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  • Portable Borders: Performance Art and Politics on the U.S. Frontera since 1984 by Ila Nicole Sheren
  • Claire F. Fox (bio)
Portable Borders: Performance Art and Politics on the U.S. Frontera since 1984. By Ila Nicole Sheren. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015; 211 pp.; illustrations. $55.00 cloth, $21.95 paper.

In the 1990s, performance art from the US-Mexico border region rose to prominence in many cultural arenas. The militarization of the US-Mexico border, NAFTA, the Columbus quincentenary, the immigrant rights movement, and the femicide in Ciudad Juárez, among other factors, underscored the urgency of art being produced in border contexts. At the same time, debates in the United States about the role of public art and multiculturalism brought art from the border region to the attention of broad publics and helped consolidate “border art” as a category in international art worlds. The San Diego/Tijuana area in particular became associated [End Page 181] with art about borderlands experience, through the performances and installations of the San Diego-based Border Art Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo (BAW/TAF) and the binational InSite arts festivals. As border policies dominate current political discussions in the US, what can we learn by considering border art as a “three-decades-long case study of artists addressing society through art” (3)? How does this category continue to inform art-making and frameworks for the exhibition and study of art?

Ila Nicole Sheren’s Portable Borders lucidly chronicles border performance art as a category and archive, from the early BAW/TAF experiments of the 1980s to recent work by artists in other global locations. Sheren is especially interested in tracing that process whereby “border art” ceased to refer exclusively to site-specific works produced in relation to everyday life in the US-Mexico border region and instead became “portable,” that is, capable of addressing a “state of mind as well as the boundary between nations” and even “places of coexisting cultural or social difference” (60). Whether presented as emblematic of its origin or repurposed for new contexts and themes, as border art became increasingly “portable” by the early 1990s, the phrase inevitably implied thoughtful attention to the relation between art and site on the part of artists, critics, and publics.

Sheren points out that border art traveled through iterable performances and personae. And, rather than stress the uniqueness of experience or identity, some border artists and arts administrators cast audiences themselves as border-crossers, by virtue of their participation in interactive performances and exhibitions. Sheren expands on this model of knowledge transmission by citing Walter Mignolo’s concept of border gnosis, which refutes the epistemological dominance of the West in center/periphery models of colonial expansion, endowing border art with pedagogical potential. Border art also traveled through publicity, criticism, and media, and it proliferated rhizomatically, as artists working in areas affected by dynamics similar to those of the US-Mexico border region produced politically conscious art projects informed by contemporary performance practices.

Over four chapters, Sheren’s study casts spotlights on particular performances as turning points or defining moments in the transformation of border performance art. The first chapter focuses on the foundation of the BAW/TAF in 1984 through the Workshop’s reconfiguration in 1989. Among the strengths of Sheren’s study are interludes connecting the BAW/TAF to currents of conceptualism, Fluxus, performance, and body art. The members of BAW/TAF readily grasped that everyday performances exacted by the border apparatus to enforce identity, legality, and movement could be heightened through performance, as in End of the Line (1986), in which the BAW/TAF members costumed as “border stereotypes” (41) gathered for a ludic Thanksgiving dinner/Last Supper at Border Field State Park, where the border fence used to end just before reaching the Pacific Ocean.

Sheren notes that some of the BAW/TAF members “conceived of the border as a multicultural laboratory, a place to carry out progressive, utopian social experiments,” while others regarded the border as “the site of failed […] experiments in state social control and economic stratification” (25). The second chapter marks the diverging paths among the BAW/TAF members that became pronounced by...


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pp. 181-183
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