Mary Ellen Carroll

“First of all, how do you institutionalize fear?” Mary Ellen Carroll asks. It’s both a rhetorical and a non-rhetorical question. That’s because Carroll, a conceptual artist who divides her time between New York City and Houston, and who has produced work ranging from an ongoing performance called My Death Is Pending Because…. to the massive and endlessly recurring prototype 180 project in Houston where she, among other machinations, flipped a house around on its site, is actually interested in documenting what fear is. How to articulate or represent it. About a decade ago, I saw her explore the idea of permanence by burying a car in the woods at Art Omi in upstate New York. Then I heard about her project All The Men Who Think They Can Be Me, where she took out an ad in the paper (back when such a thing was commonplace), and invited men who believed that they fit a certain physical description to her studio to be photographed, to breathtakingly obvious and yet totally surprising effect. Her work has always been at the edges of the known and the unknown (the Donald Rumsfeld reference is deliberate, as you’ll soon see).

She’s asking this latest question in the context of a very specific project, an asylum map that she’s created in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and that is being disseminated now, through posters and PDFs and a variety of other channels, in order to explain, in impressive detail, how asylum requests work. The centerpiece of asylum: the idea of “credible fear,” i.e. the idea that the reason compelling a refugee to seek assistance from another country is in fact a legitimate risk. “This whole discussion of the wall or the fence—it already exists,” Carroll told me, referring to the difficulty of gaining asylum. “And people have sort of alluded to that [existence], but no one’s explicitly stated and shown what the process is.”

Mary Ellen Carroll

Carroll spent a few months crisscrossing back and forth along the Rio Grande, and visiting the kinds of spaces in which asylum interviews are held —where “credible fear” is assessed. The project diagrams the intricacies of the process, both for an individual and a family, and how it becomes “the endless loop” for people trying to cross the border in search of a safer home. But, of course, the project is also deeply activist. “How do you make the kind of narrative of who is experiencing this?” Carroll asks, indicating the value of creating a consistent and coherent story that can cut through so much of the hysterical rhetoric authored by the current administration. The result, which features narrative bubbles that highlight the multiple paths that can lead from a desire to escape one's country to a desire for a new home, emphasizes the long and complicated road to safety.

Carroll points out that there are a number of organizations (such as the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, the Women's Refugee Commission, and the Innovation Law Lab) that are working to ensure that everyone who applies for asylum has legal representation, has a way to understand which bus they need to take and where, can manage their ankle monitors and background checks, and can be prepared for an immigration hearing—hearings which often happen in an entirely different state than the one an asylum seeker has entered. Carroll’s one explicit ambition is that a diagram of this process can lead to greater cultural understanding of the various economic and psychological costs of how asylum seekers are currently treated—for instance, “the humanity of having an ankle monitor versus someone being incarcerated.” Incarceration costs the government $700 per day and causes untold psychological damage to those incarcerated. An ankle monitor costs $15. And yet, the government has incarcerated thousands of people at the border.

Carroll has been meeting with NGOs in both the U.S. and Mexico to better understand the issue as a problem of technology—something clearly demonstrated by this administration’s recently-stated inability to figure out how to reunite families. “Blockchain [could be used] as a ledger system, in a way that they can keep their documents and their privacy preserved through this process and this route,” Carroll says. Even if blockchain isn’t the answer, the project demonstrates how keeping accurate records should be a fundamental right or courtesy that we should extend to those seeking a better life in this country.

“Living in and being aware of contemporary society and issues now we have more information about places than ever,” Carroll says. “So to be able to see and understand and make the things you know not only visible but also comprehensible in some way—I think that’s really, really important.”

Eva Hagberg Fisher is a regularly featured columnist. Her views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.