‘Ladders and Walls’ installation focuses on the humanity of border-crossers and futility of border walls

The exhibition at Austin College features makeshift ladders people build to clear the wall along the U.S-Mexico border.

By Michael MarksOctober 25, 2021 6:44 am, ,

The main feature of “Ladders and Walls,” a new art installation at Austin College by artist and activist Scott Nicol, consists of 14 ladders stacked against each other in sets of two.

The ladders were built and used by people crossing the southern border without authorization. They are improvised, made out of salvaged materials.

Nicol, an assistant professor of visual art at South Texas College, has been collecting the ladders since they started appearing when the first border walls went up during former President George W. Bush’s administration. He told Texas Standard that the exhibition is a reminder that the border-crossers who use them are real people, and that erecting such barriers to stop them is futile.

“It always struck me just how easy it was to get over these walls. You know, we spend all this money to build them, and it takes so little to defeat them,” Nicol said.

Listen to the full interview with Nicol in the audio player above, or read the transcript below.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Texas Standard: How did you start collecting these discarded ladders along the border?

Scott Nicol: They’ve been piling up next to border walls pretty much as soon as the border walls were first built back in 2009, 2010. And it always struck me just how easy it was to get over these walls. We spend all this money to build them and it takes so little to defeat them.

So, would you just go down on the other side of the border wall and pick them up, or people would send them to you? How did that work?

Nicol: The Border Patrol doesn’t want to leave them leaning against the wall, so they stack them up on the U.S. side of the wall. And I would just pick a couple off the top and and take them home.

What materials are they typically made out of?

Nicol: They are mostly scrap wood. They’re not something you’d buy at the hardware store. They’re not fiberglass. It’s just, you know, whatever scrap lumber somebody can can get their hands on to build something.

Tell us about the installation at Austin College: can you describe what it looks like and how you’ve assembled these ladders?

Nicol: I was invited to do this installation over the summer, and in the last few months I’ve been gathering up ladders, and the ladders range anywhere from 8-feet to 20-feet tall, and they’re kind of set in an A-frame style in the middle of the room, so they essentially make a wall of ladders. There are seven pair that go across the middle of the gallery. And there’s also photographs of the border wall from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific, and a couple of wall pieces that I’ve crafted using ladders and using some of the other items that I’ve picked up next to the wall – things like scrap concertina wire that crews that were stringing razor wire along the wall have left behind.

Courtesy Scott Nicol

What was it that you were hoping to create in that space? What was going through your mind as you were assembling these ladders?

Nicol: I think the ladders have an important physical presence. The reality of the ladders is the reality of the border. So it’s not, you know, me having to talk about how easy it is to defeat the border wall; it’s there, it’s visible, you can get your hands on it, you can see the muddy footprints that people leave on the rungs when they’re going up these things. And so I wanted them to have that physical presence and for viewers to see that because it takes it out of the abstract. I think we tend to think of the border, especially if you don’t live near it, as this kind of concept that, you know, out of sight, out of mind, and so it allows for a lot of politics to get wrapped up in it. But I think it’s kind of important to see the reality of it. And the ladders, in addition to showing how easy it is to get over the wall, they really speak to who it is that we’re building these walls, in a failed attempt, to stop.

What did you find yourself wondering about these footprints, the people who built these ladders?

Nicol: I think it’s clear that we’re not stopping terrorists. The walls aren’t really doing anything in terms of smuggling. We, as a nation, have somehow decided that we’re afraid of poverty. We’re afraid of people who are just basically trying to get by and to feed their families. And so we spend billions of dollars every year in a failed attempt to keep out people that, you know, really, if we were a compassionate nation, we should be trying to help.

What do you hope folks take away after seeing your installation?

Nicol: I would hope they have a more kind of concrete idea of the situation at the border. You know, this is not an invasion. This is not some, you know, something we should fear. It really should just be a logistical issue that, you know, there are people who are trying to survive and we need to see what we, as a nation, can do to help them, not try to militarize the border, not destroy the environment along the border, not do damage to border communities, but think of it rationally and compassionately and address it in that manner.

Why was this of such interest to you?

Nicol: I live just a few miles from the border, and so this is something that I encounter on a regular basis. And so, again, it’s not sort of out of sight, out of mind, it’s not abstract. These are these are real people and they’re living their real lives and we need to be engaging with that and doing what we can to help.

There have been lots of ways that artists have tried to capture facets of this conversation about immigration, border walls, barriers, and many have used photography, actually capturing the the images of the individuals. And, clearly, you’re trying to capture that humanity as well. How do the ladders help do that?

Nicol: You have to put yourself in the shoes of the person who would be building this ladder. Why are they building this ladder? Why are they so desperate to come to the United States? And then also the fact that they’re they’re using just scraps; they’re not throwing a bunch of money at climbing the wall because, typically, these are not people that have a bunch of money. And so you think about the desperation and the way that they are approaching this problem and approaching the question of how to keep their family alive.

As I was trying to create an image of the installation in my head as you were describing it, I imagined the the ladders forming a kind of structure themselves. In other words, as they come together, they, too, can look like a wall.

Nicol: These were used to surmount the wall. They form a wall within the gallery. But they also show the way that that wall would be defeated. And when you look down, instead of looking through the ladders you sort of look down the line of the ladders because they are these A-frame structures. It’s almost like a Gothic cathedral in a way – a very disjointed Gothic cathedral. But you know, you’ve got these different connotations of the compassionate religious symbol and structure and also the need to surmount these multibillion dollar militarized barriers just to survive. And I kind of hope that a viewer or somebody that comes to see the show will come away with that and we’ll think more deeply about what’s going on in the border.

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