The Multiple Mobilities Research Cluster III

Co-Directors: Miriam Ticktin, Victoria Hattam, Radhika Subramaniam, Laura Liu, Rafi Youatt and Abou Farman


The past several years have witnessed the growth of border walls on a new scale. A range of walls, fences and ‘virtual’ walls have been erected in South America, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia; across the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, walls appeared in response to the “refugee crisis” and the conflict in Ukraine. Just this past year fifteen new fences appeared. As part of this trend, there has been much discussion about building a stronger, more robust fence along the United States border with Mexico. The group’s interdisciplinary research collaboration takes on the study of border walls, barriers, and infrastructures, with a focus on the US-Mexico border fence, from a new perspective; we are attentive not simply to the plights of migrants that cross and the security technologies that are built to stop them, but also to all that moves with, through, and around the border wall: endangered animals, border patrol agents, activists, workers, engineers, policies, narcotics, agricultural products, trafficked animal parts, deer ticks, images, and Vietnam war era materiel, among others. In the group’s research thus far, researchers have found that these various circuits of mobility and immobility inevitably influence one another. One example of this are so-called “wildlife openings” in the border fence created for the safe passage of small animals, negotiated in large part by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with Homeland Security. This reveals that we cannot understand the politics of border walls without also taking into account the politics of environment and conservation.

The “Multiple Mobilities” project provides new ways to depict and understand these complexities, to examine the situated and contingent modes and events that create the ecology of the border and the effect of bordering. From preliminary research, which involved two fieldwork trips to Brownsville, Texas the group have focused in on four conceptual approaches that cut into our themes at different angles: spatiality, materiality, regulation, and phenomenology. Overall, the research is located at the intersection of ethnography and design.


1) Spatiality:  Contrary to many who think of the border as a line, or even a zone, the group found that it has produced many “in-between,” indeterminate or interstitial spaces that are not accounted for in current political or scholarly conceptions of the border. The group will explore the nature of these spaces, which clearly influence border politics, even as they remain unaccounted for in official political discussions. These spaces include “corridors” for animals and “flyways” for birds; the work done to protect or enclose these spaces and types of movement clearly shapes the nature of the border and the border wall. Researchers are interested in the ways that mobility of humans and non-humans meet in these discussions and policies about passageways, channels, corridors, airspace, and the “underground.”


2) Materiality:  It is difficult not to take the materiality of the border fence seriously when confronted by it up close. Sometimes it seems like a regular garden fence; other times, it imposes itself as a prison-like fortress. The materiality of this “tactical infrastructure” has been negotiated by many actors: private property owners, universities, homeland security, US Fish and Wildlife, the International Boundary and Water Commission, NGO activists, local and state courts and the Army Corps of Engineers. Some have argued for a different aesthetics of the wall, and others have wanted different materials, shapes and gaps. The group is interested in how the fence was designed and built, as well as how its form is still being negotiated.


3) Regulation:  The group is interested in how the border zone is regulated. This includes the practices of Homeland Security and those who challenge them directly, such as activists and NGOs, but it also includes the legal debates and the everyday regulation and management of those who aren’t easily controlled by the state, i.e. those who are not considered sovereign subjects: plants, viruses, deer ticks, data, and undocumented immigrants. In addition, the development of the “smart border” via bio-informatic security and remote surveillance is an important component of the new ecology of the border, one that spawns new research questions such as who are the designers, software developers and engineers of these barrier technologies?


4) Phenomenology:  The group would like to further a phenomenological approach to the border, asking what it feels like to live at or around the border. How is the border fence and the “border effect” experienced on a day-to-day basis? How is the border embodied normatively, that is, how and when do its regulations become embodied norms? By what practices? Or how is the border resisted via the body and the sensorium? How do these interact with new extra-sensory technologies? How is the world of mobility, with its flows and fluxes and transience, ordered and experienced? The group will be attentive to gestures and different sensory phenomena to get at these questions, including sound, smell and sight, all of which vary based on position and identity: What does it feel like to constantly hear the shipbreaking of large warships (a massive industrial process located in the region)? To drive in a border zone punctuated by checkpoints and electronic gates? For one’s children to play in a backyard sliced by the shadows of the fence?