Put Up This Wall!
April 26, 2011 | by David Zax
Last Saturday evening, before a small audience gathered in the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn, a man named Salty repeatedly slapped a man named Dan.
“Less on the chin, more on the cheek!” cried Dan Safer, a choreographer, standing inside the masking-taped square that had been marked off as the stage and steeling himself for yet another blow. With a red bandanna tied around his neck, Safer sported muttonchops, a handlebar mustache, and tattoos that ran the length of his arms.
The fellow named Salty obliged, smacking Safer again and again until Safer’s face turned bright red and he grew dizzy, widening his stance to stable himself. “I love you!” blurted Salty, a slight blond figure in maroon corduroys and a yellow-and-blue-striped tie, after landing a particularly fierce slap.
“How we doing on time there, Rob?” Safer now asked of Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House and the emcee of the night’s event, programmed by the French cultural institute Villa Gillet for an ongoing series called Walls and Bridges. Spillman had been conscripted as timekeeper for the current “piece.” He stood off to the side, a reluctant accomplice in this sustained act of public sadomasochism.
“Forty-nine seconds!” said Spillman, looking extraordinarily uncomfortable. A low collective moan came from the audience. Four minutes and eleven seconds of this remained.
The theme of the evening was “borders,” broadly construed. Journalists, philosophers, dancers, and musicians took the stage, one after another, in what amounted to a literary variety show, each offering a take on the night’s theme. Literal borders—the ones that separate hemisphere from hemisphere or country from country or borough from borough—were the subjects of some stories or performances. Figurative borders—like the borders between the religious and secular, between youth and age, between sleep and wakefulness, between the public and private—were the subjects of others. And now, Dan Safer and his friend Salty were exploring another sort of border, one they declined to label precisely, but which may have been the border between comfort and discomfort, or perhaps simply that which is tasteful and that which is not.
“Try one with follow-through—like a pimp!” said Safer, gritting his teeth.
In an evening as varied as this one, it was difficult to discern a single thread. Serge Michel, a correspondent for Le Monde, told about the Cold War–era shadow economy he had witnessed along the Hungarian-Romanian border. Virginia Heffernan, the New York Times columnist, explored the boundary state of the trance, which she tried to provoke in the audience members with a rambling stream of consciousness on the topic of Ambien. Francisco Goldman narrated the great heist that he and a friend pulled off on Goldman’s 40th birthday—they had drunkenly climbed to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge (“it wasn’t nearly as difficult as you would think,” he said) and nabbed the flag, which waved at half mast for Richard Nixon’s passing. Filled with tales like these and punctuated by jazz numbers from Guilhem Flouzat and Ned Rothenberg, the evening marched eclectically onward.
And yet for all its variety, a single overarching question did seem to emerge: “Are borders good or bad?” Nationalism is unpopular among most Brooklyn arts-scene crowds, it is fair to say. And even though Robert Frost did once write “good fences make good neighbors,” there is a trend, originating in France, in which members of various professions declare themselves to be “without borders,” sans frontières. Indeed, toy around with the phrase for a moment on Google and you’ll find it’s not just doctors who have declared nationalism dead; engineers, lawyers, scientists, even clowns have followed suit.
Still, the most intriguing moments of “Overboard!” came when the presenters suggested, if only for a moment, that we sometimes lose something precious when we tear down a border. The journalist David Samuels, raised a strictly observant Orthodox Jew (“I couldn’t take my morning shit without thanking God,” he said), crossed a border on stage, eating a bacon sandwich. The bacon tasted good, and he was glad to be free, he said—but even so, he felt he had given something up when he had turned to secularism, years ago: he felt, even now, “cheated of a sense of enchantment.”
Ruwen Ogien, a French philosopher with a wild shock of grey hair, spoke about the need for privacy. Though he opposed the borders between nations, he lauded the sacred sorts of boundaries that existed between individuals—the door to the bathroom, for instance, or the curtain hanging before the bedroom window. And even if he didn’t agree with its position entirely, Michel, the Le Monde correspondent, called the audience’s attention to a friend’s book entitled Eloge des Frontières (“In Praise of Borders”). Perhaps the “without borders” trend had gone too far. Next, he quipped, we would have “customs officers without borders.”
In the end, there was no better case for the value of borders than the act by Safer and Salty, which, after five tense, painful, exhausting, too rarely amusing, long, long minutes, finally drew to a close. (“I don’t think he realized how many slaps you could fit into five minutes,” Spillman told me afterward.) The audience enthusiastically counted down the last ten seconds. The slaps stopped. Relieved cheers erupted—pierced by loud, aggressive booing from those whose residual irritation outweighed their relief.
Safer turned to the microphone, face red as a pomegranate. “Thank you very much,” he said.
David Zax is a writer living in Brooklyn.