Hearing Josh Kun’s ‘Aural Border’ at SBMA

MacArthur Fellow Discusses California’s ‘Spanish Fantasy Heritage’ Through Song

Last week, as First Thursday–goers eddied in and out of visual-art galleries, MacArthur Fellow Josh Kun asked his audience at the Santa Barbara Art Museum to not only turn their eyes, but also tune their ears to the Mexico-California border, especially as border enforcement becomes a wedge issue in national politics. In an increasingly polarized world, photography and music are “the way that we process worlds unlike our own,” Kun explained, borrowing from Sarah Lewis’s opening words in Aperture magazine’s Vision and Justice issue.

Titled “The Aural Border: Listening Across the California-Mexico Line,” Kun’s presentation gave tribute to the music, sounds, and radio waves that have “crossed the California-Tijuana border since it was drawn.” True to form, the event was a multimedia mash-up that blurred the lines between a listening session, a spoken word performance, and a history lesson — which should perhaps be expected from a professor of communication at USC, who doubles as a prolific cultural historian, performer, curator, writer, and editor.

Kun’s mostly salt-and-pepper audience packed the auditorium, nodding along fervently to familiar tunes and murmuring many an emphatic “Mmhmm” as Kun showed how California musicians reinforced the “Spanish Fantasy Heritage” that has come to define so much of California. The term, coined by Carey McWilliams in 1949, refers to the myth of an Old Spanish history which was promoted and sold throughout the early 20th century as a way of romanticizing colonial history in California, while erasing the histories of indigenous groups and Mexican settlers. Through its canonization in song and constant repetition, the myth was made into fact. Indeed, Santa Barbara depends on this Spanish Fantasy Heritage for its cultural identity.

The border, however, is not only a site of borrowing, Kun said, but also a collaborative “binational performance” through which music and radio from Mexico have served to shape history and culture in California, and vice versa. He seamlessly mixed archival material, ranging from recordings of the 1939 Western musical South of the Border, starring Gene Autrey, to a 1984 music video by the Mexican ska-punk-rock band Tijuana No!, filmed at the border wall where it extends into the Pacific Ocean; from postcards sent by Hollywood stars reveling in the tequila, señoritas, and “lazy mañanas” of the Vegas-like “Old Tijuana” of the 1920s, to footage of the famed Herb Alpert, clad in Mariachi ge-up as he plays in a Mexican bullfighting arena.

When asked during the Q&A why he had excluded traditional protest songs, Kun was ready with an answer. While sociologists have studied resistance songs extensively, there’s also a lot to glean by listening to popular music and the politics that lie within it.

Like he began, Kun concluded in poetry. He painted the following scene: Inmates awaiting deportation listen as a Mexican-American group plays outside the Los Angeles Metropolitan Detention Center. The performance is part of the Chant Down the Wall concert series, organized by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which began in Fall 2014. As the band plays, the inmates flick their cell lights on and off in rhythm. Sound waves, explained Kun, are capable of travelling through prison cell walls and border walls alike.

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