NACO — It was a curious sight Sunday morning, as a strange contraption led a group of 40 people or so down the town’s streets to the international boundary for the inaugural series of the “Border Crossers” art installment by robotic sculptor Chico MacMurtrie.
Catalina Polley was at the remote controls as the robot, a wheeled conglomeration of batteries, pumps, tubing and inflatable space age tensile fabric built to arch over the border wall and touch the Mexican side.
MacMurtrie was on the Mexican side ready with a second robotic sculpture which also paraded down the streets of Naco, Sonora.
When both sculptures reached the border, they were simultaneously inflated, section by section, by Shawnee Hicks, who has worked on the project and others. A soft glow emerged as the sculptures arched over the border wall to touch the ground on both sides to the cheers of around 100 folks present for the international event.
“As the folded fabric tubes slowly fill with air, the inflatable soft machines grow upwards in an almost organic manner,” explained MacMurtrie. “The light grey translucent fabric glows with the sunlight and contrasts dramatically with the hard fixed barrier.”
“When the Border Crossers reach their maximum height of 30 to 35 feet, a coiled fabric tendril gradually unfurls into an arch-like shoot that extends over the border and touches down on the other side,” he added. “The sculptures have dramatically morphed into two arches of light that straddle the border. They symbolize the enduring cultural, ecological, and interpersonal connections across the border.”
Thanks to Customs and Border Patrol, the rows of razor wire had been removed from the wall to protect the inflatables separating the two countries.
“They were amazingly supportive,” said MacMurtrie’s wife Luise Kaunert. “We met with the local chief at the Brain Terry station and told him our plans. He had to get permission from Washington and they allowed us to do our performance.”
MacMurtrie, who was happy to see old friends, stated, “It was an amazing turnout. I was beyond happy. Everything had to come together so quickly.”
He continued, “I grew up in an Irish-Mexican household in Bisbee and went to grade school in the nearby border town of Naco. My mother would take us to visit relatives in Mexico monthly, and many of my Mexican friends would come to school each day through a hole in the chain-link border fence. Growing up speaking Spanish put me in an interesting position of being able to mediate conflicts between Mexican and American kids.”
“Returning to this region each year as an adult, I still admire the stark beauty of the landscape, but I hate the scar that has marred it in the form of a rusty metal barricade,” he continued. “I have often contemplated how I might respond as an artist to this literal and metaphorical construction.”
“I came to see the U.S.-Mexico border as a ‘theater of the real,’ a realm shaped by representations as much as physical conditions and processes. Ten years ago, I conceived a series of inflatable performing machines that could scale the border wall without touching it and form a magnificent arch spanning the fence from each side.”
It took thousands of hours over the span of five years and the input and guidance from people all over the world to go from his first prototype to the finished artwork. He worked with engineers and students from around the world to complete his visionary sculpture to star in “Border Crossers,” said Tom Phillips, from San Francisco. He has worked with MacMurtrie for “20 something years” and was in on the inflatable art from the beginning 10 years ago.
“It was a long process with a lot of people involved — Bisbee, Brooklyn, Nice, Vienna, Munich, China. He had a lot of sharp engineers and artists helping with the project,” added Phillips.
They would come down from New York for a few weeks or a few months every year to stay, and have made many friends on both sides of the border, said Kaunert. Some are very old friends from his childhood, as the MacMurtrie family went to church in Naco, Sonora, while others are new friends they make on their visits.
Kaunert met Bisbee local Seth Polley quite accidentally on one of their stays in Bisbee. Polley has been instrumental in introducing them to people who support and help them in myriad ways. He offered a back room of the soon to be opening community center, right on the border in a former café, to store the robot for its premiere show.
With significant financial support from the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts, University of Texas at El Paso, the Newart Foundation’s .BEEP collection, the Guggenheim Fellowship, MAPfund, and the Andy Warhol Foundation, MacMurtrie was able to fund his project and bring it to fruition.
Bill Higgins, former city councilman, said, “This is marvelous. Chico is a genius. There was cooperation on both sides of the border. I hope this will turn attitudes about the border around. Thank you Joe Biden.”
Beth Hudson, who helped organize Concerts Without Borders, stated, “This wouldn’t have happened under Trump. Chico did an amazing job.”