Mortality is mapped to gain a grasp of geographical distributions of illnesses over space. The mapping of death helps to embody the pathways of disease, and allow us to see otherwise inapparent vectors of transmission, which have historically provided crucial ways to assign meanings to a disease’s effects and pathways. Even before the bacillus of a disease might be known or seen, the founder of modern epidemiology, John Snow, critiqued miasmatic theories of contagion by mapping the distribution with which cholera spread across London neighborhoods during the 1854 London epidemic, visualizing the disease as a social network of contagion by a dot map of neighborhood outbreaks that used a dot map to as proof that “nearly all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the [Broad Street] pump” whose water was a vector of transmission. Far lesser incidence of deaths form cholera near other street-pumps provided a new way to grasp infection and disease.
The dot map of the deaths of migrants creates no such clear distribution, and has no sense of transmission form a single site. But it forces us to acknowledge the deep problems of the criminalization of immigration on the Mexican-US frontier by charging its human costs. The sites of mortality from hunger and thirst are tragically dispersed over a far great undefined space, but embody the human costs of existing border policy. Bodies of migrants that were stopped during the course of their attempts to reach a new life in the US were clustered at a distance from the border but reveal the amazing distances many undocumented migrants travel before they collapse, without food, and most often out thirst and dehydration–in ways that force the viewer to scrutinize its mute surface of dots against a deceptively pastel base map in hopes to glean the stories of the individual migrants whose lives ended far earlier than necessary, and the stories of whose travails and travels can never be told, and is reduced to the finality of a bright red dot, arresting attention but disarmingly flat. Over 2,000 dead migrants whose bodies were retrieved at a significant distance from the border suggest their desperation to make their way across the border by clandestine routes, and the extreme climactic difficulties that they face, with few adequate provisions for crossing deserts whose expanse they feel forced to travel to search for jobs–and increasingly by risking their lives to do so. This is only a fraction of those who have actually died attempting to travel north, leaving detritus and lost objects in their wake that only beg deciphering as images. For although their overlap suggest something like a clustering that might belong to an external infective agent, the alarming nature of the red points call attention to the human costs–and the anonymity of lives lost–that are the victims of the intense dangers of border-crossing that migrants accept and undergo, who we have forced to accept and risks of dehydration, heat stroke, hyperthermia, and starvation which have killed them.
The attempts of art students schooled in techniques of facial reconstruction at the New York Academy of Art to use artistic abilities in the service of forensic reconstruction to preserve the faces of migrants, in a new project that seeks to restore dignity to these victims of the border, if not to hope to bring them back to life, offers a broader context than the poetic detritus that have been encountered along the border, preserved in terrifyingly mute photographs of isolated commodities migrants left in their wake.
The terrifying distribution of migrants’ deaths near to the US-Mexico border over the past decade are difficult to confront. While he border is a line, the deaths are not able to be tied to one place, or vector of location, but congregate along the border, from which they bleed into the edge of the nation in ways that strikes one in the gut, following the paths of those who have risked passage across the desert, alone or in groups. Their striking distribution in a set of overlapping red dots suggest the accumulation of a terrifying loss of life that have been the costs of globalization and of closing borders to immigration. The attempt to invest these terrifying deaths with some sense of a proper funeral and form of remembrance are suggested in the project of the identification of the dead that appear only as point data to which the decomposed remains of migrants are so often reduced. And in some sense, the attempts at facial reconstruction of those who have been killed during the experience of transborder flight is attempted in the exercise of facial reconstruction, which as if in an improvised transformation of the art studio to a morgue confers some sense of dignity to the dead, whose faces look out at us, if stripped of names.
The restoration of identity to these remains, as migrant deaths continue to escalate, are an attempt to call attention to the actual enormities of the scale of migrant deaths of those attempting to cross into the nation since 2001, and online posting of these clay images in NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System of the National Institute of Justice, but barely skim the surface of the almost 3,000 remains of migrants that have been discovered and geolocated in the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative. But how such a growth of deaths can be embodied–and the ethics of doing so–remains a pressing and compelling question as the numbers of deaths of migrants continues to grow, even as we are told that attempted border crossings decline.
The deaths of these deceased migrants–not only “undocumented” but stripped of identity save the story of the terrifying circumstances of their deaths, often able to be reconstructed, raise compelling questions about how we have allowed or tolerated the multiplication of the deaths of migrants who undertake cross-border transit to grow. For there is a clear inhumanity of compelling migrants to undertake arduous voyages across long, uninhabited stretches of land and undue difficulties that demands to be confronted, and we are forced to come to terms with their loss, if only to ask about the absence of any assistance that was offered to them, and the extreme isolation of such attempts at concealed travel that is something of the analogy to the underground railroad in which African American slaves followed the course of stars to navigate northward on food.
The maps invite us to with the scale of the loss of life and a universal problem of processing the undocumented, and compel us to try to arrive at a better process for managing the nation’s borders, based less on strategies of exclusion: one is left silent trying to process the 2,000 corpses of migrants who died attempting to cross the border between Mexico and the United States–many found in different states of decomposition in the Sonora desert near Arizona‘s borderline with Mexico. For the pathways of many migrants trying to circumvent increased border patrols has transformed the lands of many state counties into killing fields. The recent plans to augment the place of stationed surveillance agents along the border by Donald Trump will not only compel more cross-border transits to be planned and accomplished, but place undue duress on the even greater difficulties to evade surveillance in the expanded borderlands through the interruptions of built boundary walls, and those who attempt to avoid apprehension or detection by travels through the desert.
Already Built Barriers and Walls (2013)