As we approach the arrival of spring, it’s nice to take a moment to look back at the many positive events that took place this winter. One in particular brings back memories and feelings of unity and cohesion, which at present times are as valuable as ever.
In July 2019, the 20-foot metal slats that constitute the wall dividing El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, had their monotony broken by a brilliant combination of art and design.
Three bright-pink seesaws allowed American and Mexican families to come together and play across the border. The interactive installation lasted for roughly 40 minutes, but it was long enough for videos of the event to go viral.
Last January, the project — named “Teeter Totter Wall” — was awarded the 2020 Design of the Year, a prestigious annual prize and exhibition run by London’s Design Museum. The judging panel chose the installation among more than 70 nominees, describing it as “symbolically important” while highlighting the “possibility of things”.
“The Teeter-Totter Wall encouraged new ways of human connection,” said Tim Marlow, chief executive and director of the Design Museum. “It remains an inventive and poignant reminder of how human beings can transcend the forces that seek to divide us.”
The creators were Ronald Rael, a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and Virginia San Fratello, an associate professor of design at San José State University. They were finally able to see the realisation of an idea which they came up with a decade ago, after the 2006 Secure Fence Act started large-scale building on the frontier.
Being the most-crossed border in the world, the US-Mexico one has historically been the centre of continuous political division. The designers wanted to address the issue in a “very frank way but using humour”, hoping that the installation would help people reassess the effectiveness of borders and encourage dialogue rather than division.
“I think it’s become increasingly clear with the recent events in our country that we don’t need to build walls, we need to build bridges,” said San Fratello.
“Walls don’t stop people from entering our Capitol,” Rael added. “Walls don’t stop viruses from moving. We have to think about how we can be connected and be together without hurting each other.”
The duo collaborated with “Colectivo Chopeke” — an artist collective from Ciudad Juárez — to put the seesaws in place, with one team arriving from each side of the border to help with the installation process.
Virginia San Fratello explained in an interview that the project never received official permission. Everything was therefore designed to be assembled as quickly and secretly as possible, to promptly tackle a possible intervention of the border patrol.
“Play can be an act of resistance,” she added. “The teeter-totters point out the atrocity of the border wall while simultaneously bringing people together to share in our common humanity.”
“We think the teeter-totters resonated with so many people around the world, including the judges, because as an act of resistance they were playful and positive. It was a message of joy and hope for the future.”
Now more than ever, we’re realising the power we have on each other as humans. Our behaviour as individuals affects our global community. The words Ronald Rael used to explain the design to CNN back in 2019, remind us that we can use that power not only to avoid hurting each other but also to take part in helping each other.
“What you do on one side has an impact on the other,” he said, “and that’s what a seesaw is.”