Hitting the Wall: A Flow-Disrupting, Thought-Provoking Installation

February 27, 2018

This week, Watson faculty, staff, students, and visitors will encounter a series of connected panels, eight feet high and four feet wide, zigzagging down the center of the Institute’s lobby. Each panel displays black-and-white photographs and text based on the collaborative research of anthropologist Paja Faudree, a Watson faculty fellow, and artist Gregory Thielker.

Titled The Wall, the wooden installation was designed by Thielker and intended to evoke the U.S.-Mexico border wall. We talked with Steve Bloomfield, associate director of the Watson Institute and co-chair of Art at Watson, about the project.

Q: Why build a wall that disrupts normal traffic flows as people go about their day?

A: The artist’s conception is that borders define political space, and physical barriers, too. Greg Thielker and Paja Faudree came to think that an imposing and inconvenient obstacle, disrupting our everyday lives, would make us think about the reality for so many of not being able to cross borders -- and many other spaces in our lives -- freely.

Q: Will it actually get in the way?

A: We’ve coordinated with the Brown fire-and-safety experts, to ensure that access to the visitor’s desk, water fountain, and exits aren’t hindered. But yes, the wall will probably get in the way of people passing through the lobby to get to their offices or attend events. It’s meant to be an inconvenience, a way to get us to think about how freely we’re accustomed to moving from one place to another. At borders around the world, many can’t.

Q: The wall seems both impermeable and permeable.

A: True, depending on your perspective, the wall is impenetrable or not. But you can’t climb over it. The main point is that lives are deeply affected by borders and walls. Lives are renewed or lost, families are separated or united, and dreams are realized or deferred because of a wall like the one on the U.S.-Mexico border, both what already exists and what is proposed.

Q: Art at Watson recently co-sponsored an exhibition on a similar theme, called Crossing Borders. Is this a coincidence?

A: Not so much by design, but by listening to artists both in our midst and far away, the Art at Watson committee has noticed a set of recurring, related themes: borders, migration, inequality, the dangers of passage. Last year we sponsored Fractured Spaces and 1 Percent. This year, Mutant Tropic recently opened on the third floor of 111 Thayer, featuring works by a renowned Dominican painter, Jose Sejo. Coming soon are a photography exhibit about Spain’s economic crisis; Silenced Voices, by a Cuban-American painter, Raphael Diaz; and Requiem for Syria, by Syrian multimedia artist Khaled Akil. We’re even looking ahead to next year, when we’ll install another exhibition focusing on the artifacts lost in the  Mexico-U.S. migration, by anthropologist and MacArthur Fellow Jason de León.

The consistency of themes is a little stunning—mostly because these artists are coming to us, seeking us out. They are artists from Pawtucket, Spain, Iran, Syria, and they bring from near and far consistent sensibilities, consistent preoccupations, consistent critiques. They are all grappling with universal conditions—nationalism, refugees, migrations, the suffering that we unleash on each other.

Q: How does The Wall connect to Thielker’s exhibition at the Granoff Center?

A: It’s completely related. That show combines sculpture, painting, and sound to create an oral and visual portrait of the border territory between the United States and Mexico. Art at Watson has been really pleased to collaborate with other centers across Brown.

- Sarah C. Baldwin

Listen to a recent podcast with Artist Gregory Thielker and Watson Faculty Fellow and Anthropologist Paja Faudree.

The Wall is part of a solo exhibition that runs February 26- March 22, 2018, at the Cohen Gallery in the Granoff Center.