The Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT) by Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab is an obsolete work originally conceptualized and presented as a safety device and aesthetic intervention, created and designed to aid disoriented migrants crossing the harsh environment of the Sonoran Desert along the US-Mexico border (Dominguez, 2019). The project platform was initially developed and tested in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California from 2009 to 2012 (“Transborder Immigrant Tool”, n.d.). TBT was an activist mobile phone application that delivered poetry to users to provide emotional support and survival information, and used GPS to lead travelers to water caches (Reed, 2015). These water caches were managed by Water Station Inc. and Border Angels, two non-profit organizations who provided TBT with their coordinates (“Transborder Immigrant Tool”, n.d.).
TBT took inspiration from a number of artistic works that dealt with complex issues of migration and Latinx identity. These works included Chantal Akerman’s multilingual documentary De l’autre côté/From the Other Side, which tackles tightening immigration policies along the US-Mexico border, Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel The Devil’s Highway: A True Story, and Ciudad Juárez photographer Julián Cardona’s Exodus/Éxodo migrant photo series (Carroll, 2014). It was also inspired by Brett Stalbaum’s Virtual Hiker Algorithm, a tool for hikers which mapped out suggested trails (“Transborder Immigrant Tool”, n.d.). Stalbaum joined forces with Jason Najarro to develop TBT, which was designed for use on a GPS-enabled Motorola phone, distributed in Mexico to those crossing the border (“Transborder Immigrant Tool”, n.d.). It was primarily an audiovisual application, with an underlying focus on the affordances of GPS.
When trying to write poems for TBT, Carroll (2014) said, “I found myself writing poems that functioned best in museum, gallery, and university contexts. I wondered, ‘What would I want from a poem in the desert? Would I want a poem there at all?’” (p. 5). Carroll and Stalbaum began discussing the pretension of TBT’s early geopoetics, to explore what kinds of poetry would expand upon the vision of the tool as sustenance. These conversations were connected to the idea of the tool as dislocative media and the implications of stripping locative media of its implicit urbanity (Carroll, 2014). With this in mind, Carroll reworked her approach to the poetry of TBT and began to spend more time in the desert and reading desert survival handbooks. She completed her new work with two assumptions: “A desert is not just a desert. And, poetry-becoming-code/code-becoming-poetry could transubstantiate, translate into a lifesaving technology” (Carroll, 2014, p. 6). The new poems that arose from this practice were practical but beautiful poems about how to deal with a flash flood, how to locate the North Star, and how to treat a snake bite. These were survival poems, serving to inform and support the listener, like fragments of information in conversation with one another.
The creators considered TBT to be greater than the app itself. Instead, TBT was a performance intervention that encompassed the app, its API, public reception, and the resulting government investigation (“Transborder Immigrant Tool”, n.d.). By 2011, when TBT was ready for distribution in Mexico, the border crossing had become so dangerous that the risk posed by carrying a TBT phone was too great to distribute the project (“Transborder Immigrant Tool”, n.d.). According to creator Ricardo Dominguez, “By this time [sic] the Narcos were in control of the informal economies of border crossing...this made the project too dangerous for migrants to use, since the Narcos kill people for just about anything that might alert U.S. border agents that a crossing is happening” (“Transborder Immigrant Tool”, n.d.). Although TBT was never able to reach its full distributive potential, it still succeeded in drawing attention to the plight of those traveling along the US-Mexico border, in polarizing political groups and media, and in using poetry to “dissolve” the border (Dominguez, 2019, p. 1056). EDT 2.0 and b.a.n.g. labs received media attention from all sides, which coincided with growing debate and controversy surrounding undocumented migrants in the United States and increasing xenophobia. This resulted in three Republican Congressmen calling for an investigation into the project and its legality (Warren & Warren, 2011). TBT’s creators received hate mail criticizing them for using taxpayer dollars to assist non-citizens, but the University of California San Diego found that research funds had not been misused (Warren & Warren, 2011).
The visceral reaction garnered by the TBT app was most aptly captured when Dominguez (2019) said, “The performative matrix of TBT allows viral reportage, hate mail, GPS, poetry, the Mexico-US border, and immigrants to encounter one another in a state of frisson that asks: What is the sustenance under the sign of globalization-is-borderization, and what are its aesthetics?” (p. 1056). The Transborder Immigrant Tool forced people to acknowledge the dehumanization of migrants along the border and the normalization of their mistreatment, and continues to challenge our notion of humanity, belonging, and mercy.
This entry was written by Emily Villanueva, a graduate student in Dr. Astrid Ensslin’s DH 510 Digital Fiction class, taught at the University of Alberta during the Winter 2020 semester.
Carroll, A. (2014). Of ecopoetics and dislocative media (N. H. Zapata, Trans.). The Transborder Immigrant Tool. Office of Net Assessment, University of Michigan, pp. 1-9.
Dominguez, R. (2019). Border research, border gestures: the Transborder Immigrant Tool. American Quarterly, 71(4), 1053–1058. doi:10.1353/aq.2019.0076
Reed, A. (2015). Queer provisionality: mapping the generative failures of the Transborder Immigrant Tool. Lateral, 4. doi:10.25158/L4.1.4
Transborder Immigrant Tool. (n.d.). Net Art Anthology. Retrieved February 10, 2020 from https://anthology.rhizome.org/transborder-immigrant-tool
Warren, L., & Warren, S. (2011). The art of crossing borders: migrant rights and academic freedom. Boom: A Journal of California, 1(4), 26. doi:10.1525/boom.2011.1.4.26
Zeiger, M. (2019). The ecopoetics of survival: the Transborder Immigrant Tool and the Desert Survival Series. Ecozon@: European Journal of Literature, Culture and Environment, 10(1), 99–116. Retrieved from http://ecozona.eu/article/view/2857/3138