In Border Field State Park, on the beach where San Diego and Tijuana meet, a fence made of poles placed a few inches apart, stretches from the sand into the water, extending just past the surf break. Artist Diego Palacios saw this border for the first time on a surf trip “I was aware of how it mirrored my Mexican-American identity,” he says. Surfing there has been strange and usually solitary for him. “The experience is like nothing I've ever done,” he says. “There exists an emotional heaviness that comes and goes.” While it's still illegal to cross from one “side” to another, there’s no tangible difference between the waves and, once you’re beyond the wall, no barrier.
“I am of course literally between the United States and Mexico, between the sea and land,” he reflects. “But I am also between surveillance and freedom and the history of natural migration and colonialization.”
Palacios approached the Echo Park-based alt-space Machine Project with a proposal: what about a surf day along the border, with people starting on either side, paddling out and catching waves together?
In the past, most of Machine’s ambitious projects — like the time they took over LACMA or built a haunted hallway in their Alvarado storefront — have either been in collaboration with institutions or in their own space. “Over the last year we’ve been doing a lot of work in public spaces,” says Meldia Yesayan, Machine’s managing director. They’ve been experimenting with events in parks, like the day in May on which they staged 20 ritual interventions around the Echo Park Lake. “Public space is a whole different creature,” continues Yesayan. Public officials get involved; unexpected restrictions arise. But they saw Palacios proposal as an exciting and timely challenge. “We asked ourselves, who do we have to tell?” Yesayan recalls. They ending up writing to the mayor of Imperial Beach, who got everyone else — including Border Patrol — involved. Initially, as the original press release suggested, Machine thought guests would be able to touch or shake hands or exchange boards across the border, but they quickly realized this would not be allowed, and Yesayan found herself explaining the conceptual nature of Palacios’ project to Border Patrol representatives.
The people who drive to Playas de Tijuana or Border Field in San Diego this Sat., Aug. 12, to congregate at one of the two basecamps Machine will set up, are the sort of people who will go to great lengths for an idea. You could, hypothetically, surf anytime; this is a day for people who want to experience and think about the border together while on surf boards.
“This is not going to be a big festival kind of thing, and we don’t want to give that idea,” says Yesayan. “It’s going to be a very subtle gesture.”
Artists have been doing projects about the U.S.-Mexico border for years, trying to find resonant ways to engage the fraught separation between two countries. Recreational sport has been a way to poke at the absurdity of divisions before: The collective Homeless staged a trans-border soccer game across the border in 2009; artist Gustavo Artigas built a playing field for basketball and soccer two meters from a border fence outside of Tijuana in 2000. When balls went over the fence, people on the U.S. side often threw them back.
“I want people to experience the absurdist and surrealist qualities of the space through surf culture,” says Palacios. “I’ll ask participants to be introspective: ‘How does my body feel in this space? How am I interacting with the border? How is it absurd? How is it practical? What are its contradictions? How can those be resolved? Can they?’”
He’s not sure yet how the project will differ depending on which side of the border participants are on. “I’ve observed that people avoid inhabiting this space due to heightened surveillance on the U.S. side,” he explains, “whereas across the border people regularly use the beach as a public recreational space.” Do a Google image search for Border Field State Park and you see mostly sand and few bodies. Search for Playas de Tijuana and you see people all along the shore; USA Today describes it as “frequented by locals,” and as place where people body surf, dolphin watch and listen to live music in evenings.
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Mostly, Palacios hopes his project can invite a different kind of awareness, however subtle or profound, of border dynamics. “Being in the water requires engaged participation,” he says. “I want to reaffirm the access people have to this space and invite them to continue engaging with it. I think it will be interesting to see how the event might inspire people to consider which side of the border they inhabit, if they have a choice.”
Surf Border, Border Field State Park and Playas de Tijuana; Sat., Aug. 12, 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; free. machineproject.com/2017/events/surf-border.