A three billion dollar, 650 mile-long border wall between Mexico and the U.S. is not only a political landscape, but a canvas.
The art takes the form of performance or photographs, but it represents a story, particularly for UNC assistant professor of creative nonfiction Stephanie Griest.
“I write about what its like to live within such proximity to an international borderline — that it changes your psyche,” she said.
Griest has focused on social justice issues on both sides of the border — issues from immigration to drug trade — and is currently focusing on artistic representations in collaboration with assistant professor in women's and gender studies Susan Harbage Page.
"Since 2007, I’ve committed to going (to Mexico) every year. I walk the border — which is the Rio Grande there — and I canoe and I ride bikes and I photograph all of the objects that people leave behind,” Harbage Page said. “They tell really powerful stories about people who are risking their lives for a better future in the United States."
The objects are items lost in the chaos of crossing or, more typically, items that Border Patrol perceives as dangerous and left behind.
Harbage Page has collected around 800 items left behind, photographs them and puts them into what she refers to as an anti-archive.
"It’s a history that isn’t put together by the state or nation, it’s looking at it from the perspective of what’s taking place on our border,” she said.
Harbage Page recently received a Carolina Women’s Center Scholar Grant to translate her findings into a book. As Griest worked with her last December, she was inspired.
“I was really intrigued by what she does because I also work on border issues,” said Griest. “I accompanied her and that’s what gave me the idea to write about other artists and what they can make in response to the wall.”
Today, Griest will read a selection from her upcoming book as part of UNC's Work-in-Progress series. The event will chronicle the pair's travels to the border along with a slideshow of artists Griest has interviewed whose artistic work ties in with the wall.
“Hopefully art can raise the consciousness that this is actually happening,” Griest said. “Border walls have a history of serving as public art spaces. The Berlin Wall was an art gallery for a lot of its history on the West side.”
The book outlines some of the parallels between the U.S. and Mexico border wall and other borders, hoping to spread some awareness about what happening on our borders.
“There’s no awareness on this whatsoever,” Griest said. “Right now we’re celebrating the fact that the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago, but are people aware that we’re currently in the process of erecting one in our own country?”
The event Wednesday will be packed with information but will also serve literary interests that are sure to entertain those with interests in nonfiction writing, social issues or immersive journalism.
“She is very much the narrator of the story, but she’s really immersing herself in these communities to tell these stories,” said Daisy Hernandez current Kenan Visiting Writer and colleague to Griest.
“It’s a really great opportunity for students and other colleges to see work of someone who is working at nexus of journalism and social criticism.”
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