Edge, border, wall—each denotes a barrier in increasing degrees of opaqueness. But we live in a profoundly paradoxical age: The architecture of our present epoch, mediated between our virtual and physical experiences, is like nothing we have ever experienced before. Distant yet imagined closeness through whatever media is at hand, literally, has allowed barriers to be whittled away and dismantled. We can be dropped into the middle of a revolution, or a street-filled celebration, as avatars participating in the event itself.
Yet we’re conditioned to perceive separations by the political and economic boundaries within which we are born and reared. And while this can be simply a matter of nation-state jurisdiction that draws sometimes arbitrary lines between places and their people, the flows of cultural legacy are far more fluid.
Architectural photographer Magda Biernat and writer/illustrator Ian Webster recently published The Edge of Knowing, a book that dissolves national identities of the Americas into a soup of Americanness. They traveled for a year, from Ushuaia, Argentina, at the southernmost tip of South America, to Barrow, Alaska, at journey’s end.
The Edge of Knowing (Kehrer Verlag) curates a glimpse into the often illusory limits between the shared continents of South and North America. But more than simply a foray into new geographical terrain for its authors, the book places the duo, and in effect the reader, into a deliberate experience of blurring the edges of and within the Americas. “It was a reminder,” Webster says, “that every society and religion casts itself as the main protagonist in its own dramatic telling of the history of Earth and the creation of the universe.”
Architecture is ephemeral. We can watch beautiful physical constructions be overtaken by nature while we also watch the nature of human existence attempt to control nature, futilely. The Edge of Knowing illustrates just how much those perceptions of the edges of human society are also all too often the borders we create for ourselves.
RK: Rori Knudtson
MB: Magda Biernat
IW: Ian Webster
Can you tell us how the idea of this journey began?
Magda feels strongly about leaving the familiar occasionally and diving into long journeys that connect us to something unfamiliar.
We took another year-long journey five years ago, and after we came back from it, we both agreed we needed to do it again. We then worked hard for the next five years to put the money aside and planned the next trip. While the first one was us traveling horizontally around the world, from West to East, this time we decided to do a vertical trip, from South to North.
How long did it take to plan, and was your general route predetermined?
I think the real planning began about a year before we left. Mostly researching the places to visit, modes of transport, visas, contacting potential hosts (couchsurfers and friends of friends,) and also talking to The New Yorker about a potential collaboration. That turned into monthly dispatches from the road posted on The New Yorker’s Photo Booth Blog.
What were the goals?
Magda was looking for inspiration for a new body of work—we were both looking for adventure, which we found. We really wanted to understand a part of the world that we share a name with: “The Americas.” Magda had traveled in South America before, but I was coming in completely blind and dumb, frankly. I spoke almost no Spanish. By the end of the trip my ideas about all the Americas had completely and totally changed.
Magda, did you challenge yourself outside your architectural photography protocol?
While traveling and working on my fine art series, I use an analog medium-format camera, which is different from how I photograph for my architectural assignments. Having a limited number of 120mm rolls at a time, and only 12 frames on a roll, makes you really be very selective about what you photograph.
Besides the challenge of traveling with film through multiple airports, and X-ray machines (each time asking the workers to hand check my bags with film), there were additional challenges of working in very humid and hot places as well as below-freezing temperatures of Alaska. There was an occasional polar bear scare as well.
Did you plan to write along the way, Ian?
I did. We set up a blog [North via South, now defunct] in order to keep people abreast of the journey along the way. I’d done the same on our first year long trip [Southern Africa/South and East Asia/Oceania]. It was a challenge as always to write something substantive and entertaining on the fly, without any editing, but I got better as we went along—or the adventures became funnier and more interesting.
Can you define how the experience of the ephemerality of architecture influenced your movements?
I’m always looking for architecture at the edges, the vernacular structures, the immediate need buildings, and homes that bridge cultural stereotypes and identity. As an immigrant, I’m drawn to the challenge of illustrating the connection between personal definitions of home and the definition of self. It’s one of the reasons we went to Fordlandia in the Amazon. I was really drawn to this North American–style town in the middle of the Brazilian jungle. The ruins of that place, but also the town that has remained there, and is now a sort of hybrid of cultures, interested me.
Personally, I was struck by the number and size of ancient cities in the Americas: North, South, and Central. Many of these were once powerful city-states or capitals of empires. I wonder if the people there had the same sense of permanence, importance, and, frankly, hubris that we do here in our great cities today. Copán, in Honduras, was an important stop on our trip, a stunning reminder of the cost of disease and war brought by European contact. Here were these vast pyramids, and ball courts and plazas and great carvings that told of great deeds, all designed to establish a place in eternity. Now it’s a national park in a country run largely by the descendants of European colonists. The crazy thing is, much of Copán, and dozens of other ancient cities, haven’t even been explored. It’s too expensive to clear the jungle off of them. These were some of the greatest cities of the day, and they’ve been swallowed by nature in a relatively short space of time. It should be very humbling for all humankind.
In anticipation of traveling northward in South America, did you ever think that Magda’s Polish citizenship would be embraced? If you were not aware, how did this affect you both? And Ian, did you feel marginalized in this process?
We’ve had funny experiences traveling with a U.S. and Polish passport. Usually in countries that are trying to curry favor with the U.S., like, say, Thailand, I’m let in without a visa or a second glance, but Magda is sometimes hassled. (Magda now has a U.S. passport as well.) In Latin America, with a history of flirtation with socialism and then the hard hegemony of U.S. intervention as a reprisal, it seems there was a bit more of a kinship with Poland, which is part of a group of counties that either were socialist at one time or have simply never interfered with Latin American affairs. Poles also tend to be better, more-engaged travelers than us Yanks. I didn’t feel marginalized at all mainly because (A) I know some of the history of U.S. backed regime change in Latin America and I understand the sore feelings, and (B) I’ve been the recipient of both favorable and unfavorable treatment due to being a (white) American, and it pretty much evens out.
Your sojourns test your relationship, to be sure. What did this journey teach you about yourself, and the other? And also your work, individually and together?
In general we travel very well together, otherwise we probably couldn’t do what we’ve done, twice. That’s not to say that there weren’t moments in the midst of exhaustion or frustration that we didn’t argue. Both of us are pretty stubborn people, though we express that stubbornness in different ways. I think the most difficult times came either when it was really, really hot or really, really cold. Actually, I hadn’t thought of that until just now. Mostly our difficulties were very temperature-dependent! But in the end we survived, and then went on to take so much of that material and create this book, which was another journey we had to work closely together on.
In most of your written vignettes there is a sense of foreboding doom, like the unknown edge (pun intended) is what stirs movement—as if the reader is along with you almost crossing the edge, sometimes not, sometimes realizing it was completely imagined, sometimes seeing that it could have been something very significant. Can you explain more on your intentionality here?
The vignettes are all based on the blog we kept during the trip, but we picked the ones we felt told the story of meeting some sort of obstacle, seen or unseen. They’re not intentionally infused with a sense of foreboding, but they might read like that, given the theme. Some of that might come from being always slightly on the back foot, playing catch-up with the rules of the game in the country we were traveling in, and in fact trying to figure out exactly what game we were playing.
Spoiler here: the skunk…why so dangerous? We leave them alone, they leave us alone. We try to shoot them, they rise from the dead to fuck with you. I am curious about this extreme from traveling northward: Was the culture shock more of the “Sonic Size” Americana nostalgia, just like you’d expect to experience in the middle U.S., or more about the constraint of society—to protect oneself from a mammal that uses a stink bomb to protect itself with a rifle as opposed to what you experienced southernly? The extremes between letting things move as things move and trying to control situations that really are human-induced drama is really clear in the writing.
This harnessing of nature, this rewriting of the natural order to favor humans is also certainly a theme of the book—and often a theme of Magda’s pictures. It makes no sense to shoot a skunk, no more so to have believed it came back to life. But we invent stories for ourselves about control, and we act on those stories.
There is only one story taken from the mainland U.S. As U.S. residents, why Guthrie, Oklahoma?
We selected one story from each country. In the case of the U.S., there are actually two: one from the mainland and one from Alaska.
And Guthrie because of our friend’s folks who have a big ranch there. We had to wait a few days to get our car fixed there, too. That ranch—with its sprawl, the welcome we received there, the western myth that infused the place, the casual shooting of the skunk—was definitely part of the shock of re-entry into the states. It probably summed up best the contrast in culture we felt from south of the border to north.
On choosing which photos were used in the publication and orienting them to Ian’s prose—can you explain this process more?
The process of selecting the photos was very difficult. We went through rounds and rounds of edits. The sequencing was yet another story. We actually took a photobook design workshop in Tokyo, at a creative space called Reminders Photography Stronghold, run by Yumi Goto. The workshop was taught by award-winning Dutch designers Teun van der Heijden and Sandra van der Doelen, who helped us polish the concept, layout, and sequencing. They also gave us the inspiration for our page design. We use a cut page that acts as a metaphor for walls and the limits of perception: it’s a quarter-page flap that turns to create two different visions of the same photo spread. In the end, we chose to mix the images from all the Americas together, allowing the reader/viewer to imagine and create their own vision of America.
Speaking to the prose part, we knew that it would be a challenge to deconstruct the linear path of our journey. A snow scene near a desert scene is a bit odd, but important to the theme of rethinking what we think we know, so the written stories remain contiguous.
Ian, tell us a bit about the illustrations, what you chose to illustrate and why.
The endpaper illustrations are an essay themselves, pairing modern European introductions to old world equivalents, or North American cultural elements to South American, and then scrambling them all together a bit so it’s unclear what’s in contrast to what. We also created photo-based illustrations to mimic the design of American passport pages inside the book—these are the text pages. We wanted to create a sort of “pan-American passport” using iconic images from all over the two continents.
Lastly, post-journey, what are borders over time in actuality in your experience?
A lot of people from Poland tend to travel a lot, and to move a lot, which includes me. That might be a result of travel having been restricted when I was growing up. The political borders were very real, with serious consequences if you crossed, or if you did cross but didn’t come back. After 1989 everything changed, and you have a whole country that feels freedom in a way that isn’t always appreciated in the West. I think uncrossable borders create a very strong will to cross.
In our current political reality borders are still very real, especially for those who don’t have the same privileges of passage that we do as U.S. citizens. We were reminded time after time how lucky we are to have these privileges. But political borders are in fact inventions, in the same way our political systems are invented. As those systems expand, either by force or inter-systemic agreements, the borders shift. As those systems fail, the borders of those systems will fail.
I’ll add though that many of our seemingly arbitrary borders are laid on top of very real physical barriers like mountain ranges, deserts, rivers, or the sea. These boundaries are also transient, ephemeral, but not on a timeline we can fathom as humans, so they will remain, for the foreseeable future, impassable. Even after our maps have been wiped clean.