Communication Currents

Communication Currents

How Art Installations on the US-Mexico Border Affected People’s Understanding of the Border

June 30, 2020
Intercultural Communication, Political Communication, Visual Communication

In a new article published in NCA’s Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, Megan Elizabeth Morrissey examines two art installations at the U.S.—Mexico border: Kikito and the Giant Picnic. The art installations were created by French street artist JR. Kikito is a 70-foot rendition of a Mexican child. Based on photos of a real child named Kikito who lives on the Mexican side of the border, the installation depicts a child peering over the border wall at the United States. The Giant Picnic is a table that crosses through the border wall, with a rendition of a large pair of Dreamer’s eyes on top of the table. According to JR’s website, hundreds of guests, including Kikito and their family, gathered and shared a meal at the picnic table on the final day of the installation in 2017. Morrissey argues that the space, place, and materiality of the border and the art that is installed there challenge viewers to consider the border as a place of connection, rather than division.  

Rhetorical scholars investigate how borders are produced and maintained in and through language. This scholarship often examines the ways that borders are used to divide people by constructing national identity in certain ways, defining particular individuals as outsiders, and the implications of such understandings on people’s day-to-day lives. The U.S.—Mexico border is one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world. The construction of the wall along that border and the militarized enforcement of this space not only ensure the physical separation of people from one another, but also contributes to popular misunderstandings of immigrants and immigration. Furthermore, the construction of the wall has changed how communities interact with others across the border. Though scholarship on border rhetorics primarily considers how discourse creates borders and makes sense of them, Morrissey considers how the border, as a material object, can affect and be affected by discourse, arguing that the border is always shifting and being remade. 

In 2017, JR posted pictures of Kikito and the Giant Picnic on Instagram. JR’s Instagram account had about 1.2 million followers at the time, so the photos received wide circulation. Morrissey examined the comments on JR’s posts to see how viewers engaged with the art installations. Seeing the art, Morrissey writes, allowed viewers to reimagine what the border means and reassess their relationship to it in three ways. 

The first category of responses to JR’s posts were those that engaged with the “value of community and human connection over national security.” For example, one photo posted by JR showed two mountain bikers riding in front of the art installation. A commenter remarked, “You really smashed it with this one, really sums up how pointless the proposed wall is and how humanity will overcome it like everything else.” According to Morrissey, this comment draws on the connections among human beings and suggests that humanity’s shared attributes can help us overcome divisions. Similarly, other commenters noted, “We’re all human! The government draws lines,” and “What a beautiful, powerful way to highlight our shared humanity, and the ridiculousness of the artificial border we create between each other.” Morrissey argues that these commentators see the border as a space that is inclusive and challenge the idea of the border as a division. 

Other commenters used religion to draw on similar themes. For example, one commenter wrote, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 19:14) …unless they are Dreamers.” According to Morrissey, this comment simultaneously affirms the spiritual connections among human beings and critiques the Trump administration’s attempt to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration program, reframing the ways the border and the people who cross it can and should be understood. 

The second category of responses included those that engaged with the themes of neighbors and friends. For example, on a short video JR posted, one person commented, “It’s a beautiful reminder to love thy neighbor.” Morrissey argues that JR’s art installation draws together the individuals at the border – border patrol agents and communities of people. In one photo, JR is shown enjoying tea with a border patrol agent through the gaps in the border wall. Likewise, the Giant Picnic literally brought people together at the border wall. In response to a photo of the Giant Picnic, one commenter wrote, “This is exactly what the world needs right now. Breaking bread across man-made borders and building relationships,” even problematic ones, evokes the way that the art installation created a connection at the border by welcoming all people equally as “guests” of the picnic. 

Morrissey argues that JR’s artwork changes the material space of the border, thereby affecting the ways people connect at and to the border. For example, one commenter wrote, “Checked it out yesterday, spoke to a family on the other side. Thank you for this. Connecting people throughout your art. A little boy asked me why he couldn’t cross the fence. ☹I said idk neither can I, I don’t fit lol, then he said, but I do.” According to Morrissey, this comment highlights the conflict between “the border’s current and potential reality.” Overall, Morrissey argues that these commenters recognized that JR’s work alters the material border and the way people experience the symbolic and physical space, transforming some people from “strangers” to “neighbors.” 

The third category of responses were those that reflected on physical, spiritual, and emotional responses to the art and the border. For example, commenters wrote, “I couldn’t hold back tears. Thank you,” “You made me cry,” and “Takes my breath away.” Morrissey argues that these responses show the personal connections that people make with the art installations and the way that the art installations move viewers into different modes of relationalities. 

People who viewed the art installations at the border and on JR’s page report being transformed by them. Morrissey argues that JR’s art uses the physical space of the border to offer a different vision for the border and a way to transform it from a place of division into a place of connection. Morrissey concludes that the art offers an important way to critique and respond to the U.S. government’s rhetoric about the border, American citizenship, and immigration. 

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Megan Elizabeth Morrissey (2019): Border matters: A new materialist critique of installation art on the U.S.–Mexico border, Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, DOI: 10.1080/17513057.2019.1658798

About the author (s)

Megan Elizabeth Morrissey

University of North Texas

Associate Professor of Rhetoric, Department of Communication Studies, Affiliated faculty in: Women’s and Gender Studies, LGBTQ Studies, and the Latina/o and Mexican American Studies programs

Megan Elizabeth Morrissey