To understand the convergence between global dynamics and local conflict, we constructed The Political Equator as a visual diagram. Taking the Tijuana-San Diego border as a point of departure, The Political Equator traces an imaginary line along the U.S. Mexico border and extends it directly across the world atlas, forming a corridor of global conflict between the 30 and 36 degrees north. Along this imaginary border encircling the globe lie some of the world’s most contested thresholds: the US–Mexico border at Tijuana/San Diego, the most intensified portal for immigration from Latin America to the United States; the Strait of Gibraltar, where waves of migration flow from North African flow into Europe; the Israeli-Palestinian border that divides the Middle East, along with the embattled frontiers of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and Jordan; the Line of Control between the Indian state of Kashmir and Azad or free Kashmir on the Pakistani side; the Taiwan Strait where relations between China and Taiwan are increasingly strained as the Pearl River Delta has rapidly ascended to the role of China’s economic gateway for the flow of foreign capital, supported by the traditional centers of Hong Kong and Shanghai and the paradigmatic transformations of the Chinese metropolis also characterized by urbanities of labor and surveillance.

The political equator also resonates with the revised geography of the post-9/11 world according to Thomas P. M. Barnett’s scheme for The Pentagon’s New Map, in which he effectively divides the globe into “Functioning Core,” or parts of the world where “globalization is thick with network connectivity, financial transactions, liberal media flows, and collective security,” and “Non-Integrating Gap,” -- “regions plagued by politically repressive regimes, widespread poverty and disease, routine mass murder, and chronic conflicts that incubate the next generation of global terrorists.”

But while this renewed global border is a working diagram, emblematic of hemispheric divisions between wealth and poverty, intersecting a necklace of some of the most contested checkpoints in the world, it is ultimately not a ‘flat line’ but an operative critical threshold that bends, fragments and stretches in order to reveal other sites of conflict worldwide where invisible trans-hemispheric sociopolitical, economic and environmental dynamics are manifested at regional and local scales. The Political Equator is the point of entry into many of these radical localities, distributed across the continents, arguing that some of the most relevant projects forwarding socio-economic inclusion and artistic experimentation will not emerge from sites of abundance but from sites of scarcity, in the midst of the conflict between geopolitical borders, natural resources and marginal communities.

Ultimately, the forces of division and control produced by these global zones of conflict are amplified, physically inscribed and manifested in particular critical geographies such as the San Diego-Tijuana border territory, producing, in turn, local zones of conflict. It is in the midst of many of these metropolitan and territorial sites of conflict where new practices of intervention and new forms of "applied research" will engage more meaningfully the spatial, territorial, and environmental conditions across critical thresholds, whether global border zones or the local sectors of conflict generated by discriminating politics of zoning and economic development in the contemporary city.

The need to re-imagine the border through the logic of natural and social systems is the foremost challenge for the future of this bi-national region and of many other border regions across the globe. A community is always in dialogue with its immediate social and ecological environment; this is what defines its political nature. But when this relationship is disrupted and its productive capacity splintered by the very way in which jurisdictional power is instituted, it is necessary to find a means of recuperating its agency, and this is the space of intervention that art and architecture practice need to engage today. Can architects intervene in the re-organization of political institutions, new forms of governance, economic systems, research and pedagogy and new conceptions of cultural and economic production? This cannot occur without expanding and re-coding our conventional modalities of practice, making architecture a political field and a cognitive system that can enable the ‘public’ to access complexity, building collective capacity for political agency and action at local scales, and be generative of new experimental spaces and social programs for the city.

Border-Drain Crossing

Several years ago, inspired by Antanas Mockus’s idea that art is a performative tool that can increase public knowledge and the capacity of communities for political action, we orchestrated a cross-border performance to provoke the notion of the cross-border citizen. We organized a performance in collaboration with two NGO’s, Casa Familiar and Alter Terra, representing two communities divided by the border wall -- San Ysidro, on the US side, which is the first immigrant neighborhood into the US, and Laureles Canyon in Mexico, an informal settlement of 85,000 people, which is the last slum in Latin America literally crashing against the edge of the US. These two marginalized neighborhoods bookend a natural estuary on the US side of the border that is part of a bi-national watershed system. This sensitive environmental zone has been heavily impacted in recent years by the increased militarization of US Homeland Security forces. Since 9/11, the US has been building a massive infrastructure of control and surveillance, including the so-called third border, a 150 feet wide linear corridor that Homeland Security has claimed as its own jurisdiction enabling the construction of a new patrol highway that runs parallel to the existing border wall . This new surveillance infrastructure includes a series of concrete dams and drains that truncate the many canyons that re part of the trans-border watershed system, accelerating the flow of waste from the informal settlements on the Tijuana side, which are at a higher elevation on the South-end of the wall.

We chose precisely this site for our border-crossing performance, intentionally encroaching on official institutional protocols and jurisdictions. We proposed an unprecedented public border crossing through a drain recently built by Homeland Security that is located at the exact intersection between the wall, the informal settlement of Laureles Canyon and the estuary. Realizing the performance required us to work closely with local activists in a long process of negotiation with both Homeland Security and Mexican Immigration; the two organizations ultimately granted our request to re-code this specific drain beneath as a temporary but official port of entry for twenty four hours. A significant part of this strategy was to camouflage this happening as a cross-sector symposium, transforming the convening into a ‘public performance,’ that would enable the audience to be both witness and participant while implicitly using this act of crossing as an experiential tool to render visual the collision between environmental zone, surveillance infrastructure and informal settlement.

As the meetings unfolded around a series of public walks that traversed these conflicting territories, they served as evidentiary platforms to debate the implications of the new border wall and its impact on the bi-national environmental systems, and to re-contextualize cross-institutional debates among the actors who are involved in this particular site, including local, national and international activists, scholars and researchers, artists, architects and urbanists, politicians, border patrol and other community stake holders who have an antagonistic role around this geography of conflict.

This process of infiltrating institutional protocols, and penetrating inaccessible jurisdictional power has been an essential part of our architectural and political practice, mobilizing arts and culture as agents of civic engagement, expanding the capacities of communities for political action, and closing the gap between artistic experimentation social responsibility.

Moving South, against the natural flow of contaminating wastewater pouring from the slum into the estuary, our audience eventually reached the Mexican Immigration officers, who had set an improvised tent on the South side of the drain inside Mexican territory. The strange juxtaposition of seeping pollution and the stamping of passports inside this liminal space amplified the contradictions between natural and national security while also highlighting the artificial construction of citizenship. And the experience of these contradictions highlighted another, deeper paradox: The construction of border walls for the sake of security is only exacerbating insecurity, as asinine logics of division only threaten to produce future environmental and socio-economic degradation. By enabling a physical passage across this odd section of the bi-national territory, our performance sought to exposee the dramatic collision between informal urbanization, militarization, and environmental zones. Can we shift our gaze and resources from the border wall itself and into the slum? Border-Drain Crossing mobilized a cross-border public awareness around shared environmental interests. In this way, we hoped to physically manifest the idea of the border region as a laboratory for rethinking global citizenship. The problems of San Diego, after all, are also the problems of Tijuana; the problems of the US are also the problems of Mexico; and the problems of the world will not be solved in isolation and division


Since 2006, the Political Equator Meetings have taken the form of nomadic urban actions and debates involving institutions and communities, oscillating across diverse sites and stations between Tijuana and San Diego. These 'conversations on the move' have proposed that the inter-disciplinary debate takes place outside the institutions and inside the actual sites of conflict, enabling the audience to be both witness and participant. The meetings unfold around a series of public works, performances and walks, traversing these conflicting territories, and serve as evidentiary platforms to re-contextualize debates and conversations among diverse publics and institutions.

The next Political Equator 4 will focus on the issue of citizenship. The event will be the public unfolding of the Bi-national Citizenship Culture Survey, a platform to reveal and make visible its results, inaugurating a new era of collaboration between these two border cities. As in previous events, arts and cultural activity, cross-sector debates and symposia will be vehicles for mobilizing awareness of these issues, and this time, the strategic instruments to communicate and translate the meaning of the survey to the public.

The event will be curated by the Center on Global Justice at the University of California, San Diego and co-produced in collaboration with local, community-based non-profit organizations on both sides of the border, the municipalities of San Diego and Tijuana and the Bogota-based Corpovisionarios, led by former mayor Antanas Mockus. A preliminary list of national and international artists, scholars, activists and political figures is being developedin collaboration with local NGO's and government officials from both cities.

With the use of projection technologies, audiences on both sides of the fence will witness and participate in a series of performances, presentations and debates.

The Binational Citizenship Culture Survey is a project of the UCSD Center on Global Justice, in collaboration with with Antanas Mockus and Corpovisionarios, Bogota. Funded by the Ford Foundation. PIs: Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman; Survey consultants: Gerry Mackie, Tom K. Wong and Barbara Lee

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The Political Equator