Richard Lerman, 61, is a professor of media and digital arts at Arizona State University West who has been collecting sounds for many years. Seattle Weekly's Sue Peters recently conducted an e-mail interview with the artist about "Fences-Borders," his current multimedia installation at the Jack Straw New Media Gallery that explores the sounds and significance of the U.S./Mexico border. As Congress considers bills that would construct a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and brand undocumented immigrants "felons," and as hundreds of thousands of protesters filled the streets of Los Angeles, Phoenix, and various other cities around the country this past weekend, Lerman's work resonates with a chilling timeliness.
SW: There seem to be no voices in your recordings for "Fences-Borders." Did you purposely avoid human sounds?
Largely, I chose to avoid human sounds because the piece is about the fences and the desert. I use the term soundscape/landscape to describe this. I have recorded fences at many sites: internment camps in California, concentration camps in Germany and Poland, sites along the Chilean/Argentine border where persons were "disappeared." For me, these fences witnessed events, and it is the same with these fences [in the current installation]—I hope to record the presence (and present state) of the fence while also hoping some of what this place/fence has witnessed comes through.
The U.S./Mexico border is a politically and sociologically complex and potentially explosive issue. I'm guessing that's why you were drawn to it.
I moved to Arizona in 1994 and one cannot live here without coming up against the issues of the Borderlands.
And yet, you deal with all the issues it brings up—immigration, geography, the artifice of man-made borders, the unsettling psychology behind the term "illegal alien" with subtlety. Again, I'm assuming this was a conscious decision.
This was a decision on my part to make a piece that considered these complexities. Many people assume that persons crossing over are simply "economic migrants." I also believe that many persons were impacted by years of what contributed to political and social unrest in their former countries. This makes them legitimate refugees. Also, it is now OK for companies to cross borders to set up maquilladoras, but it is not OK for people to cross over. In the '40s through the '60s we depended upon "Braceros" to come across and work on the farms.
What are your feelings about what this kind of migration represents in the American political and social psyche?
In part, I think that all immigrants have been "unwanted," and in some small way this is also a piece for my family members who decided they needed to leave where they were. I don't think that most persons really think much about the situation but do react to all the negativity in the news. To be sure, there are many negative aspects in some of the activities: drugs, trashed tribal lands and trashed farms in southeast Arizona and elsewhere, coyotes (the human kind) and forced slavery.
On an emotional level, I came away from this work with a haunting sense of its melancholy, loneliness, starkness. On a political level, I thought the USGS maps effectively demonstrated the randomness and senselessness of imposed political borders. What message are you trying to communicate or invoke in this installation?
I am hoping that the work gives to viewers/listeners a sense of the desert and the border and that they may then think and research more about this issue.
You are a sound artist, but you clearly have an underlying social conscience at work here. Is there a certain balance you try to strike between your artistic message and your social message? If so, how do you find this balance? Is it difficult?
No matter what message I wish to convey, it is primary for me that the work be strong artistically. Sometimes this balance is difficult to achieve, but I have worked on many such pieces and think that I (and the person I often collaborate with on such works, Mona Higuchi) have worked out some ways to achieve this objective. Rather than preach to the choir, I prefer to let some of the abstractions and forms in a piece speak. I think that is working in this piece.
Lastly, I found your use of bougainvillea as razor wire very clever. How did you come up with that idea? I've read it occurred to you while gardening.
I did arrive at this idea while gardening, but I have also worked for years recording plants and making some other plants into loudspeaker devices. The coil is not one single piece of bougainvillea, but is made of about 50 pieces spliced together. Using the bougainvillea was also a kind of reflexive idea: In Phoenix, many of the immigrant workers do yard work. I thought it would work to construct this kind of natural/unnatural fence from the materials they often work with.
This work actually grew out of performance pieces I had made. The latest iteration of which uses five self-built amplified sound instruments: a compass, a thorny branch, a passport, a computer disk, and a small broom.
One final point is that I hope viewers/listeners get a sense of the sound and materiality of the fences, the plants, the coil, and the desert. Also, when looking at the piece, they might consider that in 2004, some 275 bodies were found in the desert areas of Southeast Yuma. People believe there are many more bodies in this area.