Neighboring|Towns; A Project Portraying Hope Following US Travel Ban

Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson

Photos and video by Elizabeth Rossano

At the end of last year, I wrote about a seemingly innocuous library that straddles the US-Canada border. Following the US travel ban, Haskell Library has become the site of much more than returned books. As many Iranian students living in the United States hold a single entry visa (meaning they can’t leave the country without risk that they won’t be allowed back), they have been unable to see their families who are barred from visiting the US due to the travel ban.

Haskell Library’s unique geographical position offers a safe haven for families affected by the travel ban to reunite, with individuals traveling from the seven named countries on President Trump’s list. The unique loophole of this location quickly spread through word of mouth, causing more and more families to make the journey in hopes of a reunion, no matter how brief. Inspired by these reports, visual artist Heather Theresa Clark and contemporary choreographer Pauline Jennings created neighboring|towns, an immersive four-channel video and sound installation about borders, restriction of movement, and family/community life.

The subject of neighboring|towns, which is currently being exhibited at the Hamiltonian Gallery in Washington DC, is Derby Line, Vermont and Stanstead, Quebec; two rural towns that are divided by the US/Canadian border. Haskell Library, which sits on the border of these communities, is one of the few places on the continent where immigrants can reunite with their families.

Haskell Library with its black line depicting the US/Canadian border neighboring|towns
Haskell Library with its black line depicting the US/Canadian border

Within neighboring|towns, an Iranian man whose family has travelled across the globe to reunite at the library, describes their reunion. His soft voice describes the emotion of the lead-up to the meeting and explains:

“That library is the only chance we have to meet each other on the border.”

His voice breaking with the effort to hold back tears, he continues:

“That to me was the shortest time in my life that I have ever had; the shortest experience I have ever had. It was the most exceptional moment.”

Providing a view into the local close-knit American/Canadian community is music from the annual Vermont Sacred Harp Shape Note Sing, hosted by Derby Line’s bi-national singing group. Further screens show the library’s quiet interior with a black line on its floor delineating the border; the Tomifobia River, which surges across the border; and two skiers, one in  Derby Line, Vermont and one in Stanstead, Quebec, who eventually meet outside the library at the border, which is marked only by a single stone pilaster.  The four videos are projected onto a maze of walls.

Two skiers neighboring|towns
Two skiers who eventually meet outside the library at the border

Derby Line and Stanstead have not always been separated; until 9/11, these neighbouring towns operated mainly as one cohesive community with homes, streets and gardens built right up to and often spanning the border. The border line now slices what was once a a community into two, thus reducing ease of movement.

As part of the installation project, interviews were conducted with the community members and although many expressed great empathy for those having reunions, it was clear that there is minimal, if any, interaction between the local community (96% of which is Caucasian) and those who have flown in from around the world to reunite in this unique geographically neutral zone. The project has taken precautions to protect the anonymity of the reuniting families.

neighboring|towns; About the Artists

Heather Theresa Clark utilises art, architecture and public interventions to explore and provide alternatives to what she calls

“cultural neurosis: the human tendency to over-consume, over-build, over-groom, in lieu of direct physical exertion to ensure survival.”

She views this as a misdirected attempt to satisfy basic primal urges for shelter, food, and clothing in a society where actions are grossly amplified because one gallon of gasoline equals five hundred hours of human work output.  In recent years, Heather has become increasingly interested in the connection between climate change, borders, restriction of movement, and motherhood/family life.

Heather approaches art making as a planner, green developer, and ecologist.  She is the founder of Biome Studio, a design studio devoted to catalysing built environments that power themselves, cleanse themselves, transform waste, provide wildlife habitat, produce food, and enhance the lives of people.

Heather holds a Master of Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, School of Architecture and Planning, and a Bachelor of Science from Cornell University, summa cum laude, in Environmental Science and Community Planning, a self-designed major.  Heather is a Hamiltonian Fellow, the 2016 recipient of the Virginia Commission for the Arts Sculpture Fellowship Award, and the 2017 Artist-in-Residence at the Woods Hole Research Center, a leading global climate change think tank. 

Two of the four screens that form the neighboring|towns installation
Two of the four screens that form the neighboring|towns installation showing the border line within Haskell Library and two skiers meeting at the border

Pauline Jennings is a contemporary choreographer who is compelled to create works for stage, video and interactive installation that attempt to viscerally capture the excitement, confusion and fear accompanying our rapidly changing society. Her works have been presented in festivals and showcases internationally, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Merce Cunningham Studio, EMPAC, Museumsquartier Wien, Institut Intermédií (Prague), Eastern Bloc (Montreal), Primo Piano LivinGallery (Lecce), Museum of Contemporary Art and Planning Exhibition (Shenzhen) and Takt Kunstprojektraum (Berlin).

Most recently, Pauline was granted a 4-month exhibition of her intermedia work Becoming Human at Burlington City Arts with support from BCA’s Project VT and the Vermont Performance Lab’s SEED Award. Jennings currently teaches dance at Saint Michael’s College in Winooski, VT. She was previously a Visiting Artist for the Mills College Dance Department’s Repertory Dance Company and has also lectured and taught master classes at New York University – Shanghai, the University of Applied Arts (Vienna), University of California at Berkeley, Arizona State University, Amherst College, Dartmouth College, University of Maine, College of Santa Fe, and University of New Mexico. Pauline holds an MFA in Dance Choreography and Performance from Mills College.

Two of the four screens that form the neighboring|towns installation
Two of the four screens that form the neighboring|towns installation, showing Derby Line’s bi-national singing group and the snowy exterior of the towns

Further contributors to the project are sound artist Sean Clute, cinematographer Elizabeth Rossano and performer Joshua Lacourse.

neighboring|towns is made possible through the generous support of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Emergency Grant and BenQ.

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