The U.S. Pavilion at the 2018 Biennale Architettura in Venice, Italy, features films, installations, and other art that focus on the border between the United States and Mexico. Titled “Dimensions of Citizenship,” the federally-financed pavilion features: “Commissioned installations by architects, landscape architects, artists, and theorists investigate spaces of citizenship marked by histories of inequality and the violence imposed on people, non-human actors, and ecologies.” Mentioning the prominently the reinforced border security promised by President Donald Trump, the website states: “In a time when the expansion of the United States–Mexico border wall looms over more nuanced discourses on national citizenship…”

The website for the pavilion notes that the featured works examine: “Questions of belonging, of who should be included and how, are posed with every athlete taking a knee, every #metoo, every presidential tweet, and every protest sign or fist raised. Yet as transnational flows of capital, digital technologies, and geopolitical transformations expand, conventional notions of citizenship are undermined.” For the organizers, citizenship is defined as a “tangle of rights, responsibilities, and attachments linked to the built environment.”

Among the exhibits at the U.S. pavilion is “MEXUS: A geography of interdependence,” designed by activist academics Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman of the University of California-San Diego. The exhibit features a large map of the border between the United States and Mexico, which stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. Included are eight watershed systems shared by the two countries and the westernmost Tijuana River Watershed. The polluted Tijuana River begins in Mexico and goes north and into California, where it empties into the ocean.

In an email from the Department of State, Nathan Arnold of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs told Spero that his agency “provided $225,000 in seed funding to sponsor the 2018 U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which showcases the best of U.S. architecture to a global audience and supports freedom of expression and other foreign policy priorities.” Arnold also noted that the majority of the funds for the exhibit were were raised by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the University of Chicago. The website for the pavilion noted that institutional partners included the taxpayer-supported University of California-San Diego Center on Global Justice and the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve. The latter is a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service with the California State Parks system. Another agency contributing to the U.S. pavilion is the National Endowment for the Arts. Private foundations also contributed. In an email response to Spero News, Elizabeth Auclaire stated that the National Endowment for the Arts "contributed $100,000 to support the United States’ presentation at the 2018 Venice Architectural Biennale."

Photo by Tom Harris and School of the Art Institute and the University of Chicago

In addition, State Department official Arnold wrote: “We want to emphasize that the State Department’s support to the Venice Biennale is only a portion of the total funds that go each year to the grantee. The Biennale is a public-private partnership, with the private sector and individual donors also funding the featured U.S. exhibit.”

A description of the exhibit on the website asserts that the “imposition” by the U.S. of concrete dams and drains that truncate canyons oriented north-south. It notes that Los Laureles -- a border slum in the Tijuana, the Mexican city adjacent to San Diego, California, sits in one of the canyons. “The construction of a new border wall by American authorities serves to accelerate the north-bound flow of waste from the slum into the estuary, siphoning tons of trash and sediment with each rainy season, and contaminating one of the most important environmental zones, the ‘lungs’ of the bio-region.”

A new wall, the website insists, bisects a shared cross-border environmental systems. Forman told CNN, “We've tried to take the idea of citizenship back, untether it from the idea of the nation-state and expand it into a more ethical concept and practical concept of interdependence."

The Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman firm suggests that the area be converted into a land conservancy that “identifies slivers of land in the slum, bundles them, and connects them with the American estuary,” as a “cross-border coalition of state and municipal government, communities, and universities.” In a criticism of Trump’s border security initiative, the exhibit’s website envisions that this “swath of land is a region rather than a border.” It asserts that the while the wall has been “presented as an object of national security, it may prove to be a self-inflicted wound—the cause of great international environmental and economic insecurity in the years to come.”

The Venice Biennale continues into November. In reporting on the exhibit by Cruz and Forman, the Los Angeles Times titled its coverage: "A new U.S.-Mexico border? At the Venice Biennale, imagining a binational region called MEXUS." For its part, an article at CNN noted, "With the world watching, US architects rebuke Trumpism at the Venice Biennale."

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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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