When artist Jennifer Meridian signed up as a bidder for Donald Trump’s US-Mexico border wall, she didn’t think much would come of her plan. Meridian, part of Pittsburgh-based JM Design Studio, had wanted to make a statement about the wall’s absurdity. So her studio imagined a series of subversive, welcoming “barriers” made of lighthouses, hammocks, and pipe organs. “I just did it as a very light gesture,” Meridien says. “I imagined it would just be discarded immediately.” Then, she got her first pitch from somebody who wanted to help her build them.
The first vendor to approach her was hawking a product called EZ Slide, an “anti-climb coating” as slippery as ice that would “improve the aesthetics of the wall, protect it from the environment, and be a significant additional deterrent to climbing.” The company had reached out to JM Design Studio in a general pitch to interested bidders, and it offered to send her a sample, in case her design received one of the government’s $200,000 to $500,000 contracts to build 30-foot prototype walls. More emails followed — from construction subcontractors, historic preservation consultants, and other companies looking to capture a piece of border wall funding.
For the vast majority of government contracts, companies can safely assume that a proposal’s interested vendors are, in fact, interested. But with something as controversial (and sometimes bizarre) as the wall proposal, their world ends up colliding with that of people like Meridian, who are using online systems as a form of political action.
“We were intrigued that it was an open bid,” says Meridian. “The fact that it was accessible was exciting and gave us a platform to insert our position on the whole proposal.” She wasn’t the only one who took advantage of this — the nonprofit group Makin’ Hay, which submitted a plan to build the northern wall from Game of Thrones, even plans to launch an app that will let people automatically swamp unpopular future proposals with applications. Even among the less obviously satirical selections, it’s a little hard to tell who’s being serious, because a wall of hammocks is only slightly more ridiculous than a 100-foot trench of nuclear waste.
The contractor emails, meanwhile, provide a more sober contrast. However absurd your proposal turns out to be, they’ll offer lodging facilities originally created for military and defense contractors, or the use of the “Tesmec Rock Hawg,” a forbidding heavy-duty terrain-leveling and excavation vehicle. There’s the company that, according to a blog post, thinks walls aren’t actually very useful — and pitches its sensor system instead. Another contractor offers a two-paragraph capsule history of his own life, written — Meridian suspects — to ward off accusations that the wall project is xenophobic. “My mom and dad’s parents were born in Mexico, that makes me 100% Mexican,” it starts. “Being Mexican was never an issue in my mind.”
“Really, they’re all quite upsetting,” Meridian says of the emails. Their upbeat, matter-of-fact tone becomes particularly dark when you consider some of her prototypes, like a wall of gravestones memorializing dead migrants and refugees. But she also finds it intriguing to get a glimpse at the community of people who could end up building the wall — if it’s ever fully funded.
Recipients of the initial federal wall grants were supposed to be notified in mid-May, with the goal of starting wall prototype construction in June, and Meridian wasn’t among them. But although her wall proposals started as a gesture, she now hopes to actually build some of the designs. Her studio is looking for partners to fund short hammock and pipe organ walls, which Meridian hopes to erect near the “dystopic sculpture park” of wall test sections. “All I can think about is how incredibly amazing it would be if we could have ours near that,” she says.
Unfortunately, so far, she hasn’t had much luck getting offers that fit her project’s singular requirements. “Nobody’s specifically written me with having really good hammock material,” she says. “I would really be welcoming that. I need a really good vendor.”