1,785 was one of seven new large-scale installations that were part of my exhibit, Virga: Beneath the Sierra sin Agua at Coconino Center for the Art in Flagstaff, Arizona. Each of these installations bound together the history of Arizona with ecological, cultural and social-political realities that are topical today.
In 1994, the federal government launched Operation Gatekeeper in an attempt to stem the tide of illegal immigrants by “restoring integrity and safety” to the U.S./Mexico border. By advocating “prevention through deterrence” and using the “geography as an ally,” the policy purposely funneled migrants into more extreme and dangerous landscapes. It eventually led to the deaths of thousands of migrants within the southern desert of Arizona, deaths that continue today.
The preparation for 1,785 had been anything but miraculous. On February 14, 2022, during one of my humanitarian trips to the border, I visited with a group of refugees seeking asylum at a migrant shelter in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. I asked a Guatemalan mother how she had travelled to northern Mexico. She shared with me how she and 250 other refugees had stood locked inside two darkened tractor trailers for eighteen hours in the cold and heat.
On March 9, 2022, I met the photographer Tom Kiefer when I stopped in the border town of Ajo and visited the gallery where his work is exhibited. Tom asked for my assistance in hanging one of the photographs in his studio, and I agreed to help. The image depicted fifteen black water bottles wrapped in cloth. I told Tom that I had wanted to include an installation using a large number of these bottles in my upcoming exhibition, but I didn’t have enough in my own collection. He told me to follow him and led me to a closet where he had stored away 1750 black water bottles.
During the eleven years Tom worked as a janitor at the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol processing facility outside Why, Arizona, he handled hundreds of water bottles carried by migrants and then confiscated by Border Patrol officials. Instead of throwing them out or recycling them as part of his job, Tom started collecting them.
While designing this installation, I recalled the Guatemalan mother and her story she had shared. I learned that the inside footprint of a tractor trailer is 52.5 feet long by 8.5 feet wide, or 105 water bottles long by 17 water bottles wide: 1785 water bottles. Tom had 1750 in his collection. I went to my studio to count the number I had as part of my collection: I had 35. In my installation, these bottles would stand as individual migrant bodies, dehumanized with cruelty by our racist and genocidal migration policies.
Sharing 1,785 with the public became a grave and urgent reality. On June 27, 2022, when 64 migrants (53 of them dead) were found inside a tractor trailer in Texas.