What Borders Can Do
Article originally published in the journal OnCurating
What Borders Can Do
by Carla Gimeno Jaria
How difficult is to imagine a world without borders? Whether they are material, such as walls, frontiers, or fences, or conceptual, such as race or gender divisions, borders constitute the very nature of societies by dividing, configuring, and leading social flows. Even when we peacefully inhabit our mother’s womb, our beings are positioned under diverse groups that define how our life will unfold. Is it a girl or a boy? Where will you be born? These are common questions that, from the early stages of a human’s life, designate our place in the world: where we will be belong and where we will not.
Intangible and Tangible Borders
One could refer to these first kind of classifications as intangible or conceptual borders, since they separate one from another but in a more ideological or cognitive sense. Conceptual borders might appear to be subtler than walls or other types of physical borders, yet their dividing effects are still very effective. In A Cyborg Manifesto,[i] Donna Haraway uncovers gender, race, and class as the three main social divisions that have rendered humanity fragmented for decades. Haraway points out the threatening nature of these ideological divisions that define the boundary conditions of societies by predetermining our identities and roles.[ii] As Haraway states, the assertion and constitution of these taxonomies comes as a result of the hegemonic Western discourse: “Gender, race and class consciousness is an achievement forced by the realities of patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism.”[iii] The successful inscription of these intangible borders in today’s collective imagery performed by the power structures, therefore, has driven to the constitution of the world as a segregated body.
When borders are tangible, their material constitution and attached rituals of violence produce a more palpable break, by forcing a physical division between humans who are supposed to live in different territories or nations. Although there is an irrefutable distinction between intangible and tangible borders, it is also certain that they overlap in their conception. Both kinds of borders may differ in their materiality, but they both exist to expulse, distribute, divide, separate, classify, isolate, split, and so on. Certainly, the need for power structures to identify race and class as intangible borders among people have fed the increasing constitution of tangible borders all over the world.
The philosopher Thomas Nail has recently published The Theory of the Border, an extensive exploration of the notion of the contemporary border that starts by expressing the impossibility of providing a general theory of the border because of its complex composite nature.[iv] Nail highlights that borders have historically had different names and differences, but they have always had something in common since they all imply “a process of social division.”[v] Precisely, this commonality relates to Nail’s approach to the border in relation to kinopolitics—a theory that understands societies as “regimes of motion” and not as “static, spatial or temporal”—by evidencing that the border cannot be reduced to an immobile or fixed entity because it is continuously negotiated and transformed while it is being used to regulate and distribute the movement of social flows.[vi] Neil also introduces the “in betweenness” of the tangible border, as it is usually located “between states” so “the border, as a division, is not entirely contained by the territory, state, law, or economy that it divides.”[vii] This particularity, therefore, introduces an interesting field for exploring the breaches of the border as a constitutive body. Walls or fences, for instance, are built up as dividers between territories, yet they touch both sides of the states that are supposed to divide. This demonstrates that, in fact, borders become an oxymoron in their very conception. So, even if the tangible border is meant to be a space of social division, what if it can also become a space to actively challenge, question, and reformulate these imposed norms?
Border Art and the México/U.S. Border
In recent decades, it has become increasingly common to see artists who develop artworks and collective projects in vulnerable territories of the world such as borders. Art activism is not something new, but since the Sixties there has been an exponential growth of artists whose practice is focused on actively reacting to the impositions of power structures, whether it is because of a political or social situation or because of climate change. According to the theorist Boris Groys: “Art activists do not want to merely criticize the art system or the general political and social conditions under which this system functions. Rather, they want to change these conditions by means of arts.”[viii] There are uncountable ways of performing art activism, but a specific artistic movement addressing border politics from a critical angle emerged on the México/U.S. border in the early Eighties.
The México/U.S. border, composed of different sections and materials, is 1,989 miles long and has become one of the most frequently crossed borders in the world.[ix] Aiming to explore the political and social tensions of this border, in 1984 a bi-national group composed of David Avalos, Sara-Jo Berman, Víctor Ochoa, Isaac Artenstein, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Michael Schnorr, and Jude Edhard, who were all artists, activists, and scholars, founded Borders Art Workshow/Taller Arte Fronterizo (BAW/TAF).[x] As one of the first collectives to emerge in the México/U.S. borderlands, they started to perform their projects both in the city of Tijuana in México and at the borderline itself. Through their art projects, which mainly are site-specific interventions and live art actions that engage with the community, they aim to reimagine and subvert the condition of the border.[xi]
Since the appearance of BAW/TAF, there has been a rise in artists who have developed art interventions and projects in the borderline. What most of them have in common is that they usually question the state of affairs through a subversive method, by involving the participation of the communities of both sides of the border, which is to say, people who politically and ideologically are supposed to be confronted or separated. This means that, frequently, border art actions are community projects that critically engage with border politics through participatory processes and exchanges. In this scenario, artists become researchers who aim to create a space for political and critical performances to take place.[xii] Guillermo Gómez-Peña, one of the founding BAW/TAF members, described the experience of their actions as such: “We really focused on the border as a site of possibilities, as a spiral model as opposed to a dividing line.”[xiii] This is why the notion of the border cannot be understood as a neutral line that only divides nations but rather as a site of social struggle composed of a cosmos of subjectivities, laws, and imposed hierarchies and taxonomies, whose meanings and nature can also be challenged through collective action.
Participatory art involves all those works where the artist moves away from the figure of individual producer of objects and becomes a producer of situations and exchanges between people.[xiv] The theorist Claire Bishop alludes to Guy Debord’s thinking on the human necessity for participatory art as a project since, “It re-humanises a society rendered numb and fragmented by the repressive instrumentality of capitalist production.”[xv] The living body, thus, becomes the central focus of live artistic actions, framing the uncertain fate of the body-body transmission in a determinate space and time as an intrinsic condition for its existence.
More precisely, the fact that the vast majority of artistic projects taking place on the México/U.S. border are accompanied by participatory actions illustrates the artists’ need to involve other living bodies in order to engage with the reality of the border and eventually create a space where the norms can be challenged collectively with those who are directly affected by border politics. As the live art curator Lois Keidan stresses: “Live art is able to cross boundaries between art and politics and cross not only conceptual borders but also physical ones, due to its site specificity and responsiveness to its contexts and audiences.”[xvi] Currently, there are dozens of examples that demonstrate how through site-specific live actions and interventions, cultural producers are able to circumvent the nature of the border, by altering its condition and raison d’être on a temporary basis.
A first example is the French urban artist JR, who uses photography to create subversive interventions in the public space. In October 2017, on the last day of his installation at the México and U.S. fence, which featured a huge image of a Mexican kid looking towards the United States side, the artist decided to organize a massive bi-national picnic in-between the fence. JR first created a giant dining table whose surface incorporated a picture of the eyes of a “Dreamer,” which made reference to one of the young undocumented migrants who at that moment belonged to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.[xvii] The table straddled the fence in Tecate, on both sides of the border between México and the USA. The bi-national picnic was not officially announced or publicized because of the risk of being stopped by US Border Patrol agents, so the only way the artist could let the community know was through word of mouth.[xviii] Surprisingly, dozens of neighbors from both sides of the border started to show up. Eventually, hundreds of people—who historically have been forced to live separated—were sharing food, drinks, and music on a sunny day at the fence itself. Despite the border wall being on-site, reminding them that they were from opposed nations, they constructed a temporal space for coexistence and friendship, where nationalities, class, age, and gender were anything but relevant.
Also in 2017, Collective Magpie, formed by Tae Hwang and MR Barnadas and whose work is mainly linked to migration and the ways in which cultural configurations can be negotiated, presented their two-year-long project called Globos (which means balloons in Spanish). Globos started in 2015 as a series of workshops held in Tijuana (México) and San Diego (United States), where participants were invited to create triangular tissue paper pieces that would eventually build a giant hot air balloon.[xix] The final structure of the balloon, which measured about 37 feet by 25 feet, was held together by thousands of these triangle tissue papers, which were all interconnected.[xx] For both artists, the clear statement behind this collaboratively made giant hot air balloon was how such a simple gesture performed during diverse workshops could transcend the border condition.[xxi] The project culminated in a collective border-side balloon launch that took place on both sides of border: the bi-national Parque de la Amistad/Friendship Park in Plaza del Faro in Tijuana and the Border Field State Park in San Diego.[xxii] This way, as a metaphorical gesture, the participants of the workshops from both nations could see how the hot air balloon was able to cross the border over the wall.
More recently, on the July 30, 2019, Teeter Totter Wall, a performative sculpture conceptualized and designed by architects Rowland Rael and Virginia San Fratello, became a media sensation on social media.[xxiii] People from all over the world were impressed to see that three temporary pink seesaws had been installed cross-border at the fence section that separates El Paso in Texas (USA) and Juárez in México.[xxiv] Rael and San Fratello worked on the art project for over ten years, first starting with the sketches and then looking for different ways to make it happen. Finally, for half an hour, children from both countries went to the fence and played together with those seesaws, which allowed them to see each other from both sides, as if they were on a playground. This action was particularly relevant in a moment in which dozens of families were struggling to stay together due to the severe border politics imposed by the ex-president of the United States, Donald Trump, which forced kids to be separated from their parents. Even though it was just for a few minutes, the fence thus became a place to embrace children’s innocence and joy.
There are plenty more artistic productions that have taken place on the México/U.S. border, but these three illustrate how collaborative site-specific performances with the local communities, who are directly affected by the violence of border politics, can become a means to circumvent the imposed narratives of dividing walls. Although these borderland communities are constantly confronted with the reductive power of borders, these artworks demonstrate that there are ways in which they can find in the tangible border a temporal “in-betweenness” for social resistance. As the professor Anne-Laure Amilhat Szary relates: “Fencing a border not only activates but re-activates a cultural production on the significances and meanings of international limits but also transform the original meaning of the fence itself.”[xxv]
Institutionalism and Border Politics
Even though there are some exhibitions in more conventional art spaces such as museums or galleries that address border politics, by critically engaging with the notion of the wall or the frontier, one cannot ignore that these institutions also encompass certain processes of social division. Take as an example the exhibition Borders that took place at James Cohan Gallery in New York (USA) in 2019. Featuring the work of 28 artists with diverse nationalities, this show tackled a series of concerns regarding the rise of nationalism and the global refugee crisis in relation to borders.[xxvi] The exhibition included a wide range of media: from art documentation of artists who had previously developed artworks on a border site to conceptual works or site-specific installations in the gallery approaching the physical and palpable violence of the border.[xxvii] Yet, what remains important in this scenario is that generally these institutions and galleries are built of walls, creating a tangible division between the inside and outside. Likewise, even if they are free, they are not democratic and accessible to everyone; therefore, they involve a separation between those who have accessibility to “high culture” and those who do not. This exhibition was created as a site for reflection and contemplation, sparking a critical statement, but this lack of engagement with certain publics, almost turning the experience of art into something exclusive or elitist, leaves an open question: is Border Art supposed to be displayed according to the logics of a conventional art display?
When art is explicitly produced to take place on tangible borders, it cannot be framed within the logics of object-based exhibitions, since it usually establishes a direct and dependent relationship with the spatial context and the local community. On the one hand, even if there are several artworks developed on borders that do not involve the participation of the community, they are site-specific, meaning that the temporal and spatial frameworks of these artworks are essential to their existence. A certain social and political situation in a specific territory makes a difference to all those artworks that are in a direct relationship with a certain spatial context. On the other hand, when border artworks require the participation or presence of those who live on the borderlands, they also become site-specific. Generally, live art expressions have translated the traditional understanding of the artist as the only author into another state. Nevertheless, in the case of border artworks, it is not a matter of audiences or publics, but rather the authorship is usually transferred to a whole community whose presence is indispensable for the artwork to exist. Imagine JR’s Picnic at the Border without participants or Magpie Collective’s Globos being made by the artists themselves. The political and social effects of those artworks would be much less powerful without the community’s participation, if not negligible. In this way, therefore, authorship is built up in a collaborative way by requiring participation for its constitution.[xxviii]
GLOBOS at Friendship Park/Parque de la Amistad, Tijuana-San Diego, Photo credit: James Reyes, Image courtesy of Collective Magpie
There is, however, a particular case of art institutionalism on the México/U.S. border that relates to this site-specific nature of Border Art in relation to the engagement with the local community. The Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts (also known as the Rubin Center) officially opened in 2004 at the University of Texas El Paso (UTEP), which is located on the México/U.S border.[xxix] The project was born in the early 2000s when the art curator Kate Bonansinga started working as gallery director in the small art gallery on the university campus. Bonansinga felt that the bi-national environment and context of the UTEP, of which 80% of its students are Mexican American, was particularly challenging in relation to contemporary art; so, after working for one year in the gallery, she made the decision to fight for a more ambitious program in order to reach a wider audience.[xxx] Three years later, the Rubin Center—named after the main donors—opened in a much bigger space in one of the facilities of the campus. From the very beginning, Bonansinga’s curatorial aim was clear: she wanted to create a space for art directly related to the México/U.S. border, where artists would become researchers, and art students would become their assistants, thereby triggering cross-disciplinary discussions and learning.[xxxi] The location was ideal for this to happen, so she turned the space into an ongoing research hub hosting commissioned art installations—mainly new media, sculpture and performance artworks—from selected artists who were either familiar with this particular geographical territory or experienced in addressing the theme of the México/U.S. border or borders in general through their art.[xxxii] Furthermore, the fact that the students were part of the program, whose relationship with the border was relatable to their personal experience, endowed the Rubin Center with strong social bonds with the local community.
When Kate Bonansinga founded the Rubin Center, she had a direct curatorial goal, which led her to create a successful program with a strong link to the borderland community. This particular example leaves therefore an important note on the figure of the curator in a borderland zone. The word “curate” comes from the Latin cura, which means “to take care of.” The art curator, thus, first emerged as the figure within museums and institutions in charge of preserving art collections and cultural heritage. In recent decades, the conventional figure of the curator, understood as the organizer of art exhibitions, has increasingly been moving towards new directions and interpretations, making it difficult to delimit and define their role under certain contexts and premises.
Border Art introduces diverse challenges in relation to the curatorial because when artworks are developed at a border wall such us the México/U.S one, whether they involve the participation of the community or not, the responsibility of the curator is not about displaying artworks and facilitating constructive exchanges between audiences and artists within the exhibition space, but about answering a complicated political and social situation and framework in a particular time and location through an artistic project. Something that remains relevant in this scenario, though, is that a curatorial situation implies the development of patterns of hospitality, by providing the spatio-temporal conditions to engender encounters between unknown entities or bodies.[xxxiii] This is why the figure of the curator has experienced a shift, because in our times, art is subject to myriad variables relating to its mediums, locations, audiences, authorship, participants, and so on.
There are several reasons why artistic mediation has to be contemplated in artistic projects taking place on the México/U.S. border. On the one hand, if artworks involve the participation of the community, the curator might act as a supporter for the encounters between those who live on the borderlands and the artists, by facilitating those patterns of hospitality that will allow participants to be an active part of the project within a safe space. On the other hand, commissioned artworks taking place on the México/U.S. border are surrounded by a cosmos of challenges related to the complexities of this particular territory. Even if a border wall might be a potential place to find a grid to challenge the system, there are also norms and regulations that can hinder the complete realization of certain projects. Here, the responsibility of the curator entails understanding the hardships of the artwork, because of its critical and political nature, by knowing all the possible scenarios that the artist might have to confront during the whole execution. This is why curating on the borderlands is way more complex than exhibiting an artwork and translating its meaning to an audience. It requires deep knowledge and research, not just on the artists’ practices but specially on the border condition, its structures, norms, and social and political context.
Irrefutably, art activism has transformed the relationships within the art world by configuring and triggering new ways of engaging with audiences and mutating the notion of the exhibition medium. In particular, Border Art has transferred art production into an extreme territory, where artworks reformulate the traditional narratives of the history of art by dealing with a strong political burden and creating bonds with local communities.
Nowadays, it seems that the border in all its forms is a perpetuated condition for the world’s existence and constitution. However, it cannot be understood as a unique and fixed entity, because it implies a wide range of assertions, configurations, and materials. In Border as a Method, the theorist and Professor Sandro Mezzadra reinforces that the border is not subject to one unique definition because it cannot be understood as something methodological.[xxxiv] Mezzadra insists that the border is a complex matter of politics, subjectivities, processes of production, and so on, and the only method that one can perform to approach its nature is to question the vision of the border as a neutral line through different means.[xxxv] Precisely, the artists who are developing their practice or works at the México/U.S. border support this idea by reinterpreting through art the notion of the wall only as a divider.
This ceaseless production of art at the México/U.S. border and other borders all over the world also illustrates an increasing global desire to question and dismantle the hegemonic Western discourse: its norms and taxonomies that create predetermined identities. As the activist, writer, and curator Lucy Lippard states in the foreword to Curating at the Edge: “Although the darker side of border relations unavoidably dominates artists’ responses at this moment in history, works like these offer a hopeful determination to change.”[xxxvi] The border might be a divisive entity, but it also offers a grid for resisting and reacting to the state of affairs, where imposed divisions can be superceded by unleashing a critical response to those constructed identities and social divisions. Even though Border Art only offers a temporary rupture in these preestablished regulations and separations, it has translated the meaning of the border into something else: a space where bi-national encounters and friendships have emerged against all odds. In this scenario, thus, art goes beyond traditional display, because it instead becomes a method to temporally circumvent the rituals of violence and expulsion imposed on the borderlands by the ruling power.[xxxvii]
Border walls as closed sites where “performative power is extremely powerful” present a new opportunity for the community that has been oppressed “to seize the wall.”[xxxviii] Yet, what remains essential in this transformative process of the border, as a site for social resistance and political action, is collaboration. By engaging with a given political geography and social framework, Border Art shows that what is needed, more than ever, are ongoing processes of collaboration: between nations, between artists and communities, between communities, between artists and curators, and so on.[xxxix] It is imperative, therefore, to use collaboration as a tool to actively challenge an imposed physical division and trigger critical reactions that will eventually echo worldwide.
Carla Gimeno Jaria is a curator and researcher based in Barcelona (ES) and London (UK). Her art research investigates the rituals of violence attached to cognitive and physical borders, and she is interested in the intersection between collaborative processes, oral history, performativity, and fictional narratives. She holds an MA in Curating & Collections from the University of the Arts London and a Postgraduate Degree in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Barcelona. Previously, she was assistant curator at The Koppel Project (London) and Chelsea Space (London), and she is currently the curator at Rebobinart (Barcelona), a cultural entity that develops art projects in public spaces. She is also the co-founder of the curatorial collective trans-.
[i] Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” in Manifestly Haraway (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 6-67.
[iii] Ibid., 16.
[iv] Thomas Nail, The Theory of the Border (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 1-2.
[v] Ibid., 2
[vi] Ibid., 24
[vii] Ibid., 2
[viii] Boris Groys, In the Flow (London: Verso Books, 2017), 43.
[ix] Nail, The Theory of the Border, 167.
[x] Antonio Prieto, “Border Art as a Political Strategy,” Isla Information Services Latin America (1999), https://www.academia.edu/6884880/Border_Art_as_a_Political_Strategy.
[xii] Alessandra Cianetti, “Performing Borders: A Study Room Guide on Physical and Conceptual Borders within Live Art,” LADA Study Room Guides (2016), https://www.thisisliveart.co.uk/resources/catalogue/performing-borders-a-study-room-guide-on-physical-and-conceptual-borders-within-live-art/.
[xiv] Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art And The Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso Books, 2011), 11
[xvi] Cianetti, “Performing Borders.”
[xvii] Charlotte Alter, “A Picnic at the Border,” Time, October 12, 2017, https://time.com/4979252/lightbox-picnic-at-the-border/.
[xix] Robert L. Pincus, “Collective Magpie’s Ingenious Collaborative Endeavors,” KCET, March 2, 2016, https://www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/collective-magpie-tae-hwang-mr-barnadas.
[xxi] Collective Magpie, “Globos,” accessed February 10, 2020, http://www.collectivemagpie.org/portfolio/globos/.
[xxiii] Sarah Cascone, “Artists Briefly Bridge the US-Mexico Border with a Heartwarming Seesaw Linking Kids in Both Countries,” Artnet, July 30, 2019, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/us-mexico-border-teeter-totter-wall-1612897.
[xxv] Anne-Laure Amilhat Szary, “Walls and border art: the politics of art display” Journal of Borderlands Studies 27, no 2 (April 2013): 213-228
[xxvi] Nadja Sayej, “Beyond Borders: the artists using their work to take on division”, The Guardian, January 15, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/jan/15/borders-james-cohan-gallery-exhibition-jorge-mendez-blake
[xxviii] Beatrice von Bismarck and Benjamin Meyer-Krahmer, Hospitality: Hosting Relations in Exhibitions (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017), 7-19.
[xxix] Kate Bonansinga, Curating at the Edge (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014), vii-29.
[xxxiii] von Bismarck and Meyer-Krahmer, Hospitality, 7-19.
[xxxiv] Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, “The Proliferation of Borders,” in Border as a Method (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013), 1-19.
[xxxv] Ibid., 17-18.
[xxxvi] Bonansinga, Curating at the Edge, xi.
[xxxvii] Amilhat Szary, “Walls and Border Art,” 213-228.
[xxxix] Prieto, “Border Art as a Political Strategy.”