Border Crossings

by Emily Mendelsohn

in National Conference

Post image for Border Crossings

((This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich. Pictured on Skype, Deborah Asiimwe; seated, Emily Mendelsohn, Ruth Wikler-Luker. Photo credit: Win Goodbody, PortlandTheatreScene.com)

A recent residency at Boom Arts in Portland, Oregon has left me pondering borders.  Long-time collaborator Deborah Asiimwe and I were invited by producer/curator Ruth Wikler-Luker to workshop Asiimwe’s witty, poignant play Appointment with gOD about the U.S. visa application process in the “developing” world.  Ruth assembled a team of professional and student actors, a master Ghanian drummer, and members of the immigrant justice group Center for Intercultural Organizing to perform in a reading and talk backs at Portland State University. Mexican artist Patricia Vazquez Gomez created an installation that put our work in conversation with her recent portraits of Spanish speaking immigrant experience in Portland. This project is part of Boom Arts’ larger mission to celebrate Portland’s diversity and support socially engaged, aesthetically risk-taking performance.

Personally, this residency reminded me how interdependent we can be.  The cast included an actress I have worked with in Rwanda who happens to be studying at Lewis and Clark this year.  I stayed with a former New York neighbor (acting in the reading) who was born in Tanzania.  I folded my clothes in a dresser made from red Tanzanian wood.  I drank Kenyan coffee from Starbucks.  The world’s political borders contain so much porosity.  Through the news, through the foods I consume, the metals in my cell phone, I am imaginatively and materially connected to a global We.  And, yet, these borders are also fixed and impassable, as felt in this project when visa issues prevented Asiimwe from attending the residency.  An immigration lawyer and State Department official confirmed we had applied in an appropriate category, but the U.S. Embassy in Uganda insisted that artists need a specialized P Visa to travel to the U.S., a costly and time consuming process.

In hearing many stories of immigrants going through visa or asylum processes to enter/stay in the US from the developing world, I am aware of the very real and high stake impacts of these borders and the arbitrariness of their enforcement.  Yet, I want for the moment to consider this as an imperfect metaphor to ground a disorientation I’ve observed in the borders between art and community.  The border between artists and community members is both fixed and porous.  There are many community members and artists that I admire doing meaningful and diligent work in articulating best practices for arts/community partnerships.  These are real borders where real malpractices can occur.  I’m also interested in how porosity teaches me to see art making practice.

Directing with artists in East Africa and the US has often placed me in rooms with difference – in training, in cultural heritage, in self-identity.  And yet these differences can blur.

“Here I study English, but in my country I am an actor.”
“I am a community organizer who has trained in Boal’s techniques.”
“I am an actor and I have been detained at a border.”

What comes to the forefront in gathering people in an exploration of world through relationships to  both craft and lived experience?  Heightened listening and consideration of context.  We are all asked to walk in the room both as citizens and as agents[1] in crafting a form for story or contemplation. The activists in the room recognized the (limited) collectivism in our process and the shifts between singular voice and collective voice in Asiimwe’s dramaturgy as a political act; modeling communal identity and action.  The memories in (some of) our bodies humanized the stakes and deepened the attention to play, to this play.  It led us to ask what the work of our (- my? collective?) imagination creates beyond the rehearsal room, beyond the theater.  It asked for a virtuosity, not purely in cultural object-ness or authoring, but a virtuosity located in our dreaming: our simultaneous knowing the world as it is (this is not status quo, but un-knowing) and proposing fiction that reveals the world as we wish to live it. [2]

In a talk back after the show, Kayse Jama, the founder of the Center for Intercultural Organizing, was asked whether the many people arbitrarily denied visas (in Deborah’s case the stakes are the development of a text, in some cases the stakes can be life/death) were necessary collateral damage in the work of keeping dangerous people out of the country.  Kayse suggested that the failure is not one of discernment, but of imagination.  Why do I start with the assumption that people from “developing” countries pose a threat?  The needful thing is not better policing, but a transformation of the system that creates (growing) inequalities.  In Kayse’s words, dismantling global capitalism.  And yet, he adds, an individual cannot do this.  An individual can support alternative models or organizations working to mitigate symptoms locally.  The practical and the impossible go hand in hand.  And the work of connecting local, concrete action with the transformations of imagination on an impossible scale (either by global compass or core intimacy) is exactly the territory of creative process.

In the convergence of the aesthetic and civic in my work, I draw on this understanding of creativity as a human, transformative process.  In working across difference, I constantly confront the limitations of my imagination, both in composing artistic form and in ethical relating to others and world.  In working across cultures, I am deeply aware that my work and my aesthetic come from and move into context.  I make theater because I want to know myself, which I understand not as drawing a border around my identity, but as being-in-encounter; moving out of self.  I want to create spaces that lend themselves to these acts of communion.

MendelsohnTCG2

(Abstraction of Mexico/US border fence created by Patricia Vazquez Gomez.)


[1] Gerard Stropnicky has an insightful articulation of values (artistry, agency, authenticity, and audacity) and intentions in arts/community partnerships. See: http://animatingdemocracy.org/sites/default/files/StropnickyNOLAPaper_Final.pdf

[2] This thinking informed by John Paul Lederach’s “moral imagination”. A great introduction here: http://www.onbeing.org/program/art-peace/182


EmilyEmily Mendelsohn is a director of an exchange lab developed with artists from East Africa and the US. With the lab, she directed Deborah Asiimwe’s Cooking Oil (performed in Kigali, Kampala, and Los Angeles with LAPP), and Erik Ehn’s Maria Kizito (with presentations at Uganda’s National Theater, Erik Ehn’s Soulographie project at La MaMa, and scheduled for a November production with New Orleans’ ArtSpot). With Boom Arts and Portland State University, she directed a workshop of Deborah Asiimwe’s Appointment with gOD with professional artists, students, and activists from Portland’s immigrant community. Other past work includes Elizabeth Spackman’s Rwandan/American sky like sky (National Arts Festival, South Africa), Aiste Ptakauske’s Skeltukus (Arts Printing House, Lithuania), and the American premiere of Katori Hall’s Children of Killers (Castillo, NYC). Emily received a 2010 Fulbright to Uganda and an MFA in Directing from CalArts.