PRINT March 1990


Border Art

THE SOCCER FIELD IS the barren expanse of ground behind Tijuana’s oldest neighborhood, Colonia Liberdad, where would-be migrants wait in small groups to catch the economic tides that drift back and forth across the Americas. Each day, about an hour before sunset, these indocumentados filter down through the neighborhood to gather in the Soccer Field, where they eat, drink, trade information, and await the coli to move out beyond the farthest plateau and into the deepest canyon, into a surreal gamescape of fading sunlight and brilliant searchlights, of hovering aircraft, waiting authorities, and workers become fugitives in o zone overrun by on almost desperate legality. The United States Border Patrol has plowed furrows to the north of the Soccer Field deep enough to stop cars if they try to cross, but the combined weight of countless feet has rounded these ditches into ruins, softening the whole of Canyon Emiliano Zapata—an arid complex of gullies, plateaus, and hills for which the Soccer Field is a staging area—into a kind of dusty geopolitical pass. Here, the erosion of borders is less metaphor than fact.

Though the Soccer Field has been appropriated over the years as a kind of neighborhood square by the residents of Colonia Liberdad, it is actually a patch of U.S. territory. To enter this place is already to have left Mexico, though one may be prevented from moving any farther north. As the embarkation site for a migration across the border, the Soccer Field has been described by some North American journalists as a no-man’s-land, DMZ, even as “one square mile of hell.” Colonia Liberdad has likewise been called a “teeming, reeking slum.” Given the range of humanity that posses through it, the Soccer Field is indeed a risky place to be, but one feels more threatened by partying white males in San Diego than by the residents and migrants of Colonia Liberdad—which feels more abundant than “teeming,” and usually smells like food. It is the poetics of the mass media that involve the substitution of metaphors for the place itself, often from great and lofty distances.

Metaphors hang over the continent like a semiotic haze. They rise from our computer keyboards and never settle, contributing to a media mythology about place from the viewpoint of U.S. self-interest. A dream state, a state dream. But a place comes into art loaded with content, already meaningful, and can embody more than one dream state: it can be a state of menace to the border agent, a state of waiting and hunger to the immigrant, a state of war to the conservative columnist, a state of enterprise to the local taco vendor, a state of irony to the social critic, a state of art to the border artist. A border state of art.

Michael Schnorr, a founding member of the Border Arts Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo, or BAW/TAF, has described the Soccer Field as a place where many try to be but no one wants to stay, a place of anxious waiting for the intoxicating hours just before and after sunset. To Schnorr, we are at the neck of an hourglass laid on its side. Stand the hourglass upright, and dusk becomes its turning point. A point of no return. Here, the best metaphors are grounded in the place itself. They coat your tongue like the dust of bemused indocumentados as they walk northward—through performance art.

In collaboration with BAW/TAF member Richard Lou, Schnorr has created a series of seven monthly performances, “Destination L.A.,” specifically for the Soccer Field and those who pass through it. Called “performance interventions,” they are designed as porous, low-tech spectacles staged in the path of this tragic socioeconomic migration. As such, they invite, and receive, both indifference and active participation from taco vendors, neighborhood residents, and migrants, some of whom see them as entertaining interludes in a profoundly monotonous place. Others, however, are too concerned with the journey ahead to pay much heed. Come dusk, the indocumentados move inevitably through and around the performances. The image here is not of art becoming life, but of life passing through art as a function of place. In another place, one would need another art.

When they arrive at the Soccer Field, the artists ask the local residents for permission to perform, for assistance in setting up, and finally for their participation in the performance itself. By so doing they acknowledge Mexican historical, cultural, and economic claims to this piece of North America. By entering Mexico legally, descending into Canyon Emiliano Zapata, and then crossing back into the Soccer Field at Colonia Liberdad (where they perform), the artists, like everyone else here, enter the U.S. illegally.

For each performance, a game board—be it chess, Chinese checkers, or Monopoly—is drawn in the dirt with a mixture of flour and rice, a symbol of the artists’ desire to add no new chemical or cultural toxins to the Soccer Field. In addition, such homemade, vernacular props as wooden crosses, a coffin, or a Styrofoam border monument may be placed on site. The performances themselves are based on historical and contemporary events relevant to, and resonant with, the troubled history of U.S./latin American relations, including the New World atrocities of Christopher Columbus, the invasion of Panama, and even the breach of the Berlin Wall. In each case, the artists explain the theme to the onlookers in advance, and the performance unfolds within the framework of that explanation. But the works also use familiar icons and rituals of the Mexican-Catholic liturgy, and reflect the daily cat-and-mouse scenarios played out along the border. A contemporary story with historical reference is enacted in the terms of Mexican community traditions, and in the political context of a particular place—not just “the border,” but this place, the Soccer Field.

A performance in December 1989 was based on a posada, a call-and-response procession in which worshipers seek permission to enter a church. But here the artists, standing in Mexico, were asking a contingent of neighborhood children for permission to enter the Soccer Field—to enter the U.S. After singing back and forth in Spanish, the children granted entry, and the procession of artists, carrying piñatas on long poles, passed through a row (a Berlin “wall”) of wooden crosses and burning sparklers. In the dirt beyond them fay the star-shaped outline of a Chinese checkers board (a Tiananmen “square”), symbolically opening up this narrow north-south conduit of migrant labor by suggesting a multiplicity of directions of movement and the equality of every movement’s starting place. From the cardinal points of the checkerboard, Schnorr, Lou, BAW/TAF collaborator Bertha Jottar, and poet Jane Tassi read texts about racial stereotypes, the lost lives—vidas perdidas—of undocumented workers, and the frontier mentality of European pioneers vis-à-vis Mexico. A moment later the piñatas were broken and the children posed for Polaroids in front of a Styrofoam obelisk bearing the motto “Borders Block Our View.” They disappeared with their photographs—the performance seemed to be over. Against a full moon, vendors, children, and artists drifted away. The indocumentados had been gone since dusk.

Much of the inspiration for “Destination L.A.” was provided several years ago by a local priest, Padre Flor Rigoni, who regularly said Mass in the Soccer Field, blessing those crossing an “illegal border” and speaking of their migration in terms of a biblical exodus, what he called the “fourth world.” Meanwhile, U.S. and Mexican authorities have talked of cooperating on digging more trenches, outflanking migrants, and schooling Tijuana police in FBI law enforcement techniques. Between these two perspectives lies the Soccer Field, the metaphorical neck of an hourglass still poised to turn each dusk, in contrast to the historic turning points we have seen this year in places like Berlin. Yet if the Berlin Wall was a symbol of Cold War politics, it was never merely a symbol: it was also a concrete barrier dividing not so much the “Free World” from the Eastern Bloc as one neighborhood block from another, or this friend and family from that. The Soccer Field performances reveal the human, neighborhood, and even the family scale of the mass-mediated concept called “the border.” For although presidents do not speak here, the Soccer Field looks out upon a no less divided neighborhood, a no less broken family.

Of late, BAW/TAF has itself endured serious familial discord, with some members decrying its appropriation by the art press and institutions, others pronouncing its death. Yet for those who remain, performing in the Soccer Field may be a way of getting back to basics, of acknowledging their primary constituency: the citizens of border culture, especially local border culture, where most of these artists grew up. In effect, these “performance interventions” are pretexts for being in the Soccer Field as artists, since art is the last thing BAW/TAF members want to bring here; that message—transmitted through pages like these—is for a different and very distant audience. Here in the neighborhood, there is no audience, just people whose place it is, whose permission is necessary. And from time to time one finds here artists with constituents rather than audiences, working in places rather than sites, social realists digging metaphors from a real and social ground, intervening in the state dream, prepared to acknowledge reality but willing to appropriate only the moment.

Jeff Kelley is a writer who lives in Arlington, Texas. He is working on a book on Allan Kaprow, to be published by the University of California Press.