Post image for BORDER LABS

(This post is part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich for the TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening in Kansas City, MO in 2015, as well as part of his Global Connections project activity.)

When I moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in 2005 to begin graduate school at CalArts I was excited for many reasons, one of which was to live closer to Latin America. At that point in my life I had become used to routine long distance travel to live, work, and collaborate with artists in Cuba and Central America. But the differences and distances between the Midwest and Latin America were great. Los Angeles offered two distinctions from the Midwest: the first is that 48% of the city is Latino and the second is that Mexico is only a two and a half hour drive away.

The first of these differences was immediate and is everyone’s experience of Los Angeles whether they choose to engage or not. The second, to my surprise and disappointment, is only the experience of Latino immigrants and the small percentage of Angelinos who choose to travel to Baja California. But I quickly started to understand why. During our first year, my wife and I drove down to Tijuana and Ensenada during our week off, just to do some international exploring. It was confusing and for people who spoke Spanish and were comfortable navigating south of the border, we felt disoriented and decided to drive right back to California to see Joshua Tree over Baja. Furthermore, Tijuana was very dangerous at the time and had developed a reputation for being a dicey place where the cops, the drug cartels, and the smugglers can ruin your life if you get caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I never returned until nine years later when TCG offered a Tijuana pre-conference to their 52 National Theatre Conference in San Diego this past June. With glowing inspiration, the Tijuana artists there told us that their city had transformed into a safe and vibrant cultural hub. Artists, chefs, and tech start-ups were relocating from all over Mexico to Tijuana. There had been a people’s movement to take the city back and local artists were some of the leaders of this movement. The artists in Tijuana are motivated by social justice using art as a tool to communicate, understand, and change the world around them. As crime fled to other border towns, a renaissance of theaters, bands, art galleries, filmmakers, contemporary foodies, craft breweries, and other small businesses have been quickly emerging. Located on the US border, TJ is a dynamic trans-global city of constant movement. It can strategically offer residents many of the advantages of both the United States and Mexico. For the first time in its history, a creative economy is developing that is by and for the locals. Although it attracts tourists from elsewhere, it is a Tijuana-centric movement.

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Tijuana’s cultural boom inspired me. International work has been an evolving part of my career producing artistic productions and professional research delegations between the US and Cuba through a small organization I co-founded called Project Por Amor. But Tijuana is a lot closer and is another US border at home that is equally complex, fascinating, divisive, and art-inspiring as the Florida Straits. Because of its proximity, the cost and logistics of generating international artistic dialogue between L.A. and Tijuana are far more efficient.

Emily Mendelssohn, a theater director who I knew from CalArts was also part of the TCG Pre-Conference. Similarly, part of her background has focused on international collaboration with theater companies in East Africa. We met an actor in Tijuana named Adolfo Madera who runs a small experimental theater and cinema space in downtown Tijuana’s cultural arcade, Pasaje Rodriguez. The three of us started a conversation about connecting artists and small arts organizations from Los Angeles and Tijuana to share work and build performance networks. A few months later I received a Global Connections: On the Road grant from TCG. We pulled together a pilot micro-festival of back-to-back performance exchanges in both cities this past January 15 – 18 called Border Labs | Laboratorios Fronterizos. Adrián Vazquez came up from Tijuana to perform his solo show about coming of age in Tijuana, “El Hijo de mi Padre,” at Automata in China town. Susan Simpson and Dan Rae Wilson performed Susan’s experimental object theater work “Augustine’s Lecture on Anxious Islands” in both cities as well. We screened short films by L.A. artist Janie Geiser and TJ filmmaker Juan Gil Garcia followed by discussions with the audience. The events in both cities were translated by Antena L.A., a language justice and experimentation group that provides translation and interpretation assistance. Bi-lingual spaces were created on both sides of the border where everyone could understand and express themselves without feeling alienated by their lack of language mastery. The theaters were small and the experiences intimate with packed rooms and growing waitlists of audience. We shared meals and artists stayed in homes in the other cities to make it more personal.

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What was most exciting about this experiment was that the level of enthusiasm by artists, organizations, and audiences to connect with the people from the other city in this way was exceptionally high on both sides of the border. The Angelinos said that it was not a normal night in L.A. and that connecting with Tijuana should be happening a lot more here. The Tijuanenses said that they consume a lot of commercial film and music from L.A., but they rarely have access to the independent creative work out of Los Angeles, which to their curiosity might be even more interesting then what comes out of Hollywood. Tijuanenses also shared that most of their exchange is made with Mexico City. But Los Angeles is much closer and beyond the language and government differences we have much more in common with them culturally and environmentally than Mexico City. TV Azteca even produced a news story about the project for national Mexican television.

The desire for artists to continue engaging over time, building and exchanging work, and inviting audiences into the process is organically laying a solid foundation for the next series of Border Labs to occur this fall in Los Angeles and Tijuana. We hope to continue experimenting with new models of using our border as a place of gathering ideas. We hope that inviting more Tijuanenses to Los Angeles to be part of our artistic ecology and providing opportunities for L.A. artists to contribute to Tijuana’s zeitgeist will impact our famously stiff border to become increasingly more porous so that creativity will transgress.


Sage Lewis is an L.A.-based composer for film, performance, and new media. His artistic work uses technology to cross international borders which includes producer, original concept, and music for The Closest Farthest Away, an “impossible play” between theater, music, and film artists in Havana, L.A., and NYC. It premiered at the Havana Film Festival, in Miami, and represented the US at the 2012 Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design & Space. His is a 2014 Sundance Composer Fellow and his film scores have been featured at numerous festivals all over the world. For more information visit sagelewismusic.com.

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Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.