“The Space between Sounds”

Q&A with Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo

Richard Misrach is among the most highly regarded American photographers of his generation. Guillermo Galindo is a renowned experimental composer whose work pushes beyond the conventional boundaries of music. Together, they forged a unique partnership for the exhibition Border Cantos—artist as documentarian, photographing and collecting lost items of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border; and composer as sonic interpreter, crafting sound-generating devices from the gathered items and giving them musical voices. The two artists kindly fielded a few questions about the exhibition they co-organized.

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Richard Misrach, Wall (post and wire mesh), Douglas, Arizona, 2014, inkjet print, © Richard Misrach, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, LA

Richard, I imagine you watching some of Guillermo’s music videos and thinking, “I need to get in touch with this guy.” How did this collaborative concept take shape? In 2011, I participated in a pop-up magazine event consisting of a dozen artists, writers, and musicians who were invited to make short presentations of new work on stage before a crowd of 3,000 people. Guillermo and the writer Daniel Alarcon contributed a musical composition by Guillermo made from objects he had recovered from the Texas/Mexico border. I was making an unrelated presentation, but a few years earlier on the California/Mexico border had discovered human effigies dressed in discarded migrant clothing and had photographed them. I was stunned by the similarities of our projects and subsequently invited Guillermo and Daniel to my studio, where I had gathered large-scale prints of my effigy images. We knew next to nothing of each other’s work, but I invited them to collaborate. Eventually, Daniel had to drop out due to other commitments, but Guillermo and I jumped in and never looked back.

Items discarded, lost, and forgotten by people trying to cross into a more promising land. What compelled you to photograph such things? One sees clothing, backpacks, religious items, water bottles, and so forth all along the border. These objects are often referred to as trash, but they are not trash. As Guillermo points out, these items embody, and are the testimony of, the long dangerous travails of those who dared to make the passage.

As Guillermo was unable to travel to the border because of work and family obligations, and I was there a lot, I took on not only photographing but gathering items. That act of working together--of inspiring each other and of helping each other--became a potent symbol of the whole project. We were not only making photographs and music in response to the divide, but our collaborative process represents an alternative model—bridging, not walling up the border.

It’s easy to think, These images are from far away and have nothing to do with me. Are there universal implications for the human condition in these photographs? Who in America is not a descendant of immigrants? Who in America does not interact daily with those who are from other cultures and nations? The border presents complex, difficult issues that will challenge America's national sovereignty for decades to come. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America, whether here legally or illegally, are a vital part of our workforce, daily lives, and culture.

The wall appears in most of your images in this series. In some, it seems that it would take little more than a child’s ability to scramble over sections. Did you move back and forth between countries while you worked? The wall is an empty political symbol. The cliché is, build a 12-foot wall, and they will build a 13-foot ladder. There is a video online of two teenage girls climbing the wall in under eighteen seconds on their first attempt without the aid of a ladder! People go over, around, and even under it. The current walls cost $4-12 million a mile to construct. [Donald] Trump's proposal to add 1,000 miles of new wall, mostly through Texas, is now estimated to cost $25 billion. That taxpayer money would be better spent fighting terrorism and improving education and healthcare. And yes, there are areas where the border wall just ends and I was able to walk around and photograph from the other side.

The U.S.-Mexico border is highly militarized and increasingly monitored by drones. Did working with the knowledge you were being watched influence your creative approach or the images you made? I was always pretty self-conscious photographing. Often I would get to a remote area via Border Patrol access roads. I would inevitably set off ground sensors, but it would often be hours before the BP showed up. Usually, they were pretty civil, sometimes showing me pictures on their iPhones or suggesting where I might get a better shot. Once a woman agent with a large rifle came out of nowhere to stand sentry while I worked, worried that I might be vulnerable to nearby cartel activity. Other times, they could be hostile, check my car and camera bag for heroin, threaten that the cartel would steal my camera, etc.

In the end, however—perhaps because I have been photographing in the American west for over 40 years—I just worked in the painstaking way I always have, mostly with a camera on a tripod. At times, I felt the need to work fast, and I found that my iPhone made a huge difference. Probably a third of the images in the book and many in the exhibit were made with an iPhone, among them images in the 32-foot-long artifact grid and the target-practice shots.

It must have been at times intensely emotional photographing these subjects. Is there a particular moment that stands out in your memory? In Hidalgo County in 2014 I photographed fields of mostly children's items. These were undoubtedly left behind by some of the 52,000 unaccompanied children from Central America, which got a lot of media attention. But really, I have to shut off my emotions while I’m working. For me, the emotional impact usually hits after I am home, going through the pictures.

How do you describe Guillermo’s music? I will paraphrase Guillermo, who has said that conventional instruments allow the musician to impose their will on them. But the instruments he makes from migrant shoes and water bottles or Border Patrol shotgun shells dictate the sound and play the musician, so to speak. The sounds hardly resemble conventional music. On the one hand, they perhaps evoke the primal notion of how and where music first evolved, and on the other, they suggest the struggle and suffering of the people trying to cross the border.

Do you have a favorite work by him in this exhibition? Why? I think the 4 hour and 20 minute Sonic Border is the most powerful work in the whole exhibit. It is played on eight instruments fabricated from migrant artifacts and border patrol objects. Each instrument has a speaker next to it, through which its recorded sounds are played. The long piece is comprised of a series of vignettes of sounds, sometimes a single instrument, sometimes a symphony of all eight at once. The sound can be grating and harsh or lyrical and harmonious. Obviously the normal visitor can't be expected to stay for the full piece—part of the challenge to the listener is to consider the impossible duration—but I encourage people to stay for a while. The longer they stay the more rewarding the experience. The remarkable sounds coaxed from these instruments uncannily and poignantly evoke the border passage.

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Guillermo Galindo, Efigie, 2014, immigrant clothing, wood axis, strings, courtesy the artist

When—and how—did you begin creating musical instruments from found objects, Guillermo? My first instrument was an electro-mechanical device called MAIZ (corn) that I made in 2006, and it was built with personal objects from my daily life. It was then that I started calling my instruments “cyber-totemic sonic devices.” In 2011, I came up with the idea of using immigrants’ personal items instead of my own.

You use the term “visual music.” How do you define it? There are two intersecting answers to this question: By visual music I mean music that either evokes particular images, or that has a particular connection with a universe or closely related ideas.

My conception of “visual music” comes from what we call “program music,” which is the idea that music can transmit extra musical narratives by inviting the audience to associate the sounds or the mood of a certain composition with a set of moods, circumstances, or even a specific set of images or a story through memory and collective cultural associations. Romantic composers such as Hector Berlioz, Richard Strauss, and, later, Alexander Scriabin, Modest Mussorgsky, and Claude Debussy experimented with the idea of program music. They wrote program music to evoke the feel and sublime message of particular stories, paintings, or poems. Later, program music morphed into what we know today as “film music.”

My other idea of visual music comes from music notation or the translations of otherwise “abstract symbols” in a page into actual music. Traditional Western music notation has evolved to the point that, in some cases, the performer reading and translating a musical score must navigate the limits between traditional music code and the interpretation of concepts through visual elements purposely placed in different parts of the page. Many twentieth- and twenty-first-century scores by authors such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Earle Brown, and Brian Eno use visual language similar to the one that painting, photography, and other visual arts use to convey their message.

You are a Mexican-born U.S. citizen, so you have the unique perspective of being from both sides of the border. How did this influence your creative approach for this project? There is a special “there is not here, here” moment when that “foreign” country where you have lived for many years finally becomes your home. All of a sudden, we find ourselves in the middle of the intersection, trapped between two countries. We are finally able to see both their similarities and their contradictions. Richard and I found that neutral zone, a place with no walls where the exchange of ideas and dialogue can flow back and forth.

You built the sonic devices in this show. How did the structure of conventional instruments inform your creations? Human beings have been creating instruments for hundreds of thousands of years. There is extremely valuable information about musical instruments that we have gathered regarding acoustics, purpose, design, modes of playing, and quality of sound. My instrument building came from the knowledge and valuable concepts of many cultures.

You can almost hear the vast emptiness in some of Richard’s images. What part does silence play in your compositions? Silence is the essence of emptiness, the negative space that defines the figure in the visual arts. In Richard’s photographs, this is the landscape where living things exist or existed. In the case of music, silence is the empty space where sounds will soon be. Silence underlines the unsaid and the unknown. Both in music and in speech, silence is the space between sounds, the necessary pause to stop and reflect. Richard’s photographs provide the space to be filled with sound and to amplify their silence.

You recreated an effigy for the exhibition, one of several scarecrows in emigrant’s clothing that Richard found in an isolated canyon along the border with California. What do you suppose these figures are meant to symbolize or do? Neither Richard nor I know exactly what these figures symbolize. Perhaps it is better to leave it that way. But the position of the arms in these figures reminds me of the position one adopts when being searched. They also remind me of that technique one uses when confronting a dangerous animal in which one raises the arms in order to seem bigger.

How did the unknown experiences of those who lost these items, the “invisible victims of migration” you have called them, figure into your compositions and constructions? Each object tells an imaginary story. My instrument fabrication is something between forensic archeology and animistic spirituality. Each object is evidence of presence. Each instrument tells the story of the person it belonged to.

How do you characterize Richard’s photographs? For me, Richard’s photographs are huge symphonic landscapes of form, texture, and light. They entail a unique beauty that provides a comfortable space for environmental awareness and socio-political dialogue.

Do you have a favorite image by him in this exhibition? Why? There are several: I like the photograph Wall, East of Nogales, Arizona, where the undulating wall appears and disappears behind the hills as incomplete melodic contours. I was inspired by the desolation of his photograph Agua #16, Carrizo Creek, California for my composition “Skeletal Remains” and the score I call “lone tank.” I also chose his image (post and wire mesh fence) Douglas, Arizona to be in the Sonic Border room of the exhibit because it has this feeling of an uncertain, endless horizon in which anything can happen. The movement of the photograph drives us into that foggy place where everything tends to disappear.