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Borderabilia: Imagining a New Way of Presenting Art
by Kaytie Johnson

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Curators and artists throughout the world are experimenting with original presentational formats for contemporary art which take into consideration the drastic epistemological changes in the relationship between audience and cultural institution; artist and audience produced by the current mainstream culture of interactivity and role playing. In this candid conversation regarding the genesis of their project "El Border Curiosity Cabinet", writer/performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña and curator Kaytie Johnson envision a new way of presenting their ideas. The original conversation took place in late 2002. It was revised and slightly updated in July of 2004.

The project:

The fascination for collecting natural and man-made wonders was immensely popular in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Wealthy collectors, or Liefhebbers, displayed their encyclopedic collections of paintings, sculpture, and natural and artificial exotica in rooms known as Wunderkammers, literally "wonder cabinets." During this age of exploration, these "cabinets" became "theaters of the universe" in which the new discoveries of the world were proudly displayed and consumed.

El Border Curiosity Cabinet is a contemporary wonder cabinet, the product of a collaboration between curator Kaytie Johnson and performance artist and self-styled "reverse anthropologist" Guillermo Gómez-Peñ. This interdisciplinary mis-en-scene of the border has Gómez-Peña in the role of contemporary border Liefhebber, high-tech humanist, and border sideshow museum impresario.

Containing an eclectic selection of pop ethnography, political kitsch, "high" velvet art, barrio conceptual art, one-of-a-kind artist books, transcultural comics, pirate videos, and archaeological performance props and costumes, El Border Curiosity Cabinet is an installation that critically examines the techniques and narratives of display by situating objects and notions of collecting within the context of the "Fourth World." Within this space of the globalized border, where the so-called First and Third worlds topple under their own weight, centers do not exist and hybridity is the dominant culture.

The borderized and hybridized works that comprise the installation reconfigure in contemporary terms the objects of artificialia and naturalia originally contained in sixteenth-century European collector's cabinets. Within the performance universe, site of cultural transmutation, and diorama of living and dying that is (re)created in El Border Curiosity Cabinet, constructed personas are exhibited as "cultural specimens"; the Brown body is exhibited as Freak; traditional rituals coexist with contemporary technology; tourist artifacts and souvenirs, taking the form of "involuntary conceptual art," are transformed into sacred objects (and vice versa); and dead and live animals, specifically those involuntarily assigned binational status, such as the cockroach, the chicken, the eagle, and the coyote, become powerful metaphors of identity.

The space of contestation/representation created by, and within, El Border Curiosity Cabinet, has never before been presented before in a U.S. museum context. The collaborating artist/curator team will also ask a select group of artists from both the U.S. and Mexico to contribute objects from their own collections of "personal anthropology", a curatorial strategy that will aid in dispelling and contesting notions of ownership within the high/low; insider/outsider limbo occupied by Gómez-Peña.

Hosting venues will be given the opportunity to become actual, and conceptual, collaborators in the project, participants in this borderized House of Mirrors, as each will be invited to insert an object, or objects, from their own collection into the Cabinet for the duration of the installation at that particular venue. The following dialogue articulates the genesis of the project.

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