Aiga Journal
no.1 vol.17 1999 Bordertown Issue


I’m looking at an intriguing book called ‘Bordertown’. The E in the title is different, so is the ending N. One sits sluggishly against the d, the other barely holds on to the W. As if clinging to a cliff by its nails. At first this looked rather odd. Another post-modern Spielerei. But it is actually a very accurate typography of the word: Bordertown. There are always strangers in such places. Some have laid their bodies down to root or perish, others cling on, trying to resist the irreparable pull of someplace else.

This book is about a small town on the Mexican-American border. Not a happy place. A town to get out of, a town where everything seems to smell after what’s missing. The aroma comes from the other side, behind the fence. You can smell it, but you can’t touch it, unless you sneak in and hide for not getting kicked out again.

I don’t know that feeling very well. I come from the other side. Europe, west. Crossing borders is folklore to me. A long time ago I had a love in Basle, Switzerland. Seven hours and a half by car from door to door – and four borders, five if you insisted. Basle alone has two. You take a local cab to eat asparagus in France, or drive around the corner to buy gas in Germany, waving your passport in passing. You speak three languages at a regular meeting of friends in the pub – four, if you happen to master Switscherdeutsch. Basle is the ultimate European bordertown. But for the uniforms and the barriers you’d hardly notice the border when you crossed it. Why, it could be just another toll station. You can talk with anybody about the latest art, the latest music, the latest installments of some or other American soap. It’s just a different language, or three. It’s like friends next-doors. They live in a similar house, do similar things, care for similar causes as you do. They just sound different, and you’d rather die than have their wallpaper.

They have slightly different histories too, but those were a long time ago. They’re like the wallpaper – something you choose not to remove because you know it belongs to your place. Liking it becomes you. So I felt at home in Basle. The Swiss are as tidy as the Dutch are, and Basle is as un-Swiss as Amsterdam is un-Dutch. They are both bordertowns, looking over the confines of local heritage to see what else there is in the world – to bring it back and tidy it up.

In what was once called The West, there are a lot of towns like this. Bordertowns in a sense. On this side of the border it’s easy to sit in an Italian chair, in your English dressing gown and read a French book, eat Japanese, listen to African music played by a band that comprises eight nationalities and watch CNN. Doesn’t matter if you’re in New York, Amsterdam, Basle, London, or Tokyo. Or Johannesburg. As long as you’re on this side of the border. It’s one cosmopolitan world, basically, on this side.

Cosmopolitan was a favorite word of mine, until I read that it could get you killed. The Nazis used it to ostracize the Jews, and the Soviets used it to prove their opponents were insane. In both cases the word was employed to mean ‘rootless’, and thus easy to eradicate. I thought that it just meant what it meant – ‘citizen of the world’. I thought that was what I was; at home in the world. That was before I knew about real borders.

I didn’t cross many of them. I have never been in places without a passport that could get me back, whatever happened. I have never been so broke that I had to ask for money from anybody other than my closest friends. You know, when your credit card is blocked for a week or so?

It’s books like Bordertown that are crossings. It is beautifully made, with meticulously rendered duotone photo reproduction throughout, and silver for special typographic treats. Well printed and cloth bound with intaglio ornaments on the hard cover. Made and designed with care and concentration. Some of the pictures are cutely touristic – a man with an accordion, a dog dreaming a hot afternoon away on a tombstone – and some are gruesome. Faces slashed to pulp. Police violence. Rape. Loneliness and poverty and longing. Newspaper clippings and stories about people getting killed while trying to cross the border that separates them from the Promised Land that smelled so good.

This is a book from a culture that has the time and money and tools to make things good and beautiful. You can read that from every detail. It is a luxurious book, and it tells about deprivation, anxiety, craving. It’s books like these that are crossings, not just because they describe something I don’t know in a language that I can understand. But because they embody a paradox. The antilogy of addressing the ugly through beauty. And this is not purely a cultural matter in the geographic sense – the Chinese made exquisite paintings of people being killed in the most horrid fashions, and so did the Christians. The border is economic, and wherever I am in this cosmopolitan world I live in, I’m on this side of it.

A refined print lover once admitted to me he was afraid that the fall of the Berlin wall would have at least one irreversible effect – the extinction of that very typical low quality offset printwork from eastern Europe. No one here, in the rich West, would be able to reproduce that intangible off-color crudeness on coarse brownish paper that he had learned to love for its ingenuousness. Over there, they had wanted that hi-tech full-color stuff with clear inks on shining coated paper for ages. They would immediately do away with the old junk. To us it’s cute, nostalgia. Maybe even beauty, when used in the right way. Maybe a book like Bordertown would have looked more authentic when produced and printed in this way. But to those who crossed over it would have smelled like the place they were glad to have got out of. Not that sweet perfume from this side of the border.

[Bordertown, Barry Gifford, David Perry, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1998. Design: Martin Venezky / Geoff Kaplan. ISBN 0-8118-1964-7]

max bruinsma