Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 4 Artist Run Spaces
Log 4 Artist Run Spaces

An Illusionary Exchange
Joyce Campbell


Crashed out on a dirt bank in a ramshackle barrio on the south side of the U.S. Mexico border lies an early model American '55 Ford Victoria. It has nose-dived into the clay, and ended up going nowhere. Betsabee Romero's Jute Car is one of many site-specific installations commissioned by inSITE, a sprawling public art project straddling the twin cities of San Diego and Tijuana. The car makes the transition from functioning fetish to object d'art. Elaborately decorated, its body work is covered in sized canvas and encrusted with painted roses. The interior is all but obscured by stacks of dried rose buds; the bumper-bars are coated in gilt. The work pays whimsical tribute to the cohabiting Mexican traditions embodied in the Virgin and the Low Rider. Camp, kitsch, and unabashedly feminine, it's a radical revamp for the 50s style American Auto, a coveted symbol of Mexican Machismo.

Like many of the inSITE installations, Romero's work is super-charged by its politically loaded surroundings. Jute Car has landed head-down in Colonia Libertad, ringed by a cardboard shanty town pressed against the border fence, the fence itself built from ex-army landing pads recycled from the U.S. conflict with Iraq. The clearing in which the piece is sited is a popular gathering place from which hundreds of illegal workers run a nightly gauntlet into the States. It's also a notorious gang-run drug alley where local teens constantly scout for the U.S.$1 for a fix.

Somewhat in the tradition of Latin American magic realism, Romero cheats this situational tragedy by invoking the miracle, at once inviting a fantastic flight of fancy and throwing into relief the pathos embodied in the illusion of potential escape. Jute Car is both a literal representation of the physical leap that hundreds enact at that site each night, and a simultaneous allegorical reflection on the leap of faith that thousands more maintain as they subsist in the hope of improved conditions in the barrio. In a cruel reversal which appears to be motivated by convenience, the car has landed as if hurled back from the U.S. into Mexico.

While the curatorial committee of four (from the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Brazil) specifically disassociate their exhibition from any direct activism, as a "site specific public project" inSITE '97 can in fact only be understood in relation to its immediate environment; the border. Jute Car participates with the majority of the inSITE works in a kind of metaphoric disjunction, creating frictions and pressures between site and subject matter. In one sense it's a lyrical interpretation of the border dynamic tautologically reinserted into the environment which seemingly 'inspired' it. It is also an ostentatious, rather over-literal insertion into a neighbourhood where most earn the minimum wage of U.S.$100 a month, if they earn at all. Jute Car was acquired in Mexico City, decorated and then freighted to a site already littered with burnt out car bodies less conducive to nostalgic re-interpretation-all for a commission and cost fee of around U.S.$10,000.

It's tempting to attack public art spending as an indulgence: risky talk in the pinched post-N.E.A. American art scene. inSITE's $1,500,000 represents a small fraction of the massive annual flow of capital across the border. It would have been money well spent had it brought to the foreground the forces which maintain the immense economic disequilibrium between the U.S. and Mexico. To that end, the academic forums which accompanied the exhibition proved refreshingly self-reflective. Scholars including Susan Buck-Morse, Coco Fusco and Nestor Garcia Canclini offered acid critiques of inSITE's somewhat genteel interventions into a zone of chronic economic and political crisis. (That those critiques remained squarely within an academic setting, fully catered and poorly attended, was a predictable but arguably appropriate reflection on the broader inSITE project.)

Hardly critical, but thoroughly entertaining as the top-of-the-bill, Vito Acconci paraded himself as a living national treasure and legendary narcissist. His retrospective readings embodied all the wit, charisma and deflated libidinal bravado of an aging performance art icon. Here at the geo-political edge his organic metaphors abounded-lots of penetration and expulsion, and my favourite, the semi-permeable membrane, replete with visual associations of swelling and popping on the salty side. Vito laid it all on in his opening address to the symposium Private Time in Public Space; a poetic, retrospective reverie on his own peculiarly sexualized vision of public space, migration and nationhood. Remarkably candid about his own progression from conceptual provocateur to corporate visualiser, he demystified the shifting fortunes of a generation. His aggressively self-absorbed body work of the late 60s and his idealistic interventions into the 'expanded' socio-political field during the 70s have been since evolved into a series of grandiose 'cultural' additions to central city real estate. By now he's practically a corporation in himself-director of Acconci Studios, a think-tank where he and his team of concept men attend to the manipulation-as-titivation of public plaza space. He took three days out from a packed international schedule to visit Tijuana and generate a work that by his own admission has not, and may never be, installed. (Vito's latent proposition of a 'floating island' bobbing beyond the beach-head fence which marks the border, was thwarted, for want of a decent boat builder, by El Nino's predicted battery of the California coast. It remains a sorry phantom of James Cameron's Titanic mega-set-now a 'museum'-twenty miles further down the Baja coast.)

In the faded working class hilltop suburb of Villa Colonia there's no missing Patricia Patterson's more humble titivation. La Casita, an appropriation-as-renovation collaboration with a local gardener/plasterer, freshened up a simple stucco villa in the heart of Tijuana's oldest working class neighbourhood. The result is a richly coloured "performative landscape," a do-up of House and Garden-style Latino peasant chic. This celebration of the "indigenous, not as spectacle, but as a profoundly necessary articulation of our lives" (Patterson) had the neighbours asking if there was a kindergarten opening on the site. The family displaced by the exhibition and employed to oversee/be-seen-in-it during opening hours, are privately planning to repaint their home white before returning.

Having visited around two thirds of forty inSITE-commissioned art works, I'm still clinging to my faith in installation art's ability to offer potent moments of reflection, even 'insight' into the power relations of community and place. The very fact that the San Diego/Tijuana border subtends probably the most abrupt gradient between poverty and wealth on earth renders oblique lyrical interventions such as Jute Car and La Casita somewhat impotent. Despite the disclaimers, the overwhelming experience of inSITE is one of cultural spectacle within which those who live with the work in some sense become it. This obligatory exhibitionism has its rewards. First, inSITE employs neighbourhood residents as 'minders.' Secondly, such cottage industry ingenuity harvests a rich stream of reciprocally exotic art world tourists. La Casita's 'indigenous' housewife hawks crepe paper flowers while in Colonia Libertad 'guides' solicit liberal tips from the docent-led, wine-sipping San Diegan tour groups. But there are consequences to this fundamentally inequitable exchange. A telescope, a video and Jute Car's battery and lights have all been 'recycled' Tijuana-style. More telling perhaps, is Jute Car's shattered windscreen. As an inSITE artist/technician put it "What can you expect when the people are hungry."

On a more generous note, the Border Arts workshop opened their project in Maclovia Rojas with a town carnival and rally. Maclovia Rojas is one of many communities proliferating on the border, populated by southern migrants who labour at Maquidoras (Korean and U.S. owned electronics sweat shops). The work is a fenced yard, containing a small concrete building-one of the most substantial constructions in the town-in which the Border Arts Workshop plan to maintain an arts and education programme. Reflecting the Mexican socialist tradition mythologised by muralists Rivera, Orozco and Siqueross, the yard's painted walls document the town's fight for survival, and honour the assassinated farm union leader after whom the community is named.

On first approach Maclovia Rojas presents an even darker spectacle than Colonia Libertad. There's no running water, domestic electric flex is hooked illegally and precariously from high tension cables, and then strewn across dirt streets. There's no schooling for the children. Some of the homes are literally cardboard boxes. A thousand families face eviction as Hyundai pressures the Mexican government into allowing a plant expansion onto this small, bare hill, in preference to the miles of unoccupied land which surround it.

The community invited U.S. guests to take part in this event; a parade and fair for the children, which evolved into a heated political rally. These witnesses-with-cameras provide protection from Government persecution, and heighten an embryonic media awareness of the inequities embedded in the North American free-trade agreement.

This is the kind of urgency that the inSITE series arose from-though public funding appears to have clipped its claws a little over the years. Despite minimal support from their commissioning organisation, the Border Arts Workshop has responded with generosity and conviction to the implicit tensions of the border region-inviting 'viewers' to commit to productive participation.

Joyce Campbell



Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room