Borders

a half-acre of land

Borders are as many scars, in places still sensitive to the touch, likely to erupt unexpectedly [Breyten Breytenbach]

I am a walking crossroads. I incarnate a crossroads of borders. My body is a map of linguistic scars that open and close like bleeding wounds. I feel and sleep inside a virtual nation. I’ve never considered, resented, questioned or even thought of borders. I simply crossed them and they have crossed me. I walked and walked and before I knew it I had a voice to speak from. Linguistic scars that cross your body like motorways. A body of origins which I absorb. Yet, I look for origins. I am obsessed with them. The feeling is not nostalgic, it is not about living in the past. The desire is to tell, live, cross, walk, spit in the face of adversity. The desire is to mutate at any opportune season into a borderless creature. Borders can be geographical, artistic, expressive, emotional and they all demand, like gaping mouths, to be fed. They all want attention. Yet borders give boundaries. We all need boundaries to construct ourselves. We are all stranger to ourselves, we all live in a constant flux made up of inside and outside, we all try to dig, scrape, scratch the paint that covers up the surface, only to find that underneath there is another layer ready to be attacked. We all resist definition and even more so if you are a woman, a foreigner, an exile. I look and look for my roots but they constantly get mixed up with weeds and flowers and cigarette butts as I regurgitate old sayings, sift through clichés and postcards from Florence and global gadgets which stick like magnetic landmarks on my fridge.

Borders are like razor-blades: you walk over them, along them as the only direction and guide in sight; they make your feet bleed but you keep on the tracks. You cross duck scout roll scavenge pilfer rummage in the bins as you try to metamorphose. I walk through many doors, travel through many roads. In y work, I cross artistic, linguistic borders: theory, scholarly and creative writing, the visual arts, performance, film. When you are working with actors you are dealing with borders all the time. Writing a piece which will be interpreted by another voice is crossing borders: where does my creativity end and where does hers/his begin? The simple act of putting a costume on a performer is like giving a new skin to a new human being and not just dressing a life-less mannequin. I can very well have my vision of things, but he or she is the one that will make the dress live. It takes time for all the creases to fall out and for the dress to fit like a second skin. Leading a team of artists to be part of an overall vision is asking them to cross borders, which can be sharp blades where their feet might bleed.

My work always starts from a place. There are some key-words which inform my work which have to do with place, directly or indirectly. Exile / tongue, transform, translation / skin / identity / work-vocabulary and work-jargon / cross-cultures /twice a foreigner / étranger à moi même (foreigner to myself) /hybrid, hybridity.

My journey starts in Belfast by a mixture of accident and design. After the initial excitement and bewilderment (it was Belfast in the early 1980s), I soon realised that the problem wasn’t so much speaking another language. A language is not just a mere uttering of words. The process of entering a language, in its deepest folds, entails stripping off a great deal of protective shields being left naked and exposed. It is like peeling off a skin and slowly and sometimes painfully building another. My personality had undertaken a complete change. I couldn’t understand the humour, the nuances, the irony, the references to music or film or TV programmes lost in time. And when I did manage to butt into the conversation my speech reflected the fake, constructed speech of BBC English, learned in language labs at Milan University. Although using the same idiom, this language bore no resemblance to the language I was immersed in. It was frustrating not to be able to laugh and make people laugh. The grimace on my face became, for a few months, that of an overworked simultaneous translator. When all gathered in the pub in the evening and let loose fast witticism, I used to be so tired that I had to retire in a numb state of stupidity masked by a photocopied smile on my face. If somebody prodded too hard or came too close, my face would crack.

Who was I there? In Belfast in 1981?

I was twice a foreigner. Firstly, because I was indeed a foreigner, an alien from another culture with different colour of eyes and hair and strange eating habits. Secondly, because in my foreignness I spoke with the stamp of the English colonialist. All I had there, to say who I was, was my native tongue (which was no use in that context), and an acquired language which got me through my daily needs but did not get me through the heart of people. The identity of the exile is blotchy. To some you’re cute, like an exotic animal, or a pet, who can be shown to friends and children as you would show them a picture of an Eskimo from a geography book. On the other side, you are an infiltrator, somebody who, just by opening your mouth, conjures up images of chip-shops, pizza, ice-cream, opera and endless coach trips to the leaning tower of Pisa. Global culture at its most subliminal. First a woman and a foreigner. Then, through my seventeen years spent between Wales, Italy and the rest of the world, other identities come into focus: the perform, the artist, the writer, the scholar, the teacher, the director, the performers’ and performance creator. All paths cross through the idea of space and place as a creative impulse. The seduction of place. The power of place. A half-acre of land that I can call my own. This creative space I have clawed out of many layers of my skin. This space is my art, my writing, my voice, my body, the method of my work I have created with artists from all over the world and over many years. This space is my life. From this space came the conviction that there is a language, in performance and in the arts, which unifies without erasing the scars of borders and identity. This became Elan’s mission statement, a European Live Arts Network. Identifying the demand for- and interest in- interdisciplinary, collaborative work.

The performance-montage, first created in 1989, is a training technique and a style of presentation. It also developed as a means to provide opportunities for dialogue and mutual inspiration across the borders of various arts disciplines. The performance-montage has proved a highly successful medium for encouraging borders-free worlds: communities being created in the act of creating. Learning and teaching on the borders of architecture, art, film, communication, dance, design, drama, music, performance and theatre. All creation has to do with identity, with the stuff we are made of. All creation is a hybrid and hybridity implies fusion. I can’t imagine creating without fusing place, memory, body and words. For some, home is where you have a history. For me, home is where I have a story to tell.


The first version of this paper was presented at the conference Borders, Gregynog, Wales, UK, 2003. It was then re-worked for a new public presentation at the Library of Butler University, Indianapolis, USA, 2004.