Rozalinda Borcila is fascinated with the idea of borders — the personal ones we set up around ourselves, as well as the larger economic, social and geopolitical ones.
Borders define, protect and limit whatever they enclose, she says. That's why she's interested in transgressing them, penetrating them without permission. "It's a dangerous act, but it's full of possibilities. It threatens the established order," says the USF art professor.
In jeans and a T-shirt with her long brown hair bunched carelessly into a barrette at the back of her head, she still manages to project a certain understated elegance. Maybe it's the way she speaks, with an almost imperceptible trace of an accent that makes her diction sound more polished than foreign. She's small, barely 5 feet tall, I'd guess, but with smooth, light skin and strong features — an ample patrician nose and perfectly shaped almond eyes, untouched by makeup but framed by expertly sculpted eyebrows. If you passed her on campus, you'd take her for a student, not a professor — if you noticed her at all.
Blending in is something Borcila knows how to do. It's a skill she cultivated soon after arriving in the small pork-processing town of Monmouth, Ill., to attend college after leaving Romania in the wake of a revolution that left many of her friends dead. The Midwestern town was sheer hell for a young woman used to living in a cosmopolitan European city. "I couldn't leave. I had no money, and the bus didn't even go there. I had to learn to blend in."
She was the only foreigner in an isolated place where social divisions were rigidly enforced along political and economic lines. "It highlighted ... how easy it was for people to identify me as a foreigner. I was marked, and I tried to figure out how." That's when she began to think more deeply about how carefully boundaries were guarded, how differences were visually encoded — and why it's important to cross them.
Borcila started experimenting with breaching national boundaries while she was in graduate school at Michigan State. "I was crossing the border between Michigan and Canada on foot without the proper paperwork. I wanted to see how you have to change yourself to transgress the border."
To document the act, she made official-looking commemorative chocolate plaques with the times and dates of each illegal border crossing. She took them with her on a trip to Germany, where she was to speak about her work at a conference. Officials in Amsterdam failed to see the humor in the plaques. She was detained for two days, missed the conference, and was finally deported to the United States. She did, however, manage to surreptitiously videotape a brief portion of her experience and make what she calls "the world's shortest video."
"That started my interest in airports — security, immigration, customs — it's so controlled and monitored, especially since 9-11. It's all about visual control — racial profiling, x-ray scans of baggage. It's a visual problem, and visual artists should be looking at it."
She decided to start videotaping her border crossings. She didn't want to risk having the tapes confiscated or to change people's behavior by pointing a camera at them. She also knew that she risked going to prison if she concealed a camera and taped covertly. So she uses a big red bungee cord to strap the camera onto the front of her wheeled carry-on bag, which she drags behind her. It's pointed downward, so most of what it records is the floor speeding by in a way that makes you queasy if you look at if for very long. "It's an awful viewing experience," she admits, but the discomfort does mirror the uneasiness that accompanies air travel.
One of the most interesting parts of the video to me was the trip through the x-ray machine. Watching it gives the viewer the sensation of being on the conveyor belt, moving behind other people's possessions and then stopping right up against the black rubber curtain, which looks extremely menacing from this angle. Then suddenly, you're engulfed in silent darkness for several seconds before bursting into the light and rattling over rollers toward uniformed guards.
Borcila's most recent video was exhibited this summer at the Venice Biennale, the mack daddy of cutting-edge international art shows, along with other artists exploring the phenomenon of border-crossing.
Borcila works in several media on seemingly widely divergent art. But all of them are politically charged, and all somehow relate to the idea of borders. A performance piece she did in Canada took the form of a game that visitors to a museum gala were invited to play. She worked first with immigrants to create rules and situations similar to the experience of immigrating to Canada. Then she made the museum visitors trade their IDs for game cards bearing instructions that were nearly impossible to understand and frustrating to follow.
Not all of Borcila's work is unpleasant to experience. She is working on a series of exquisite, large, two-dimensional pieces containing luminous white shapes with glowing blue borders melting into a black background. They are digital prints from military radar of Desert Storm bombings. She points to the edge of one blank shape. "In this picture, there's a building being blown up right there with 600 people in it."
Borcila is determined to challenge her students as much as she challenges her viewers. She's teaching a class this fall called Acts of Resistance. "There's a tradition of artists being rebels and making revolution," she says. "Revolutionary artists are the ones who have changed art the most. On the other hand, ... it's very uncool now to even care about the world. I want my students to think about this. Is there room for art that intends to resist and transform? If so, what would that art look like?"
This may be the most heavily guarded border she's ever transgressed. We have reinforced the walls around conformity of thought enormously in this country in the past few years. But Rozalinda Borcila isn't one to walk away from a challenge. She's already asking the right questions.
"I want to know, why does everybody laugh and nobody care when you say, 'I'm going to change the world?' Why do they groan when I say 'political art'?"
Senior Editor Susan F. Edwards can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 122.