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Performance and the US-Mexico Border with China Medel

April 6, 2022 | Kristen Chavez

Recorded in summer 2021, Fall 2021 Faculty Fellow China Medel talks about her work in media and performance studies, as well as her manuscript Spectral Aethestics: Alternative Media and Visibility at the US-Mexico Border, which looks at a selection of film photography, new media and installation art about the crisis of migrant death at the US Mexico border.




Philip Hollingsworth: Welcome to the Institute, a podcast on the lives and work of Fellows and friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. I’m Philip Hollingsworth. In this episode I speak with Assistant Professor of Communication, China Medel. In our conversation, we discuss her research that looks at Media Studies, the US-Mexico border issues and performance. China, thanks so much for joining me today and talking about your work and what you do at UNC.

China Medel: Yeah, for sure. I’m happy to be here. It’s great to have an opportunity to talk about my research, especially I think in this moment where there’s a collective exhale happening. Yeah, many of us around a changed administration and some hopeful changes on the horizon. Of course, you know, there’s no guarantees or silver bullets or any kind of magic spell that’s going to fix what is happening at the border. But I mean, I think there is that not one that’s likely to be implemented by the current administration. But I think it there is a collective kind of exhale and a hopefulness right now.

PH: Right. So if you will, if you don’t mind, just let our listeners know, in general, what you do as a professor at UNC in your kind of field of research, more generally, or broadly speaking?

CM: Yeah, yes. So I’m, I’m in the Communication Department, and I teach in the media studies and performance studies tracks. I came up in a comparative literature program, but have always studied film and media, those have been my primary focuses. I came up through a complement department that had an emphasis on kind of cultural studies and critical theories. So the communication department with my focus on media studies, cultural studies and critical theory was like a perfect fit for me. So I teach classes in media studies about race, ethnicity, and gender and sexuality. And then also in performance studies, taking up those similar questions. I, you know, last semester, I taught a class on gender and film that I will be teaching regularly between Women’s Studies and Communication, and visual culture class. I’ve taught classes on Latinx performance, US third world feminism, and it’s film and media and kind of other courses like that. So really trying to kind of provide a Latinx lens and orientation within the communication department and kind of integrate those conversations within, you know, our unique approaches to critical cultural communication.

PH: Great, thanks for that. And coming from a, you said, a comparative literature background in your studies. But how did you make that transition into studying film? Because I know sometimes, sometimes there’s literature programs that will kind of welcome that the film studies kind of entering in. I had such a professor’s… it was a great way to kind of study literature and film and get a little touch and like film study, so I’m just wondering how that how that was for you. Coming out of that comparative lit?

CM: Yeah, there was never um, I don’t think any push back on in my department on thinking about film as literature.

PH: Okay.

CM: As itself, you know, I think my department was always pushing the boundaries of what counts as literature, right? And really how to cultural studies orientation, but interested in using the kind of critical paradigms and, you know, focuses on textual analysis and kind of discursivity within, you know, kind of broader cultural formations. So, there was never a kind of a question about film as a form of literature and media.

PH: How does having that literary background kind of differ from someone who may be just straight up a film critic or someone studying film? Like, what, what do you bring that maybe someone else that just came out, like a film studies doesn’t have?

CM: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. And like, a nice opportunity to kind of reflect like, you know.

PH: Because

CM: From my orientation is…

PH: Yeah, yeah, I was thinking just from my own experience. I’m like, well, you can apply a lot of the things that I studied through like, literary theory or just like, you know, understanding narratives and apply that film but you know, films always different because there’s all the other components aside from the written word. But I was just..

CM: Yeah, um. I mean, I think the major thing that, um, that the literature program gave me, one of the, like, the kind of gifts that I got from that program was both thinking of critical theory as a set, as a toolbox kind of. Like a different kind of different options and opportunities for kind of critical engagement. And then really thinking about literature and culture, right, as not, as forms of kind of invention, and making, right? That, um, you know, weren’t only memetic, and were only reflective of the world outside, but also as modes of, of theorizing themselves as kind of offering their own kind of theories and interpretations, right, of how the world worked and how it could work. Right. So there’s kind of I think, like, you know, I have a… One of my pet passions is science fiction and speculative fiction. And I think I’m very informed by thinking of, you know, fiction and fictional work as a motive kind of creative thought and kind of speculative thinking. Kind of thinking outside what is and into what could be,

PH: Right. I’m just curious, you’re talking about that film course you’re teaching on Latinx film and gender? Is that correct? Or no, I think I got it wrong. I think it mixed up two things you’re teaching. So let me repeat-

CM: Courses. Yeah. Latinx Performance and then Gender and Film.

PH: Okay. So thinking about the course you mentioned earlier about Gender and Film, what are some of the films that you you study in that course or show to your students? I’m just curious.

CM: No, yeah, thanks for asking. I’m, I’m really excited about this course right now. Because it just I just got the IAAR SLATE Fellowship for the next year, when I’ll be teaching the class.

PH: Congratulations.

CM: Thank you. Yeah, it’s really exciting, um, to kind of coordinate that class with the kind of broader institutional curricular initiative, on race and reckoning and memory. So, um, the class, you know, I mean, I think on surface, it might not seem like an obvious fit, but just my orientation as a critical ethnic studies scholar is to always take any question about race or gender as a question about race and gender, those are always going to be, um, questions that necessitate concern about the other. It’s never, they’re never separate, right. So in my syllabus for the gender and film course, I integrate, first of all, like Black feminist and Latinx feminist filmmaking, as kind of part of the archive we’re looking at, but also, um, you know, critical race approaches to gender and film as the kind of as some of the, like, major insights that we get from kind of long, and really big, expansive kind of archive of feminist film analysis and feminist filmmaking. So the way I shaped the courses, the first half is about kind of feminist approaches to film, right? Like how feminist thought about film and of course, we talked about the male gaze, and we talk about representation, and we discuss bell hooks and the concept of the oppositional gaze. And then the second half of the course is about feminist approaches to filmmaking, right? So how are feminists trying to kind of shift film language and shift modes of representation in cinema. So the class you know, already had films by Julie Dash, Daughters of the Dust and the film Out in the Night for thinking about documentary and representation, like I’d already the film, the class already contain all of this really great, rich, Black feminist and Latinx feminist, an Asian American feminist thinking and filmmaking. And so it was just kind of about honing in that and kind of shaping the course to also interrogate some of the similar ideas that the SLATE initiative is trying to take up. Because it was already all there, it’s just about kind of like bringing those conversations more to the surface.  But to get to your original question that you asked what films we watch. So the first half of the semester is very much like your kind of feminist or, you know, feminism and film. Your heavy hitters, right? A lot of Alfred Hitchcock and like, melodrama and Douglas Sirk and, and then the latter half of this semester is more. Like Cheryl Dunye, the Black feminist filmmaker, Julie Dash. We spend a unit on like diasporic experimental cinema. So Mona Hatoum and Shana Bahari, and some other more experimental filmmakers. But the class really kind of spans, you know, everything from classical Hollywood cinema, to really experimental kind of video art.

PH: Yeah. And yeah, yeah, that’s a great to… That, like the one things I’ve really enjoyed. I took a few film classes in, in undergraduate, my undergraduate studies, and one thing I really appreciated was, you know, you get exposed to stuff that you would never see otherwise. As just some kid that goes to the movies here and there and tries to well for me at the time, it’s not the case anymore, but would try to find somewhat offbeat stuff at the video store. But it wasn’t, wasn’t that offbeat. So I always really appreciated those and you just see some far out stuff and just kind of really shifts your perspective on what is a movie? What could it be? And, and documentaries will do that as well, just with the subject matter, how they’re made, and things like that. So that’s really cool.

CM: Totally. And I think like, it’s even more I take that like role even more serious. And, you know, I think, you know, back in the day, when you would go into a video store, right, you would see titles, you might pause at a certain section and be like, Oh, what’s that? Interesting looking movie cover, right? But now in, you know, the base of algorithmic kind of audience production, right, that chance that you’re going to come across something that’s really going to surprise you, just kind of organically is feels even like, like less and less likely, right? And so kind of trying to like blow students minds, right, with this movie that they’ve never seen before, or really like challenges their ways of seeing. I take as an even more like, crucial kind of calling. Yeah,

PH: Awesome. Well, thanks for sharing that. I am always like, it always piques my interest when people are talking about like movies and film, because I think it’s something that I mean. I think it’s something that people no matter what, because some people just aren’t into books or reading novels even. And they just want to stick with like nonfiction, or they’re just not big readers. But you can always catch people on movies, and there’s something about it that you can at least hook somebody in, at least to, like you’re saying things that are literary critiques or approaches, or in your case, like feminist theory, or Black feminist theory, you can apply it to any film. And then once you have that base, you know, you’re watching, you know, I can’t help it now. Like I’m watching these kind of big budget, Hollywood blockbusters. And I’m just like, what’s going on here? And I’m thinking like, and my friends are like, can’t you just enjoy the movie? And I’m like, I like it. But I also don’t like this, this and this.

CM: And says, you must hate the cinema and love the cinema.

PH: Yeah. But it’s fun. So I’d like to talk. So you’re, you’re coming into the fall as a as a Faculty Fellow at the IAH. And first of all, congratulations on that. And I’m looking forward to working with you in that realm. But can you tell our listeners, can you talk a little bit about your the project you’re going to be working on in the fall?

CM: Yeah, so I’m finishing up my book manuscript called Spectral Aesthetics: Alternative Media and Visibility at the US-Mexico Border, which looks at a selection of film photography, new media and installation art about the crisis of migrant death at the US Mexico border. That has been at stake since the since the implementation of a policy broadly known as prevention through deterrence, that have governed the enforcement of the US-Mexico border. So this happened like way back in like the late 90s, early 2000s. With two major kind of policies, which was Operation Gatekeeper at the San Diego-Tijuana border and Operation Hold the Line at the El Paso-Juarez border in Texas. So now, I just listened to Joe Biden’s like immigration thing like several press conference like god, it was like a few months ago now. But he was talking about migrant deaths, talking about prevention through deterrence, talking about this as like a policy that needs to change. And this–for a president to talk about the crisis of migrant death and the prevention through deterrence policy is a huge shift in this moment, right. This has been kind of as the scholar Jason de Leon puts a kind of an invisibilized crisis that’s been happening at the border for 20 odd years now, right. And basically, the impacts of this prevention through deterrence policy has been to close down urban border crossing zones. So in Tijuana and El Paso, Matamoros, these other bigger cities, and funnel migration into these, you know, wild open public lands, that in these desert lands, right? And it’s, you know, to continue to use Jason de Leon’s language, right, he wrote this amazing book, Land of Open Graves, he wrote a book called Land of Open Graves, about doing forensic anthropological investigation into migrant deaths in the borderlands. And to use his language, these deserts have been weaponized against migrants crossing the desert. So the closing down of urban crossing zones has entailed the kind of funneling of migration into these into these wild lands, right, and that are inhospitable to… They’re not inhospitable to life, like, I don’t want to put it like that, because there is, you know, an amazing ecology of life and living that takes place in the deserts, but that’s inhospitable to kind of casual human life, right. So people dying of dehydration, exposure, you know, other forms of kind of accidental deaths in the borderlands, and this has also opened the door in a lot of ways to the, to the narco kind of trafficking of human bodies right now. And it’s kind of entailed the building up of this industry, right, where it might happen previously, like, your cousins or some other folks that your cousins knew who might get you through in the cities now, it entails this whole industry of crossing. And so my project is looking at how filmmakers, artists and performance, people have addressed the crisis of migrant deaths in using kind of alternative forms of making this crisis visible. So to kind of circle back, I contend that race and racial disability, seeing through race is the primary way in which the US Mexico border is configured and enforced, and that these artists are kind of mobilizing the invisibility of migrant bodies, trying to make this crisis visible through modalities that do not emphasize the visibility of people’s bodies in order to do so. So I write about one of our own UNC professors and artists who works in the Women’s Studies Department, Susan Harbage-Page, whose project on the US-Mexico border, photographs, the kind of traces and literal tracks of people in the land, through the kind of like, left behind objects and found objects and actual literal tracks left in the land. And how does this — I, you know, my, the book is overall asking the question of how these modalities of seeing allow us to see the border of migration and the kind of crisis of migrant death differently. And allow us to see migration, especially not so much as this kind of, you know, abject and, you know, kind of terrifying, you know, cheat, like all the language that Donald Trump was using right about these kinds of hordes of invaders, right? And instead see it as a kind of like social movement of life, of people enacting their life right through the process of migratory movement. The journalist Sonia Shahs new book, The Next Great Migration, was really taking a similar kind of journalistic approach to this question and thinking about it, in terms of, you know, the burgeoning human movements will see because of climate change in the climate crisis, but really trying to like, reconfigure our understanding of migration, not as a byproduct only of death, but as the kind of social act of life and making life. So for me, that’s kind of the major insight and impact that the book is trying to make, alongside these artists and filmmakers is really trying to reconfigure how we see and understand migration.

PH: Great. Well, thanks for that. Thanks for sharing that. I have one more question, if that’s all right, what’s a book that changed your life?

CM: A book that changed my life? God, there’s so many that’s such a hard question. Um, I’m like, I wish I had my books here in front of me. A book, I think, well, actually, you know, I was thinking about this book as I was kind of preparing for this interview. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I think really impacts the generation in the critical apparatus and the way I’m thinking about spectrality and haunting. And this concept of kind of the presence or absence– that absence has a presence. And so, and that, you know, impacts how I’m thinking about the kind of spectral aesthetics of these different artists, right, that in choosing invisibility, absence, disappearance, and kind of emptiness, right, that focusing on the invisibility of migrant bodies, the kind of absence of migrant bodies really forces us to kind of experience the presence, that presence right, instead of the kind of like over determining legibilities of the racialized body that absence, through a footprint or through a digital performance, that has, in my opinion, a more kind of powerful impact on our ability to see and understand something.

PH: That’s great.

CM: So Toni Morrison’s beloved and Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters, I think together two books that changed.

PH: Great. Well, thanks for sharing that. Thanks so much. Thanks so much again for being on the show. It was a pleasure to talk to you and hear about your work.

CM: Thank you so much for having me. It was great to get to talk about the work and I’m super excited to be a Fellow in the fall.

PH: Check back at for the latest news on our Fellows and upcoming events at Hyde Hall. You can find all our episodes of the podcasts on our website as well as iTunes, SoundCloud and Spotify. Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @IAH_UNC

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