AUGUST 20, 2015
Illustrations by Ingrid Satelmajer
JUST BEFORE he was evicted from the National Portrait Gallery in 2010, Washington, DC artist Michael Dax Iacovone turned off his camera. He had been filming activist Mike Blasenstein — the two were protesting the removal of the David Wojnarowicz “A Fire in My Belly” clip from the Hide/Seek sexual identity exhibit — and, as security guards shut them down, the final image captured was Iacovone’s handcuffed wrist.
In “Canadian Border Project: Record of a 6,000 Mile Line” (2013), Iacovone records his approach to 101 crossing stations on a 13-day road trip — his attempt to interact with an “arbitrary,” straight-line border — and in the hours of footage he captures, the camera always shuts off before he reaches those similarly bureaucratic, but clearly articulated, sites of authority. What we get instead on Iacovone’s roughly 6,000-mile journey are hours of solitary freedom, the smallest measure of his self as caught in the rearview mirror, and the inevitable and voluntary process of slowing down and waiting before one crosses — or comes across herds of cattle or any other obstacles. I talked to Iacovone at a Caribou Coffee in DC about lonely border guards, dead birds in rental car grilles, map “nerds,” and driving as a rite of passage. We spoke on November 13, 2013, just a few days before the piece stopped showing at the Hamiltonian Gallery in Washington, DC.
Iacovone also has done mapping projects about Sarajevo, the former Berlin Wall, and the Mason-Dixon Line, and he was a co-recipient in 2011 of an Immroth Award from the American Library Association after he and Blasenstein parked a trailer outside the National Portrait Gallery and created the Museum of Censored Art. They exhibited the Wojnarowicz clip for the remainder of the censored Hide/Seek exhibition.
I. Crossing the Border
INGRID SATELMAJER: How would you describe your “Canadian Border Project”?
MICHAEL DAX IACOVONE: So I’m hoping the viewer will consider arbitrary manmade lines, especially straight borders. Before the technology to make these straight-line borders, everything was watershed. It was mountains, rivers, or oceans. Those were all the borders. And then it kind of became this pissing contest where they came to have the technology to do this, and the Canadian border was one of the very first ones.
And with this — and a project I did last year on the Mason-Dixon line — I was pointing a finger at these arbitrary borders, especially ones that people think are so heavy.
When you see it [“Canadian Border Project”], it’s presented so drily. I don’t want people to see — even though it’s on a map — this is where I got stuck in the mud for six hours, and these are the seven crossings I got searched at. I would give away some of it — like it took 13 days and so you really have to be prepared for something like this. But all of the little interesting stories and the horrible meals I had and the terrible hotel rooms and the beautiful things and the weird wildlife and all that stuff — that’s all mine. I’m not making a documentary, and I don’t give that with the art because if I do then the viewer’s left thinking about what would it be like if I was in Mike’s situation rather than what would it be like if I went and did this.
The two moments I can remember very specifically are, first, where you had to wait because all that cattle were crossing the road.
That was a pretty awesome experience — I happened to be filming at the time because it was right before a border.
And then at one point you’re waiting for them to open the border.
Most of them close at night. Out of 101 there’s probably 10 or 12 open 24 hours — the bigger ones, the more well-traveled ones. But most are in the middle of nowhere, and there’s nothing around except two guys on one side and two guys on the other. That’s it. One time, a lady working there told me, “Oh yeah, we get like four people a day. This is the least-crossed border.” So I asked, “What do you do all day?” She said, “Oh, we do paperwork for other borders.” It’s like: That’s hard! A lot of them are really desolate places.
There’s one where it’s a phone booth. It’s this little bit of land that’s surrounded by Canada and water not touching America. There’s a couple dozen people living there. It’s called Jim’s Corner or something like that. And you get to the phone booth, press America or Canada, and they ask you if you have guns or cigarettes and then they give you a code number in case anyone pulls you over — no one did — and you go through it again on your way out. So there’s no one manning it.
You got searched seven times?
Yeah. And I got questioned by people. You hand them your passport, and they’re asking you their normal questions, and by the time they get to like the third question, which is where are you going and what’re you doing, they’ve scanned your passport and have seen you’ve crossed the border 40 times in four days. So you have to run through the whole story over and over again.
More than once they just wanted to chat for a while. One guy took me into the booth and wanted to show me pictures he had taken of the border. He just liked talking about it.
Once, while someone was going through my car, one of the ladies looked me up and she found the Museum of Censored Art stuff. And she was like, “So tell me about the Museum of Censored Art,” and I was like — “Okay!”
So could they see that you had a camera mounted?
They almost always missed it. And funny enough, the only time that I filmed when I actually got to the booth was on accident and the guy saw it and said, “Are you filming it right now?” I opened it, and it was still filming. And I went back and said, “Look I can show you 50 border crossings — all the last 50 shots — and none of them did this. This is an accident.” And he was like, “You’re going to have to erase that.” And I was like, “Okay.”
II. “Every time I’m on my bike, I have to be aware that I could die”
So drivers now can get wait times at border crossings online. Did you use anything like that?
No, because you just can’t plan that far ahead. I plotted out where all the borders I could find were. Some Wikipedia pages show most of them, but I had to go on Google Earth and zoom way in and follow the whole border, you know, six thousand miles.
At first, I had a list of about 60 or 70 borders, but there were a lot more, and there were some I couldn’t cross in the upper northwest of Maine because you had to get a logger’s license. There’s one that’s in Glacier Park which I tried desperately to get to and all I could figure out is that it might be a snowmobile crossing in the winter. But I did all the other ones except for ones you cross on water ferries — all the ones that I could do with a car.
Yeah. I didn’t do Alaska.
Did you give yourself any rules other than turning on the camera to film for about two minutes before each border crossing?
I stayed as close to the border as I could, which got me in trouble a couple of times on dirt roads — I did get stuck in the mud for six hours. It was like my third border crossing, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is how I start.”
I was in a rental car, and I returned the rental car twice, you know just kind of beating up these rental cars. So I traded one in when I was in Buffalo because the “check engine” light had gone on and the alignment was clearly way off. And I turned the next one in in Washington State.
Were they disappointed with the state of the cars?
Oddly you never get that, and one of the cars I turned in had two dead birds like glued to the grille. It was gruesome. Every time you looked it was more gruesome.
How about any other rules?
For probably more than half the time my phone wasn’t working, so I wasn’t checking my email or talking to somebody. I was just in the middle of this system.
For me, driving was a really important part of growing up.
So I was curious. Would you ever do a bike project — or is that too YouTube?
I probably wouldn’t. But 99 percent of the time I’m biking around the city. And you know, walking and driving seem pretty natural, even though I bike every single day. Every time I’m on my bike, I have to be aware that I could die.
I want the idea to be the interesting part. So I’m certainly probably repelling a fair amount of people by not making it more visually interesting.
Essentially, these are incredibly boring videos. This is three hours of absolute boredom.
At the same time, the Mason-Dixon line and the border project were tough in a lot of ways and tedious, but I loved doing it. So no matter how tedious all those 15-hour days of driving might be, I was depressed when it ended. I was like, “Oh, crap.” I thought it would take 20 days, and it took 13, probably because I just kept going. And the “Canadian Border Project” is the biggest one I could think of. And now I’ve done that, and I have this weird depression, like I can’t think of anything that would be a bigger system.
When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t remember exactly what you were doing before. And that’s absolutely my favorite part. There’s this day when I was driving a hundred miles in Alberta — or rather in — where was I? It might have been North Dakota. It was a dirt road. And there was nothing: no people, no houses, no cars. There were some cows and a couple horses, and it was the best day of the whole trip. And I got out in the middle, and I was like, I’m nowhere near anything, there’s nobody around, I’m nowhere near the beginning, nowhere near the end. I’m just in this. And that’s it.
III. The gas from your parents’ car
How old were you when you got your license?
Sixteen. I was in New York State, so I got my permit, and on the same day I signed up for my road test. I got my driver’s license two weeks later, which I shouldn’t have. Like, in my opinion, 16-year-old boys should not be driving anywhere. I mean, I probably didn’t make a decent decision until I was 28 and here I was driving a car at 16.
Sometimes when I was doing research for this, I would go on mapping forums to ask cartographers questions, and it’s all dull guys in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. I would go to these forums to ask if the Mason-Dixon line was the first surveyed straight-border line, and every one of them would answer — “it’s not really a straight line, it’s a three-dimensional world,” and I was like, “I know. I know.” And no one could answer my question without first telling me it was a stupid question.
There’s this whole Mason-Dixon society. And I’ve never gone to one of their meetings. I tried to once — they meet in Philadelphia — but I saw the pictures on their blog. I saw these bearded guys with gray hair — just absolute map nerds. And I was like — wow, that’s my audience. Right there. These are the people who care about this stuff.
When you were a kid, where were you driving?
When I was a little kid we lived in Florida, and we would drive to New York and back every summer in a big station wagon. I was the youngest, so I’d be all the way in the back. My father would drive in absolute silence. No radio, no conversation, five people in the car. Just — for a day and a half.
Did you like the silence as a kid?
It seemed like — it seemed awful.
I used to spend a lot of time on weekends driving around on rural roads.
We often didn’t have anything else to do — like, you didn’t have any actual money.
You’d use the gas from your parents’ car.
Yeah, gas was cheap, so you’d just drive around and see what happens. I definitely did a lot of that in high school. I had been living in south Florida, but we moved to New York State — probably 60 miles out of New York City — and I remember the first day at school there were people with gun racks and guns in their trucks in the school parking lot. The first day of hunting season, no one went to school because everybody was out hunting. But that’s the type of place it was. It really felt like you were in the woods: there often wasn’t much to do. So you had a lot of time for driving around. Just as long as you — it was better than being home. It was a feeling of independence, like you had this rite of passage — I can drive around all day if I want to.