Fake dead horse listening posts, installed in a horse pasture across the street from the US Border Patrol sector headquarters in Marfa, TX.
The horses are an homage to a very peculiar sort of surveillance that occurred during World War I. At that time, many horses died on the battlefield. At night, special troupes of camouflage artists would dig a trench to a dead horse, remove it, and then replace it with a fake, hollow dead horse. This dummy horse was then used as a listening station from which the Allies monitored and reported back about enemy maneuvers. Horses were not the only hollow dummies used on the battlefields. Fake trees, fake dead German soldiers, fake craters and fake tanks were also employed as outposts for enemy surveillance.
Marfa was a major cavalry base during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In addition to serving during the Mexican American War, some of the regiments stationed in Marfa were later sent to Europe and Africa, where they doubtless benefited from the work of the ‘camoufleurs’ as the camouflage divisions were called.
Marfa also happens to have a long history of border patrolling and surveillance, alongside its history of ranching. The horses, and the audio inside them, reflect the unusual ways these disparate economies intersect. They allude to the town’s cavalry and ranching history, as well as its history as a border patrolling sector headquarters. The fact that the horses are dead suggests the growing obsolescence of the horse as a working animal, as ATVs and helicopters are increasingly used in both ranching and border patrolling operations.
The horse is a noble, gentle, intelligent animal and a romantic icon of self-reliance and westward expansionism. Yet the horse, for many of us, symbolizes a western heritage which is very complex, and about which we may not always feel proud. The entitlement with which we have approached the West and the peoples who lived here before we arrived has often not been gentle, noble or intelligent. We hope the horses both reflect nostalgia for the passing of an era while calling into question national policies of manifest destiny.
Caballos de Vigilanica was originally installed as part of “The Marfa Sessions”, a group show that was held from September - February 2008. Curated by Lucy Raven, Regine Basha and Rebecca Gates.