that can help us. If you want to film this, I know someone." And I was like, "Okay." I literally just bought my ticket, a one way ticket, I flew down there and she's like, "Okay, well, so now what?" And I was like, "Let's go look for paint that looks like the color of the sky." And she's like, "Okay." We went down, we drove down to a Home Depot and took out a bunch of pantone chips outside into the parking lot. And we must have ruffled through over 100 pantone chips, and looking at some of her for photographs as well. Just looking at the color of the sky around that area and Tijuana and Playas de Tijuana. We just bought five gallons of this grayish blue, very, very light hue blue. And called up our friend, David, who had a really, really tall ladder. He had helped me fabricate some pieces before. And we're like, "Okay, well we're meeting at the beach at 7:00 AM." And her friend who was just finished a documentary on the kind of the more the ecosystem of the border and how the border was killing this one of a kind estuary. He had once worked at Hollywood and his one thing, he was a technician like back in before there was video shop, or Photoshop. His one thing for Star Trek, he was the one that was responsible for making individuals disappear through walls. And he was the one that was going to be videotaping, and I just Greg Rainoff, and I was like I love that story of him that that was his one thing. His one sole job was to do that. But anyway, we show up at 7:00 AM, and put up the ladder, this like 15-foot ladder. And I'm there with my dress and my stilettos, and I just start painting at 7:00 AM. And literally 15 minutes into it, I hear this super loud siren. I'm on the ladder, I turn around, and there's this pickup truck, police with the siren, with the loud speaker, and someone saying, "Get down from the ladder." And I was like, "Oh, fuck." I started climbing down, my knees are shaking, I'm trying to not fall off the ladder on my stilettos. And the police who are dressed in full on wetsuits are like, "You know you can't be doing this, Señorita." And you realize through this conversation, or through them kind of yelling at me, that the Señorita part was really important because they kind of didn't see me like a hoodlum. They saw me because I was wearing this dress, they saw me as a woman. They couldn't divorce themselves from the maleness because I was wearing a dress and nice shoes, which was my entry point to begin talking with them and having a conversation. Once their anger subsided a little bit, and I got the 10 full minutes of, "You're going to get thrown in the car, and we're going to take you down to the jail." And I was like, "My mom is here." I just looked over to my mom, and I was like, "Listen, officers, I'm from Mexico, my mom is from Mexico, we're here. We're just attempting to do this piece, which is called Borrando La Frontera. I don't know if you know what's been happening with Friendship Park." I literally began to give them my discourse of the concept of the piece, what I was attempting to do, what I was there to do, and why it was that I was doing that. And I could see that they started shifting the way that they were speaking with me and looking at what I was doing. And at one point I saw one of them smirking kind of liking the idea that I was creating this hole in the wall. And I just, after 45 minutes, I was like, "Officer's, please let me just finish what I started. I promise I'll do it really quickly, I'll do really nicely, it won't take long." I think they were just fed up with me. They were like, "Okay, just do whatever you want." (Laughs.) But at that point I was like, "If there's a best possible scenario for me getting arrested, it's with my mom in front of me." And I think that they were like, "Okay, what are two women going to do, a daughter and mom?" They were just like, "Okay, okay. Stop your yakking, just do what you need to do." It was just my mom and I just kind of holding our stance and not wanting to give up, and not wanting to yield to this, quote unquote “authority”. Because I was like, "Listen, all I'm doing is painting it sky blue. All I'm doing is bringing down the sky." And I just kept repeating that over and over. And I think that that's what, that and the dress, was to allow me to continue. And five hours later, and many conversations through that, from individuals that were right there at the beach attempting to cross other individuals. And I like to tell this story, I was almost finished, and you're so scared that the piece is not going to work. That it's so incredibly simple that it's not going to do the job, that it's going to be lost in translation, or that it's just going to look not what you were hoping for. All you have to do is just keep doing it, keep doing it. But there was this moment where I was about to finish, and I was on the upper left hand corner, scaled up on the ladder, and there was this man that I could hear yelling, and he's like, "I get it, I get it." I don't what the hell he's talking about. And I was like, whether he gets it. Even though it was almost done, I was like, "I got to come down." And I don't know what he needs to tell me." But I came down from the ladder, and he's like, "Oh my God, I run to the border, to the fence every single day from my house. I come, I touch it, and I run back. And I was running, and it was coming down. The wall was coming down. But then I see you and I get it." And he said, "I, for the first time in all these years allowed myself to think, what if there were no walls?" And in that moment, that's when I knew that it was working. That's when I knew that it was for everyone, because that's all I was hoping for. That even for a split second, people would be able to reimagine that space. Have a different perspective, allow themselves to think, "What if there was no wall?"
Farber: You speak of this and these clearly kind of public light bulb moments, and also as one, it kind of connected deeply with your mother. Did you and your mother get closer because of this? And did you discuss with her some of that strategy, of the choice to wear stilettos, or that moment where you're recognized as a Señorita. Did you discuss some of those kind of key moments?
Fernández: We've never really discussed. It's not like we have a pep talk or really discuss A through B, through C, through D, what we're going to do. It's incredibly fluid and organic, and it's like, "We're going to put our head down and we're just going to do it. No matter what happens that's our approach to things. And it's always been mostly like, "I don't know, mom, I'm just going to come here, and I'm going to be mopping the beach, and you do your thing. We kind of do this dance, it's more organic. There's definitely certain frames or things that I'm visualizing that I will sometimes articulate to her when she's photographing me for my performances, but it's not very direct. It tends to be a little bit more fluid. And in this case I knew she's just, she's a marathoner. She's a long distance runner and she's incredibly stoic. I know that she is the best partner in crime to have because no matter ... If shit hits the fan, she's going to plant her tennis shoes into the sand, and just be as immobile with me, and not give up until we're like taken away, quite literally. There's ... I don't know, I can't say much more. It's very organic, I guess.
Farber: You mentioned your mother is a runner and you are as well. How does running inform your practice as an artist, especially in these intense moments that require some kind of endurance?
Fernández: Yeah. Paul, it's incredibly mundane and arbitrary, but I have to say it's very unromantic. I think that most individuals think of artists as having these lightning moments when they're smoking a cigarette, and wearing a beret, and drinking wine. I don't know, whatever cheesy thing is depicted in their imagination of — People tell me the craziest things of what they think artists go through, or what they live like, or what when they're getting their ideas. And I'm like, "No, I'm pretty much just covered in sweat, just going on a long run." Because I feel for me, it's more, when you position your body in this space where it's busy, and it's doing this repetitive motion, somehow it allows your brain to disconnect. And sometimes what I do is, I tend to push my brain into different directions. And because of my body is occupied doing this very mundane, repetitive, same thing, taking a step, taking a step, taking a step. But you're looking into the horizon, all of a sudden it's like you have this weird tunnel vision and your brain just goes into these incredibly different crevices of your imagination, and that's when I get my ideas. And I get back, and it's I finish and it's almost like, "Whoa, what happened?" Because you allowed your imagination to go into these pseudo dark, or different places that you don't often go to because you are preoccupied, like, "Oh, I got to do laundry. I got to clean the dishes. I got to ..." With very trivial stuff. And when you really let your mind go, and you have an allocated amount of time, like 45 minutes and hour, your brain just goes. And you're not asleep, you're fully conscious, but you're not at the same time. And I think that that's really where I get to hash out my ideas. That's really where I allow my imagination to kind of literally run wild. But then I get to kind of redirect it and be like, "Hmm." I edit it or move it around a little bit. But it's not romantic at all. It's sweaty, it's ... I'm running in my pajamas kind of. You know what I mean? It does not look fancy at all. I think being active has allowed me to kind of stay mentally fit. And it's been really imperative and in my studio practice. Of staying healthy in this way where you keep your mind very active as well.
Farber: I want to go back to Borando La Frontera, and think about in some ways its impact on you and your practice, what that initial work at the beach on the border fence kind of compelled you to think about continuing the work? Or how did it continue after that day?
Fernández: It's funny —not funny but interesting—My work tends to be there’re performances that I document through photography or video, and then the frame or the stills, I use to turn into these photo realistic paintings. And all of a sudden I did this very simple minimal performance where I painted the wall, and people were like, "Oh my God, you painted the wall." Having no idea that I was a painter to begin with, like an actual on canvas painter, and then I did a painting of myself painting the wall. I did a painting of Borrando La Frontera and people, a lot of people have seen that painting. And because of the photo realism aspect of it, a lot of people when they see the painting, they're like, "Oh wow, what an incredible idea someone should do that." And I'm like, "No, that is a painting of the photograph from which I did that performance." When people see the photograph, they tend to have this reaction. And when they see the painting they tend to have this other reaction. And sometimes they have a hard time marrying both, or the understanding that I also do paintings of other performances. And I think it's been interesting to see the feedback of people, of understanding that, when they see it as a painting it's almost like it's too magical. It's too like, "Oh my God, you painted the wall?" When they see the actual wall painted, they tend to have a little bit more of a physical response to it. Where it's, it tends to be a little bit more direct. And I think that, that's really interesting just understanding the phenomenon of how we interpret paintings and how we interpret photography. And I think that, that's really fascinating. And I feel like individuals that are against that piece have such a visceral reaction. Like the hatred, I've gotten so many hate emails, and when it's has been in the media. The things that they have said, it's incredible like, "We hope you get kicked back you Mexican terrorist." Like, "Who do you think you are?" And, you know, Paul, I'm not sitting there with a gun waiting for individuals threatening to shoot them. It's like I literally only use paint on a physical object. There's absolutely no violence, no threat, but that's the biggest threat. I think that imagination people, they're allowed imagine can be the biggest threat, and it scares people shitless. That's, I think one of the clearest things that I've come away with. That it's really, really scary for individuals to think that we can imagine things that are not taken as given. Or that we refuse to take things as given, that we can imagine other possibilities, other perspectives.
Farber: When you continued this work in Nogales, it was participatory. What was the dynamic with others who were joining you on both sides? And did you experience any kind of antidote to that hatred in this moment of co-creation at the border?
Fernández: When we did it in Nogales in 2015, it just seems, it oddly seems so long ago. Because this was at the time when the rhetoric was just beginning of Trump building his wall. When he was a candidate, he was not yet the president. And it was incredible to watch pretty much, the entire state of Arizona, all these liberals coming to Nogales, just showing up. There was an NPR article that was done several days beforehand, I was doing this statewide residencies. I was traveling from city to city across Arizona. And there were teachers, there were medical students, there were artists, there were all, from people from all walks of life. And they just showed up that morning there, and I had absolutely no idea what's going to happen. And this time, which was the second time that I was doing it, I was like, "Okay, I have absolutely no permission. I know what happened the first time. I don't know what's going to happen this time if there's more people and now I'm not wearing my dress." You know what I mean? I was just like, just having changuitas, like keeping my fingers crossed, I'm like, "Please, please, please, like let this be safe for everyone." Because you just, you can't measure the reaction of how people, how the police is going to see it. And all these people gathered, we're painting. And then the beautiful part of it is that you never know who's going to show up or who will happen to be there. And there were two individuals that showed up that completely moved me. One was Miguel — at one point, he was living on the streets, but at one point had painted houses, so he wasn't afraid of heights. And he was able to scale the tallest part of the ladder without any fear. And you could see how agile he was, and how he was reliving part of his experience of his previous profession. There was this wealthy owner at of a ranch in El Paso that had showed up as well. He was Miguel's assistant for the entire morning. It was beautiful to see kind of the reversal. And another individual that showed up, who was also living on the street, and he was collecting cans that morning because he had recently been deported. And his experience with that action was completely different from mine, because he really wanted it. Because his entire life was on the other side, his wife and his two daughters were on the other side. And all he wanted was to be able to paint through that fence and get back to his family. And there was this moment where he was painting, and this border patrol agent came up to us and then I was like, "Oh fuck, here we go." And he's like, "What are you guys doing?" And we told him, and he picked up a roller, and two seconds later without any question or without saying anything, he was painting side by side next to Luis. And for me it's like that moment in which the, Luis, the deported migrant along the border patrol agent were painting side by side. It's like you can't curate these moments, and it's sometimes it's even difficult to imagine, or construct the possibility of having this happen. But that is absolutely the beauty of public art when you just create, you create an action where people are just attracted to it, it becomes the nucleus to so many things happening, and so many beautiful encounters occurring that you would have not been able to imagine.
Farber: In your work you've continued to engage other sites of division around the world and including in the Mediterranean, responding to the migrant crisis. Have you been compelled to create projects at the site of the border, at the site of conflict, or have other sites required you to vary your approach?
Fernández: Similarly to the Tijuana-San Diego border in which, for example, I went to the border, and I did performances there for X amount of years before I touched the border itself. I think I felt the need to work that was about this other border, and the most violent and deadliest border at the moment right now, which is the Mediterranean Sea. And it's different, Paul, I mean, I felt the need to be there physically and do this action which was to attempt to swim, dance, struggle, and survive with this bedsheet at night on the water while wearing my dress and my heels. And I did this performance for several nights, and for about three hours each day. And the difference being that ... There were many differences, but one of them is that the border between Tijuana and San Diego, not only is it militarized, but it's a physical construct made by man. Whereas in the Mediterranean Sea it's a natural border. And it's incredibly violent and deadly, because it's just unpredictable, but it's natural. It's so different, it's so uncontrollable, whereas the physical fence, it's more controlled. And the violence has been very directed, and being curated. Whereas, nature is just doing what nature does, and it has these violent storms, and it drowns thousands of individuals attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. And I think that the part in which there's the human element, it's the unwillingness to rescue individuals, watch them drown. That's the part of actually not doing anything that causes all these deaths. It's the inaction, whereas the border in Tijuana and San Diego, between the Mexican in the US, it's the action. It's very different, and the energy and the friction is very different. And I'm trying to figure out more ways in which I can interact with that border. And I'm still kind of trying to wrap my head with the performance that I did two years ago and trying to see, there's still work coming out from that, but trying just to kind of let that still simmer and see what more percolates. Because it does take time, I take a lot of time. It took me five years to figure out Borrando La Frontera, I am kind of a slow artist in that regard, where I let things present themselves.
Farber: And speaking of rhythms, you're one artist among several others who was interrogating the inhumanity at the border for years before the kind of most recent spike in attention. What, in thinking about the moment that we're in now with the ongoing border crisis, the ongoing crisis of families being separated, or being detained in makeshift camps along the border when seeking asylum, how do you try to respond to that? How in your work do you respond to this amping up of pressure and urgency beyond a point that you had already spotlighted previously?
Fernández: Well, Paul, in 2011, one of the other reasons why I did Borrando La Frontera was because I knew through my mom and Greg Rainoff, the individual who had filmed me, and other individuals that family separations were happening. We knew of a mother that had her three-month baby taken away from her, and she never saw them again. And no one was believing this. Obama was this, he can do no wrong individual. And we knew that this was happening and yet no one, yeah, no one was wanting to take responsibility for that information. And it's like, hear no evil, speak no evil. And now that round two comes along and people are believing, much more credible from Trump, and obviously it's happening. It's still definitely always part of my psyche and that I'm always thinking about it. And I know that there's more work that's going to stem from it. There's different interventions I'm interested in doing, and I've been in a lot of conversations with different individuals such as Ronald Rael, who's an architect here in Berkeley. And we've done a series of talks and exhibitions together, but it's definitely, it's different now. And I think my tactic also needs to change to better articulate what's happening now, and how different it is from back then. Like I said, it's, it will come. It's just I have a bunch of different ideas, and they're just, they're still gathering form in my head. And I need to come clear with it before I can actually let myself get to it. But like with everything, it's always like, anything new it's always terrifying. And there's also not so much about the family separations, but there is a piece that's finally coming together where it was about when, at the time where the government shutdown. And because I'm so interested in language constantly, and I tend to look at that, and the way that people express themselves. And just this idea of drawing a line, and Trump kept saying like, "I'm drawing my line.” They think of the border as just very literal line. The reason why I wear my black dress and stilettos comes from the visual language of tango. And when you are dancing tango, you draw lines all the time, but it takes two people to draw and create those lines. And then there's so much about the energy. And so much of the reason why I chose tango, the tango attire to do all my performances in, is because the power symmetry is so equal. The leader pushes into the follower as hard as the follower into the leader. There's this incredibly dynamic, symmetrical union of energy that goes in and then gets excerpted out. I've always used that in all my performances, but in this case, I'm trying to work with a different institution to create a line, a different type of line. To articulate that you need both parties to create this line. And I'm not only drawing a line on the ground, but trying to draw a line on the side of a wall with your feet by doing a tango movement. I mean, it's always, for me, it's always really abstract, but trying to use different visual languages, and the direct language as well. Especially things that get articulated over and over in the media, and trying to, for me, trying to reconstruct ideas of how language gets used.
Farber: Before we go I want to ask a final question about a different kind of dance. You recently collaborated with Rebecca Solnit on the book Men Explain Things to Me. Which included pictures of you and various projects, whether submerged in water, or enacting your interventions on the border. What were you trying to make visible, make known in this collaboration?
Fernández: I think that for me, Rebecca is one of the most articulate weavers of constellations. And when I say constellations, concepts. These ideas that she pulls from different points and creates these stories, these narratives that present our contemporary issues in so much of a more poetic and clear way to us so we can like re-see ourselves. And for me, I've always been enamored with all her writing, I've read practically all her books. When she approached me, and she said, "I'm going to put this essay that's about one of your pieces, and this other one has a description of another piece that you did, I think it'd be great if we can use your images." And for me it was a way of constructing a constellation with her about different metaphors. And that there's, for me, there's so much about identity. And in one of the pieces that she shows, it's an untitled piece, but it has a subtitle that's “hold the line”, which I'm pretty much being eaten up by a bedsheet, that I'm suspending on a clothes line. And it was a performance that I did around the time of SB 1070 in Arizona, the introduction of racial profiling. There's the hiding of identity, but then revealing of other truths in the attempt to hide your identity. And so much of that writing is trying to push through that insistence of hiding the identity. That initial story that she begins with of someone insisting that they know more about the story that she wrote more than her. And it's kind of like the pushing through, and pushing against, and trying to form a constellation of the different ways in which we'll not resist being silent. Or at least for me, it was an incredible honor to be part of that constellation.
Farber: Ana Teresa Fernández, thank you so much for this conversation today and for joining the Monument Lab podcast.
Fernández: Thank you so much, Paul. I really appreciate all your questions, and all the, for me, the discoveries of articulating these stories with you always leads me to acknowledge different things even within myself. Thank you so much for that.
To learn more about Ana Teresa Fernandez, visit anateresafernandez.com
Next episode, we’ll hear from artists Anthony Romero, Josh Rios, and Matt Joynt live from Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St Louis. The three artists are a part of a large exhibition Counterpublic, hosted by St Louis’ Luminary.
Ana Teresa Fernández, born in 1981 in Tampico, Mexico, lives and works in San Francisco. Her work explores the politics of intersectionality through time-based actions and social gestures, translated into masterful oil paintings, installations and videos. Within her work, performance becomes a tool for investigation as strong feminist undercurrents flow together with post-colonial rhetoric. Through her work, the artist illuminates the psychological and physical barriers that define gender, race, and class in Western society and the global south.
Fernández has exhibited at the Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO, the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, NV, Arizona State University Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ, the Grunwald Gallery at Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, Humboldt State University, Eureka, CA; the Tijuana Biennial, Tijuana, Mexico; Snite Museum at Notre Dame University, Notre Dame, IN; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA and The Oakland Art Museum, Oakland, CA. Her work has been collected by institutions such the Denver Art Museum, the Nevada Museum of Art, and Kadist Art Foundation.
The Headlands Center for the Arts granted Fernández the Tournesol Award in 2008 and her films have been screened at festivals internationally including, but not limited to, MADRID International Film Festival, Madrid, Spain, Claremont Film Festival, Claremont-Ferrand, France, the International Frauen Film Festival, Dortmund, Germany, the Female Eye Film Festival, Toronto, Canada, the San Diego Latino Film Festival, San Diego, CA, and the Honolulu Film Festival, Honolulu, HI. Gallery Wendi Norris’ presented a solo exhibition of her work in Miami titled, “Of Bodies and Borders” in November 2019, which traveled to the Grunwald Gallery at Indiana University Bloomington and was accompanied by a publication.