If These Walls Could Talk: Ian Volner’s The Great Great Wall

Jacoba Urist

Photography by Eva Calon

International Boundary Marker No.1. Photo by Ian Volner.

During his fractious campaign, Donald Trump promised to build “a great, great wall” on America’s border with Mexico—which soon became as much metaphorical brinkmanship as tangible symbolism, with eight design prototype finalists erected in 2017 not far from San Diego. Four were made of concrete, four of other materials. To the aesthetically minded, the architectural models, perhaps, can’t help but harken back to the site-specific installations of the 20th century’s greatest minimalist and land artists. At the same time, some are quite wary of considering them as aesthetic objects, charging that it’s irresponsible to visually contextualize the mockups at all. Anti-wall resistance art has been fraught with similar complexity.

Author Ian Volner in New York, 2019.

Yet this week, two California design professors delighted much of the art world when they shared a video to Instagram of their temporary installation—the Teetertotter Wall, a literal reminder of the direct impact that one side of a border has on the other. Conceived in 2009, long before plans for the “great, great wall”, though only realized this summer, Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello built a set of brightpink seesaws through thefence slats  between El Paso and Juarez, so that US and Mexican children could play together—however fleetingly—despite the barrier separating them.

We are hardly the first culture to embrace the myth of a wall, whether in biblical Jericho, China, Berlin or the modern-day West Bank. And it is likely we are notthe last. In his book The Great Great Wall: Along the Borders of History from China to Mexico, Volner undertakes a personal, global odyssey, crossing time and space to visit the walls that mankind has raised over millennia, starting with the ancient Israelites and the invention of difference. The underpinning of his research—why do we build walls and what do they reveal about us?—feels ever more prescient with each day.

What inspired you to tackle the significance of walls from biblical times to the present? I had the notion of doing some kind of reporting about what was going on at the border from almost the moment that the president declared his candidacy. I was hardly the only person to arrive at the conclusion that you could tackle this subject of the border barrier from a historical perspective. The idea seems to have been at large in the universe. There have been books prior to the advent of our current political moment that dealt with the topic, as much as six or seven years ago, when there didn’t appear to be any immediate likelihood that the United States and our entire political system would become riveted around this one subject.

What are some of the questions you wanted to investigate then? There are certain preconceptions among those who are opposed to the idea of walls in the abstract, about what it is they do and how they work culturally: that they reinforce a sense of difference; that they’re the product of a certain kind of paranoia. In the beginning, I guess I came with a lot of those assumptions too. But the questions I wanted to ask were intended to reopen topics and maybe perform some kind of reverse dialectic on them—and I could. I got lucky, because with the first chapter about Jericho that’s exactly how it panned out. The wall of Jericho wasn’t created to articulate a difference. It invented one.

The Teetertotter Wall by Ronald Rael.

Does that inform today’s obsession with the US-Mexico demarcation? I think the current American wall is a culmination of a process of differentiation that was invented as well. We’re building now on 200-plus years of a largely fabricated sense of difference.

How did you balance your own inclinations and politics throughout your extensive travels and research? Well I tried to come in with as little by way of preconception as I could. Obviously I’m heir to a skepticism about policies driving the wall concept in the present, as I’m pretty cognizant about the kind of political disposition that finds walls objectionable. But the book is not written as a polemic against the wall or against the administration. The book is meant to be more speculative and to arrive at answers perhaps a little less pat. I did want to take even those objections to the idea of the wall that I knew and see if I couldn’t find novel reasons for them.

I noticed that time contracts in the current events portion of the book, adding a sense of urgencyas though we have all the time in the world, and then suddenly we don’t.  The portions dealing with events in the United States in the first two or three chapters are dealing with periods of nearly three quarters of a century or more. The timeframe then shortens to a matter of months in the last chapter. So yes, the historical portions are looking at perhaps 300 years of history or more at Jericho, while the timeframe in the contemporary chapters gets shorter and shorter until the last section.

There’s an inflection point where young children throw rocks at you.  That was in the West Bank. That was a very anxious moment and one that afterwards did leave a kind of abiding sense of sadness. My last night in Ramallah, I couldn’t sleep. I just kept seeing children with guns and children with rocks.

So, does the wall create that type of violence?  Walls inevitably engender more difference than existed prior. That begins with Jericho and extends straight through. Among the curious things about them is that as some would say, they are a kind of floating signifier. Even the word “wall” is incredibly fluid in its meaning and its specific denotation. The president is a master at this fluidity. He constantly applies the word fence when he thinks that’s criticizing something, even when two identical objects are being described. The definition of wall cannot be arrived at objectively.

I didn’t realize that in the ’80s the Berlin Wall became a “veritable outdoor exhibition of slogans and images” as you put it, including work by Keith Haring. Yeah, I’m pretty skeptical about that. I think that if anything those kinds of cultural activities make it seem more like a feature of the landscape, like a piece of public art. I delve into some depth about the artistic responses to the current wall debate, which don’t appear to be necessarily in themselves halting the wall process or changing American minds. Art exhibitions do start to normalize it to a degree.

What are the dangers of artists normalizing the wall? It becomes all but impossible to imagine a world without it, even when the notional theme of the artistic responses is to try to highlight the unnaturalness of a walled condition or to try to create some realm of the political imaginary where it doesn’t exist.

You mention some architectural proposals as obvious statements of resistance to today’s wall, more than actual proposals? I guess if I was being charitable, I’d say that it’s an attempt to either make lemonade with some very large lemons or alternatively, to at least garner enough attention through the novelty of this or that proposal that it causes some kind of stir. The problem is: does it change any minds?

One of the objectives that I had with the book is that there’s been an enormous amount of argument about the wall and thus far, a remarkably large segment of the American electorate still believes it’s a really good idea. Analytical arguments are not really breaking through. My book is a series of mostly subjective encounters with history and with places in the vague hopes that a felt encounter with these things, a first-person narrative might cause somebody reading it, somebody otherwise inclined to endorse the wall and the administration, to maybe feel something a little different, at least emotionally, at least some vague tug.

The first time you visit the wall prototypes at the US-Mexico border you remark that the most powerful nation on Earth has created something that looked “alarmingly like an architectural show.” There were people jumping the primary fence in full view of the press who’d come to see the prototypes. The idea that the exhibition was also on the site where the actual thing was supposed to be—architectural exhibitions don’t usually happen where the thing is going to be built. That collapsing of representation into reality completely screwed with your head. It clarified nothing.

What happens when walls throughout history do come down, a permanent fixture one day and then suddenly no more? Their cultural and social effects tend to outlive them and continue to reverberate. The same process of unintended consequences that began with the wall’s construction keeps bouncing around, creating new formations and new possibilities. Mostly, these are more promising, that is to say, more human than that which proceeded them.

But a theme in the book is that there isn’t necessarily a consistent result. You know, it’s like that line of Tolstoy’s: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Every wall is unhappy in its own way and the consequences of its deletion tend to be fairly unique to that individual locale. That said, I think there is consistency in terms of the affective register of fear and irony that runs through the book.

Now that you have a bit of distance from your research, why do you think human beings keep building walls?This one has its own springs in the American psyche—the insecurity of the modern American male, insecurity bred by globalism in a certain segment, or within the white electorate. I endorse all of those explanations. If those who support the wall were to read the book and feel one thing, I hope that the emotional content of the book at least puts them in a state of uncertainty. In the end, it all just feels so funny and weird and terrifying. The wall is gestural. It’s simply a great, big fuck you to broader cultural and social changes in the United States.

Why this gesture though?  Borderlands make people nervous because they are porous. They’re somehow of the United States, but not quite the United States. Our Southern border has always been that way. The support for the project mostly resides outside of that region. It’s an imposition by people who don’t actually have any sympathy or interest in the landscape there.

The existential aesthetic question then: should artists and architects strive to make the wall as beautiful as possible?  There’s always, even in its crudest form, a quality of the sublime because the wall becomes the horizon on both sides, and there’s nothing around it.

You mention the prototypes being ripe for Donald Judd and Michael Heizer comparisons. You’re already aesthetically hardwired to appreciate it. Given our own visual training with land art and monumental structure, we’re ready to receive it as having some kind of aesthetic quality, if not necessarily merit. It’s like wait: this isn’t like Heizer. This is what Heizer was gesturing at, where land art had its real genesis apparently.

And then this week, Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello unveiled their Teetertotter Wall. Is it art? Protest? Beauty at the US-Mexico border? Among practitioners, Rael is really architecture’s prime authority on walled bordered conditions. His book Borderwall as Architecture was a major touchstone for me, so to see him get to realize this proposal is really fascinating. And encouraging—possibly.