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'Rethinking Borders': Urging both sides to an understanding

Artists, activists and academics at Central Library will discuss how people can unite communities split by country, language and customs.

November 07, 2011|By Reed Johnson
  • Marcos Ramrez ERRE?s ?Century 21? in Tijuana contrasts a shack and modern building.
Marcos Ramrez ERRE?s ?Century 21? in Tijuana contrasts a shack and modern… (Dave Gatley / Los Angeles…)

The border regions between countries can be oases of free exchange and fruitful mixing or zones of fear and conflict.

On Tuesday night, a half-dozen visual artists, activists and academics will convene at downtown's Central Library to consider how culture can help span the gulfs of language, history and ethnicity that often keep people in border areas apart, even when they live side by side.

The encounter, "From Tijuana to Gaza to Bosnia: Rethinking Borders in a 21st Century World," is a cross-disciplinary panel discussion, hosted by the Library Foundation's ALOUD public lecture series. Among the participants will be Dorit Cypis, an L.A.-based artist and professional mediator, and Marcos Ramírez ERRE, a Tijuana artist known for his border-themed works such as a 1997 giant two-headed Trojan horse he installed at the San Ysidro-Tijuana crossing.

Louise Steinman, ALOUD's curator, hopes the event will inspire creative collaborations among the panelists and possibly some in attendance. For that to happen, she said, the event will have to address at least one key question: "What does someone in Eastern Europe have to say to someone on the Mexican border?"

That question also intrigues panel participant Krzysztof Czyzewski, an avant-garde theater artist and social activist who has spent decades using culture to bring Poles and Lithuanians together in the northeast Polish city of Sejny, where he lives and works.

During post-World War II communist rule in Poland, Czyzewski and his colleagues practiced underground theater, challenging government dogma backed by Soviet tanks. Among their greatest influences was Jerzy Grotowski (1933-99), the legendary experimental director, who called for a radical form of theater that would break down the walls between performer and spectator — a kind of aesthetic "border" — and allow everyone a place in the creative process.

"We felt we should go, as artists, out of the stage, and try to create local communities," Czyzewski said by phone last week from Poland, whose cultural ministry is supporting ALOUD's event with a grant of around $20,000.

But in 1990, as the Iron Curtain was collapsing, Czyzewski and his colleagues decided their new challenge lay in using art to unite ethnic communities that had been split by two world wars and the subsequent Cold War.

In Sejny, near the border with Lithuania and Belarus, in a former summer home donated by Nobel Prize-winning poet Czes?aw Mi?osz, they established the Borderlands Foundation to promote cultural and civic dialogue. The idea, Czyzewski said, was to create a kind of modern version of the classical Greek agora, or civic plaza, where Poles, Lithuanians and Byelorussians could interact with one another as well as engage with the cultural memory of the Jews who once formed part of the region's identity.

"When we came, everything was like an archipelago of different groups," each of which had its separate language, customs, newspapers, schools, housing and myths, he said. "So the question was, could we tell a common story?" One of the foundation's ongoing projects has been a live performance piece, "The Sejny Chronicles," that weaves stories from all the area's ethnic groups.

Panelist Cypis, raised in Israel during its early years as a modern state, also knows firsthand the challenge of devising common narratives among groups of people taught to regard one another as aliens, even enemies.

"Foreign-ness is totally within," Cypis said. "We are so foreign to parts of ourselves. So how about if we started knowing our foreignness and exchanging it as a currency?"

Even among like-minded groups of people, Cypis said, borders crop up. Last week, she spent several hours in the tent city that has sprouted around City Hall, mediating and facilitating exchanges among the hundreds of participants in Occupy L.A.

"Just because you have the same idea as people doesn't mean you know how to live with them," Cypis said. "You need tools."

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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