Listening to the Border: “’2487’: Giving Voice in Diaspora” and the Sound Art of Luz María Sánchez

"Caution, Immigrants." Image taken from phoenixnewtimes.com.

Statistics of death can startle a reader. As tidy yet powerful numeric representations statistics are often used as tools of persuasion, cited routinely by journalists and politicians alike to strengthen or belittle a political objective. According to professors from Wharton’s School of Business, statistics are also gaining in importance as our society attempts “to make sense of an increasingly large and complex barrage of information.”  Many have argued, quite provocatively, of the gendered and racialized nature of statistics as objective, “hard,” facts.  In “2487: Giving Voice in Diaspora,” the artist Luz María Sánchez uses sound-based art to trouble a statistic brought on by institutional violence on the U.S./Mexico border.

In 2006 Luz María Sánchez used a lone statistic from 2004 – 2487, the number of bodies found dead throughout the border region of the U.S. and Mexico – to create a sound-based art installation for the San Antonio Artpace (now available as an online exhibit). The museum invited audiences to sit in sparsely furnished rooms with strategically placed speakers in order to experience the exhibition. The online access, however; makes certain the exhibit travels beyond the geographical boundaries of Texas, bellowing from the private devices of laptops. Seemingly simple, the crux of the project involves the artist stating each of the 2487 names. Its complexity, as mentioned below, lies in the actual organization of the names. The voice of Luz María Sánchez within this artistic expression reminds us, as Brandon LaBelle states, that sound “leaves a body and enters others” and is never merely a “private affair.”  The use of sound forces spectators to listen closely to a statistic and in doing so, directs attention towards the parts of the sum.

The topic of immigration has become a staple of news network channels. Its somewhat mundane presence has served to lump immigrants together into one sound bite: “them” sapping social services; “them” taking away our jobs; or “them” having those anchor babies. The reporting of immigrants as a block serves to dehumanize and delegitimize intentions of family reunification held by many immigrants. Indirectly, “2487” tackles the verbal “them” head on.

Buried within discussions of immigration policy and arguments for increased border enforcement on the U.S./Mexico border are the statistics of those who have died crossing the treacherous dry desert. A series of shifts in immigration policy and increasingly anti-immigrant public sentiment have produced record setting budgets that intensified efforts to beef up border control.  The once urban points of crossing in Tijuana or Juarez are now heavily discouraged; the visual yellow and black warning of a family running an insignia of those times.  Many immigrants take greater risks as they walk through the Sonoran desert in southern Arizona, now considered the busiest gateway for immigrants where temperatures easily mount well into the 100s.

Visualization of the score to "2487."

Within 2487, it is not merely the statistic that serves to astound, it’s the ingenuous yet powerful act of listening to the full name of each body that can engulf the listener.

José Salomon López
Francisco Torres Santiago
Leticia Torres Solis
Adolfo Sánchez
Enrique Soto Pacheco
Guadalupe Valdez Sandoval
Antonio Sánchez Morales
Juan Antonio Sánchez Reyes
Patricia Trinidad

Narrated by the artist herself, each name is voiced individually with a dignified, strong tenor. The text itself – the names – mark this sound piece as solemn.  It’s as if one is listening to an obituary read out loud, a roll call with no response, or – a tradition many Latinos identify with – a rosary in honor of the dead. Despite studies that explain a Latina’s public wail as a sign of pain and grief, this piece in its parallel focus of honoring the dead stands out as the artist’s female voice never quivers, trembles, or abandons its strength. In naming each person, listeners may not necessarily focus on their death – represented numerically in 2487 – but may also find themselves imagining their risk as they hear each name. Under the website’s database tab, lies a detailed chart of each name, the location of their body, presumable age, known origin, and the cause of death. Many of the columns are listed with a tag of “unknown” or left blank except for their names.

It’s a forced, almost-awkward, tension-laden, and heavy listening experience. Sánchez makes certain that any semblance of passive listening is disrupted, disturbed, and therefore nearly impossible since the names voiced do not follow a pattern or rhythm. The eight piece sound compilation offers no sense of monotony since it is played continuously and at random. Pauses are sometimes short, long, pensive, and altogether distressing. Names are voiced either in isolation or in an overlapping manner, said to model the “organic patterns of migration itself”; an audible gesture towards the word “diaspora” itself. Because of the deliberate variation of the names, the listener can make out the names of some yet not detect the names of others.

Hundred of crosses are placed on the border wall in Nogales, Mexico to draw attention to the migrants who have died crossing into the United States. Image from rachelmetea.com.

Even as Sánchez gives voice and dignity to a statistic based on dead bodies, the topic of death certainly is not easy to translate. Regina Marchi’s “Day of the Dead in the USA” argues that the public commemoration of death by Latino communities has slowly begun to transform American Culture’s views of death. According to Marchi, Americans tend to be “removed from death” or lack positive modes of relating to those deceased. A popular case in point is the plethora of euphemisms used to characterized death: moved on, no longer with us, watching over us now, passed away.  Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead (on November 1) has become a multicultural method of publically viewing and even embodying death as different communities construct altars, dress as the dead, and openly pay tribute to those who have died. The use of art galleries, the mass media, and community centers have become public venues for these celebrations since their inception by Chicano artists in 1972.

Despite, or (perhaps more precisely) because, honoring the dead is so frequently a visual custom these sonic remembrances are that much more significant. A politicized eulogy for immigrants who have died while crossing the border merits the weight of listening. The 2487 statistic encompasses two thousand and eighty seven bodies and each, according to Luz María Sánchez, had a name that deserves our listening attention.

Dolores Inés Casillas

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