Glenn Weyant thrives, using the border wall to make eerie, abstract music as bizarre as the structure itself.
We were in Sasabe, Arizona, a tiny and little-known border town with a population of 54. It was Memorial Day, ay a high of 93 degrees. One of the quietest border outposts in the US, Sasabe is surrounded by the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, not far from the Tohono O'odham Indian reservation and just 37 miles west of Nogales.
The wall is a massive metal structure made of 20-foot-high steel beams a few inches apart, rusted the color of dried blood. Glenn pointed out dusty foot and handprints running up the sides of the posts, evidence of previous infiltrations. Many describe the wall as a "speed bump," designed to slow down crossers, not stop them. According to one video, it's possible to vault over in under 20 seconds.
Glen walked along the wall, rapping it with a mallet. Most of the posts are filled with cement, but some are hollow, ringing like church bells. Rat, rat, rat, rat, DING! Glenn grinned. “Isn’t that sweet?” he said.
The 50-year-old Tucson resident sported a wave of grayish-brown hair in a ponytail. With a goatee, athletic sunglasses, black shirt, and jeans, he resembled a college professor, a job he held once before he started “badmouthing” the other faculty. Now he’s a full-time dad. Originally from New Jersey (you can tell because he says “idea” with an “r”), Glenn has lived in the Southwest for two decades, still describing himself as a migrant. Out here, he’s not exactly paranoid, but he places extreme emphasis on following every letter of the law.
It’s completely legal to be this close to the wall, where you can easily stick your toes through the gaps into Mexico. But everything still feels forbidden, ominous, sinister—especially knowing every move you make is being watched and recorded by cameras, drones, and security towers. While you’re not allowed to paint, alter, or otherwise vandalize the wall (and obviously you can’t lawfully hop over it), it’s perfectly admissible to touch and play music on it. And so Glenn does.
In plain view of a surveillance tower about a mile back, Glenn unloaded a case of equipment—several effects pedals, a small soundboard, a battery-powered amp, and several custom-built mics that magnetize to the metal, amplifying whatever vibrations sing through it. Glenn also got into costume, donning two masks—one of a goat, the other of something like a Kokopelli—which Glenn wore because he said people in India wear masks on the back of their heads to ward off tigers.
Using drum mallets, a cello bow, and a viola, he started to play. It began with bizarre, alien warbles, some clicks and snaps, then echoes looping back in on themselves, oscillating in droning waves. Glenn rattled a wire drum brush between the beams and even pounded a mallet against Mexican soil. He squealed into a moose call, sounding like a horse screaming in pain. Then he faced the tower, pulled out the viola, and began creaking on it. It sounded beautiful at first, but quickly became harrowing, the kind of agitating strains common to horror flicks. There was an extended, ringing lull before he took the bow to the fence, sliced at it, made it snap and squelch like crumpling cellophane. Finally, everything purred and faded out. Glenn faced the tower and took a bow.
The piece is “Escape Goat/Ghost,” part of a larger series called Performance for Surveillance. It’s just one of many of Glenn’s ephemeral sound works in The Anta Project, ("anta" being a Sanskrit word for "limit" or "border"), including “Droneland Security,” “Unreal City Sounding,” and “The Two Sun Sin Phony.”
Performance for Surveillance was written with the exact watchtower behind us in mind. It’s an actual annotated score, registered with the Library of Congress, that begins with feedback drone in the key of C, transitions to radio waves and cello playing, and then echoes away. The final part of the performance involves filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request soliciting all video, audio, or other documentation relating to the work. Glenn began filing these FOIA requests, complete with GPS coordinates, with his first recital of Performance, when he wore a zebra mask and played a cello for whoever was watching the cameras.
“They haven’t acknowledged it, other than saying they received everything,” Glenn told me. “At one point, they told me there was nothing and then someone else wrote and said, ‘Oh, you have to wait for it.’ If they don’t have it, does that [tower] even work? Does that billion-dollar instrument, does it even work? Or is it just for show?” he asked, laughing.
Glenn kept pestering the Department of Homeland Security, getting the run-around every step of the way, but eventually received an hour’s worth of footage. It was from the time and date that he performed, but not the location that he asked for.
“You see the camera zoom in, and off in the distance you see these black objects moving and you’re like, what are they?” Glenn recalled. “And you realize they’re a couple of dogs. They’re in America and they sneak into Mexico. And the camera follows them and pans them down the street in Mexico. How much is that guy making to follow some dogs that snuck into Mexico? It’s ridiculous. It’s so absurd. It’s almost as absurd as making music with a wall.”
One of the many goals of The Anta Project is to challenge the observer effect, in which monitorship influences the behavior of the observed. Imagine you’re a Border Patrol agent, cartel member, or rancher, watching a wall all day through binoculars, then see someone whip out a cello bow and start making music and noise from the wall. How does the relationship to the object change? Does the observation of something change its behavior?
“How does that change your relationship to the people on either side?” Glenn asked. “Does it create the potential for something more? Can you build a bridge instead of a wall?”
Glenn has been playing the wall since 2006, and in that short time he’s seen a lot of change. Originally, the border was only barbed wire and ocotillo branches. Then, to deter vehicle crossings, Border Patrol erected Normandy-style barriers made from recycled railroad tracks. Some of these giant steel X’s still scatter the landscape. Next came repurposed helicopter-landing pads. Now, we have these formidable, six-inch steel bollard-style beams with concrete bases.
Things will undoubtedly become more complex now that Sasabe Pipeline Co. plans to export natural gas to Mexico by building a pipeline through the Altar Valley watershed. Understandably, several environmental groups are on edge, as the pipeline is being built close to the nearby wildlife refuge. We even saw several laborers in Mexico working on the pipeline on the other side and we spoke to them in broken Spanish, but didn’t learn much.
To Glenn, the semantics between “fence” and “wall” are important. He explained that when you hear the word "fence," you think something a little more benign, more temporary. “A wall is more permanent, and there is something quintessentially anti-American about walls,” he said, quoting Reagan’s famous catchphrase to Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev: "Tear down this wall!"
“Language is really important because when someone hears ‘wall on the border,’ it’s much more powerful than ‘fence on the border,’” Glenn said. “Myself, I think there are, basically, instruments on the border. Miles and miles of the most expensive instruments." And they are expensive: one mile of border fence averages $2.8 million. "It does nothing other than make sounds. It’s pointless.”
Often when Glenn starts to bring out his equipment, Border Patrol makes an appearance. So far, we hadn’t seen a single agent, just the silent tower. But soon enough, a Ford F-150 came rolling up. The agent stepped from the cab, hands on his hips, and said, “You guys are making music or something?”
Glenn seemed almost ecstatic to have more of an audience. He explained his whole project, how he did it, and even got into the history of the border. The agent didn’t appear amused. “Why does it have to be this fence?” he asked. But there was nothing he could do—we were well within the confines of the law.
That’s not to say Border Patrol hasn’t probed Glenn in the past. One agent implied the musician was testing the wall for weaknesses, while another accused Glenn of being a Russian spy. But Glenn says if you drive a white truck and have a cowboy hat, no one messes with you out here. Before he left, the agent mentioned that most immigration traffic had been pushed east to Texas, so they were getting slammed pretty hard. It seems he was right—this was a few weeks before news broke of 8,000 children traveling without their parents who were caught on the Texas border in May. About 1,000 of these kids were shipped to Nogales, Arizona, where they currently sleep at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal detention center. That’s just a fraction of the estimated 60,000 that have made it here this year alone, with officials expecting that number to rise to 90,000.
Glenn firmly avoids labeling himself an activist, even though he does want to bring attention to these border issues and has supported No Más Muertes, an advocacy group that aims to stop the rising death toll out here. To Glenn, The Anta Project only began to chronicle the weirdness that he was seeing in a place he loved.
“Then I heard how many people were dying out here,” he said.
According to the National Foundation for American Policy, at least 2,202 migrants have perished between 2001 and 2013, attempting to cross into Arizona alone. The total including other states between 1998 and 2012 is pegged at 5,595 deaths, but because official record keeping is spotty at best and not all bodies are found, this is just an estimate.
The question isn’t what can kill you out here, it’s what can’t. Risks include drowning, dehydration, snake bites, heat stroke, hypothermia, even getting hit by cars, to say nothing of the danger of being killed by Homeland Security. One of the more recent examples of Border Patrol killing a person didn’t even deal with illegal trafficking—on October 10, 2012, 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez was in Nogales, Mexico when he was shot eight times through the wall, once in the head, the rest in his back. Why? Border Patrol claim he was throwing rocks at their vehicle. No one has been held responsible.
In March, I attended a vigil in Nogales for Jose, held because the family still wants answers. Street art with the boy’s face is plastered all up and down the street and you can look up to where the officers stood behind the wall and fired their weapons.
Coincidentally, Glenn used to play the exact same wall (the US side) back when it was still made of helicopter landing pads. “I spoke with the guy from the Army Corps of Engineers who tore down the old wall and built the new mega-wall,” Glenn recalled. “I was optimistic the more open wall design would facilitate opportunities for communication, but it apparently wound up doing little more than giving Border Patrol a clear shot.”
Now, “No Trespassing” signs surround that part of the wall, which is probably why Glenn has said, “Music becomes really frightening when you’re doing it in the wrong place.”
Being in the “wrong place,” the musician has witnessed many bizarre things out here in the desert, but he said he isn’t sure if he’s seen any illegal crossings. “I don’t profile,” Glenn said, adding what’s bizarre to him is “what people leave behind,” such as toothbrushes, water bottles, maps, baby shoes.
“Stories that are never told. The bodies in the desert that are never found or never identified,” Glenn said. “That’s the bizarre thing—that people can go about their daily life. If a bus crash happened with a hundred people dying, it would be front-page news. But a hundred people die crossing the desert every year makes a small little blurb in the national paper. There’s just so many people dying, so many kids being displaced. The desert is as normal as it can possibly be. The bizarreness is the little talismans of inhumanity that exist here.”
All Glenn wants to do with his music is challenge that inhumanity, encouraging others to follow his example. “Play the world,” he said. “Everything is a musical instrument. Every sound is valid. You don’t need to buy a guitar and an amp and all that. You just need some sticks to bang on something. I’d like to hear more people doing that.”
Follow Troy Farah on Twitter.