Personal Connection & Project Motivation
As an Immigrant, I have been engaged with issues of Latin American migration my entire life. I have heard incredible stories from friends and family describing their journey to the United States. Stories of 8-month pregnant mothers crossing the Rio Grande so that their child could have US citizenry, and of families being torn apart because of the United States federal migration laws. Since 2010 undocumented Latin American migration has overall plateaued. However a closer look shows us that undocumented migration from Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) has actually risen, while undocumented migration from Mexico has decreased. Tens of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans, many of them unaccompanied minors, have arrived in the United States in recent years, seeking asylum from the region’s skyrocketing violence. Their countries, which form a region known as the Northern Triangle, were rocked by civil wars in the 1980s, leaving a legacy of violence and fragile institutions. Those who are apprehended are forced to return to their homes where they face the imminent threat of violence and death. In 2014, as many as 83 immigrants were murdered upon their return to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. A Guardian investigation identified three separate Honduran men killed in their hometowns after being apprehended. I chose to highlight this pressing human rights issue within the greater US-Mexico Border topic because Central Americans continue to flee the Northern Triangle in search for asylum to this day.
Challenging Dominant Forms of Representation
In politics and popular media, these kinds of issues are often reduced to empirical data and represented as 2D visualizations consumed via screens. Data and their dominant forms of representation are certainly useful, but if it is only understood as abstract and detached, significant human experiences can be lost or ignored. The US-Mexico Border is a complex, emotional, and crucial contemporary crisis. Executing a software-aided sculpture representing Latin American apprehension data with this in mind proved to be the most challenging part of the project.
Sculpture as an Alternative Form of Representation
Amongst the oversaturation of our screen- based digital age a move towards alternative forms of data representations emerges allowing the user to further engage with data through the use of interaction, aesthetics, and tangibility. Representation is the bridge between discrete data and the user's perception. The way in which information is represented directly influences a user's perception and therefore an opinion or judgment on a subject. Naturally, it must be noted that the user already brings their own knowledge and experience to this interaction. This software-aided sculpture is an alternative form of data representation that creates a new mode of engagement for the user through tangibility, dynamic use of space, and incorporation of aesthetic perception and sensory experience. All of these different parameters can be manipulated just like color or texture in order to communicate a different feeling, or insert specific meaning or symbolism into a piece. Each one of these parameters has multiple variables which can be used to map data onto. Aesthetics and tangibility can be employed to counteract the reduction of a subject for easy consumption and instead embrace its complexity and humanity where the user encounters multiple angles, differing perspectives, and freedom of exploration - ultimately creating a broader understanding of the subject with nuance and subtlety. Through an emotive and multifaceted data experience we may provoke a more critical and thoughtful discourse while agitating discussion of solutions addressing pressing social issues.
Latin American migrant data was aggregated from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website, then populated and stored in a PostgreSQL database (open-source object-relational database). The database was queried and sent through a Python script that computationally mapped the queried data and converted into physical parameters I had set. This information was illustrated using Adobe Illustrator and prepped as vector files for laser cutting, then assembled and installed.
The large amount of complexity involved in mapping a data matrix onto physical parameters.
The infinite number of variables available for manipulation when extruding a 2D representation into 3D.
Inquiring into the unique ways in which certain aesthetic choices manipulate the user’s interaction and understanding of the data.
Striving to both create a sculpture that embraces the complexity and humanity of the data, while also striving to represent the data accurately.
Even though apprehensions do not account for those who make it through to the U.S. or those who are killed or gone missing, apprehensions still shed light on important migration patterns over time. For example, who is migrating, when they are migrating, their age, place of origin, and crossing location. Each column represents a border sector. Each row represents the years between 2011 (top row) and 2014. The clear acrylic layers represent the apprehended Mexican population, and the colorful acrylic layers represent the apprehended Central American (El Salvadoran, Honduran, and Guatemalan) population. As seen in the vector graphics file above, each sector initially begins the data mapping process with 16 acrylic layers. The largest (or first) layer represents 100,000 apprehensions, the second layer represents 80,000, the third 60,000 so on and so forth. Using the PostgreSQL database on Latin American apprehensions I created I performed quieres into a specific year, border sector, and place of origin. I then inputted and ran this number through a python dictionary that told me what (out of the 16) scaled layers I needed to laser cut in order to accurately represent the selected data.
This piece was temporarily installed in 2016 at Earlham College’s Center for Science and Technology.
To learn more about and/or get involved in current US border politics and human rights issues: