by Andy Teirstein

A border can be represented by a line on a map. But expand that line, it becomes its own space, fertile with the dramatic potential for either violence or something else—learning, collaboration, evolution. As ethnographer Amy Horowitz puts it, “the edge can become the center.” Translucent Borders gathers artist scholars to look at points of global intersection. Our observations are based on experiences in the field. There is no substitute for being there. 

The Revenge of the Nomads

We step onto a plane and our thoughts are released. Our mental state, unhinged from place, is allowed new perspective even as we rise and the view from the air expands. Translucent Borders is built on the concept of the value of removal from the familiar. Our initial forays to the Middle East and Greece have given us new insights on the project, its purpose and effects. In what follows, I will draw on the writings of cultural critic Carol Becker, whose book, Thinking in Place, propounds the importance of global perspective in our evolution toward a sane society. She encourages artists to “learn how they can move fluidly within multiple realities.”

Young practitioners need to be prepared for the contemporary world they are entering—a world moving so quickly where, at best, east and west, north and south converge and merge, where cultures intersect and learn from one another and at worst, where cultures collide, endangering the existence of all species and the well-being of the planet itself.  

The concept of multiplicity is at the core of the Translucent Borders endeavor.  The elements we engage with are themselves a tapestry of borders: encounters between different cultural groups, between genres, styles, media, instrumentation, religion and gender. It may be that artists are uniquely qualified to move, ghostlike, across lines. We are trained to observe, listen, and to collaborate. Artists have the ability to become “adept travelers and navigators of the ‘contact zone,’ the place where diverse cultures intersect, and are often able to transform what could be a barrier into a point of entry.”

In our research expeditions, we are trusting in a set of keys to breach these points of entry, beginning with a violin, a drum, and a few dance steps. We are also bringing a camera, creating a film record of interviews, jam sessions, and song and dance swaps.  One of the notable aspects of this work is the ability of music and dance to trump factionary confrontation. Connection on a cultural level creates an electrical short in the wiring of political standoff.  In the rarified ether of music and dance, the deepest aspects of identity become shareable. Our impetus is not political, but creative. What can a creative approach teach us about these points of global encounter? We are traveling to refugee camps and other points of cultural synapse to learn what we can. The people we meet tell us about their own traveling, and the layers of identity they navigate. Becker writes, 

Most of us have learned to juggle simultaneous realities and to move between them in our minds and actions, to live in a state of hybridity. In true postmodern fashion, many of us are no longer comfortable in any one identity, but are accustomed with moving between multiple personas and identifying with various states of consciousness, as well as various ethnicities, organizations of thought, and physical geographies.  

She speaks of the importance of knowing the complexity of your own place, but also “the places that are Other, the not home.”

The world in which we now stand requires us to be able to move both vertically and horizontally….We need to be able to understand where we are in relation to the totality, since our daily lives are so directly related to this totality—from the food we eat, the products we buy, the books we read, the films we see, to the people down the block and to the wars being fought in our name…in this way we have become tourists, pilgrims, nomads, and travelers in our daily lives, even if we never leave home….We are impregnated with multiple cultures.  

Over the past twenty years, music and dance have increasingly become platforms for cultural dialogue, a broadening circle of interweaving songlines. Music in particular, through internet accessibility, has become the world’s common notebook. The challenge now is to retain particular signature local styles in the global dialogue. 

It may be that globalization is truly the ‘revenge of the nomads’, and movement has won out over staying put to redefine for many the notion of community as no longer only local and particular but global and inclusive.  

Translucent Borders is not the only project involved in global cultural exchange. Since its inception a year ago, I have received countless recommendations from colleagues regarding cross-border endeavors. But the research aspect of our work, under the auspices of New York University, releases us from commercial incentive—we are observers, listeners—not artists on tour, but creative vagabonds with camera and pen, recording notes and images, and responding in art and scholarship.  

What is Creative Research?

The university system evolved within the bounds of a particular geographic area, Western Europe, but its borders have long been in a process of engulfment by the greater global village. New York University is a leader in the field of globalized learning. In December, I gathered professors from the NYU departments of Dance, Anthropology, Recorded Music, and Theater, along with a handful of leading composers, choreographers and practitioners of world music and dance from outside the university.  Funded by the NYU Global Institute of Advanced Study, the working group encompasses a spectrum of interests and accomplishments, from Broadway to Afghanistan, with Fulbright, Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships. We launched into a discussion of the generous parameters of our funded proposal—to investigate the role of music and dance at cultural and geographic borders. It didn’t take long, at our first meeting, for the puzzle to present itself: what role would musicians and dancers play in this research?  What would the university require from our group? Would we be collaborating on creating a concert? How would we navigate the continuum between process and product? As I looked around the room, I realized that we embodied the crux of academic research and creative practice, the role of the artist as researcher.

The artist is generally unwelcome at the academic table. True, the arts were part of the original university paradigm at its medieval inception, and have always been integrated in the curriculum. We speak of a “liberal arts” education. But when it comes to research, two approaches—scientific and artistic— diverged somewhere along the line, giving pride of place to the high priest of research, the scientific method.  Creative research implies an experiential focus, something that happens at a heightened moment in time, rather than reflection in the space of an aftermath. This fleeting experience, and the influence of imagination, impulse, inspiration—considered prime elements in the act of music and dance composition—are suspicious guests in the world of scholarship, their results unquantifiable.  In recent years, though, the line between scholarship and creative work seems to be evolving into a broader pathway of exchange. The key term, “research,” is an open window on both fields. To search, to search again, feels as applicable to creative process as it is to conventional scholarship. The first search, in any case, is a journey into something as yet unfound. And the second one? There is a sense of movement, but in which direction? 

While the academic world provides an enriching refuge for artists, there is also the tension of belonging and not-belonging, the allure of the library and classroom on one hand, the seeping away of precious composing time on the other. Research projects ask the artist to step further into the maelstrom, to leave the sweet, fertile repose of the muse as muse and engage with a hall of mirrors consisting of perspectives on perspectives, of related texts and critical commentary qua meta-gossip, much of it politicized.  At its core, music and dance are removed from these things. But are they ever truly removed? It may be argued that the academic world suddenly finds itself in the position of needing input from the sublingual vocabularies of music and dance, which live in an ether of impulse.  
The fact that some universities are becoming more interested in creative research signifies that both realms—conventional academic scholarship and creative artistry—are experiencing a need to re-evaluate this relationship.  For the arts, there is a persistent lack of national legitimacy, expressed, for instance, in the failure of many dance companies, orchestras and galleries.  In the case of universities, the reclusive status of the ivory tower, a fortress of knowledge at a distance from worldly pursuits, is challenged by the effect of the internet as a global equalizer. As the world wide web turns the concept of ownership on its head, the ivory tower is also upended. The ownership of knowledge is under attack, along with its definition. Will scholarly dialogue be able to resist its dissolution in the flood of what is digital and also ancestral?  The virtual village has its backlash, the belated yearning for actual experience, the real stories of ancestry, our deeper roots, and all things traditional, genuine, and hand-made.  As my Cheyenne friend would say, the people who carry the drum—indigenous people—can save the world, if the world will listen to them. 

I recently stepped into the hallway of the dance department to find a group of MFA students between classes, all scribbling by hand in notebooks (not “notepads”).  What brings these young choreographers into an institution of higher learning? Yes, they want the stamp of approval, the official hoop jumped, and they are interested in testing their own limits, expanding their minds, but they are also experiencing the same tensions as faculty, expressed above, regarding the artist’s place in the research institution. 

For a short time in my teens I was in a band with the folk singer Caroline Doctorow. We sometimes rehearsed in her living room.  Years later, I gathered my courage to ask her father, novelist E.L. Doctorow (who died this year), to take a look at the pages of research I had collected for a musical theater piece based on an historical event.  Doctorow told me, “Research can only take you so far.”  He said that when he really got focused on a new idea for a book, he felt a magnetic field growing around himself, and the details of the book came to him. For instance, when he needed the
name of a character, he might happen to pass a street sign with the perfect name, one he wouldn’t have thought of on his own. 

Translucent Borders has been sending out its magnetic field in trips this spring to Tel Aviv, Bethlehem, and the Island of Lesbos. It’s about connection, drawing unlikely collaborators into cultural encounter. Our research is built on artistic principles: juxtapositions, listening techniques, movement vocabulary just beyond our comfort zones, and a mainstay of artists’ tools—the refusal to accept boundaries at face value.