Trail of Tears: “Motel X: A Multimedia Human Trafficking Prevention Art Installation” at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, January 11-April 4, 2020

February 15th, 2020  |  Published in *, January/February 2020

When I first came to Cincinnati, I was told that I-75 had been designed by someone who had heard of an interstate highway but never actually seen one. At times, it feels like it was little more than a good guess on the builders’ part. I-75 sprouts red barrels as empty fields sprout crabgrass, and is susceptible to traffic slowdowns that are as commonplace as they are inexplicable. It is the road of convenience to get to Costco or Michigan, but that only captures a fragment of its immensity. It runs over 1700 miles from Miami to Canada, connecting Daytona and Dayton along the way. But while I worry about bumper to bumper traffic, I-75 is also, the exhibit Motel X at the Freedom Center tells us, a main artery for human trafficking in the United States, moving children, undocumented workers, and sex slaves from south to north and sometimes back again. Motel X asks you to re-envision what you think is going on in all those dull motels you pass along the way while you drive, and to think about those who do not enjoy the freedom to stop and go as you do. For thousands of people, I-75 is a trail of tears.

Motel X, at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Motel X, designed by local artist and filmmaker Christine Marque, is intended to evoke the horrors and sorrows of human trafficking by means of an immersive re-creation, of a sort, of a motel room that might have been a stop along the long journey to a less free world. It is fair to ask what exactly it is, however. It is not, for example, designed to accurately reconstruct an actual motel room. It has far more cubic feet than that and none of most motel room’s tight quarters, dirty windows, or odors. I’ve certainly been in creepier motel rooms; heck, I’ve been in creepier dorm rooms.

While it’s not intended to be an exercise in architectural mimicry, it may be that its function is to take the absolutely prosaic and mundane world of something as familiar as a motel room and find in it depths of misery, fear, and abuse. It reminded me of the stories one reads in the newspapers about those people who rent a suburban motel room to set up a 24-hour meth lab, working through the night and leaving the various plastic props of meth production behind along with serious chemical contamination. Some of the most powerful aspects of the Freedom Center’s installation came from the ways it presented and politicized the uncanny—the taking of the ordinary and making it unfamiliar. This is the sort of motel room that never gets truly cleaned between uses. The installation focuses on the manufacture and recovery of detritus and contamination. We depend on a motel room to snap back to where it had started when we enter it, but this one comes with children’s clothes already in the closet, notes cluttered in the dresser drawers, and a shower covered with desperate graffiti. A part of the show is designed to make viewers realize that trafficking leaves stains behind it; our orderly world is filled with the marks left behind by ghosts who’ve passed through before, visible to visitors if we take the step of poking around.

Another powerful aspect of the show is that we can experience some small measure of the sacrifice of freedom that victims of trafficking might have felt. We are advised at the show’s front entrance “to touch, feel, and look around at all the furniture. Pay close attention to each object and discover a hidden world.” If we pull back the covers on the bed, there is a message; if we open a dresser drawer, there are piles of notes from imaginary children. But though the text on the door suggests that we are free to find and explore all the Easter eggs in the show, in fact, we’re very constrained. The bedspread only can come down so far; any furniture drawer not already packed with writing is in fact unable to be opened. The space resists us. You can’t run the shower, move the cleaning supplies, or touch the clothes in the closet. There are practical reasons for this, of course, but I felt that they were in harmony with the point of the show: those being trafficked may see an ordinary motel room, but they are not free to explore it as they will or to change even the smallest thing. The installation is both interactive and impervious.

If we turn on the television in this room, we get a video of a two-person piece of choreography, photographed in some different space. I am plainly not the right person to comment on the actual dance, though without the ability to truly appreciate it (my fault, not the show’s), I thought it was a focus-puller and an opportunity missed: what must it be like for those who might find themselves imprisoned in such a motel room to witness the oppressive cavalcade of middle class culture that constitutes daytime TV? It is estranging enough for those who are not enslaved. The dance might well have been designed to put some bodies on the ghosts who haunt Motel X, and bring physicality into play. There are other hints of corporeality, including the clothes hanging in a walled off closet with shoes (and children’s toys) on the floor, and a truly striking life-sized wire sculpture of a nude folded upon itself and crouching, hidden in the bathtub. Is it trying to make itself comfortable in the very limited space available? Is the figure hiding from its captors or is it being made by those captors to hide from authorities?

Motel X, at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

But it is safe to say that the show is chiefly a verbal experience. Practically every surface has messages painted on it or scratched into it, and practically every nook and cranny to which we have access seeks to talk to us. I saw the show on a quiet weekday afternoon which enabled me to read as much or as little as I cared to; it must be difficult on a crowded day to have to compete with others for the chance to read all the show’s communications. In the bathroom, there is a cleaning cart where each commercial product comes with advice or instructions on how to recognize trafficked individuals among us. We should pay particular attention to “History of Truancy”; “Lack of Knowledge about Community”; “Scripted or Rehearsed Answers to Questions.” These are ways for us to be alert to the phenomenon that people around us who look free may in fact not be. It was also the part of the installation that came closest to fulfilling the literal meaning of the full title: “A Multimedia Human Trafficking Prevention Art Installation.”

This is one of the voices in which the show speaks, but it is not the only one. Sometimes the writing seems to come from one victim or set of victims in the form of memos addressed to the victims who will follow in the future; on the top of the desk, you can read, “You’ve got to detach your body from your soul to survive.” It was a little like the coded hobo markings left on fences around people’s houses from the Great Depression: What can you expect? What can you hope for? Messages are written in the margins of a Bible, in small notebooks, on individual pages stacked deeper than anyone could hope to read, all in a wide range of handwritings appropriate to younger people. Some consist of a single word, like “Despair,” composed with a heart as the dot over the “i.” And what do the longer notes tell us? The messages consist of fervent, one-sided conversations. There are almost no concrete details, which I found myself hungry for. There was lots of advice: “No matter what are not alone”; “Choose to live like you will survive”; “We are all different and have our own storys,” though in fact there were no stories or narratives to be read and practically no use of the first person singular from the writers. Perhaps the loss of the first person was part of the point? The bottom of one scrap read “Anything is possible,” though it seemed essential to the point of the show that a great many things were, by the very nature of trafficking, not possible.

Motel X, at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

I wondered how and by whom these miniature texts were produced, though perhaps more fundamentally, I wondered what we were supposed to think they were. Fantasies of encouragement? (One undercurrent of the show is the understated quest for a hero in all this darkness.) Testimony? Clues? (There is sometimes a forensic air to the installation.) A reenactment of the appetite to be remembered after the interstate caravan has moved on, like carving your name on a tree trunk? What was the function of such language? Sometimes it seemed like textbook social welfare, especially where the focus was on “prevention.” While never uninteresting, the various tips for what to do if you found yourself in a trafficking situation seemed predictable. There is an irony here in being warned to be alert for scripted or rehearsed answers when some aspects of the show itself suggested so little spontaneity.

Elsewhere, the language burst free, as in the graffiti, in English and Spanish, in the shower stall. Here, and almost here alone, we came close to the missing first person narratives in the show, with stories boiled down to single words: “confined,” “manipulated,” “betrayed,” “coerced,” “lured,” “tricked,” “abject.” Whose voices were we experiencing? Not those of the victims, exactly, and certainly not the traffickers, though it is an interesting conceit in the installation that those who had the most to lose didn’t seem to mind all the communications between their victims. One of the most effective assumptions throughout the show was that we shouldn’t expect to find conventional dramas here, acted out by characters with convention motivations; such things are among what trafficking obliterates. Sometimes it seemed like the weary advice from overwhelmed prosecutors or the professionals in children’s protective services. And sometimes, they seemed like voices of prophecy, foreseeing, as Blake did more than two centuries earlier, that a judgment awaited those who profited off the sale of innocence.

Motel X, at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Some of the most interesting texts in the show came in the form of alterations to a novel that had been hidden in one of the drawers. The book was reimagined by having most of its text redacted, leaving us to find a new text hidden in the remaining words, like some spy’s code. When it was done by Ronald Johnson in 1977 to the first four books of Paradise Lost, it was called “erasure poetry.” In a show about various erasures, it was interesting to propose that to have any story at all, you may have to erase another. The original story is obliterated in order to allow some hints of another narrative to come through. The revealed story is in tentative and sometimes even tortured English, but it seemed to hint at a greater justice to come, some time in the future. “The silence of the city was all over,” reads one short section; another conjured up “countless stories led by a warrior and returning home”; another exclaims, “For the first time ‘Good Lord!’ I have a choice.”

Sometimes I found myself wishing that there was a little less X in the installation and a little more Motel. Perhaps the cleaning cart—not the texts and labels on the cleaning products but the mere fact of the cleaning cart, an acknowledgment of the need to get the room ready for the next wave of victims—came closest to that. I missed a stronger sense of the complicity of ordinary businesses in the creation of so much misery. What does the cashier of such a place see and think and do? What about the people who refill the coffee pots for the continental breakfast in the lobby? It will be a little hard to look at I-75 in quite the same way again–and so in that regard, the installation must surely have been successful.

It was hard not to think about the relationship between slavery in its many forms—imprisonment, the theft of liberty—and capitalism. Slavery surely predates capitalism, but capitalism gave slavery its current form and kept it alive—keeps it alive. What is slavery but the end case of the commodification of people and experience, for another’s profit? I found myself wishing that the installation had been able to get hold of more of the Motel X experience, in all its banality. The room is not designed to give a sense of the bureaucracy of oppression, but that seems inseparable from the business of motels: we line up our cars in an orderly fashion, we show cards that testify to our identities and fill out forms, we pay with cash which gives off an illicit feel or with credit cards (a coded and dehumanized form of money). Slavery fits inside capitalism, perhaps too cozily. Capitalism shapes it, shelters it, offers it a home, a profit motive that goes beyond the story of individual villains and victims. It bestows a disguise to human trafficking—here, in the form of a rentable motel room–a shape sufficiently tolerable to the outside world that it is barely visible to the conscious mind. One contains the other, as a bathtub might contain a huddled figure trying to make space for itself inside it.

–Jonathan Kamholtz

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