“The Story of the Borderlands Is Not Singular”: Cathy Lee Crane on Drawing the Line
Filmmaker last interviewed veteran multimedia artist Cathy Lee Crane about her first feature-length narrative film The Manhattan Front, which combined staged performances and archival footage from the National Archives in DC to present the strange but true entanglement of a WWI German saboteur with the progressive labor movement of activist Elisabeth Gurley Flynn. While Crane’s latest selection of works likewise resurrects buried US history, they tread territory even further back in time, all the way down to the border, and are currently being shown a continent away.
Throughout the month of July, the Harun Farocki Institute in Berlin will be showcasing several projects from their second American artist-in-residence (Kevin B. Lee was the inaugural invitee), including Crane’s multi-platform hybrid series Drawing the Line, a 14-channel work in progress that travels from El Paso to the Pacific Ocean to grapple with what the 19th century US and Mexico Border Survey Commission has wrought. To learn all about this sprawling mosaic that combines “staging, interviews, observational documentary, sonic records, and the archive in collaboration with those living in the shadow of the Commission’s arbitrary line”—as well as the feature-length doc Crossing Columbus (2020) and the short film Terrestrial Sea (2022)—Filmmaker reached out once again to the globetrotting (2013) Guggenheim Fellow.
Filmmaker: As a longtime fan of Harun Farocki—who you collaborated with on Prison Images over two decades ago—I’m quite curious about the Harun Farocki Residency at HaFI that’s presenting your latest projects this month. How did you get invited to go to Berlin, and what’s the day-to-day work been like?
Crane: In 2019, I participated in an early working group at NYU with Tom Holert, who, with Doreen Mende (both founding members of the Harun Farocki Institute), was putting together archival materials from Harun Farocki’s Prison Images. I ended up contributing some of my field notes from that production in 1999, for which I was cinematographer and researcher, which became part of their contribution to the book America: Films from Elsewhere. From there they invited me to be their fourth artist-in-residence in 2020, both to continue my research with them on the carceral condition as well as to work on my current creative work (which since 2017 has been concerned with the US/Mexico borderlands). Thus far the residency, sponsored by the Goethe-Institut, has allowed me to edit 14 sequences for this installation.
Filmmaker: Your multi-platform hybrid doc series Drawing the Line, currently being shown as a 14-channel installation, seems a rather daunting project from conception through production, as it deals with the heavy legacy of the United States and Mexico Border Survey Commission and even contains a sculptural element. Can you talk a bit about the project, including what drew you to this subject?
Crane: Drawing the Line really is an epic, multiple platform project. What drew me to the subject was being in the desert of New Mexico and Arizona during a sabbatical (2017-2018). I was on a Border Arts residency that at the time was housed in an old cotton gin in La Union, New Mexico, which is just outside of El Paso, Texas.
I arrived to the Mesilla Valley—pecan groves, cotton fields, water disputes—to discover there was no rio in the Rio Grande. It was just a dry wash in Canutillo, Texas. Until then, I hadn’t realized that the Rio Grande is only there when water is released from the Elephant Butte Dam. And, by my nature, I’m always curious about the history of a place: how we got here, how that got there.
Drawing the Line itself began in collaboration with archeologist/cartographer/artist Bochay Drum as a series of interviews with border dwellers. They seed each channel of this installation. I then started reading about the Boundary Survey Commission of 1851, a binational group of surveyors whose job it was to mark the western boundary after the Mexican-American War.
As I’ve always been a decidedly nonlinear filmmaker, a multiple channel project was inevitable. I’ve been working with layers and composites and rear screen projection—especially in my experimental biographical films on Pasolini and Simone Weil. This installation is a fairly complex layering in that each of these channels themselves are 26-minute short film portraits, but the piece is the story that comes from a viewer’s attention to the multiplicity, the mosaic of simultaneity.
The multiple seemed a pretty coherent way of approaching the situation. The story of the borderlands is not singular, it’s not linear. The absurdity of that line is precisely how insane it is to see it in these systems—this landscape that’s mobile, migrant and rooted in other kinds of flows (whether it be drainage or flight patterns of animals and people and goods).
Of course, the politics of the borderlands—immigration policy, detention, deportation—is unfortunately increasingly complex. Even if you don’t deal with it directly these facts haunt any film about the borderlands. By turning my attention to the border dweller, the film is not advocacy or partisan. Like Crossing Columbus it stands as a provocative witness.
It’s this timeless environment where the same struggles are happening—the same complexities of livelihood and law enforcement and lawlessness—and all manner of conflict that occurs in this zone. And you know, the fence is just the ultimate folly of (Commissioner John Russell) Bartlett’s quixotic (US/Mexico Border Survey) Commission. Quixotic—literally tripping through the desert landscape to mark this line.
So after shooting some Crossing Columbus pickups in 2019, and having done quite a bit of reading on the Survey Commission, I invited a few actors to join me. I wanted to enact certain gestures associated with the Survey Commission—specifically with members of its team (which weren’t necessarily the surveyors themselves) who were camping, digging, managing the horses, etc. Theirs constitutes an off-frame story of the Commission. Throughout all 14 of the channels you will see one of these three actors.
Filmmaker: Also screening is your 2020 feature-length doc Crossing Columbus that you mentioned, which likewise grapples with a border-related legacy, this one stemming from Pancho Villa’s 1916 raid on Columbus, New Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. So how did you even learn about this little known history—and why document this specific small town’s polarizing story?
Crane: I first discovered the history of the raid while reviewing the National Archive footage I’d used in The Manhattan Front. After the raid, General Pershing led what is called the “Punitive Expedition” to arrest Villa. They never did. It’s kind of an extraordinary story.
I actually went on that residency to make Crossing Columbus. While driving the 90 minutes on Route 9 to meet the people in Columbus, I noticed a “Welcome to Mexico” message on my phone (as the border comes quite close along that stretch in New Mexico). In that area there’s only Normandy fencing meant to stop trucks from driving across the desert landscape. Otherwise it’s very open desert and not really high mountains.
That’s when I started to think of the installation project, really began to consider the number of border crossings—and that this loosely coincided with the number of Stations of the Cross in Catholic storytelling. So I started with 14 chapters, and thinking of it as a series of profiles. It’s designed in such a way that you would find yourself being directed to certain stories across the mosaic of what is a simultaneous portrait of all of this region. You’re brought into a kind of watching that’s intrinsic to the moment. How do you go about combining the plethora of images into stories, meaning?
Anyway, the US festival run of Crossing Columbus actually concluded by winning Best Feature Documentary at Syracuse International last fall, which was a nice ending to that chapter. I still look forward to the film having a life in other countries and hope a distributor will pick it up. (My mother completed the Spanish translation for the event in Palomas just this past March.) We’ll be screening Crossing Columbus at the Arsenal in Berlin on July 27.
Filmmaker: Your short film Terrestrial Sea (2022) is part of the collaborative film program (X)-trACTION, another borderland history project you’re involved with. Can you perhaps discuss both the short and also the media artist quintet, begun in Bisbee, Arizona just last year, that birthed it?
Crane: I built the short out of some of the same material made in collaboration with Luc O. Houle, my former student at Ithaca College, who did some great layering for several sequences. Around that same time, I had also seen my longtime collaborator and friend Jason Livingston’s latest film, Ancient Sunshine. I thought, let’s pair those together and see if we can bring this to Bisbee and our great collaborator at Central School Project, Laurie McKenna (who you might know from Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17). She had a couple pieces thinking through that particular landscape of the Bisbee mining town.
Then, in January—as the three of us were heading towards a screening of our short films in Bisbee—we heard about Nicole Antebi, who was doing some work out of Tucson, a lot of it rooted around her home of El Paso. Jason and I were just completely floored by the work. We absolutely had to include it. And, knowing that Erin Wilkerson was also working on a new piece looking at both petroleum and her own past in the LA area—before we knew it, we had these films that formed a collective.
Really, how these films work together is just nothing short of unbelievable. I never get enough. As part of our screening we invite local residents to answer the question of what is extraction, to think through extraction with us. So, we’ve had these seams of local contributions that come through. Basically, we have local people give us 30 seconds of their view, their landscape, their plague or refuge. What do you inhabit? In turn, those contributions find their way through the story of our six films that might situate them in the place where we are screening. That’s been an inspiring component and will be part of the screening for (X)-trACTION on the 29th at the Arsenal here in Berlin. We do hope to continue to bring (X)-trACTION to other communities as well.
Filmmaker: Where do you go from here? Are there other projects on the near horizon?
Crane: Right now I’m doing a lot of writing. I have a manuscript that’s the first of perhaps a trilogy of field notes on the complexity of public life in the wake of COVID (though not directly dealing with the pandemic). I’ve been writing on a 1932 Royal Typewriter, which I love. That tool provides a very specific kind of rhythm in the writing itself.
I have also recommitted my practice towards collaboration in the phase of a project’s development, as well as in its distribution. It’s just more interesting to explore a set of questions in the company of people who are thoughtful and curious about how it is we got here—this state of late capitalist bullshit, particularly in North America. More and more, I’ve become convinced that real political life, the engine for a future worth living, is in the local.
Of course it’s still important for us to be attuned to the global forces that are making their way through absolutely every single one of our gestures. For that reason I continue to explore acting, the process of indoctrination and the ways in which we reify modes of physical being. I’m interested in that as a kind of laboratory. At the same time I really don’t know where that investigation on acting, enacting will lead. So, I have a lot of irons in the fire, as they say.