What is the nature of politically engaged art-practice in light of the shifting contexts of highly mobile global audiences?

Brujula (compass) Hemispheric institute of the americas


The Borderline Projects: art-making as a mirror in global redistribution


(note: the basis for this article originated in a presentation given at the 5th EAD conference in Barcelona)

I) Introduction
What is the nature of politically engaged art-practice in light of the shifting contexts of highly mobile global audiences? How does the issue of translation become a strategy in building awareness across languages? What is the position of being between cultures, of communities on a border, or of crossing a border and living within a larger culture which projects its own stereotypes and assumptions about the minority community? Migration based on economic and political pressure is a huge and pervasive trend that is shaping global culture. These questions are the broad basis for the development of a series of linked projects called the Borderline Series (Townsend, http//www4.ncsu.edu/~sttwn/border.html), which focuses on contemporary migrations between Latin and North America. The relationship between stereotype and narrative is used as a basis for the work.Borderline Series is an ongoing collection of web-based and site-specific work that attempts to enlist audience response. Begun in 2002, this ongoing body of work utilizes schematic imagery to explore interpretation in the audience and to begin an exploration of how visual interpretation and its conundrums may be re-deployed meaningfully.

At this time, this project has been developed and exhibited in Havana, Cuba; Tijuana, Mexico; in the United States in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and in Central Europe (Prague, Czech Republic). The Borderline Series is a collection of four interactive pieces, using bilingual translations. The four pieces are “Borderline Stories,” “Borderline Statements,” “ Borderline Translations,” and “Borderline Maps.” In each piece, stories are presented to evoke the assumptions made by the audience of “who is speaking.” The theme of the narratives is the displaced immigrant, who is in a minority within the larger culture that they have found themselves in. The specific environment of migration between Latin and North America is the context for the original narratives.

A. Descriptions
1. Borderline Stories as a prototype
“Borderline Stories” begins with three texts that deal with immigration. First person narration is used. As the reader encounters the text, he becomes the speaker rather than the more neutral position of the third person as absent narrator. Gender usage is carefully avoided, as are references to specific people. The reader is presented with a scenario rather than a specific journalistic report. The work is shown on the web and as an installation in the gallery using large-scale interactive projections. The gallery-based installation includes a connection to the Internet for online input of data. Visitors may submit information regarding the geographical region they are from, and who best seems to represent the character(s) of the story. They may also submit a short text. On a global map, eighteen landmasses change size, getting larger in relationship to where users identify themselves as living. Seven stereotypes based on age, gender, and apparent ethnicity are shown from which the visitor may select what stereotype best (for their own personal reasons) represents their interpretation of the identity of the narrator in each story. Information is collected throughout the exhibition. Viewers online and in the physical space may watch the evolution of the interpretations of the stories by scrolling through map and face juxtapositions organized sequentially by date. An open relationship between the map visualization (the amount and geographical identity of collective readers) and the hypothetical character of the story (the interpretation) is created. Originally developed for exhibition at The Center for Contemporary Art in Prague, “Borderline Stories” has developed from a bilingual piece in English and Czech to a bilingual Spanish and English version. The text collected often does not directly comment on the subject of the work but rather on the process of giving answers. The target audiences to this point have been developed internationally by invitation and electronic message-board. Random surfing (using browser searches such as Google) to find the site is discouraged in favor of e-mail word of mouth, where overlapping online communities share common interests in the subject of the project. Simultaneously, the galleries where the projections and kiosks are installed provide contact with a local audience or audiences. Local audience participation develops through various non-profit organizations and educational institutions that have common interests in the content. The space that the work is installed in is also paramount. In the United States, many non-profit galleries and museums are currently rethinking their goals and missions, searching for continued relevance in their communities. Galleries that have concentrated on a social agenda, creating a broad constituency with multiple communities are preferable. Galleries that have concentrated on insular or passive audiences conflict with the function of the work, which demands interpretation.

The Borderline Series has two modes of display. In one, the work is “live,” in which submissions are added over the course of the exhibition. In the second mode, pieces from the series can be shown without an active connection to the web, as an archive from a previous exhibition. Each time any of the Border pieces are shown as an active information-gathering event, a new database of potential online users is created and solicited to participate. This means that the online audience and the gallery audience are both confronted with a new and candid experience. While the online participants are international in scope, the gallery space provides a local environment for encounters between different communities. For example, the subject of immigration (or emigration) was a major issue in the participation of older Czech men and women (roughly in their 60s and 70s) who lived through the Soviet invasion of 1968 (many emigrated abroad) and the time in which they returned. A younger audience was interested in the more general issues of global information access. Both groups encountered each other in the gallery space and dialogue occurred between them.

2. Descriptions of corollary work
The original intent of “Borderline Stories” was to focus on immigration issues of the Americas and the United States. Because if was created in Central Europe, it became more focused on the issue of global migration. The additional interactive pieces were developed afterward. In them, more specific ideas were developed relating to immigration and border issues in the Americas. “Borderline Translations” underscores the narrative elements of the first three pieces.

“Borderline Translations” tells a story about being in a crowd where one does not speak the same language and is consequently an outsider to the group. The story is implicitly about a bilingual member of the group and their casual choice to include or exclude a non-speaker. Using the interactive quality of the work, the reader may move back and forth between Spanish and English. In the gallery, a Spanish speaker may alternatively exchange positions with an English speaker, have a “language lesson,” and also deal with the ambiguities of translation in the bilingual story. The piece is meant, in a sense, to parallel the social space in the gallery, where different audiences are being brought together, and where two basic communities based on language usage are often separated. The third in the series, “Borderline Maps,” records, archives and presents stories of immigration that the viewer submits. Viewers in the gallery may also indicate on a map where they entered the United States. “Borderline Maps” is used to elicit the most concrete text responses of the ensemble work. In “Borderline Statements,” the viewer is presented with one of the original immigrant stories from “Borderline Stories.” The viewer is then confronted with images that openly suggest ideas of exclusion related to the figure and stereotype. In this case, stereotypical images are loosely based on media and advertising images in the United States. The viewer enters specific written descriptions in response to questions about image pairs. They are also asked where they are from and their gender.

The collective visuals and text responses are displayed after the current information is submitted. On the left side, a portrait is made combining a silhouetted outline of the country the user has chosen, along with a list of what the user has provided as objective descriptions. The user is led to believe that the statements they have provided are actually a kind of portrait of themselves. On the right side, the previous portrait composites from other viewer’s responses are displayed in apparent confrontation with the current viewer’s portrait. As the viewer scrolls through the other user’s portrait, a hand reaches out to touch the other’s face. Other user identity choices, which combine their statements with map-as-portrait, suggest a kind of virtual conversation of each person's interpretations or fears. This is a “dissonant piece” with five to six contingent questions, and in its current form is difficult to relate to within the large-scale public space of the gallery, therefore it is shown online only.

B. Context and Distribution

1. Contextual Placement in the Americas: Cuentos de la Frontera: Dominar la Lengua
The various narrators are not fixed in the sense that they suggest a range of common experiences of a group. The translations are developed carefully as an indexical sign (in semiotics, a class of signs that point back to the original referent, for example a footprint signifying a human figure) suggesting a community through a particular vernacular of Spanish. Anecdotal information from participants shows an awareness of the tone and idiomatic usage of the particular translations. Spanish speakers for example, see the specific translations as pointing to a particular “site,” border or region from which the “voice” of the authors originated. In the case of the Spanish/English version, translations were developed based on idiomatic usage from Northern and Central Mexico.

As the Border Series is placed within multiple contexts, it creates different outcomes. Borderhack is a recurring performance and exhibition venue where the concept of national borders is called into question. The event is not only a series of exhibitions and performances in situ on a border; it also is an act of civil disobedience, where, for example, participants cross the border illegally in full view of U.S. authorities. In the event in Tijuana in 2002, “Borderline Stories” was shown along with other participants’ work. Based on the online responses, it was provocative rather than reflective: there were more comments about the issue than answers regarding the map and portrait sections. Essentially the participants played partisan roles in the local and international staging of the event. In the “archived” version of “Borderline Stories” exhibited in Havana, Cuba there were no responses online (since it was shown as a previous archive of participation), but as a footnote “Borderline Stories” became its own subversion of a border. U.S. export controls precluded the exportation of the artwork as an artifact (i.e. computer, projectors, and installation paraphernalia). Instead, the work was sent digitally through the Internet to be installed with Cuban equipment. In the most recent exhibition of the work in a “border” area of Milwaukee, what was most chilling was the lack of participation by Spanish speakers. First-generation children and young adults participated almost exclusively in English. Participants in previous exhibitions outside of the United States used their own language. The majority of anecdotes appear to be from younger to middle-aged participants. They tend to center on memories they have of a grandparent’s story of immigration, or the stories center on conflicts between the (younger) storytellers and their parents. Unlike other iterations of The Borderline Series, gallery interaction between groups was very minimal and appeared to have different connotations relative to each group. Being first generation and/or living within more than one community (moving “between” the United States and Latin America, or being between both culturally in language usage and community, etc.) contrasted sharply for example, with idealized family memories of earlier Central European immigration. Some respondents’ preoccupation with their genealogy in the nineteenth- or early twentieth-century may frame immigration as a personal “origination myth.” If these preoccupations are not connected to the contemporary community, respondents may never connect their personal history with empathy for recent immigrants.

In Prague, a common history and identity in language brought the Czech audience together, while the Borderhack event was one of civil disobedience. It became clear that in Milwaukee the primary common ground is one of economic necessity, where different communities exist side-by-side due in part to real estate values.

2. Limitations: group strategies within the gallery
The Internet is problematical for some potential participants. A fracture exists in the gallery between “viewers” and “users” who feel more at ease using the simplified kiosks in the gallery. These viewers look to others to click through and control the information, from which they view the content. In the Prague installation, a series of large prints were hung on adjacent walls of the face/map juxtapositions through the time frame of the exhibition to accommodate the viewers (as opposed to users), who quickly scanned the projected information with a mouse. The polarization between viewer and user is not easily classifiable by general socioeconomic factors such as access to technology, but by age. Based on working with communities and developing the Borderline Series into a number of contextual installations, the age of respondents is the most important factor in user participation rather than economic class, or language. It is quite striking to see children and young adults claiming access to the Internet through whatever means they have available. This includes the first-generation participants in Milwaukee (with very general computer literacy), the Borderhack event, and the Prague installation (participants with a mix of general computer literacy and more specialized knowledge). Electronic access is seen as a value and necessity, rather than as an optional luxury. Finally whether I am seen as part of the dominant culture or as an outsider has profound effect on how the pieces are realized. Instead of a separation between an active “artist” and a passive “audience” the exhibition is understood as a “project” where the production and reception of the work is connected. This has implications not only for narrative but also for visual iconography. The particular project is a collective enterprise, where the meaning of the original narratives must be seen as contingent on who is speaking (which is always a kind of “algebraic” variable), and how it relates to the reader’s frame of reference in which “the artist” is only one more interpreter. A case in point is the phrase used as a subtitle to “Borderline Stories: Taming the Tongue” (Dominar la Lengua). This is a recognizable phrase within parts of Latin America. In Prague, the phrase had to be rethought without its cultural specificity to the Latin American audience that it was originally intended for. The translation of the phrase into Czech became very important: would they see it as a phrase related to the Americas (and therefore less directly relevant to them)? Should it be re-written in Czech as a new phrase explaining the idea? Could it be understood as a kind of (European) form of surrealist vocabulary? Issues of text also continue to affect the iconography and design, since the iconography often relates directly to the text. The final selection and inclusion of imagery is open to the same issues of language translation, weighted less towards the authors’ individual wishes (or in this case the visual maker) and weighted more towards how the contextual audience perceives the symbol.

III) Theoretical underpinnings: Schema Theory and the visualization of information

A. Introduction and definitions
Originating in the cognitive sciences, schema theories run a gamut and represent a vast subject, finding application in everything from media criticism to education. Schemas reflect categorization based on resemblance (Augoustinos and Walker 36-42). They work on the level of inferring behavior, or in more general terms, of correlation between an observed trait and a more abstract generalization, or sometimes a larger common narrative shared within a culture. What may constitute a schema can be categorical: a system of organizing traits based on their relative importance; or time-based: the narrative that would arise from rationalizing the relationship of the traits, for example. A schema is a way of exposing cultural or individual values through structure and importance. Examples from social cognition often examine concepts of stereotype or “prototype” and the roles that it plays in social interaction (34-35). Other kinds of augmentations (such as social representation research) to social schema include examining the conventions in cultures in more general ways (164-184). Schema theory seems to naturally gravitate toward applications primarily in the social sciences such as anthropology/ethnography, and is useful in education with an eye to difference and context. Maps, “physiognomy” and figurative representation may also be examined in light of Schema Theory.

B. Maps as schematic representation of cultural values: “the landscape”
The use of maps in the Borderline Series is in how they are connected to narrative. A key to their application is their duality as both cultural and natural history. Maps are created from cultural biases while being interpreted as truthful physical views of the world. Contemporary maps continue to be misunderstood as concrete physical truth by lay audiences, rather than as signifier. This is a particularly thorny issue in the larger context of visual information. The field of Cartography has undergone a series of debates in the last thirty years that center on the objective versus the subjective quality of maps. An example of the split between empiricism and the subjectivity of descriptions can be illustrated in the dilemma of creating a flat rendering of a spherical globe. In a classic projection system like the Mercator Projection System, the surface areas of the extreme northern and southern hemispheres become enlarged, since the projection must enlarge the converging longitudes of both poles into the familiar square grid of the flat map. This creates a visual distortion that has repercussions in terms of how we conceptualize the world and what region we are from; extreme northern and southern landmasses appear larger than equatorial landmasses. Further modifications based on this projection move the equator from its median position on a sphere to a location two-thirds of the way down the global map, thus diminishing even further the size of Central and South America, Africa, India and South East Asia, and Indonesia. Northern Europe and North America appear more visually dominant in relationship to many areas of the globe that have suffered the consequences of colonial thinking and practice.

In this historical example of the Mercator projection, subtle ideological narratives are attached to the objective qualities of the map. The so-called visual truth of the map becomes a subtle visual rhetoric that implicitly supports Euro-centric domination. The implicit “narrative” of colonial dominance is in paradox with the empirical use of the map. While precise navigation may be planned point-to-point with small margin of error, the geopolitical outline of a country or region becomes a powerful symbol for individual identity and social group. Cartographers such as Arno Peters have critiqued these particular biases in cartography, and have attempted to rectify or at least make explicit the act of interpreting geographic projections. In his alternative projection system (Peters Projection), landmasses are not as clearly recognizable, yet accurately reflect their true surface area (Peters 77-88). The new focus on maps as a narrative structure in Cartography is exemplified in the critical re-evaluations of the Mercator Projection. “Borderline Stories,” and “Borderline Statements” rely on the map as a strong surrogate identity tied to the narratives submitted by the users. Critically exposing unacknowledged “narratives” (such as the implied dominance of Northern Hemisphere countries in the Mercator projection) potentially suggests building acknowledgeable critical narratives and dialogues regarding individual identity and community.

C. Physiognomy as a schema of cultural values: “the figure”

1. Human Typologies
Europe and North America saw the rise of pseudo-scientific studies of human typologies in the nineteenth-century. The variety of studies (Magli 87-127) and their application in science, education and criminology (and their eventual effect on immigration laws through the twentieth-century in the United States (Gould)) included phrenology, comparative anatomy and “criminal typologies.” Particularly relevant to the application of schemas in Borderline Stories is the late nineteenth century work of Cesare Lambroso.

Lambroso based his work on human typologies where outward physical demeanor was a predictive and diagnostic evaluation of behavior. Lambroso dealt not only with outward appearance of those that society wished to exclude but also those that were embraced as geniuses by creating a large and exhaustive social classification system. Recalling the definition of a schema as a system that can be static and also time-based and related to narrative, Lambroso often combined both as a way of rationalizing the traits of his subjects. His use of classification extended beyond anatomical comparisons to include the anecdotal stories of criminality and genius. Lambroso’s system often combined insanity and neurosis with genius, as a state of “degeneracy.” (Lambroso 57-59) Lambroso’s narratives are exemplary of the notion in schema theory of the observation of physical traits and the correlation to a simplified “theory,” general principle, or moralistic evaluation. In general, correlation between visual information in most of these pseudo-scientific studies ended up underscoring the cultural belief in the dominance of Northern European culture and certain ethnic or physiological types over others, most blatantly in the comparative anatomy practiced by Broca.

2. Open versus closed schemas and narrative
Both of the original historical examples are dependent on a closed narrative or schema that deflected multiple interpretations and collective negotiation. In Difference and Pathology, Sander Gilman asserts that stereotypes are formed by subjective experiences as our response to our fear of the Other (Gilman 15-35). Gilman states that there is a difference between temporary uses of stereotypes, (which are amended or dispensed with altogether when we have experience with the subject) and pathological stereotypes, where there is no possibility of change. As another writer has put it “We attempt to naturalize the pathological stereotype; we claim that this stereotype is universal. The healthy stereotype, then respects difference and complexities of experience, the unhealthy one denies difference, imposing itself on the world” (Bolton 266). On the most basic level, Gilman suggests the concept of an open and engaged act of narrative and dialogue with the subject of our stereotyping rather than the outright repression of stereotypes. This is, essentially, an open personal and social narrative, rather than the closed narrative schema of stereotype.

While phrenology and other nineteenth-century practices like it are now discredited, the attempt to judge others through outward appearance and simplified behavior is internalized into various cultural practices such as photography, advertising, and various demographic models in information advertising and global media in general. The explosive growth of photography, video, and other visual information distributed through an enlarged global economy echoes the assertions of the attempt to naturalize the stereotype. The pseudoscience of demographics (a new form of human typology, reminiscent of Lambroso’s correlations and schematic structures) is employed to target and manipulate audiences. While many critics have argued that these current systems of consumerism do afford creative responses (significantly the work of John Tagg (Tagg 183-202), Dick Hebdige, and others) by individuals and communities, it is still an open question how these choices become arbitrated as global capital and its attendant electronically disseminated discourse of advertising continues its expansion.

D. The reader as a collective visual presence: the absent figure of the story

Traditionally the “visualization of information” (which includes cartography and maps, and other systems of information such as classification and taxonomy of individuals) is predicated on communicating objective data. Data has an abstract value that may be applied within other contexts, the very heart of Cartesian thinking. The use of these visual ideas in “Borderline Stories” are repositioned to point back “indexically” at the reader as the true figuration in the visualization of information. Significantly, the information cannot be taken out of the time and context of the exhibition and used as abstract data, as in the older cartographic concept of the map as empirical object, or in the predictive mode of human typologies. Rather, it is tied to an unfolding narrative structure. Ultimately the transparent position of the reader becomes visible or self-conscious. The tie is between visual information and narrative as an active deliberation, as “mapping,” with its roots in the more critical thinking in Cartography and schema representation research of the last thirty years.

IV) Conclusions

The meaning of visual information, and the broader narratives they become part of, can never be completely free of subjectivity. Visual information is highly political because of its very use. The nineteenth-century examples of human classification can be looked at critically, in large part due to their oddness from a contemporary perspective. Critical interpretation is possible because of history; a re-examination from outside of the schema of cultural values. The historical/diachronic viewpoint possesses 20/20 hindsight and can make us aware of the lineage and transition of ideas and concepts. Global electronic information on the other hand is primarily in the present and synchronic. It is unstable, mutable, and contingent on multiple social contexts and distribution. Rather than multiple interpretations as a source of confusion, the act of interpretation and reception becomes the primary involvement. Social schema work most fundamentally on the level of inference. They resolve ambiguity, but are paradoxically self-confirming. When negotiation occurs between groups, however, self-confirmation is called into question, adding a new conceptual framework for the viewer's interpretation of the original stories of immigration. Eliminating the final idea of a goal, of a final receiver or singular and “truthful” information allows us to inspect and participate in the information as a site in contrast to information as a transparent vessel of content. Identity becomes a question of how, finally, the viewer affiliates with the incongruities of the information: “does the information speak for me? Am I a part of this map and what it represents both as a location and as a symbol?” In so doing, personal identity is shared through social deliberation in the gallery and on the web: a dynamic activity. The Borderline Series is a social, collective assemblage (see my article “Unfolding the Surface of Information”), externalizing how we understand the world. Returning to Sander Gilman, “when we attempt to naturalize (the) stereotype; we claim that this stereotype is universal,” eerily suggests our belief in the universal qualities of objective visual information without context. The Borderline Series as an ongoing project attempts to at least touch upon how we can develop complexities of experience and difference.

Works Cited

Augoustinos, Martha and Walker, Iain , Social Cognition, An Integrated Introduction. London: SAGE Publications (1995): 36-42, 34-35, 164-184.

Bolton, Richard. “In the American East, Richard Avedon Incorporated.” The Contest of Meaning. Ed. Richard Bolton. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989. 266.

Broca, Paul. Sur les projections de la tete et sure un noveau procede de cephalometrie. Bulletin Societe d’Anthropologie. Paris 3, 1862. 32pp.

Gilman, Sander L. Difference and Pathology; Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race and Madness. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985, 15-35.

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1983, 252-262.
Hebdige, Dick, Subculture the Meaning of Style. London: Methuen & Company, 1979.

Lambroso, Cesare, The Man of Genius. London: Walter Scott, 1891, 57-59.

Magli, Patrizi, “The Face and the Soul.” Fragments for a history of the human body part two. Ed. Crary, Jonathan, et al. New York: Zone, 1989, 87-127.

Peters, Arno. Die neue kartographie (The New Cartography). New York: Friendship Press, 1983. 77-88.

Tagg, John, and Sanchez-Tranquilino , Marcos, “The Pachuco’s Flayed Hide.” Grounds of Dispute, Art History, Cultural Politics and the Discursive Field. Ed. Tagg, John. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.183-202.

Townsend, Scott, “Unfolding the Surface of Information.” Design Issues, Volume 14, Number 3 (1998): 5-18.

--------. Borderline Series. Center for Contemporary Art, Prague, Czech Republic, Feb.- Mar. 2002.

Centro Cultural Pablo de la Torriente Brau, Havana, Cuba, Jun. 2002. Borderhack. Ed. Ilich, Fran. Tijuana, Mexico, July 2002. WPCA, Milwaukee, United States, Sept.- Oct. 2003.<http://www4.ncsu.edu/~sttwn/border.html>

--------.“Borderline Stories.” Borderline Series. 23 October 2004. Ongoing. <http://www4.ncsu.edu/~sttwn/bor_der1.html>

--------.“Borderline Translations.” Borderline Series. 23 October 2004. Ongoing. <http://www4.ncsu.edu/~sttwn/bor_der3.html>

---------.“Borderline Maps.” Borderline Series. 23 October 2004. Ongoing. <http://www4.ncsu.edu/~sttwn/bor_der4.html>

---------.“Borderline Statements.” Borderline Series. 23 October 2004. Ongoing. <http://www4.ncsu.edu/~sttwn/bor_der2.html>