Friday, 29 December 2017

Timboctou: On Borders and Movement

The modern border is a strange concept. No longer just a physical line drawn between nations (another strange concept), the border stretches to every major airport in the world. The border has its own area, contains its own structures and strictures. The border doesn’t keep people out; it keeps people in, only permitting certain qualified individuals to exit through a certain door. I have seen the American border in Paris and Dublin airports. British border patrol begins in Paris’s Gare du Nord, a situation which no doubt will become more complicated as the United Kingdom moves to leave the European Union. One can cross into a border without leaving one’s geography and, sometimes, without knowing it.

The U.S.-Mexico border is a contentious battleground and conduit for several ongoing “wars,” as suggested by performance scholar Ruth Hellier-Tinoco in “Re: Moving Bodies in the USA/Mexico Drug/Border/Terror/Cold Wars.” The title alone indicates four wars shared by or fought between the two countries. As Hellier-Tinoco points out, the war over this particular border goes back to 1846, when the territory-hungry U.S. invaded and captured half of what was then Mexico, in the name of Manifest Destiny. (It was their destiny, so they manifested it.) Of course, we must remember that colonialism ran strong in both nations then as now; think of all the native people and culture displaced and destroyed in the process. Kofi Agawu has highlighted the “oft-remarked illogic of colonial boundaries,” pointing to “the increasingly urgent need to think beyond borders.” Just as borders trap bodies trying to pass through, borders can also entrap ideas, forcing a colonial gaze. As Fred Moten suggests, “The very taking of an anti-colonial stance looks crazy, from a normative perspective,” but using that perspective to come to “believe in the world,” which is an “other world,” is imperative to the work that needs to be done. Hellier-Tinoco does not directly address this, but focuses instead for the most part on the here and now of the ongoing conflicts in her analysis of Alejandro Ricaño’s 2012 play Timboctou.

Ricaño has created an absurd, darkly humorous piece which attempts, in practice and in content, to rethink borders. The play’s production presents a migrancy of its own, a two-way migrancy, having had a dual premiere in Guadalajara and Los Angeles, using designers and actors from both Mexico and the United States. Director Martín Acosta has said he wants to cultivate “a dialogue of gazes between artists from Mexico and the USA. The dual collaboration allows for a complex and rich framework: the only way of tearing down walls and crossing rivers and tunnels without visas, with the powerful flight of imagination.”

On the U.S. side, Timboctou was presented by the CalArts Center for New Performance at the REDCAT, a state-of-the-art experimental theatre space in downtown Los Angeles. On entering the space, one is confronted by a striking set design filled with atmosphere. The playing space is enclosed on three sides by tall, rust-colored panels; a large mound of interlocking chairs takes up nearly half the space on one side; a big, boxy television hangs upside-down in the center, suspended a few feet off the deck by a cable from the lighting grid some thirty feet above. The panels form a wall (the wall, the border wall? a cell?), the chairs form a hill (Capitol Hill? they’re interlocked—it’s complicated. “Take a seat, hombre.”), the television hangs like a strange ornamental light (so it is an interrogation chamber? “Why were you entering the U.S. illegally?”). During the play, the panels open and close, the mound of chairs migrates, the television swings—all parts of the set, more than mere objects, have their own piece to contribute to the overall performance.

The action of Timboctou, presented in an enigmatic fashion, takes place in contemporary Mexico and involves different pairings and groupings of individuals: drug runners, drug enthusiasts, the government (politicians, police, military), migrants. The media is represented by a cameraman whose captured images are shown on the dangling television. While the action is in Mexico, the actors (both in character and in person) represent both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border: the American tourist on vacation in Tijuana looking to “score,” the Mexican politician taking cold calls from the FBI, and so on. An international border is not the only border in play; the borders between logic and illogic, comedy and tragedy, possible and impossible are all under scrutiny. As the play progresses, the lines blur, and it becomes difficult to see where any border might be, if there is one. The notion of the border and its authority is tested. Edward Said has written, “There is nothing mysterious or natural about authority,” and the same can be claimed for the border which such “authority” puts into place. “It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; … it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgments it forms, transmits, reproduces.” Timboctou is an attempt to call out the unnaturalness of the border and steal away its supposed power.

* * *

The notion of “Timboctou” is of a mythical place, a place that doesn’t exist but you try to reach anyway (maybe Moten’s “other world”). An immediate connection might be made to the concept of utopia, whether as originally posed by Thomas More or as adapted (for the better) by José Muñoz. More derived the term utopia in 1516 from Greek, meaning not place. As a place (or no place), it’s something one can move towards without ever arriving. Muñoz says the existence of utopia “reminds us that there is something missing.” It functions as a comparative lens of idealism through which to view our current world and see what direction we need to move. The present is not enough: While utopia holds no establishment of a certain futurity, there is a sense that the future is at stake when we talk about the present, informed by the past. Furthermore, the very idea of presence (and “its opposite number, absence”) is not enough: There is some liminal in-between where the utopia exists or can be accessed. In addition to a not place, it is also a not there (yet).

In Timboctou the play, Chucho tells Dany about Timboctou, the concept, while they perform an elaborate running choreography facing the audience:
I can’t get rid of the image of my dad, Dany, talking about Timboctou before he died. He always spoke about Timboctou as the furthest place on earth. … I’m sure that no one knows where Timboctou is. … It’s absurd to think of the furthest place on earth when the earth is round. … Perhaps that’s why the earth is round, Dany—so that no one has to live at the end of the world. … Before I die I have to go to Timboctou. No one should die without knowing Timboctou, Dany. After all, it’s the end of the world.
The invocation of Timboctou implies a movement, just as utopia does. For Muñoz, “utopia is a stage, not merely a temporal one, like a phase, but also a spatial one.” A stage of time and space upon which a movement acts in time and space, a here and now which moves towards a there and then. In the play Timboctou, the movement is, thematically, across the border between the U.S. and Mexico, in both directions. Objects and ideas are exchanged along with the bodies. The actors’ movements in the play are highly choreographed so as to accentuate subtext; the text, spoken mostly in Spanish with English supertitles projected onto the wall panels, carries with it the sort of “heightened mundaneness” I typically associate with Quentin Tarantino films like Pulp Fiction. This heightened mundaneness is a style where the conversation at the textual level seems everyday—e.g., a light-hearted conversation about fast food—while the context and subtext suggest higher stakes—e.g., the two men speaking are hitmen about to commit murder. Hellier-Tinoco notes that in Timboctou “spoken words tell one story, and bodies articulate another, as corporeal forms, embodied postures, and multifaceted movement vocabularies offer insights into relationships and connections, power relations and attitudes.” It is interesting that Hellier-Tinoco uses the word embodied to modify postures, seeming to indicate that she means posture in the sense of an approach or attitude, or even a false impression, as opposed to the way one stands (though embodying a particular attitude would affect the way one stands). In another connection to Tarantino’s work, the temporality of Timboctou is non-linear, with elements of the plot presented as fragments out of time. As each fragment is presented, connections are realized, and we come to laugh at the absurdities while also cringing at the horrors each new connection brings.

Throughout her piece, Hellier-Tinoco relates the choreography used in Timboctou to the wars, real or imagined, which take place across, around, and about the U.S.-Mexico border: silent polar bears move around the space ignored by two men, symbolic of the silent war the U.S. fights in Mexico through intelligence agencies; two men perform a routine “reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy,” symbolizing the predictability of the U.S. war on drugs; two men run backwards and forwards in the space, the “running” of drugs and guns. There is a choreography to how bodies move across, around, and within borders, just as there is a choreography to how actors move around on a stage. Timboctou mirrors the movement of everyday lives and asks us, in an indirect way, to rethink borders.

References:
Agawu, Kofi, Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Wivenhoe, UK: Minor Compositions, 2013.
Hellier-Tinoco, Ruth, “Re: Moving Bodies in the USA/Mexico Drug/Border/Terror/Cold Wars.” In Choreographies of 21st Century Wars, edited by Gay Morris and Jens Richard Giersdorf. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Muñoz, José Esteban, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
Said, Edward W., Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
Timboctou,” CalArts Center for New Performance website. Accessed 20 December 2017.

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