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Global Positioning: An Interview with Ricardo Dominguez

Lawrence Bird

The Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT) is a project created by the University of California at San Diego’s Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab, and still evolving today. Here Ricardo Dominguez, co-founder of EDT (with Brett Stalbaum), Principal Investigator of b.a.n.g. lab, and Associate Professor in the Visual Arts Department at UCSD, discusses the project with Lawrence Bird. The interview includes input from other members of the collective: Brett Stalbaum, Micha Cardenas, Amy Sara Carroll and Elle Mehrmand.

Lawrence Bird: Simply put, the Transborder Immigrant Tool is a hand-held device to aid crossers of the Mexico-US border. As far as the cultural and political implications of this device, it’s loaded. But as a starting point, could you tell us a little bit about the technical side of the device?

Ricardo Dominguez: We began with the basic question: what ubiquitous technology would allow us to create an inexpensive tool to support the finding of water caches left in the Southern California desert by NGO’s? Our answer was that the sub-$20 iMotorola phone series could be made useful for emergency navigation. The early generation of the platform we targeted can be made reasonably useful in a better-than-nothing scenario. Meanwhile, later phone generations (that don’t yet cross our price barrier but are getting closer everyday) are already fully useful as practical aids without even a SIM card installed or an available network service. With proper use, the GPS performance of newer phones equals any GPS designed for desert navigation, and their used prices are falling. Moreover, GPS itself does not require service and has free global coverage, courtesy of the United States government. In an emergency scenario, we trust these later mobiles to direct a lost person to a nearby safety site. The TBT’s code is also available on-line to download at, sans water cache locations, for any individual or community to use for their GPS investigations.

Lawrence Bird: It’s an interesting instance of technology intersecting with geography. You have referred to Donna Haraway’s work in your own comments on the intersection between “border crossing” and other forms of “trans”-being. Would it be accurate to see the TBT as a cyborg component; and if so, what does this mean for the relationship between technology, politics and poetics?

Ricardo Dominguez: Part of the TBT project is to call into question the northern cone’s imaginary about who has priority and control of who can become a cyborg or “trans” human – and immigrants are always presented as less-than-human and certainly not part of a community which is establishing and inventing new forms of life. When in fact these flowing in-between immigrant communities are a deep part of the current condition that Haraway’s research has been pointing towards – for us it is a queer turn in its emergence, both as unexpected and as desire. The investigation of queer technology and what this queering effect has been or might be is an important part of our conversations – especially via Micha Cardenas’ research. This gesture dislocates the techno-political effect with aesthetic affects that become something other than code: a performative matrix that fractalizes and reverses the disorder of things with excessive transbodies acting from the inside-out of those enforced borderless borders. These affects assemble new empirico-tran(s)cendental forms of multi-presence(s) incommensurable with the capitalist socius of the so called “immaterial” Empire. As the Zapatistas say, “we do not move at the speed of technology, but at the speed of dreams” – the heart of the trans-border-borg.

Lawrence Bird: As you say, that –borg is spatial. Do you do any work with professionals of space design – for example, you have mentioned elsewhere the architect Teddy Cruz, who’s done design projects and spatial analyses focused on the Mexico-US border, especially urban borders?

Ricardo Dominguez: We have not worked directly with any urban space designers, such as Teddy Cruz, who teaches here at the Visual Arts Department at UCSD as well – but we have learned a great deal about the nature of the border-as-design and auto-assemblage – especially from the Political Equator gatherings that he has been at the forefront in creating. But recently we were invited to create a gesture for Political Equator 3 that we really enjoyed and offered a poetic materialization of bringing TBT into Mexico: at 12:30 p.m on June 4th, 2011 the Transborder Immigrant Tool was walked into Tijuana, Mexico via an aquaduct from the U.S. side of the border by artist Marlène Ramírez-Cancio (a video of this event is embedded above).

Political Equator 3 website
Political Equator 3 website

Lawrence Bird: Does any of this work intersect with American fear over border permeability to terrorism? The criticisms of TBT seem to focus on economic migration but the reaction bleeds into fears over security.

Ricardo Dominguez: TBT does crisscross a number of these types of affective conditions that have been floating around the border since 9/11; or one might push it back to early formations of the Mexico/U.S. border. And yes, it intersects with the growing state of fear in the U.S. (and around the world) about immigrants dismantling the U.S. economy – which has always struck me as extremely ironic – since as we have encountered in these past couple of decades, neo-liberal economics on a global scale have done much more to dissolve the romance of the nation via a series of self-made economic bombs than any immigrant “invasion.”

Lawrence Bird: In fact your development of this tool has come at a significant personal cost. You’ve been accused of supporting illegal activity and misuse of public funds. You’ve been called a traitor. Your position at UCSD was threatened. Could you talk about that and where this situation stands today?

Ricardo Dominguez: The entire group of artists who are part of Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab working on the Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT) was being investigated by UCSD and 3 Republican Congressmen starting on January 11, 2010. Then I came under investigation for the virtual sit-in performance (which joined communities statewide against the rising students fees in the UC system and the dismantling of educational support for K–12 across California) against the UC Office of the President (UCOP) on March 4, 2010. This was then followed by an investigation by the FBI Office of Cybercrimes. So, it was three investigations in total— and they were all seeking to find a way to stop TBT and threaten to de-tenure me for doing the very work I was hired to do and then tenured for. In the end all the investigations were dropped. I did agree not to do another virtual sit-in performance on the UCOP for four years, but the day I signed the agreement, a number of supporters across the nation did a virtual sit-in on UCOP again. One strange element about the agreement that they wanted me to sign without even giving me or my legal team time to look it over was that I would never speak or write about what had happened, create any artwork that might disturb anyone and refrain from an artivist performances. Of course I agreed to none of it.

Lawrence Bird: The vitriol in the attacks on you is remarkable, and disturbing: you received a great deal of hate mail and a number of death threats because of this project. You mention in your play Sustenance (published in Artists & Activists 12) that these messages “constellate into remarkable patterns”, form a chart as it were of the agitated contemporary discourse over immigration, security, and national purity vs. liberty. It’s significant that you’ve built a play around this. Do you see the political and popular response to your project (you refer to it as “viral reportage”) as part of the TBT’s performative aspect?

Ricardo Dominguez: Part of the history of the Electronic Disturbance Theater 1.0/2.0 and b.a.n.g. lab (stands for bits, atoms, neurons and genes) at CALIT2/UCSD has been to develop works that can create a performative matrix that activate and take a measure of the current conditions and intensities of power/s, communities and their anxieties or resistances. So, for us the U.S. Department of Defense launching “info-weapons” at us for a virtual sit-in on September 9th, 1998 or the current confluence of “viral reportage” and the affective contagion of hate about the project that followed are all part of the performance – of course we would much rather the hate-mail never occurred – dominant media is bad enough to deal with. The aesthetics of working in the zones of post-contemporary artivist gestures cannot really escape these types of encounters; it is part and parcel of the patina of our work. But, we also feel that the hate mail or the general fear of losing national purity is co-equal in importance with the poetry that they were attacking. In fact Glenn Beck, an extreme right wing pundit on the Fox News Channel, attacked not only TBT’s use of poetry, but that the poetry itself had the power to “dissolve” the nation.  The performative matrix of TBT allows viral reportage, hate-mail, GPS, poetry, the Mexico/U.S. border, immigrants,  to encounter one another in a state of frisson – a frisson that seeks to ask what is sustenance under the sign of globalization-is-borderization.

Ricardo Dominguez and border patrol; image courtesy Brett Stalbaum
Ricardo Dominguez and border patrol; image courtesy Brett Stalbaum

Lawrence Bird: Can you tell us a little more about the poetry that accompanies the guidance system? How was this chosen, what does it concern? How do you envision the poetry developing as the project continues? 

Ricardo Dominguez: Electronic Disturbance Theater 1.0/2.0 has always been invested in experimental poetry as part of its gestures – from the found poetry of the “404 file not found” of our ECD performances in 90’s to the border hack actions with the Zapatista Tribal Port Scan in 2000 on U.S. Border Patrol servers, where we would scan and upload Zapatista poems that we had written into their servers. When we started to develop TBT it became important once again to have a core impulse of the gesture. In 2008 I asked my partner, Amy Sara Carroll, who is an experimental poet and scholar, at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor – one of the areas of her research is on art and Mexican/U.S. border. She thought that TBT becoming a geo-poetic-system (gps) could expand the frame of experimental poetry and artivism. She then began to work with us and established two geo-poetic tracks – one conceptual and the other an echoing of desert survival manuals in multiple languages, which speaks to the multiple borders that are crisscrossing the planet and the multiple languages that are crossing Mexican/U.S. border via immigrants. Here is Amy speaking about TBT:

“…my collaboration with Electronic Disturbance Theatre (EDT) on the Transborder Immigrant Tool…(is) imagined as a global project under development, my own involvement in that ongoing process is linked to the question of what constitutes sustenance in the quotidian of the conceptual, on the varied musical scales of the micro- and macro-. For, often—rightly enough—conversations about crossing the Mexico-U.S. border refer to disorientation, sun exposure, lack of water. The Transborder Immigrant Tool attempts to address those vicissitudes, but also to remember that the aesthetic—freighted with the unbearable weight of ‘love’—too, sustains. A poetic gesture from its inception, the Transborder Immigrant Tool functions, via the aspirations of such a dislocative medium, as dislocative media, seeking to realize the possibilities of G.P.S. as both a ‘global positioning system’ and, what, in another context, Laura Borràs Castanyer and Juan B. Gutiérrez have termed, a ‘global poetic system.’ The Transborder Immigrant Tool includes poems for psychic consultation, spoken words of encouragement and welcome, which I am writing and co-designing in the mindset of Audre Lorde’s pronouncement that ‘poetry is not a luxury.’ … speaks to the Transborder Immigrant Tool’s overarching commitment to global citizenship. For, the excerpt, itself infused with the ‘transversal logic’ of the poetic, acts as one of the Transborder Immigrant Tool’s internal compasses, clarifying the ways and means by which I and my collaborators approach this project as ethically inflected, as transcending the local of (bi-)national politics, of borders and their policing.”

Here is a poem that made Glenn Beck extremely angry:

(song of my cells

Gloria Anzaldúa writes, “We have a tradition of migration, a tradition of long walks. Today we are witnessing la migración de los pueblos mexicanos, the return odyssey to the historical/mythological Aztlán” (1999 [1987]: 33). The historical? The mythological? Aztlán? It’s difficult to follow the soundings of that song. Today’s borders and circuits speak at “lower frequencies,” are “shot through with chips of Messianic time.” Might (O chondria!): imagine the chips’ transliteralization and you have “arrived” at the engines of a global positioning system—the transitivity of the Transborder Immigrant Tool. Too: when you outgrow that definition, look for the “trans-” of transcendental -isms, imperfect as overwound pocketwatches, “off”-beat as subliminalities (alternate forms of energy which exceed Reason’s predetermined star maps). Pointedly past Walden-pondering, el otro lado de flâneur-floundering—draw a circle, now “irse por la tangente”—neither gray nor grey (nor black-and-white). Arco-iris: flight, a fight. Of fancy. This Bridge Called my Back, my heart, my head, my cock, my cunt, my tunnel. Vision: You. Are. Crossing. Into. Me.

 Here is a beautiful video version that Micha Cardenas and Elle Mehrmand did of the poem:

In the strongest possible sense poetic practice has emerged in TBT that is co-equal with Brett Stalbaum’s idea of a “last mile” tool and his development of the code necessary to have it work. In fact we also think of the code-as-poetry as well – an expansion of codeswitching – literally.

Here is one of the desert survival poems:

En última instancia, muchos dirán que

la naturaleza establece el estándar de

la neutralidad. A diferencia de los seres

humanos, la naturaleza no hace lazos

de lealtad con la nación, la familia, los

negocios o la religión. Usted sabe bien

que el mayor peligro que enfrentará en el

desierto puede no ser el clima o el terreno.

Habrá quienes no tengan en consideración

su bienestar. Los rescatistas tienen el

compromiso de ayudar a quien lo necesite;

exíjales cumplir esa promesa. No confíe su

vida a nadie más, a ningún extraño.

All them are available in multiple languages to the user on TBT.

Billboard campaign, design by Ricardo Dominguez & Amy Sara Carroll
Billboard campaign, design by Ricardo Dominguez & Amy Sara Carroll

Lawrence Bird: How do you navigate the legal issues? Did you have a strategy in place ahead of time for dealing with these, or have you had to deal with them ad-hoc? Does your strategy/defense link up at any level with that of apprehended border-crossers?

Ricardo Dominguez: We are not attempting to navigate “legal” (national or international) issues – but we are trying to establish a reconfiguration of the border and immigration in terms of what we are calling transborder justice – the question of a “higher law” doctrine that David Henry Thoreau established in On Civil Disobedience. Also, in a more speculative manner as artists we see TBT as still in the process of becoming – it is still shape shifting and performing itself into potential spaces of use and poetics. TBT is border disturbance art that constitutes a visible geo-aesthetic/geo-ethics gesture against the boundaries and borderless borders that are crisscrossing every single body on the planet – we call for a geo-aesthetics that starts at the nanoscale and reaches to the GPS (Global Position System) grid system that floats around the planet, we call for a geo-aesthetics that connects both the human and the inhuman, geography and ethics, we call for a geo-aesthetics that crosses into and dislocates the smooth space of geo-spatial mobility with ethical objects for multiple forms of sustenance. We live in a world where only goods and services have rights to cross borders – a world that is a chaosmosis of markets that demand global exchange and aggressive state social filters. We need a geo-aesthetics that can construct ethical and performative complexities for the new earths to come, that can touch new geographies for new bodies – transbodies with transborder rights – artwork that can function as a geo-philosophy for bodies that are flowing as transborder bodies across all the borders the world – a flowing-trans-nation the planet cannot survive without.

Lawrence Bird: Have you considered applications of the TBT more globally, in Europe for example, or the Canada/US border, which has its own tensions relating to indigenous sovereignty? Or would this take it out of the specific politics you want to focus on?

Ricardo Dominguez: We imagine TBT’s code and gesture as open to use on multiple borders and that it is not bound to just the Mexico/U.S. border. One way that we have attempted to promote this possibility is by making the code available to anyone or any group at

Lawrence Bird: How extensively has your system been used on the Mexico/U.S. border? Or is it primarily rhetorical so far (it’s certainly been successful that way). How is it coordinated with others’ humanitarian efforts for border-crossers?

Ricardo Dominguez: On a very practical level our work with NGO’s has been focused on working with groups in Southern California who have established networks of water caches for immigrants crossing that area of the border – specifically Water Stations Inc. and Border Angels. Water Stations Inc., the longest running NGO working on this issue, has been very open to helping us test TBT and has also offered us extremely important insights into what the real conditions on the ground and what problems immigrants are facing. We recommend that if folks have funds to donate to these groups – please do. They were very wary of us at first – but they have now become much more supportive – especially because of the work that Brett Stalbaum and his partner, artist Paula Poole, have done in with them beyond TBT.

On the rhetorical end of the gesture much of the work that we do at b.a.n.g. lab is to start our research as a politics of rehearsal, a rehearsal of politics, as part of our art practice – to create an aesthetic of minor-signals and lower-frequencies…”like physics, aesthetics is a science whose primary object is signals, the physical materiality of signs….”– to quote from a recent tweet by Jussi Parikka. To manifest a type of science of the oppressed or engineering of the oppressed that imagines creating speculations that automatically, conceptually, begin to disturb not only the lines of thinking that criss-cross not only our bodies, but the ecologies of the Americas, and certainly the globe. And, so it becomes necessary to create these speculative disturbances that can allow one to think about another possibility, another impossibility, that these systems both manifest and, at the same time, call for an “anti-anti-utopian” potentiality, so that the engineering of the oppressed, the science of the oppressed, is about rehearsing the fictions that will then become realities. Our work in one sense is simply a gesture of “plagiarism”—a cutting and pasting of what is already an assemblage or a system that exists because immigrants are crossing multiple spaces around the world and GPS is everywhere in our cloudy global Empire.  And so TBT itself is an attempt to create the multiple layers that manifest the social frictions, the speculative fictions, the rehearsal of politics, and of a counter-machine aesthetics—a machine of difference that can only really be performed by more than the multitude, if you will, to interrupt what Mary Pat Brady calls the U.S/Mexico border, “a state-sponsored aesthetic project.” We can see how these speculative gestures do create social responses on a global scale.

graphic, "Sustenance"
graphic, “Sustenance”

Lawrence Bird: TBT doesn’t just provide a map and way of locating oneself, it offers directions to various support services – where to find water, medical help. How are such safe sites managed and their position made public without making them vulnerable to border patrols? Are there any ethical issues involved here?

Ricardo Dominguez: The water cache sites are already well known by the U.S. Border Patrol, Homeland Security and anyone else who cares to take a trip along the Anza-Borrego desert in Southern California – in fact they have large flags signaling their locations. So TBT at this point is only doing one thing – offering the location of these known and established water caches – as a last-mile safety tool and nothing more. The cell phones we are using are not robust enough for anything else – now as more cheap high-end phones come on the market TBT will be able to offer more on multiple levels. So the ethical questions about TBT on the U.S. side of the border are not as complicated as those on the Mexico side of the border: these are questions about how TBT would interact with the coyote networks, would it be just one more material burden to those crossing, how does the extreme violence of the narco-war shut down the abilities of NGO’s etc., to work on distributing TBT with us – these questions seem much more important in terms of the ethics of the project  – would it do more harm than good? Or is it a gesture that would offer a way out for some immigrants from the violence of these dangerous networks that they have to deal with in order to cross? At this point due to all last year’s issues we have not been able to formally present TBT to the immigrant communities preparing to cross to have a dialogue about these questions – but we are hoping to move forward with these encounters – sans any further investigations.

Lawrence Bird: And how has TBT been taken on the Mexican side – what is it’s perception on the part of Mexican citizens, politicians, media? I’m curious how their reaction compares to the response on the American side, which approached violence.

Ricardo Dominguez: It is difficult for us to access Mexico’s response to TBT in relation to coyote economies or the narco-war on the border – these are zones that we have not attempted to have conversations with or have correspondences with. But EDT 2.0 is concerned about how TBT might function within or alongside these violent enclosures that immigrants have to deal with on multiple levels. We do not want TBT to become an attractor for immigrants who are already targets for these groups. But what we can say is that Mexico’s dominant media and alter-media networks, from Tijuana to Chiapas, have been very responsive and supportive of TBT. One of the first awards TBT received was in 2007 from the new media arts festival Transito_MX, who awarded TBT the “trans-communities award,” and the award was handed to us by a representative of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico.  So at this time the response to TBT is both unknown and known. Another concern that we have and that we hope to be able to have a better sense of by the end of the year is how the design works for immigrants, and to what degree do they consider it useful as an art work and “last mile” safety tool – this will be done via workshops with potential immigrants in Tijuana, Mexico. Also one of the core questions we will have, based on all the materials that immigrants leave in the desert while crossing –  the heat and difficulty of crossing call for dropping as much away from the body as possible, from money, to telephone numbers, to pictures of loved ones, etc.  – is one more thing to weigh one down really necessary? These are EDT 2.0’s concerns at this time in relation to the border on the Mexican side.

Lawrence Bird: You mention that what drives border crossers is a hope that amounts to a “hope for the unknown”? Could you elaborate on this? At any level do you see a contradiction between this and the technologies of transparency, like GPS?

Ricardo Dominguez: The radical gesture of transparency was extremely important to EDT 1.0 in relation to Electronic Civil Disobedience as theory and practice and it still is in relation to the general distribution of TBT – who were are, where we are, and why we are doing it. But we are also very interested in the notion of translucency as an aesthetic possibility for TBT that functions to dislocate the readability of GPS (Global Positioning System) and gps (a geo-poetic system) – a minor form of the technology that is no longer bound to the total vision of GPS that is now embedded in almost everything. This translucency functions as a single-bounce GPS that initiates the database of TBT and then shuts off – thus making triangulation impossible – unless the user decided to turn the function on during the crossing. TBT’s gps creates an aesthetic disturbance that dislocates GPS as a transparent device and instead offers a navigational translucency of the “last mile” with hope-as-sustenance as its guiding wave-point.

Lawrence Bird: In Sustenance you refer in passing to Baudrillard’s “desert of the Real”. It’s a compelling way of looking at the border desert where migrants are abandoned in their pursuit of the American fantasy. But adopting a perhaps more humanist attitude, would it be remiss to recall Saint-Exupéry’s words that “Ce qui embellit le desert…c’est qu’il cache un puits quelque part.” / “What makes a desert beautiful is that, somewhere, it hides a well.” Perhaps based on that juxtaposition, how would you place your project in relation to the tension between poetry, activist politics, and humanitarianism?

Ricardo Dominguez: TBT is still in a (gps) process of becoming – it is still shape-shifting and performing itself into potential spaces of use for activists and expanding the frame of dislocative poetics. TBT is border disturbance art that constitutes a waterwitching tool that indeed crosses the desert of the Real, the hard simulations of the border which seek to target and kill. It offers another possibility – with the anti-anti-utopian offer of the desert’s “beauty” that you are keying into the conversation. We imagine that this gesture echoes  practices that fractalize the desert’s geo-aesthetics as: artivism, tactical poetries, hacktivism(s), new media theater, border disturbance art/technologies, augmented realities, speculative cartographies, queer technologies, transnational feminisms and code, digital Zapatismo, dislocative gps, intergalactic performances, [add your own______].

The team which developed the TBT. Back, left to right: Brett Stalbaum, Amy Sara Carroll, Elle Mehrmand, Micha Cardenas; front, Ricardo Dominguez.
The team which developed the TBT. Back, left to right: Brett Stalbaum, Amy Sara Carroll, Elle Mehrmand, Micha Cardenas; front, Ricardo Dominguez.