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Border Labs

Stages of Resistance

This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections through May 2017!

We were driving down to Tijuana for the second consecutive weekend of our Border Labs micro-festival and my collaborator Emily Mendelsohn asked Aubree Lynn and I if we had remembered our passports. I realized I had forgotten mine at home so we had to turn around to get it. When I was packing the car earlier that morning I was so focused on the “real” needs and my responsibilities that weekend as project producer: computer, projectors, cables, microphones, programs, money, adaptors, food, water, and clothing. When I left the house I knew I had forgotten something important but I couldn’t figure out what it was.

As an American, my passport has always felt like an unnecessary nuisance—a formality of paperwork and bureaucracy. It is used to fulfill a socially constructed requirement, not a true need. When I was younger people used to tell me your passport was the most important item to remember. You could forget everything and travel naked but if you still have your passport you’ll be okay. It still always seems like a hassle to have to bring it with me, and it was a bother to turn around and drive back home just to get it.

Passports and borders go hand-in-hand because the passport is one’s ticket through the people filter of the border. As simple and obvious as that is, it’s not something I’ve spent much time thinking about very deeply. I’ve never had to reflect on it much more than needing to remember to remember my passport and then being inconvenienced every time I go to Tijuana because the border causes us to have to wait two to five hours to show our passports and cross back into our country. I take US citizenship for granted and I’m used to having few limits other than financial ones.

This year’s Border Labs was different from last year because not only was the context about the border, the content was too. We invited five artist groups from Southern California and Baja California who are profoundly exploring the aesthetics, histories, economies, linguistics, emotions, and politics of the border that divides our country from Latin America. They are people who are not from one side or the other, but have always lived and worked on both sides of the border. The participating artists were Cog*Nate Collective (Amy Sánchez and Misael Díaz), Relaciones Inesperadas (Abraham Ávila and Ingrid Hernández), Antena (Jen Hofer and John Pluecker), Rebeca Hernández, and Hernán del Riego.

a projection shows a graph of intersecting lines and words. On either side of the screen a man and woman stand at music stands with microphones.
Amy Sanchez and Misael Díaz of Cog*Nate collective perform their piece Dialegesthai at Human Resources in Los Angeles

The concept of Border Labs is to gather people from Los Angeles and Tijuana and remove as many barriers as possible so they can share ideas and build relationships through exchanges of performance and conversation. Over two consecutive weekends of salons, workshops, shared meals, and homestays in Los Angeles and Tijuana, we had an opportunity to share short excerpts of performance work with each other and local audiences. The performances were meant to stimulate conversation about our region. The language justice group, Antena Los Angeles, provided live interpretation and translation to facilitate a bilingual space where everyone felt free and capable of understanding and communicating. The informal and intimate salons focused less on presentation and more on interaction. They cut quickly and deeply into the meaning and the collective experience of the work.

Artists created work about the construction and disruption of binaries in language and perception. They shared public art projects that pointed at and expanded the absurdities of singular narratives on the physical border. They shared personal stories of how the border has been central in their family’s lives. Audiences responded with their views and histories. Everyone’s experience is different but conversations on the border evoked common themes: the purpose of the US border is to keep Latin Americans out of the United States. It is meant to simultaneously serve and protect one population and to restrict another population. It draws a clear line between the haves and have nots, not only in terms of material wealth but also in terms of rights and privileges. There is a gaping contradiction between the US Constitution that defines and protects certain human rights it considers universal (such as freedom of travel) and our government who works to keep those rights away from others who are not US citizens. In Tijuana this is obvious, and it’s something that is felt and talked about constantly.

A large group of artists gathered in a circle, they speak and gesture, in a dark room
Discussion between artists and audience after performance in Tijuana at Estación Teatro

Tijuana culture is defined by the border. It is a transnational city with a transient population of people from all over Latin America who are on their way to the United States or have been deported from the US and have no other destination. But there is also a local population of people who have lived their entire lives in TJ and call it home. These locals have cultivated a renaissance in Tijuana that has made it one of the safest and hippest cities in Mexico today. Artists, creatives, techies, entrepreneurs, and chefs from Mexico City are moving to Tijuana and other parts of Baja to start businesses. It’s more affordable, it’s closer to the US, and it can more easily access US markets and industries, while still being in Mexico. These creatives have developed a booming scene that is attracting Californian and Mexican tourists alike who come for the 3-star Michelin farm-to-table Mexican fusion restaurants, wine tasting at scenic vineyards, artist happenings, glamping, beaches, and micro-breweries. And then there are the US spring breakers who come to Tijuana for debauchery. There are multi-national sweatshops and there is a burgeoning post-production film industry from Hollywood who outsources high technical skill at a lower cost than in Los Angeles.

One thing Border Labs hopes to achieve is to add underground artist networks to the list of things that Los Angeles and Tijuana have in common. So far we’ve established alliances between arts organizations such as Automata, Human Resources, Theater Communications Group, the Mexican Consulate in L.A., Estación Teatro, Relaciones Inesperadas, and CECUT. We’ve also helped grow the local international experimental performance community. And hopefully a little more transnational empathy will flow to others as it did for me. Finally, we hope that by organizing performance labs on both sides of the border that the wall between us will become a little more porous and a little more obsolete.

black and white image, left of frame, a woman with her back to the camera take a picture of a fence, a pink line divides the shot, right of frame, a close up shot of the fence
Image by Artist & Scenic Designer Aubree Lynn, who facilitated a Border Labs mapping workshop.