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
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.