On the morning of July 28, 2019, the architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello drove up to an 18-foot-tall barrier of rusted slats that cuts through the desert between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, marking the US-Mexico border. There, just about five miles from the nearest checkpoint, they installed Teeter-Totter Wall: three pink seesaws that extend to both sides of the wall. They publicized their intervention with an Instagram post that included a drone-shot video of smiling children playing on the seesaws.
The project received fawning coverage from news outlets all over the world. The original Instagram post has been liked over 220,000 times, and the work has been praised as a gesture of resilience and ingenuity in the face of seemingly unsurmountable divisions. The architects included a brief statement with their post: “Children and adults were connected in meaningful ways on both sides, with the recognition that the actions that take place on one side have a direct consequence on the other side.” This week, the Design Museum in London awarded Teeter-Totter Wall the Beazley Design of the Year, one of the design world’s most prestigious prizes. Beazleys are given to projects and products that contain “powerful messages of change,” says Design Museum director Tim Marlow. This year’s winners are featured in an exhibition at the museum, which is currently accessible online only.
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Rael and San Fratello have been designing interventions for the border since the early 2000s, though this is the first one they’ve implemented. Rael, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, published a book in 2017 called Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the US-Mexico Boundary, which contains various “counterproposals” for the wall, including a wall of giant cacti and a wall whose slats are xylophone bars.
The duo’s video of Teeter-Totter Wall seems engineered to go viral. With its upbeat message, bright palette, and easy-to-grasp concept, it’s irresistible to liberal centrist do-gooders. Importantly, it involves adorable children with missing baby teeth smiling at the camera. That cuteness makes it great for social media. But these kids are too young to understand the significance of the border fence, or at least its more abstract function as something more than a metal divider. Their innocence makes our guilt more acute, because as adults in a democracy we have the means to tear the fence down, but we’re too lazy or too inept. Ultimately, the conceit of this project is that we’re powerless to do anything meaningful about the way this country treats migrants. If we could effect substantial change, why would we content ourselves with something so purely symbolic as this?
Teeter-Totter Wall is tragedy porn masquerading as protest art. It elicits an immediate, hot-blooded response from the viewer, yet invites no further reflection. Tragedy porn gestures at the mere existence of atrocity, as if bearing witness were an ethical imperative in itself. Viewers who encounter it on social media makes a very sad face and say, “Yes it’s terrible isn’t it? Really tragic.” They tacitly acknowledge their own complicity, their own weakness and selfishness for not intervening in this atrocity, and through this admission of guilt they are absolved. Having achieved cathartic release by sharing the video, they go about their day again.
By focusing on the wall as the site where the violent effects of US immigration policy are felt, Rael and San Fratello’s project tells a misleadingly selective version of the story. In reality, that violence extends to the border with Chiapas and Guatemala, where refugees coming from Central America are being held by the Mexican National Guard. It extends to US sanctuary cities like Chicago and New York, where agents from the Border Patrol Tactical Unit have assisted ICE in making immigration arrests.
The violence is often manifest in tedious bureaucratic experiences. Rarely does it take the form of anything as action-packed as physically jumping a wall. But Trump assigned outsize importance to the wall because it riled up voters who don’t understand how immigration works. This bit of political theater was so effective that some of his opponents bought it, too.
With its spectacle of sentimentality, Teeter-Totter Wall fails to provide any insight about who might be responsible for this tragedy, who benefits from it, and how we got here as a country. As John Berger once wrote in an essay on war photography, these types of artistic gestures “accuse nobody and everybody.” They provide “evidence of the general human condition,” rather than identifying causes. That’s what makes Teeter-Totter Wall so shareable on social media: nobody, not even the vigilantes patrolling the desert looking for migrants to murder, could find it controversial.
Judging by the comments below the original Instagram post, the main takeaway among viewers is that children deserve to play together. Who’s going to disagree with that? Ironically, this vague positivity depoliticizes a hot-button subject. Certainly not all the people who left Instagram comments about how walls are evil are ready to vote for a presidential candidate who would reinvent, or even reform, this country’s immigration policies. But they will decry the cruelty and unnaturalness of the scenario depicted here.
The failure of Teeter-Totter Wall, then, is twofold: it offers a superficial assessment of the situation and elicits a superficial reaction from its viewers. Circulated in the form of perfectly snackable online content, it provides viewers a path to easy armchair activism in the form of the Facebook “share” button. The public is willing to overlook the glaring mediocrity and superficiality of the work because it functions like a steam valve for their feelings of guilt and complicity. If they stopped for a moment to ask what the work is saying, how it makes them feel, or what it accomplishes, they would realize there’s really no there there.
The Design Museum and the prize’s sponsor, the global insurance company Beazley, get to share the project’s halo of benevolence by furnishing it with their top award. But if their goal was to highlight designs that carry “powerful messages of change,” then they failed spectacularly, by picking a project that simply reinforces the status quo—or more specifically, decorates it with three pink seesaws. What appears to be a cute, uplifting message is actually terrifyingly cynical: there’s nothing we can do. Rather than imagine a world with no border wall, these architects can only imagine a fun wall. That’s what happens when we mistake good intentions for good art. Not only do we encourage mediocrity—we give up hope.