PRINT April 1993


The American/Mexican border has been described as “una herida abierta [an open wound] where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms, it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country—a border culture.”1

Borders are usually formed in the aftermath of war to differentiate safe places from dangerous ones, in a distinction of us from them. They are often unsettled and unsettling wastelands: spaces informed by the emotional residue of imposing unnatural boundaries. The towns that spring up around these zones, homes for the human detritus left over from the old order and refused by the new one, are more often than not inhabited by outsiders, drifters, the dispossessed, the disillusioned. “Los atravesados live here: the squint-eyed, . . . the half-breed, the half dead; in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the normal.”2

In many ancient cultures, borders were considered sacred, representing the primordial separation of chaos from cosmos, creation from apocalypse. Right now, at this unparalleled moment in history, national boundaries around the globe are breaking down, and new ones are being created—but this has happened before. At the same time, though, in every country, natural and human resources are being destroyed. Never has crisis seemed so universal: the Arab territories, Africa, Asia, India, both Western and Eastern Europe, the Americas, the forests and the animal kingdom around the world, even the ozone layer. It is as though civil unrest, social upheaval, and natural and unnatural disasters had invaded everywhere simultaneously. Now cosmos is chaos, and even though we tend today to see borders as simple demarcations of cultural worlds, the fissures and fusions of these zones have once again begun to crossbreed dreams of apocalypse and genesis. Traces of the old world leave a powerful residue on our new, emerging culture: computer blips collide with the sounds and rhythms of past eras, and the languages of different lands are fast becoming new, motley tongues. It’s as if the whole civilization had transformed itself into a series of border towns.

The town of Juárez, on the Mexico side of the Mexican/American border, was the imaginative site for Terry Allen’s simple story (Juarez), a group of installations shown last year at the Wexner Art Center in Columbus, Ohio. A simple story (Juarez) was only part of a continuing cycle, a body of work that has occupied Allen off and on for over 20 years and that includes a radio play, installations, a film treatment, an album of songs, as well as paintings, sculptures, and collages. The theme of the Wexner exhibition was not explicitly border culture, but it nonetheless resonated with this paradigm for our present turmoil.

The installations recalled the kinds of buildings seen in many small, formerly frontier towns across the West. The frontier has always had a special force in the American psyche; the dream of surviving it, of passing through the wilderness to the promised land, seems to strike a chord in the hearts of this continent’s Anglo population. In some ways, a sense of the lost heroism of the American frontier still lingers in border cultures, which have become meeting places for extreme types. And perhaps it was the enticement of the extremities of life in border towns—the border town’s transgression of borders of every kind—that lay at the heart of a simple story (Juarez).

The cycle entails not so much a plot as a series of simultaneous events, described from a variety of angles and involving four main characters. But I hesitate to call them “characters,” since Allen himself remarks of them, “I’ve always said that . . . rather than people . . . they’re like atmospheric conditions. . . .each one of them is defined in the sense of being somewhere and trying to get somewhere else.”3 This much, however, we do know: there is “Sailor—a Texas boy/Just returned from duty/With the navy in the Pacific/On leave in the port of San Diego; Spanish Alice—a Mexican prostitute/Working the bars in Tijuana/And looking for ways/Into the USA; Jabo—a Juarez-born pachuco/Living in Los Angeles/decides to go home/By way of a joy-ride/Up into southern Colorado; Chic Blundie—Jabo’s L.A. girlfriend/An enigma/Rock-writer/And occasionally . . . Jabo himself.”4

As for the “plot,” it is “a simple story,” the drama of an attempted border crossing: “Sailor meets Alice in a Tijuana bar/They get drunk/Fuck/Cry-to-believe together/and get married/They cross the border and travel by car/(probably a buick)/From San Diego to Cortez/Colorado/They honeymoon in a small rundown mountain trailer/AND AT EXACTLY THE SAME TIME/Jabo appeals to and persuades Chic/To leave L.A./(probably by motorcycle)/For Juarez/By-way-of-Cortez/THEY GO NORTH TO GET SOUTH/In Cortez . . . /The two couples meet/Argue/Fight/Resulting in Sailor and Alice/Lying dead on the trailer floor. . . . Jabo and Chic/Objects of a massive statewide search/Escape by car/(probably the buick)/and flee to Juarez/As planned./In Juarez . . . /They part.”5

The three installations of a simple story (Juarez) were composites of places the couples pass through on their odyssey. There was a bar called Melodyland, which doubled both as a number of bars along the different journeys and as the whorehouse, la Estrella Negra, where Alice works in Tijuana; a filling station, somewhere in a generic wilderness, which could also have been one of the places Jabo holds up at gunpoint; and the 1946 aluminum Cherokee Jetstream trailer, The Perfect Ship, where Sailor and Alice are murdered, which also had elements of one of Cortés’ ships, burned by the Spanish general and his conquistadores 474 years ago to make it impossible for them to leave Mexico, symbolizing their determination to advance in the Aztec conquest. Each of the first two sites, then, corresponded to a number of episodes in the story, while the last made a connection to an older, underlying history.

Allen communicated his narrative through taped songs and dialogue emanating from within each installation—a backdrop of familiar sounds, eery in these spaces of transience. Lit like stage sets in the darkened galleries, the structures seemed abandoned outposts, made alive only by the presence of electric energy, sound, and light: the white brightness of a television screen, the whirring of a VCR, the neon signs on each building. In this context Allen’s songs and the voice of a narrator (the performance artist and actress Jo Harvey Allen) came over as postapocalyptic transmissions—the voices of the four characters’ ghosts, and of the ghost of Cortés. Seedy bars, desert filling stations, isolated motel rooms—these are places where “simple stories” circulate, where anecdotes, tragic tales, and reports of paranormal phenomena are passed on against a background of rock music and neon. Indeed, these installations felt overwhelmingly like homes to past and present ghosts, spaces where legends of the conquistadores lived on in a spectral electronic twilight.

The border state that Allen was exploring in a simple story (Juarez) was as much a mythic as a geographic location. It was a world in which, as the neon across Melodyland suggested, “Elvis and Jesus walk arm-in-arm on velvet across the clouds,” a space where the ancestral and the contemporary, the sacred and the profane, intermingled and fought for sovereignty, where Cortés’ dreams still resonated in the revenge killing of Sailor and Alice. The words and images and feelings Allen evoked had a palpable energy and power, reinforced in part by his refusal to stick to a conventional story line of beginning, middle, and end. In their spotlit isolation, the installations seemed self-enclosed, autonomously separate. Their interiors were cell-like. Literally containing the narrative, they suggested both a series of flashbacks toward an evasive origin and a narrative accumulation toward an equally elusive end. The story was restored to a process of spatial movement, of voyaging—more specifically, of crossing borders.

As much as Allen has addressed border-crossing as subject matter, he has also crossed the borders between genres—music, video, drama, installation. In the process he has created a form that is something like architectural cinema. A simple story (Juarez) crossed and confused different forms of cultural experience, but not in the 19th-century spirit of esthetic boundary-breaking enshrined by, for example, the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, a romantic spectacle that kept its audience firmly in place by engulfing the senses. Quite the opposite: Allen’s works were designed precisely to undermine the otherness of spectacle, to engage viewers bodily through the rhythms of music and the hushed voices of the dialogue.

If the sublime or the transcendent entered the show, it was not through awe but through another kind of terror. Each set of a simple story (Juarez) was a partial truth in which we, like Allen’s partial characters, were trapped. The romantic dream became a late-20th-century global frontera nightmare. This was conveyed in Melodyland, for example, by compressing the structure to a little smaller than human scale. For Allen’s marginal characters, enacting their rite of passage, the bar’s too-tight walls—papered with “postcards . . . milagros . . . a dried hummingbird . . . little scraps of paper and flowers . . . posters and tear-outs from fashion magazines . . . beauty tips and shoes . . . snapshots . . . teen angel . . . the pope . . . TV celebrities and saints”—foretold disaster.6 And the filling station, also undersized, was sealed off behind a chicken-wire fence, dramatizing our distance from the spectacular. We were made into cumbersome giants, aspiring puppet-masters of a drama in a dimension beyond us.

The trailer, on the other hand, was life-sized. But here too scale was distorted, by the magnified human body that seemed to float within, as in a sci-fi sarcophagus. “Inside,” Allen writes, “the trailer is demolished . . . debris, torn sheets, scattered canned goods, gutted pillows, chunks of raw meat, jagged glass, plates, cups, bottles, black vegetables, twisted knives, spoons, condoms, forks, broken tables, lamps, chairs, holes in the walls, torn linoleum, scorched carpet, pictures wrecked and askew . . . shambles. Flies on everything.”7 Here, in what would ordinarily be the narrative’s cumulative moment, access to the graffitied, burnt-out, and bloodied interior was denied. The corpse was doubly sealed from the spectator, first by the trailer’s metallic technological skin, then by the skeletal wooden shell symbolizing Cortés’ galleon. The floating body, made spectral and ghostly by the flickering light of a television, occupied an ambiguous space, and became a carrier of historical and psychological time. The trailer was both womb and tomb, creating and binding the protective spaces of birth and death, genesis and apocalypse.

If the installations were ambiguous in intent, so too were the characters. As we eavesdropped on the story’s taped fragments, we began to envisage the different generations embodied by the two couples—Sailor and Alice, Jabo and Chic. The murdered twosome seem to belong to the older postwar generation, and to an age of innocence. Jabo, with his motorbike and pointy-toed boots, a rag around his neck, and shirtless, and Chic, who wears razor blades in her hair, are more contemporary figures, who, in the act of murder, enact a revenge of culture on its own past. The couples meet in death—indeed, are incorporated with each other: traces of the murdered pair’s spirits are left behind on the living, in the forms of clothing, memories, emotions. Sailor’s tattoos begin to appear on Jabo’s arms; our final image is of Jabo standing on the bridge that crosses the Rio Grande between El Paso and Juárez, dressed like a sailor. Something has been passed on to or is passing through these people. The world of spirits meets, in a zone outside and across time. And one of the songs from the soundtrack echoes through the mind:

the Juarez mountains
they’re rising up high
trying to touch
some of that Texican sky
and the El Paso range
it's risin’ up too
trying to hook
some of that Mexican blue
just like me and you
it’s just passin’ on through
one another.

Ultimately a simple story (Juarez) was about the way one epoch both replaces and continues another. In the end, all that is left is the contours of culture: tattoos, writing on rocks, the archetypes within which people live and through which they die. The real boundaries are not just geographic; they are epochal, psychological.

Allen’s abodes of the imagination are anything but reassuring. The borders he explores not only hold painful recollections but resonate in the emptiness of a postapocalyptic present, for In the indifference taught us by our media-induced experience of the world, catastrophe has already happened. In urban culture, where our cohabitation with life is restricted to pets, potted plants, and parasites, the desert has taken over the heart of the cities. Allen’s tragic, atmospheric, and heartfelt works face that desert. In these spaces of transience and of forgetfulness, death is relived in an eternally recurrent drama.

The border zones of Allen’s art are crossroads for different forms of voided urban culture and of polluted nature. But we do glimpse, however bleakly, a hope of recovery, and an attitude to the world as alive in that interface, that border, between the two deserts.

Rosetta Brooks


1. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera, San Francisco: aunt lute books, 1987, p. 3..

2. Ibid., p. 3.

3. Terry Allen, unpublished interview with Dave Hickey, 1992.

4. Allen, a simple story (Juarez), exhibition catalogue, Columbus, Ohio: Wexner Center, 1992, p. 7.

5. Ibid., p. 8.

6. Ibid., p. 22.

7. Ibid., p. 57.