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Teeter-tottering on the pink seesaws at the US-Mexico border

A temporary installation of seesaws at the El Paso-Juárez divide, by professors Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, allowed people living along the border to share moments of joy.

by Zohra Khan Aug 06, 2019

San Francisco-based architects and educators, Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, brought together the children of the US and Mexico as they installed fluorescent pink seesaws at a section of the Mexico-United States border wall.

On July 28, 2019, the duo revealed a temporary installation at the El Paso-Juárez divide, where three seesaws were eased between the metal slats of the border wall. It brought much excitement among the people living on either side as they were invited to play with one another. Interestingly, the wall, which creates a separation in the first place, is what also facilitated this play.

The work is an illustration of the relationship between the two regions that are set apart due to political tensions. Through the innocuous symbol of a child’s toy, it depicted that 'there can be equality and joy through the connections we make along the border’.

A view of the Teeter Totter Wall installation at the El Paso and Juárez divide Image Credit: Courtesy of Rael San Fratello (Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello)

“The seesaw demonstrates how those immediate relationships between people can create an environment where happiness and play are also important aspects of life on the border,” said Rael and San Fratello.

The artists arrived at the teeter-totter concept back in 2009, along with an array of ideas around the border wall, which back the simple thought that actions on one side have direct consequences on what happens on the other side. While the political climate leaves no stone unturned to exaggerate the cross-border anomalies, it was extremely heartening to see the wall turning into a medium that allowed conversations of compassion and unity to filter through.

The differences dissolved as people laughed and played like neighbours next door. Those who participated were residents of El Paso and the citizens of the community of Anapra, a colony in Juárez city of Mexico, along the border. Mexican soldiers and U.S. Border Patrol agents were also present during the event. 

We arrived at the concept for a seesaw at the border in 2009, as well as many other concepts for interventions at the border wall, as a way to tell the stories of the humanistic, cultural, and environmental challenges the construction of the wall presented.
- Ronald Rael, Virginia San Fratello
Conceptual sketches Image Credit: Courtesy of Rael San Fratello (Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello)

“This is incredibly important at a time when relationships between people on both sides are being severed by the wall and the politics of the wall…that not only separate countries, but regions, cities, neighbourhoods, families, and more recently, a separation of children from their parents,” explained the artists.

It was a collaborative effort between several individuals and groups that made the work possible. While the seesaws fabricated out of lightweight steel were made in a metal workshop in Juárez by proficient artisans, the remaining project was realised with the help from Colectivo Chopeke, a Juárez-based group, which focuses on bringing community together through design. Using wall itself as a fulcrum, the forms were designed to offer quick and easy installation.

Behind the scenes - the making of Teeter Totter Wall Image Credit: Courtesy of Rael San Fratello (Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello)

The project has emerged from a manifesto titled Borderwall as Architecture – a book authored by Rael with visualisations by San Fratello. The initiative reimagines the US-Mexico border regions through propositions that fall on the cusp of reason and satire, projecting border that we do not know of.

Borderwall as Architecture – a manifesto that inspired the project Image Credit: Courtesy of Rael San Fratello (Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello)

Rael thinks that because the current situation around the border and the border wall appear like a political theatre, we should invite audiences to it in creative ways. “May be the wall is nothing more than an enormous instrument – the world’s largest xylophone and we could play down this wall with weapons of mass percussion,” he said at a TED conference, while imagining a probable face of the divide.

It is true that any line drawn on a map leaves scars not just on the landscape but on people’s memories as well as it is their lives that bear the harsh divide. The Teeter Totter Wall that sat on the same line, brilliantly captured the artists’ concern for peace and harmony in an expression that touched many hearts.

The original drawings and models of the Teeter Totter Wall are now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

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About Author

Zohra Khan

Zohra Khan

A formal education in architecture combined with an avid interest in architecture journalism and design criticism led Khan to professionally venture into writing and research. She has worked in design communication for more than two years, generating content for mondo*arc india journal. When not writing, she kicks back by dabbling on social media for STIR.

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