Limpias, or spiritual cleanses, are very popular in Mexico and throughout Latin America. From before the European colonization of the Americas to present day, people with financial problems, who have been left by lovers, or who have lost their jobs have often gone to the local shaman to be cured of their “bad energy.” The limpia ceremony involves playing indigenous instruments and a very particular, studied combination of gestural movements around the affected subject.
My limpia is inspired by the ceremonial practices of the Seri indigenous people of northern Mexico and the Lakota drumming traditions of the American plains. The instruments used for my limpia include a jug shaker (Agitanque), a piñata covered in Border Patrol gun shells (Piñata de cartuchos), and the Zapatello, based on Leonardo da Vinci’s invention known as the Martello, a mechanized hammer.
This metal piñata was inspired by two objects: the West African instrument shekeré—a gourd covered in a net of beads or seashells—and a soccer ball stranded on the U.S. side of the border. Instead of beads, colorful shotgun shell casings found on a Border Patrol shooting range adorn its surface.
In his trips to the border, Richard kept finding mysterious effigies dressed in immigrants’ discarded clothing. Their arms are extended as in ecstasy or celebration. Perhaps, as animals do, they are trying to scare their predators by pretending to be bigger.
Whether they are scarecrows or signals in the road, these effigies were the inspiration for this string instrument, built out of crossed pieces of hollow wood—the resonant box for two rows of strings situated across its “chest.” The two larger strings at the top are used to create a deep, fundamental tone that defines a tonal center, while the thinner strings in the chest vibrate in sympathy with a second row of strings. Meanwhile in the background, the Zapatófono, an immigrant shoe that is rubbed against gravel, produces the whooshing sound of the invisible migrant, walking through the night.
“Cockroaches” is a derogatory term commonly used by anti-immigrant groups to refer to immigrants. This piece of music uses the sonic texture of toy cucarachas rumbling in the upper board of the Huesocordio, a zither with bone bridges based on the Japanese koto. This drone opens a musical dialogue between a percussive riff, agile string pizzicatos, and the cry of carefully tuned bottles found along the border.
Based on Richard’s photograph, this soundscape involves mountains made of resonating hollow wood reminiscent of the Aztec percussion instrument teponaztli. The rusted nails, suggestive of the Border Wall, can be plucked or stroked, and the valley floor is covered with the pages of a Bible inscribed to a girl, found on the Texas border.
A series of my graphic scores titled the Partituras estación de agua (Water Station Scores) are printed directly onto a group of weathered flags found at the border. These discarded flags were donated to the project by the citizen-run humanitarian organization Water Station, which uses them to indicate the presence of water tanks placed in the California desert.
This particular flag contains the score for a section of the second movement of my piece “Voces del Desierto,” indicating a series of sonic actions to be performed in a given amount of time.
According to a Pew Research Center analysis of previously unreleased government data, in the past several years there has been a huge increase in unaccompanied children aged twelve and under trying to cross the U.S.–Mexico border. Using a Micro Orchestra that includes tiny objects left behind by children and the Erjumex (a string instrument based on the Chinese single-stringed instrument called an erhu, using discarded Jumex—a popular Mexican fruit juice—cans as resonators), this piece amplifies their unheard voices in a carefully built, abstract symphony that only children can understand.
Border Cantos presents a unique collaboration between photographer Richard Misrach and composer Guillermo Galindo. Misrach has been photographing the two-thousand-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico since 2004, with increased focus starting in 2009—resulting in a distinct melding of the artist as documentarian and interpreter. The latest installation in Misrach’s ongoing Desert Cantos series, this project includes eight suites of photographs—some made with a large-format camera and others that have been captured with an iPhone. Misrach and Galindo have worked together to create pieces that both report on and transform the artifacts of migration: water bottles, clothing, backpacks, Border Patrol “drag tires,” spent shotgun shells, ladders, and sections of the Border Wall itself, which Galindo then fashions into instruments to be performed as unique sound-generating devices; video clips of those performances can be seen on this site. He also imagines graphic musical scores, many of which use Misrach’s photographs as points of departure.
Richard Misrach (born in Los Angeles, 1949) is one of the most influential photographers of his generation, well-known for his ongoing project Desert Cantos. His work is held by major institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. He is the recipient of four National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Kulturpreis for Lifetime Achievement in Photography. His other books with Aperture include Violent Legacies (1992), On the Beach (2007), Destroy This Memory (2010), Petrochemical America (with Kate Orff, 2012), Golden Gate (2012), and The Mysterious Opacity of Other Beings (2015). He is represented by Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; Mark Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles; and Pace/MacGill, New York.
Guillermo Galindo (born in Mexico City) is an experimental composer. His interpretations of concepts such as musical form, time perception, music notation, sonic archetypes, and sound-generating devices span a wide spectrum of artistic works performed and shown at major festivals, concert halls, and art exhibitions throughout the United States, Latin America, Europe, and Asia. His orchestral composition includes two symphonies: Ome Acatl, premiered in Mexico City by the Orquesta Filarmónica de la UNAM (OFUNAM, 1997), and Trade Routes (2006), commissioned and premiered by the Oakland East Bay Symphony orchestra and chorus. His operas include two major works: Califas 2000, with text and performance by MacArthur Fellow Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and Decreation/Fight Cherries, with text by MacArthur Fellow poet Anne Carson.
Josh Kun contributes an introduction and epilogue to the Border Cantos book. He is the author of Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (2005), winner of a 2006 American Book Award, and his criticism has been published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, American Prospect, Los Angeles Magazine, and LA Weekly. Kun is professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.
Photographs and text by Richard Misrach
Instruments, sound installations, scores, and text by Guillermo Galindo
Introduction and epilogue by Josh Kun
In her influential 1979 essay, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” art critic Rosalind Krauss noted a new school of American artists making large-scale sculpture that differed from traditional monuments because they were not commemorative or historical; they were the monument’s “negative condition.” Decades later, the Border Wall has truly become the monument’s “negative condition” but in moral and ethical terms, a statue of un-liberty that funnels the tired into desert bottlenecks and tracks the poor through gulches. It is a monument to the aesthetic and fiscal reaches of political theater, and a thuggish mirror of national and cultural phobias—to the limits, not the depths, of the democratic imagination.
The photographs of Misrach help us understand this. The musical instruments of Galindo help us hear it. When experienced together, however, they have the potential to do something else: to activate our own visions and our own scores for the American monuments that might still be possible to build.
Or tear down.
—Josh Kun, from the introduction to Border Cantos
Published by Aperture, April 2016
13 ¼ x 10 ½ in. (33.6 x 27.3 cm); 274 pages, including gatefolds; 257 four-color images; hardcover; ISBN 978-1-59711-289-5
Designed by Masumi Shibata
The publication of Border Cantos was made possible, in part, with generous support from Andrew Brown and Kristen Wolfe, Bruce and Sharyn Charnas, and Lannan Foundation.
San Jose Museum of Art, California, February 26–July 31, 2016
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, September 14–December 1, 2016
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, February 18–April 24, 2017