Tag Archives: Richard Misrach

Mapping the Material Surplus along the US-Mexico Border

When running for President of the United States, Donald J. Trump already betrayed a shaky knowledge of the territory. He didn’t want you to think that a wall had already been built along the southwestern boundary of the United States.  Now occupying the Oval Office, he seeks to convince the nation that it is in fact being built, and that the need for a permanent, impassible “wall” exist, despite Congress’s refusal to allocate new funds for a “border wall.”

But the massive show of force of cyclone fencing, regular patrols, and bullet-proof barriers set a precedent of border fencing since the 1990s, and something like a precedent for redrawing the nation in ways that are designed to resist changes in a globalized world. In ways that Trump has put on steroids as a racist divide between outsiders and “Americans,” and used as a vehicle for an “America First” agenda, as filling a need to remap strong divide between nations that would replace an “open border,” able to protect the nation, the “border wall” has become fetishized as a paradigm of the unilateral mapping of global space–in terms of actual sovereign bounds, and as a way to remap the nation’s involvement in the world and shuns international responsibilities. If the rhetorical role of the “border wall” has replaced its actuality, and mapped the proximity of the nation to the border in both duplicitous and quite dangerously simplified ways, only by returning to the border, and viewing the existing scars on its lived landscape and the traces of the migrants who have crossed it, can we unmapped the mental mapping of the border.

The effectiveness of the current complex of bollard fencing, barbed wire, steel fencing, cyclone fence, prison-wall like bars, and other obstacles has become one of the largest collections of military surplus in the United States, an accumulation of military materiel that appears designed to remind those who see it of their absence of rights.  As much as a defense against globalization or immigration, the border wall stands as a fiction.  Although some Americans lend credence to the idea that a barrier along the border could prevent “unlawful” entry of the country, whether such entry is in face unlawful–and what sort of balance of justice would be reinstated–is unclear.  The frontier is constructed as site for denying justice, and a denial of human rights, both embodied in the a massive build-up of military material and show of force in its regime.  

The construction of the border as a region that denies civil and legal rights–a “negative space” of sovereignty and liberty–has redefined its relation to the state.  While the project of a wall seems to mirror the lines of a map that would separate two countries, the simple division of national zones and spatial division more of a fiction in the transborder region.  The compulsion to create a map that was present on the earth–a sort of scar between two regimes–depends on defining a space outside of either state, overseen by someone who has no interest in securing rights of its inhabitants.

In this sense, Donald Trump is the perfect messenger of a circumscription of personal rights. When Trump urges the nation that no choice exists save a wall– “We really have no choice but to build a powerful wall or steel barrier”–citing that any agreement with Congress for “a fair deal” to be far off, he invokes a notion of fairness and justice that he argues it would create a sense of security–and promote a sense of national security as well as personal security–but relies on evoking the sense of fear and vulnerability that “open borders” conjure.  Without any clear statistics or evidence for its value, save the magnification of border security, the need for a border wall is only a fantasy, based on an imagined. As someone who defines himself outside the political classes, and apart from an interest in preserving civil rights–or a sense of the role of government in the preservation of the nation’s liberties–Trump is perfectly suited to define himself in terms of the border wall, which he seems to be set on developing as a property.

1. The sense of justice or security is altogether absent from the landscape of the wall, and from its already heavily militarized region.  The absence of place along the border is particularly striking as the accumulation of increasing obstacles to cross-border transit seem designed to preserve a sense of the integrity of the nation–and the safety of our own sense of place–in a world increasingly defined outside of the nation-state as a category, where “states” have decreasing presence or meaning for many American citizens, and most inhabitants of the globe.

In an era of the continuous extent of global space, where borders of nations are to a large extent rendered arbitrary in the virtual space of the meridians of the widely adopted Universal Transverse Mercator coordinate system–

–there seems an urgency that is more easily created of the need to define a boundary line, and to believe that the ideal border line of a national map can conjure the antiquated entity of the “nation”and defend it against the danger of migrating threats.  Invoking the fear of the dangers of cross-border movements  are so often epeated by the America First movement–“bad hombres,” rapists, murderers, or criminal networks, drug cartels, and multi-nationals that go beyond the current systems of state-based law enforcement, that seem designed to suggest threats that only a clear partition of territories can stop,

Migratory Routes of White Pelicans in the United States Originating from the Gulf of Mexico

Historical and Current Sites of American Black Bear in Mexico

In  ways that echo the growth of border walls world-wide–only fifteen existed in 1990; there are beyond seventy–the US-Mexican border barriers already constitute one of the most massive investments in wall-building–and the most massive project of wall-building that exists.  Rather than offer a spatial division that can serve to protect the nation, or reassure us of the possibility of law enforcement, the complex created around the militarized complex serves only to suspend individual rights, as much as to guarantee the law.  Ie exists in an atmosphere of compromised legality, if not  lawlessness, in the name of security.  

Rather than see to create a secure spatial division, the border has been transformed into a deeply hostile landscape, a site seeking to erase or obliterate any sense of individuality, however much the wall is identified with justice or national protection against the threat of criminal elements.  The rhetoric of wall-building that invokes justice indeed obscures the utter injustice of its construction.  The 2,500 mile barbed wire fence that India is building to separates itself from Bangladesh, the US-Mexico border wall would be by far the longest such wall in the globe, as if a bald rebuttal to globalization and a declaration of American self-interest:  if intended to illustrate American strength against the specter of the threat of the cross-border movement of workers, criminals, or lawlessness, it claims the ability to remove surgically the territorial United States from the dangers globalization has wrought.  

In this sense, the project of wall-building is a promise to protect the sense of “place” of the nation.  At the same time as our sense of the nation and our sense of place has dramatically altered for reasons beyond any individual nation, the wall reified the nation as an entity, even as the distinct nature of the nation is unclear.   John Berger observed grimly, but surprisingly presciently, toward the end of his life, after touring the Occupied Territories in the Middle East, that “The present period of history is one of the Wall,” shortly after 9/11, he foretold the policing of border-crossings and humanity, ” . . . concrete, bureaucratic surveillance, security, racist walls.”  The new definition of walls that are defined to separate hoary categories of race or ethnicity are increasingly evident in all too frequent attempts to create barriers of regional protection.  They are based on the sense that national survival depends urgently on such massive projects of enclosure, as if such projects could be isolated from their huge effects and psychological consequences for those who might confront them on the ground.

The current emptying of words–emergency; invasion; criminality; violence; human-trafficking–make them tags to activate the border within the political imaginary, but conceal the actuality of the borderlands where the military is already present, and the lands are already quite secure–and quite vacant of habitation.

2.  The place of the amassing of materials and military materiel along the US-Mexico border seems designed to create a new experience of the border, and to make it scarily real for those who might seek to move across it or to regard it as part of a zone of permeability.  The exquisite photographs portraits of the wall by west coast photographer Richard Misrach has worked to document  the extent to which border barriers have changed experience of the border crossing.  

The barriers progressively built on the southern border of the United States reveals a new heights of the costs of bureaucratic surveillance in the name of border security.  As if in a second episode of his classic Desert Cantos, begun in the 1970s, which, Geoff Dyer noted, “record the residue of human activity inscribed in these apparently uninhabited lands,” in an attempt to explore “the multiplicity of meanings in the idea of desertness.”  The residue of the human is even more haunting in Misrach’s new project, and the photographs that result of human traces on the border, because they are emblems of the disenfranchisement of the borderlands that hauntingly parallel their military build-up. One might even say Misrach interrogates the landscape in his work–if the word didn’t tragically resonate so closely with the state-security apparatus on the US-Mexico border. Misrach dwells on human traces that lie around the militarization of the borer regions–from the cultural detritus left by cross-border travelers, left on migrations, the security apparatus encountered at border, and the hollow loneliness of the massive redesign of its landscape capture the expanded military-defensive complex at the border.

This evacuated land is the region that Donald Trump has come to champion as a basis for defense from national emergencies. The argument that the border is understaffed erases the rewriting of the transborder landscape that has already occurred. Misrach’s contemplation of magnificent vistas, broad traces of the inscription of authority at the border, and the reduction of the human, are truly Kafkaesque in their nightmarish reduction of the individual before the inscription of authority in its landscape.

Fence on Mexican Border.png

Near Campo, CA. ©2008 Michael Dear

3.  For since the definition of the US-Mexico borderline as a line of passage monitored by the border patrol back in 1924, the expansion and militarization of increasing sections of border wall is in part a spectacle of state.  Their growth reflects increasing concern not only with the border, but the militarization of a border zone.  But increasingly, such a zone seems sealed off form much of the country, and is rarely fully comprehended or seen, but rather invoked as a specter that needs to be expanded to establish national safety and economic security, even if its expansion has already occurred in a hypertrophic fashion, long before Donald proposed to build a “beautiful wall” to prevent crossing the US-Mexican border. If the expression reveals a lack of compassion, its problematic nature is even deeper: it reveals Trump’s peculiar identification with an apparatus of border protection, and of human containment, and the removal in his eyes of that apparatus from a discourse of rights.

Trump has celebrated the wall as if it were a new hotel and building project–asserting that he has the needed expertise to build and design it.  Trump presented himself to the American press that he was perfectly suited to such a task, since building is what “I do best in life.”  “I’m a great builder,” he assured his audiences, with considerable self-satisfaction, to suggest his suitability to the position as chief executive, despite his lack of political experience; defining himself apart from other political candidates in the vision of the nation that he supported, Trump added with evident satisfaction, “Isn’t it nice to have a builder?”  

Precisely because he came from outside the political sphere, and outside the government that preserves and respects individual rights, he has been presented as a perfect fit for a region that lies and has developed as outside the securing of individual rights.  By having a “builder” of the nation and the nation’s identity, he suggested, rather than a politician, he could guarantee the increased presence of the military along the nation’s southwestern border, and indeed promised to dedicate an increased amount of the national budget to the defense of this borderland.  Precisely because Trump lacks interest in guaranteeing or preserving the rights of migrants, or rights of asylum to the nation, he is a perfect custodian and symbol of this over-militarized zone without rights.  As a man without military experience, but cowed by military authority, he has become, as President, the perfect surrogate for the stripping of rights for people who try to cross the border.

Trump’s promise is that the continuous wall, to be payed for only upon completion, would remove deep worries about border security.  Widespread national concern about cross-border movement since the 1990s have led to the investment to making the border more physically and symbolically present to potential migrants than it ever was–no doubt reflecting an inflated fear of illegal immigration and the dangers of their immigration by fortifying what was once an open area of transit and rendering it a no-man’s land.  The number of US Agents stationed along the border has almost tripled from 1992 to 2004,  according to The Atlantic, and doubled yet again by 2011, even as the number of US federal employees shrunk.  Investing in the border by allocating over $4 billion each year created a concept in our spatial imaginaries we have not fully digested or mapped, or assessed in terms of its human impact, despite increasing appeal of calls for its expansion and further consolidation–even as the further consolidation of the border zone has made migrants depend on drug smugglers and other illicit trade in hopes for guarantees of cross-border passage.  And in an era when a large portion of Americans seem to interact with government through the TSATransportation Security Administration–or NTSB–National Transportation Safety Board–the fear of external threats to the public safety seem incredibly real.  

The inspired gesture of a monumental wall to be built across our Southern Border with Mexico, if a sign of weakness far more than one of strength, obliterating hope for the promise of a future, as Berger noted, intended to overwhelm and oppress as a monument to decadence and American insularity.  Outfitted with not only walls, fences, and obstacles but checkpoints and surveillance cameras, the US-Mexican border has become a pure hypostatization of state power.  And although Trump’s promises to build a “beautiful, impenetrable wall”–“He’s going to make America great, build a wall and create jobs,” folks repeated on the campaign, as if these were causally linked to one another–the massive construction project has been revised, as the “great, great wall” promised at rallies was scaled back to a fence and confined to “certain areas”–with the odd reassurance that “I’m very good at this, it’s called construction,” while acknowledging that the wall was “more appropriate” only in “certain areas.”  

Does Trump have any sense of the massive investment of capital that already exists on the border.  The promise of dedicating as much as $26 billion–even $30 billion–to such a soaring, precast concrete monument along the border, standing as high as fifty feet, was a mental fantasy, and election promise, but filled a need for ending perceptions of its permeability grew so great that his advisers see the need to warn folks “it’s gonna take a while,” but promising the ability to do so by fiat and executive order and reallocating funds for immigration services; others demur, “it was a great campaign device.”


Mark Potter/NBC News

At the same time as deporting hundreds of thousands of immigrants now deemed “illegal,” the Department of Homeland Security has effectively rendered the border a militarized zone, interrupting what had been as late as the 1980s was a relatively porous transit zone on which both countries’ economies had depended:  the accumulation of capital on the border has expanded what was once a simple line to create obstacles to human movement challenging for viewers to process from a distance, or to map as a lived experience.  Of course, the existence of the wall has created a blossoming of illegal trafficking, as migrants are forced to depend on smugglers to help them in their quest to cross the imposing border, augmenting the illegal activity that occurs along its path, under the eyes of the many employees that guard the expanded border zone, in a far cry from the border patrol of years past.

The accumulation of obstacles for human transit contrast sharply to the old border fences that they have long rendered obsolete. The growth of the border zone dates from 1986, when granting of “legal” status to Mexican immigrants in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) had the consequence of redefining Mexican migrants as “illegal.”  The investment in increased construction of the border over thirty years to  the “illegal” immigrants who were surveilled by the U.S. Border Patrol at the highly monitored militarized border, designed to thwart unregistered immigration.  The argument that the old border fence is now outdated, and contiains gaps–


AP/Gregory Bull:  Border Agent Jerry Conlin looks out over Tijuana beside old border fence 

–has been demonstrated repeatedly in maps.  And since the Customs and Border Protection agency dedicated to “securing the nation’s borders” has come to expand the border between the United States and Mexico to prevent any possibility of human transit, reifying frontiers in ways that are nicely stated in one side of the pin worn by the very officials tasked to secure the border by regulating cross-border movement.  The mandate for U.S. Customs and Border Protection–“Securing America’s Border and the Global Flow of People and Goods”–is fulfilled by a range of devices of detection, surveillance and apprehension–attack dogs; choppers; drones; visual surveillance; horseback; speedboats; binoculars–that seem to expand an impression of total mastery over space in ways that are oddly ignore the human targets of the Agency.

CBP Commissioner USA-2.jpg

Badge of the Current Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (Reverse)

The division of Border Services that is dedicated to secure the US-Mexico border has attracted a level of investment that multiplied the increasingly inhumane terrifying ways, as “securing the border” has encouraged a material surplus and hypertrophic expansion of the border as militarized region that exists to obstruct human transit that is undocumented.  The border-zone assumes an increasingly prominent place within the spatial imaginary of Mexican migrants, as it has become increasingly accepted as a militarized–and naturalized as such–within the United States at considerable costs.  What are the consequences of such acceptance of the frontier as uninhabited lands?  How can one confront the consequences of its built-up construction from the perspective of the border-crosser?  How can one measure the human consequences of the expansion of this  outright militarization of a space between two countries who are not officially at war?

The separation of customs enforcement from border protection led an increased amount of resources to securing the material border, independent of the enforcement of customs, with effects that can be witnessed in the broad expansion of the border’s expansion as an uninhabited policed area needing to be secured in the abstract–independently from the human traffic that passes through it.

Misrach, Border Signs

Richard Misrach/Wall, Jacumba, California (2009)

It is difficult to process the expanse or scope of the expansion of the border or the imposing barriers to border transit that is intended to prevent unmonitored migration and indeed terrify migrants from crossing the border .  The experience of the surplus on the border is especially difficult to capture from an on the ground perspective, distinct from the abstract definition of the border on a map as a simple line.  For the investment in the border obstacles and barriers that have themselves created the terrifying idea of sealing a border to human transit, and protecting the entry of those newly classified as “illegal”–a category that was the consequence of the IRCA, and legislation that criminalized the presence of “undocumented” Mexicans in the United States, and the growth of apprehensions of migrants after the increase in the monitoring of the border after IRCA– and the later increase of border patrols from 1994, in response to the inhumane balancing of needs for Mexican workers with fears of an increased number of Mexican immigrants, as the number of “undocumented” migrants multiplied nation-wide to new levels.  The increased militarization of the border to monitor all and any cross-border transit has created a massive expansion of border fortification under the Homeland Security Dept.

The result has been to create a shocking dehumanization of border crossing as attempts to cross the border in search of a better life have grown.  And the response of Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo to recuperate the human experience of border crossing that is erased by most maps.  Recent explorations by Misrach has called renewed attention to the expansive construction of the border as a human experience migrants face and encounter, and the new landscape of border-crossing that has been created across a new no man’s land.  His attention to the remains humans have left along the wall–abandoned detritus and intentional markers of cross-border transit–remap the construction of the border zone so challenging to capture in a territorial map, and capture a new sense of urgency to confront the human rights abuses that have grown with the border’s senseless expansion, and the overbuilding of border barriers and borderlands as a militarized space.  

For the accumulated military surplus along border boundary is less a clear divide, than a means of creating a territory of its own within the growing border area:   Misrach’s recent photographs map intensive fieldwork of the region of the border that try to comprehend the scale of its presence for those on its other side or who traverse the border zone–an experience entirely omitted from even the most comprehensive maps of its daunting scale and expansion, which reveal the growing presence that “the border,” border area and the growing expanse of trans-border regions have already gained–a scale that can in part capture the heightened symbolic role that the debates about a border fence or barrier have gained in the 2016 United States presidential election.  The notion only a wall could fill the defensive needs of the United States must be protected from those Donald J. Trump labeled “bad hombres”–we stop the drugs, shore up the border, and get out the “bad hombres”–is laughable, but was a lynchpin to fashion himself as a strong male leader.

The grandiosity of the wall as a project of Trump’s megalomania led the architects at the  Guadalara-based Estudio 3.14 to propose a version in hot pink, stretching along the 1,954 miles of the border, based on the work of Mexican architect Luis Barragán.  The wall, including a prison to house the 11,000,000 deported, a plant to maintain its upkeep and a shopping wall, seems specially designed both to daunt migrants and offer eye-candy for Americans.


Agustin Avalos/Estudio 3.14


Agustin Avalos/Estudio 3.14


 Agustin Avalos/Estudio 3.14

Indeed, such a “Prison Wall” reflects the deeply carceral function of the space of the border, whose systems of surveillance systems and technological apparatus make it less a space of transition than a site of expansive investment going far beyond the notion of border protection, both as a spectacle and expansion of territorial control.   The hot pink wall offers a good substitute surpassing the expansion of border security in recent decades.

4.  Indeed, as the transborder region has dramatically expanded with the expansion of cross-border trade since NAFTA in 2004, the expansion of the trans-border region has been widely neglected, and rarely mapped.  The attention the photographic mapping of the human experience of border crossing–evident in the abandoned detritus and remains of cross-border transit–present a ghostly counter-map to the expanded border region.  

This human map is all too often unfortunately overlooked, even with increased attention Republican presidential candidates have paid to remapping a closed border and constructing a border wall, a project that seems to erase or remove the broad area of cross-border traffic that occurs within the immense region that surrounds the physical border–whose sociological expansion is so oddly conveniently erased by any project of wall building along a region demanding to be recognized as being part of the United States.


Barajas/Sisto/Gaytán/Cantú/Hidalgo López (2014)

Most boundaries between states are regularly rendered in maps by dotted lines, as if to recall milestones–miliaria–placed at regular intervals on perimeters of lands or counties in earlier times.  But the borer strip that is embedded in an expanded border area is a site of increasing surveillance that seems to engrave itself on the land.  To map the proposed building of a fence along the 2, 428 mile border between Mexico and the United States reveals a the expansion of the policing of the national borderspace, erasing its past status as a transit zone across which people and goods easily moved.

In an age of globalization, borders are increasingly not only policed, but managed at a distance from their crossing lines–and increasingly invoked in Presidential elections as if they have become the primary charges of governmental management.  Constructed to symbolize and symbolically represent sovereign authority, the overbuilt border seems staged a spectacle to impede human movement and to monitor and erase, individual experience, and to bolster the appropriately faceless authority of the state.  Borders once the creation of shared conventions, are colonized by an apparatus designed to impose state authority on helpless people, and constructed at massive cost as artifacts that seem to exist to violently intersect with actual lived experience, confronting the cross-border motion or migration of populations, and concretizing the need for a fixed frontier as a need of the nation.


Getty Images

5.  The huge popularity of advocating construction on a continuous border wall within Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign to seal the frontier along Mexico’s sovereign territory reveals the degree to which borders become a means to assert failing claims to sovereignty–even as it is an attempt to reassert the authority of an individual nation-state by unilaterally asserting its own abilities to police its bounds.  How the border gained such broad purchase on the national imaginary is unclear, and may require another post–but the incommensurability of the alleged solution and the situation on the ground demands empirical evaluation.  Revisiting the spectacle of the border and the suffering it creates engages broad advocacy to the continuous wall advocated alike by such presidential candidates like Trump and Ted Cruz–and the explicit violence they serve by of subjecting social life of border-crossing to surveillance in the name of national security.

And so it is apt that, in Border Cantos, a recent collaboration between photographer Misrach and Mexican-born composer Guillermo Galindo, the amassing of capital on the US-Mexico border is so eloquently documented and revealed as the brutalizing landscape that it is.  More than any map is able, their collaboration bears witness to the expansion of the border’s imprint on the lives of migrants in incredibly moving ways, by asking viewers to evaluate the costs of the overbuilt structure of the fence, and assembling the artifacts and unintended traces that were found and collected about the border–traces accidentally left by actual migrants from backpacks to sneakers to books to children’s clothing and dolls to the spent shotgun shells that targeted migrants or the bicycles used to overcome border barriers–to reflect their social experience.   These remains are human traces that do not appear on any actual map, of course, but are the remains of the violence that is enacted on how national boundaries are mapped–and the continued violence of the experience of border crossing that intersects with the broad security apparatus on either side of the border fence.  As if to accompany Misrach’s photographs of the human geography of the borderlands–a largely empty space with few humans and only scattered human markers and material possessions–Galindo fashioned musical instruments whose playing is able to generate sounds in his own scores, specific to the surreal fraught space of the overbuilt borderlands, an eery score to accompany Misrach’s haunted landscapes, and remind us of the human presence that is so often necessarily absent from the images.

Such ephemera pale in contrast to the experience of migrants, to be sure, but offer both avenues of empathy and proofs of the brutality with which sovereign authority intersects with the mundane everyday at the border walls, in the built space that runs across the emptiness of the desert borderlands.

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March 1, 2016 · 1:06 pm

Mapping the Cancer Corridor along Louisiana’s Gulf Coast

“Cancer Alley” does not itself appear on maps.  But this eighty-five mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, into which are packed some one hundred and fifty factories of petroleum refining or chemical production, merits the name since its notorious wastes have grown so large to define the local landscape to merit the name–the amount of toxic and hazardous wastes that they regularly release has overwhelmed the landscape, all but crowding out all local place-names.

The simple austere presence of names of chemical compounds, no doubt sized in an elegant Times New Roman in a font-size that corresponds to their relative production, suggests an imposition of meaning inscribed on the map, stripped of any actual toponymy, save the ghostly half-tones naming the corporations who have remade the landscape as a site of corporate refineries and chemical production, where the refinement of carcinogenic materials extracted from underground threatens to overwhelm the landscape:  a black thread of a river may be traced where the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico, whose serpentine course of solid black carries broad public health implications for the nation we endanger ourselves to neglect.


Kate Orff, “Ecological Atlas to ‘Petrochemical America'”

The banks of this Louisiana Bayou landscape on which so many sites of the manufacture of petrochemical products are nested, transformed a former a site of sugar and cotton plantations into one of the most polluted areas in the United States of America.  The petroleum refineries, chemical industries, and hazardous waste containment sites along the winding river are a stark contrast to the sinuous bends of the lower Mississippi, but suggest the deep transfiguration of place that has occurred, complicit with the erosion of so much of the wetlands region near the Louisiana coast into the open waters further downstream.  The smokestacks of factories of chemical synthesis produce clouds of emissions that have led it to be named “cancer alley” to reflect the high rates at which residents of the area.  Most of its current residents–largely poor, poorly represented, and largely African-American and with strikingly low levels of educational attainment–have been victimized by the discrepancies of environmental protection in the nation’s geography as a whole.

The question of mapping pollutants in the region is truly not only a map limited to one area, but suggests an atlas–a term Kate Orff adopts in her map–of the underside of the national consumption of petroleum products and their synthesis for American markets,  compressed to one small region of the lower Mississippi.  Even as American Presidents have taken it upon themselves to declare for over fifty years–we can date the metaphorical call for the moonshot that Joe Biden oversaw as Vice President to cure cancer all the way back in 1971, when Richard M. Nixon called for a national effort to conquer “this dread disease” from which Americans suffered through “the same kind of concentrated effort … that took man to the moon,” as if an anticancer blastoff was waiting in the wings, the “war on cancer” that Nixon sought to begin as the Vietnam War was winding, there was a sense that the “war” didn’t pay much attention to the grim landscape of postindustrial waste and pollutants and hazardous waste that refineries were emitting into the beautiful bayous where the Mississippi opens into the Gulf of Mexico whose dangers were claimed to be avoided and superseded by “research and therapies [that] are on the cusp of significant breakthroughs,”as Joe Biden Biden put it as he corralled the nation to join him in a national mission to develop both therapeutic treatments for cancer and liberate “science, data, and research results [that is currently] trapped in silos, preventing faster progress and greater reach to patients. It’s not just about developing game-changing treatments” promised to be on the horizon of being delivered.   While privileging immunotherapy, genomics, stem-cell research and combination therapies, the expansion of petrochemical industries between New Orleans and Baton Rouge grew, creating carcinogenic landscape along the banks of the Mississippi continued, its landscape covered by a smokescreen despite the promise of increased access to information for the community of oncologists who treat cancer patients.

If much fanfare accompanied a “new national effort” designed to “cure cancer” by the federal government in 2016, federal oversight over petroleum pollution has seemed to retreat.   Despite the “inspirational” nature of such calls for cures, backed by a billion dollars of investment in cancer immunotherapies, vaccine development, genomic analysis and data sharing, the lack of attention the increasingly global context of increasing cancers in “developing” countries where most extractive industries are based–currently projected to grow from 55%  to over 70% of global cases of cancer, where Paul Farmer found an overwhelming 80% of disability-adjusted life-years already lost to cancer globally:  the lack of attention to unequal translation of such compelling calls for a “cure for cancer in American research universities conceals a global “disequilibrium” mirrored in the lack of access to costly coronavirus vaccines. Is the lack of attention to therapeutic best practices for mitigating cancer’s spread, mirrored in the absence of attention or objection to the expansion of industry on the largely abandoned riverbanks?  Or is it that the land long habituated to extraction has provided a new industrial landscape for the benefit of petroleum refining, with limited federal oversight?

The absence of expanding cancer prevention programs in America that might translate globally is mirrored in the lack of attention to petrochemical pollutants along the rivers course, that have transformed the region into an unmapped or identified Superfund site–beside urban populations and endangered wildlife.  The over 26,000 pounds of vaporized ethyl acrylate that have leaked from the stacks of the Dow Chemical plant–without a fine–or the forty-six thousand tones of toxic water in unlined containment sites of hazardous waste emitted daily.  If the concentration of creaky and leaky factories on the winding end of the Mississippi is peculiar in its proximity both to urban populations and stupendous bayous inhabited by endangered species, the map reveals a sort of legibility in the landscape that at times seems threatened to be lost.  Indeed, the map can only hope to capture the injustices created by the dense proliferation of industrial petrochemical refineries along the river, site of plantations in years past, settled with poorer populations living between New Orleans and Baton Rouge:  the industries have not gone under the radar of government environmental agencies, but the industries are itself part of the region’s landscape, not removed from its surrounding dense cypress groves and former mangroves in what was once dense with plantations and wildlife.


Viewers of Kate Orff’s map are forced to confront the density of sites of chemical production and register how the collective industries that crowd the end of the Mississippi have created a post-industrial landscape of toxic waste that both permeates and engulfs the region as a whole.  The historical expansion of chemical industries along the winding river has grown with their increasing use of petroleum or conversion of chemical products that are derived from oil, coal, and natural gas.  Orff’s mapping of the spectacular concentration of industries that synthesize propylenes for acetone or plexiglass or antifreeze or polyethylenes used to make plastic bags into one poor residential region serve not only as a map of part of the bayous, but a map the petrochemical dependence of the nation, to allow us to see for ourselves the new landscape we have made.  In this sense, while focussed on one riverine landscape, Orff’s “ecological atlas” charts a devastating indictment of the transformation of our habits of land use, revealing and unpacking the depth of an industrial settlements along the shores of the slow-moving river.

For the eighty-five mile of bayous, no longer populated  by alligator, herons, raccoons, or ibis, are the site of the massive release of pollutants  whose density of waste-products to an extent almost unfathomable in their density or extent.  Orff’s remapping of one area of delta estuary on the Louisiana Gulf reveals the industrialization of a region which has also been a seat of National Wildlife Refuges–parts of the sleepy bayous highlighted in light tan–against, almost perversely, a light green map of the Louisiana landscape that remains that takes our eyes off of its pollutants, and by which one is tempted to note multiple protected areas in a region that once fell under environmental oversight.


Orff’s atlas was designed to complement the stunning photographs of the devestation of local bayous’ landscape between the two cities by Richard Misrach, one of which is reproduced below.  But  Orff’s river map opens the area as an area of industrial settlement, as much as population, also reveals the national landscape with which we may be left.  The atlas marks the potential release of carcinogens in an area whose ecosystem of the Southeast Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge is designated as an endangered ecosystem and seat of endangered species–although many of the local species, including the American alligator and bald eagle, were “delisted” as endangered during the 1980s or 2000s.  Yet rather than map the selective refuges of the Bayous, seats of hunting and wildlife fishing, Orff offers a chart the consequences of the region’s historical transformation from an agrarian to petrochemical industry that provides something of a narrative of the region’s transformation to a site of chemical synthesis.  This provides something of a counter-story–and counter-map–to the Delta National Wildlife Refuge, including the largest urban national wildlife refuge, the Bayou Sauvage Refuge, of 24,000 acres of freshwater lagoons and brackish habitats, including herons, pelicans, and cormorants–an area of restricted waterfowl hunting and fishing.

In the waters Orff maps a region just upstream of the Refuge, many products with which we have daily familiarity appear in different guises, and in a concentration that reflects the huge forces of demand for petroleum products–for inks, insecticides, plastics–in a cocktail of methanol, synthetic nitrogen, hydrochloric acid, styrenes, ethyl acetates, chloroform, kerosene or formaldehyde–a veritable catalogue of toxicity crowded into one place.  The map offers a veritable chart of our addiction to petrochemical products, by forcing readers to map and recognize the continued long-term presence of these industries of extraction onto a landscape in ways we rarely see, and indeed places them into a landscape that was the site of slave plantations and of longstanding economic exploitation.

What are, we have to ask, its costs?  Can they even be calculated or tallied?  For the environmental damages wreaked on the wetlands go beyond (if they are based upon) social justice:  even though we use maps of diseases to bring into being communication of infection or incidences of illness tied to the environment, as Tom Koch has shown, it is notoriously difficult to link cancer clusters to any particular or specific exposures to warrant liabilities, and the density of chemical products in the area–which almost appears zoned for the synthesis of petroleum products–dilutes any question of individual liability for the production of toxic wastes.  Cancer was, indeed, tried to be tied to environmental causes soon after it became an identifiable demographic reality in industrializing England by Dr. Alfred Haviland, based on the apparent concentrations of cancer mortality rates, in an attempt to map incidence in correlation to altitude, or, by analogy to infectious disease, either bodies of water or other biological models or determinants like parasites:  but no clear geographic distribution emerged, despite the attempted identification of “cancer houses” or “cancer streets” that might allow its occurrence to be understood, as John Snow’s famous 1854 map of the outbreak and spread of cholera in London.

Although the causal connection to environment was pursued, despite apparently clear clustering the difficulty of individuating cancer-causing influences remains, despite the continued attempt to map cancer–both on different types of cancer and distinct from other potential causes–for the vectors of cancer’s causation are poorly understood.  This diminishes the ability to map clear ties or relations:  no clear causational relation can be drawn between illness and environment, although environmental influences are evident.  The difficulty of mapping a clear and direct relation makes any cancer map impossible to draw, despite a preponderance of evidence, notwithstanding Orff’s map of the concentration of carcinogenic compounds, some of which are dispersed into the environment by the regular release of plumes of carcinogenic compounds from benzene to hydrogen cyanide and ethyl acetate.

On the heels of intense attention to the recent 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout–a toxic release that occurred not far offshore the already devastated landscape whose intense settlement by industries of petroleum-extraction and synthesis she maps–but only distinguished by the scale at which it released oil into the aquatic environment.  If the site of that massive and ongoing leakage was a source of ongoing petroleum pollution even after being plugged, the map reveals the intensely embedded nature of the petroleum industry in the land that rivals the Horizon blowout in its continued release of toxins to the waters and air of the region, as an ongoing threat even in an age of multiplying projects of coastal restoration.  Yet if these projects are conspicuously absent from the area covered in Orff’s atlas, the hidden nature of potentially toxic bayous of petrochemical dependence that have, with saltwater, devastated cypress swamps and mangrove orients readers a new topography of the poisoning of the wetlands.

CypressSwamp1-1.resized-e1364970905919Misrach, “Cypress Swamp, Alligator Bayou, Prairieville, Louisiana” (High Museum of Art)

The formerly agrarian landscape of the Louisiana Gulf now industrially harvests wide array of products we consider part of our household.  Its industrial production includes the synthesis of many of the food additives that enter our refrigerators or arrive on our dinner tables, the synthetic nitrogens used to make fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that often enter, through the back door, as it were, into the food we consume.  It is a source of much food consumed, with just under 20% of the sugar consumed in our country being refined just outside of New Orleans, some of the least expensive that is most likely to be added to manufactured foods.  This has long been the landscape where the brutality of extraction was staged, both from plantation-based sugarcane harvesting–whose traces are still present–and cotton plantations, whose practices once crowded the very same river banks.  This habitat of dense planting and day-laboring, so nourished by the bends of a winding river that it was complexly divided by plantations in a patchwork which charted land-ownership on the Lower Mississippi and now abandoned river banks with cadastral precision by Benjamin Moore Norman in 1858.

jp2Library of Congress

The landscape of the winding river has been replaced by a register of petrochemical products, as if they have erased and replaced the image and notion of the landscape once so valued on the river’s rich banks.  Reading the names of petrochemical products in this new landscape one is struck by compounds  more familiar from the aisles of a supermarket or hardware store, but now, in place of the tracts of land that so densely divided these fields, are transposed to the landscape of the Mississippi. Orff reveals a dense concentration of such industries whose products are not only made for a growing market, but whose synthesis and storage significant risks to the population and well as its other inhabitants.  Crowded in the liminal landscape of coastal wetlands composed of former marshlands and pastures, many of them formerly rich ecologies filled with dense trees from bald cypress, black cypress, and mangrove trees–all marred by earlier deforestation and cross-clearing, we can imagine them crippled and palsied not only by the entry of saltwater but by industrial pollutants to the extent that may never be restored.

Bend in River

An earlier map of the bucolic landscape of low-lying lands on the Mississippi-Louisiana border haunts Orff’s petrochemical atlas, one crowded with plantation works whose coloring in vibrant yellows and greens indicate the regional density of sugar and cotton plantations in this region to which rich mineral sediment was carried by the Mississippi, in Norman’s historic map made when that land was scarce and extraction in high demand.  At the same time as almost two thousand square miles of marshlands have disintegrated into open, salty waters, and channels and canals made to stave off the loss of wetlands allowed the entrance of salty waters that kill off freshwater plants, the interstate river corridor has been settled by industrial factories based on oil extraction in ways that render the earlier plantation system almost entirely unrecognizable.

Mississippi-Louisiana map

Orff’s “atlas” unpacks if also conceals a dense and tangled narrative of historical environmental exploitation and change, and more than several decades of poor stewardship.  For those with time to read its detail with sufficient care, it describes the conversion of the formerly agrarian area to a site of industrial production, and the rewriting of its landscape as a site for the refinement of petroleum products that feed an ever-growing American market.  To the extent that the original landscape that was there–or the ecosystems that existed beside its sugarcane fields–these were effaced by the network of commercial industries from which the landscape appears impossible to disentangle, and which have mushroomed along its cheap land as the sugar industries have moved out.  The network of this one corridor suggests a compression of layers of contamination and chemical production into something like a forgotten land, or a liminal riverine space where the destruction is wrought that we don’t see as part of our urban life, and lies at a convenient remove a known landscape.  The factories regularly burn off excess gasses daily in production, or contaminants leech into the environment, giving the zone the name of Cancer Alley, as Orff has described in an interview on the project of environmental mapping.

The mapping of manmade carcinogens introduced into the landscape formerly inhabited by a rich ecosystem of flourishing alligators, herons and mangroves is haunted by the corporate landscape of America, revealed in the industries that now inhabit the lower Mississippi’s relatively inexpensive former farmlands, whose names appear in half-tones legible for the observer who approaches at closer detail to track the sources of these contaminants from copolymers to kerosene to insecticides and other chelates:  who knew that all these elegant compounds and liquids were spawned from the same region of industrial production?  The extent of environmental damages wreaked on the larger environment are based on but range far beyond the specific questions of environmental justice that they should force us to confront.

carcinogen map

This might well be a map of the poisons that have been released into this watershed, mapping as they do a scene of a terrible crime.  Although they own the land in which they work, from Exxon Mobil to Dow Chemical, Union Carbide, Shell, Honeywell, Syngenta, Dupont and TDI–present a veritable register of corporate irresponsibility.  The availability of oil from regional pipelines has created an economy of convenience that pollutes one of the richest watersheds in the land, and has lastingly polluted it by the leaching of underground storage sites of hydrocarbon wastes, themselves physically present and legible in the land, as well as released into the water and air of the ecosystem itself–and whose presence can at times be detected in traces downstream in the running tap water of New Orleans.

close up

The abstract map conceals some devastating effects of this leakage, yet also provides a window on the transformation of a land once worked by slave labor for sugar-harvesting:   still filled with sugar cane, the new geography of extraction and refinement reflect and refract the degradation of the agrarian landscape.  The immensity of the transformation of the landscape is difficult to comprehend in words, and words are even challenged to describe the historical layering of devastation of a formerly flourishing ecosystem:  it provides the footnotes for a story of the threats posed to the watershed by ongoing entrance of toxic chemicals into the region that demands to be explored, as do the toxic waste of Superfund sites already threatened with flooding in Hurricane Katrina–sites that threatened to release carcinogenic contaminants from heavy metals to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon.  The clustering of Toxic Release Inventories and Superfund sites in the same stretch of river from Baton Rouge, according to the  National Institute of Health’s “TOXMAP”–which marks Superfund sites by brown rectangles in the map below–suggests a tragic landscape of hazardous wastes.

TRI:Superfund New Orleans

superfund sites near Baton Rouge

The landscape of petrochemical America compromises its inhabitants most unfairly, daily exposing  large numbers of local residents to reported amounts of toxic releases between the single decade from 1998 to 2008, according to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory.

Populated Bayoux

The Louisiana Gulf is by no means the only privileged site of such industrial pollutants–given the proliferating cycles of petrochemical contamination in an age of globalism, all bringing heightened risks of cancer and the large number of cancer alleys worldwide that now exist from the Nigerian delta, site of some of the most continuous oil flares to the rice fields and fishing grounds at Myanmar, not to mention the Persian Gulf (the global dataset on petroleum contamination here employed was originally provided by the Blacksmith Institute).  And in each area, as Orff maps below, the “cancer alleys” are underwritten by corporate interests, even if they remain in the shadows of the landscape.  But the gulf of the Mississippi is a veritable self-made Superfund site–notable even in a global context, and by far the densest concentration, due to the perfect storm of cheap land, nearby oil, and old factories in the Delta–not to mention limited federal oversight.

Cancer Alleys Worldwide

It is in many ways a return of the repressed, and the wound inflicted by the patterns of consumption to which we are so habituated.  But it is perhaps also, importantly, one of the most unjustly afflicting its residents, in ways that have only begun to be assessed, and whose complicated narrative of intertwined interests and toxic production remains untold.  Only by the detailed local mapping these landscapes that Orff has so magnificently achieved, and speaking out against their silences, can we reclaim knowledge of the land, as it were, and a topography where ethyl oxylates, glycols, esters or methanol displace and become more prominent features of the landscape than its inhabitants–for now, the molecular structures of petroleum derivatives haunt the land as much as the multinationals whose industries produce the “cancer corridor” that we can thank Orff for having begun to map, and whose collective responsibility for making we can perhaps all work to alter.

Alcohol Exoxylates

The photographs of Richard Misrach have been exhibited together with Orff’s maps at the Fraenkel Gallery at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, CA.  The traveling exhibit will continue be on view at Pomona and Carleton Colleges until December, 2014.  It is also available as a book.


Filed under Environmental Pollution, National Wildlife Refuges, New Orleans, Petrochemical America, superfund sites