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UMSI student curates U-M Museum of Art exhibit on technology at U.S.-Mexico border

Tuesday, 11/02/2021

In what contexts are infrastructure and technology made? What effects are they producing on people and institutions? How do they reinforce the boundaries of a state in a violent way? 

First-year Master of Science in Information (MSI) student Alexis Herrera is exploring these questions and the tangled relationships between people, infrastructure and technology in the context of the United States-Mexico border as the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s (UMMA) inaugural guest Instagram curator. 

Becoming involved in the production of history

Master of Science in Information student Alexis Herrera seated among artworks at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.
Master of Science in Information student Alexis Herrera at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

Alexis, from Tucson, Arizona, became interested in archival studies after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in computer science. Specifically, he says he was impressed by the work of people looking at archives for gaps and spaces in the production of history. 

“At the time I was working as a software engineer in San Francisco,” Alexis says. “I thought it would be interesting to look more into the archival field and maybe even consider going into the profession. After doing some research I realized I’d need more schooling for that, and I discovered UMSI.” 

Alexis said a lot of the University of Michigan School of Information’s (UMSI) allure lay in its faculty’s diverse research interests. 

“I’ve always been interested in technology, and I felt like UMSI would be a good place to not only pursue this area I’m interested in but also see other perspectives,” Alexis says, “not just on archives, but on information in general.”

As an incoming student of archives and digital curation, Alexis found the opportunity to focus an exhibition on a theme of his choice while searching online for summer roles within the university.

Alexis earned a two-month guest Instagram curator position with UMMA and a $2,000 personal stipend and $2,000 to pay directly to artists through the Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Fund. He was tasked with developing an exhibition to take place on UMMA’s Instagram account and website.

Inspiration and information

The concept behind Alexis’s exhibition, “Contingent Perimeters: Infrastructure, Technology, and the (Re)Production of the U.S.-Mexico Border,” was influenced by recent internship work he did with Borderlands Theater in southern Arizona. 

“I helped the theater work on an oral history project where they’d go to traditionally Mexican neighborhoods that were gentrifying in southern Arizona and try to collect, recuperate and store these interviews,” Alexis says. “They try to make plays and projects grounded in community, so they use these oral histories to guide the production. Doing this partly inspired my work at UMMA because they’re both engaging with history in the context of the U.S.-Mexico border.” 

Alexis was also thinking about information and technology while ideating his exhibition. 

“My concept is in conversation with a lot of information science topics,” he says. “I’m looking at the roles of infrastructure and technology in making and remaking the U.S.-Mexico border. Artists attempt to untangle the complicated relationships between technology, infrastructure and the border, investigating the border’s history and its continued dependence on tools, technologies and apparatuses for control and domination.” 

The core, the substance of this exhibition uses a lot of concepts I think faculty and other students at UMSI are working with. 

Inaugural artworks 

Alexis worked closely with UMMA staff to connect with emerging artists and design the exhibit’s digital presence. 

His exhibit features six emerging contemporary artists based out of the American Southwest: Yaritza Flores Bustos, Gloria Martinez-Granados, Hillary Mushkin, M. Jenea Sanchez, David Taylor and Alex Turner, whose works deal with the complexities of the militarized, securitized U.S.-Mexico border. 

One selection of pieces by Hillary Mushkin entitled Survey to Surveillance explores the history of the U.S.-Mexico border through a technological lens, juxtaposing a nineteenth-century report that was instrumental in defining the border with abstract India ink drawings based on maps of systems used by governments and corporations like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

Selections from Alex Turner’s Blind River series capture images via motion sensor camera and computer vision software powered by artificial intelligence in collaboration with scientific researchers studying the Sonoran Desert. The pieces invite viewers to think about the ways in which technologies that are used in similar manners by both researchers and border patrol are used for different purposes. 

“Alexis set the bar so high with this inaugural exhibition,” says Christopher Ankney, director of marketing and public relations at UMMA. “He has shown just how thoughtful, well-developed, moving and powerful these exhibitions can be. We set out to create a social media platform that gives students an opportunity to directly support the artists they love. Alexis helped us turn it into a space for impactful and meaningful exploration of art and ideas.” 

Information changes curation

The information skills Alexis brought to the table helped him exceed UMMA’s expectations for the program. 

“Alexis having experience with user experience and web design helped him see possibilities we hadn’t considered,” Christopher says. “He coded his own exhibition website, which was definitely above and beyond the expectations of the program. His interest in technology and human experience with technology also impacted how he approached the kinds of art curated for the exhibition; there are so many different media included and different ways for viewers to enter into this thinking.” 

It's a complex subject made accessible for many, Christopher says, largely thanks to Alexis's particular point of view and experience with sociology and technology. 

Alexis appreciates the freedom and creativity the program affords students studying archives and digital curation. 

“I think my case is unique in that I have different skills,” he says, “but I never thought I’d be able to curate an exhibition with an institution using my own ideas from the very beginning. It’s been rewarding.” 

 

View Alexis’s exhibition website.

View the Instagram exhibition and learn more.

View Alexis’s portfolio. 

Learn more about UMSI's Master of Science in Information program and how to apply.