The Undocumented Migration Project: remembering migrant deaths through a living art project

The Undocumented Migration Project has created a series of participatory art exhibits to be hosted across the nation to raise awareness about migrant deaths on the U.S. – Mexico border called Hostile Terrain 94.

Lisa Meierotto, an assistant professor in the School of Public Service’s Global Studies Program, said that the Undocumented Migration Project had initially set to show the art exhibit to 500 universities worldwide, but because of the coronavirus outbreak, many universities had to postpone.

[Photo of the almost finished Undocumented Migration Project installation]
Photo courtesy of Tessa Hurley

Fortunately, the Undocumented Migration Project decided to hang the fascinating art exhibit at Boise State’s Student Union Building (SUB) and in places such as New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, Miami, San Pedro Sula in Honduras, Mexico City, Lampedusa in Italy and San Salvador in El Salvador.

The art exhibit is a 16 to 20 foot long map of the Arizona and Mexico border. 3,200 handwritten toe tags filled with identifying information represent the locations of recovered bodies of people who died crossing the border at the Sonoran Desert between the mid-1990s and 2019. 

Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner and Humane Borders, Inc. provided information about the locations of the remains to geolocate it by using the toe tags. These toe tags are color-coded: orange tags represent the 1,042 unidentified bodies and manila for 2,158 recognized bodies. 

According to Meierotto, the first time she saw the art exhibit was at a conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. What stood out to her the most was the effect it had on passers-by.

“People at the conference were walking past it, and I just stopped and observed for a while,” Meierotto said. “People just became quiet and thoughtful, and were able to connect through it. This art exhibit is a human rights issue that many people aren’t aware of.” 

Meierotto, who recently became the interim director of Boise State’s Certificate in Human Rights Program, said that the art exhibit aims to raise global awareness and understand that this problem exists and is still happening today.

“It is a living project. There is a value in seeing it in progress and seeing it again when it is completed,” Meierotto said. “It understands the process and dedication of the students have had in completing this project.”

Meierotto also mentioned that everyone in the Boise State community is welcomed to visit the installation which is currently in progress. The Hostile Terrain 94 will be in the SUB until Nov. 13.

[Photo of students AJ Gravel and Grady Graham and faculty member Angie Hurley installing the border decal and grid squares]
Photo courtesy of Tessa Hurley

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the organization changed how the interaction of the visitors and the exhibit would go. 

Tessa Hurley, a senior global studies major and the exhibit’s project manager, and Meierotto, participated in restructuring the art exhibit. They initially planned that the visitors would pin the tags on the wall.

This year, however, packets of toe tags will instead be given to students, people and organizations in the community to write down the people who died, which will then be sent back to the organization. Meierotto’s students from the Global Migration and the Environment class are also helping them install the piece. 

According to Hurley, Hostile Terrain 94 is meant to be “raw and real, and it’s an art exhibit made up of 3,200 toe tags. It sounds like a lot, but you cannot really imagine that until you see the 3,200 tags on the wall.”

Boise State’s Art Curator and Collections Manager Fonda Portales appreciates the art exhibit because it suits social practice. 

“This isn’t just an object that is hanging on the wall, people come to look at it, and then they go away,” Portales said. “The art project begins with the founders, organizers, students who are filling out the toe tags and continues with those who are hanging it on the wall.” 

According to Portales, as they walk through this process, it begins to sync into their consciousness that this is affecting real people.

Portales also said that when people view exhibits like this, questions about political views would come up. 

“Regardless of political beliefs, there are people affected who have families and desires,” Portales said. “The purpose of an installation like this is to make the viewers remember that there are living human beings involved.”

The map will include an explanatory wall text to describe the project. To supplement the map, an augmented reality (AR) experience can be accessible for free, using a phone application.
There are still many ways for students to learn and engage in the Hostile Terrain Project even after the art exhibit comes down. To learn more about this, visit the Hostile Terrain website or follow their official Instagram account.

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