Josh Begley’s short film “Best of Luck with the Wall” uses satellite images to scan the U.S.-Mexico border, its landscapes stunning in their vast impenetrability, the prospect of crossing them daunting.
In six mesmerizing minutes, Josh Begley’s short film “Best of Luck with the Wall,” produced by Field of Vision, shows a succession of satellite photographs of the border between the United States and Mexico—all nineteen hundred and fifty-four miles. As you watch, an urgent, minimalist score plays, and the complexity of the changing landscape—watery, forested, industrial, arid, desolate, suburban, populous—unfurls. Begley began the project in the summer of 2016, after being struck by the beauty of the novel “Signs Preceding the End of the World,” a crossing narrative by the Mexican writer Yuri Herrera. “It got me thinking about what it’s like for folks who make that journey,” Begley said. The Presidential campaign and Trump’s border-wall talk were at full boil, and Begley had also been thinking about how the rhetoric “reduced this vast geography to a metaphor and took it out of its own context.” It would be useful, he thought, to see what the border actually looked like.
Begley, thirty-four, has used data-driven art to explore subjects ranging from concussions to mass incarceration and drone strikes, incorporating satellite images, Google Street View images, and Google Maps in his work, and he has created phone apps that alert users about drone strikes and about killings of civilians by police. He first studied data representation in art school at N.Y.U., with Jer Thorp, the first data-artist-in-residence at the Times, who, Begley said, “was thinking about how to represent big sets of information visually, in ways that tell you more than the story of a spreadsheet.” Begley is also inspired by Toni Morrison and the ways in which her novels seek to represent “the unspeakable, or the things that feel hard to see,” he said. “She said something in a Q. & A. that really moved me. After a very basic question, like, ‘Why do you write literature?,’ she said, ‘There’s data, which becomes information, which becomes knowledge. But the step after that is wisdom. And none of those first three is sufficient.’ That scaffolding of data into and up through literature is why we go to literature, and ultimately what I want to be thinking about.”
The film begins with the sound of the ocean and an overhead view of the deep-blue Pacific coast; as the taut score, by Jace Clayton (as DJ /rupture) and Andy Moor, begins, the images speed up, panning from west to east, allowing us to scan the southern border as if we’re reading a book. The screen turns from beige to green and back again, dotted with construction, mountains, fields, forests, deserts. The arid landscapes are stunning in their vast impenetrability; the prospect of crossing them is daunting. In some places, the border is visible—partial walls exist in California, Arizona, and Texas. When the Rio Grande comes on the scene, legendary, gorgeous, and all over the place, it’s like encountering a celebrity, or a dramatic friend who’s a bit of a handful. The images race along the river’s twisty aqua switchbacks as if trying to keep up, in a dizzying fashion, and then, suddenly, there’s the sea: freedom, danger of a different kind.
Seeing that whole journey lengthwise, from the sky, gives perspective and prompts curiosity about the people living near the border, the people trying to cross it, and the people trying to stop others from crossing it. Begley and Daniel Alarcón’s “Fatal Migrations,” also from 2016, shows dozens of bird’s-eye-view photographs of land where migrants have died since 2001, each denoted with a name, or “unknown,” and a date. Some images show signs of human life—houses, streets—but many are desolate, dusty landscapes. All of it contrasts painfully with the specificity of the name and date of death of the unseen migrant.
I asked Begley about the effect of looking at satellite images—their perspective, their distance. “My feeling about it has shifted over the years,” he said. “The satellite image can flatten, and it can create the illusion of more distance.” In his first project using satellite imagery, he said, “I was trying to look at what the geography of incarceration in the United States looked like. So many of the carceral spaces and prisons often feel hidden from our everyday lives, and looking at all of them from above can be one way of assembling that kind of archipelago”—useful, informative, even humanizing. “At the same time, I think about what those images do to us. Do they tend to desensitize us? Do they make us feel more of an intimacy with what we’re speaking about or looking at? I’ve landed on both sides of the fence.” In other works, he’s used Google Street View to provide a more intimate look at information, as in “Officer Involved,” which shows the nondescript roadsides and suburban cul-de-sacs that have been sites of killings of civilians by police officers—images that are devastating in their benign familiarity.
Early on in the making of “Best of Luck,” Begley included Street View imagery as well, but there wasn’t enough of it available to make it work. Since then, the news has provided a deluge of border stories and images from close range. In the summer of 2016, the border felt like a metaphor; in 2019, it’s metaphor and humanitarian crisis at once.