Heriberto Yépez recounts the experimental scene of Tijuana’s border art laboratory (1992-2014).
I. THE BORDER AS A HEAVEN-HELL OF MIXING
Starting in the 1990s, expressions like border art and arte fronterizo which, generally, referred to art from the northwest of Mexico and Southern California (particularly the Tijuana-San Diego conurbation), began to gain currency. Border art’s emergence was attributed to shared bi-national existence, immigration and to the political, economic, social and cultural circumstances surrounding the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); as well as to convulsive events such as the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas and the assassination of Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana (what a turbulent year 1994 was!); to the growth of drug trafficking and narcocultura—i.e., the culture surrounding that enterprise—as well as to the end of the PRI political party’s exclusive political/electoral predominance in Baja California. This agitated context was reflected in the arts. Art critics agreed something new was happening along the border and a group of artists received regional, national and international attention from academia, the media and the art world.
From the time of its emergence, border art was understood as a series of expressions more representative of social processes than mere individual talents; expression that had more to do with collective conditions than personal worlds.
These symbolic expressions were considered particular to that specific border, and, at the same time, symptomatic of a new global condition. It was as if the art of this rather peripheral region—with few precedents as an arts scene—were documenting and prefiguring changes yet to come to culture on the global level. In his Culturas híbridas. Estrategias para entrar y salir de la modernidad, from 1990, Argentine sociologist Néstor García Canclini defined the region thus:
During the two periods I studied intercultural conflicts on the Mexican side of the border, in Tijuana in 1985 and 1988, there were several times I thought that the city—alongside New York—is one of post-modernity’s greatest laboratories (p. 293)(1).
From the time of its publication, García Canclini’s book left its mark on subsequent interpretations of Tijuana-based culture and “border art.” García Canclini considered the Mexico-US border a laboratory for globalization and, specifically, a laboratory of cultural hybridization. As such, the critic proposed considering the visual arts and Tijuana’s literary community at a time when these had not yet gained recognition; in fact, Culturas híbridas presaged the border art boom before its most emblematic artworks appeared.
Yet García Canclini’s optimist—almost utopian—vision was not the sole interpretation that gained currency in the burgeoning discourse regarding the border (which not only artists and academics, but also musicians, photographers, filmmakers and general popular culture created). Based on work by a group of northeast-Mexico photojournalists charged with portraying Ciudad Juárez’s “feminicides” and other border-related tragedies, US writer Charles Bowden proposed a global meaning for the Mexico-US border diametrically opposed to García Canclini’s. In 1998’s Juárez: The Laboratory of Our Future Bowden writes:
We prefer not to discuss these facts. We would rather talk about free trade, the war on drugs, immigration reform. We insist we are in control. We are wrong. Neither our current policies nor any proposed policies offer the slightest hope of improvement in a place like Juárez. Our economic beliefs have had a three-decades-long run in that city. They are no longer theories, they are realities. Thirty feet from the United States we can see the future… The city looks like a Marxist cartoon, though it is hard to say whether it is the work of Karl or Groucho… (p. 98)(2).
These proposals are the poles from which the Mexico-US border was imagined in the 1990s and 2000s and, by extension, how its arts were interpreted. If for García Canclini, Tijuana was the felicitous laboratory of a global/hybrid present that let us read between the lines of new economies’ (liberal) promises and expectations, according to Bowden, the border was the neo-liberal laboratory that had already produced results, consequences and catastrophic ends.
But there was something both interpretive poles shared. In García Canclini’s almost heaven-like vision as well as in Bowden’s apocalyptic outlook, the border was defined as a “laboratory”—the space-time where a series of experiments were taking place. But was the border a laboratory of hybridization, as Canclini affirmed? Or was some other kind of experimentation already germinating from that time? And let us not forget: García Canclini defined his theory of border art before that art had reached its “boiling point.” To a great degree, García Canclini’s hybridism was more a predictive than a descriptive notion—from which both its virtues and its errors derive.
II. FOUR ARTS LABORATORIES ON THE MEXICO-US BORDER
To take up border art’s historical processes I shall select four artistic laboratories characterized by different disciplines and moments from the last two decades. With these examples, we may be able to start re-thinking the laboratory in terms other than those of its representatives and leaders.
Let’s consider an emblematic and highly influential artwork from border art’s first period, a performance tour by Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez Peña entitled Pareja en una jaula, from 1992. At the time, Gómez Peña was very active in the Tijuana-San Diego area and became the artist along that border with the greatest worldwide resonance.
Pareja en una jaula involved the two artists being shut into a cage and costumed as indigenous people of a (nonexistent) tribe, as part of a colonialism-inspired tableau vivant. The artwork toured museums, galleries and art festival programs in Europe, the US, Latin America and Oceania. It was a black humor stunt that Fusco and Gómez Peña played on spectators whose reactions ranged from pity on behalf of the two “natives” on exhibit to outright racist aggression.
The piece was an experiment designed to incite and document different audience reactions to a performative staging in which the two artists represented “Others,” i.e., non-Westerners, a “primitive” couple, two specimens from a non-modern world, the strange and “contemptible” beings from the far side of our habitual cultural borders. In subsequent years, Gómez Peña would be recognized as a major postmodern artist and for some time framed what it meant to be a “border artist.” Gómez Peña’s performance-based laboratory solidified as a radically experimental trajectory centered around the brusque metamorphoses that befell the subjectivities of its “beyond-border” beings.
With that I’ll move on to another discipline and moment. Let’s consider the first three books by Tijuana author Rafa Saavedra—Esto no es una salida. Postcards de ocio y odio (1995); Buten Smileys (1997) and Lejos del Noise (2003)—all of which were written in a Spanglish mix designed to recreate in sound the environments and denizens of a nocturnal border town. These works are notably experimental both in terms of form and content.
Saavedra’s prose is quite atypical in comparison to other literary prose from the Mexico of that time. In some sense, Saavedra got a jump on the sort of writing –and media– (above all internet)-related experimentation that was to expand a decade later to a greater number of Mexican writers as well as to cybernauts in the global-Hispanic world. But for a full decade before that happened, Saavedra’s prose in Tijuana was considered the most experimental in literary terms.
Another much-remarked-upon aspect with regard to Saavedra was that his professional profile, i.e., his identity as an artistic producer, differed from other writers’ standard profiles. In addition to writing, Saavedra was a radio producer, a DJ, a fanzine editor, a computer sciences instructor, a cultural journalist, a photographer and a leading electronic networker. His border lab was a dual one: it narrated Tijuana in a sui genesis form of writing based on rhythm and remix as it created a new and heterogeneous artistic-professional profile. While other writers in (and out of) Mexico have imitated his literary style and techniques, Saavedra (who died in 2013) continues to serve as the edgy exemplar of the multidisciplinary subject-writer he proposed.
Another, now-solidified moment of border experimentation is Nortec, an electronic music collective from the 2000s that merged (European) techno music with Mexican, norteña-style popular music. As a musical collective, it far surpassed mere local recognition. Not only—as critics tended to repeat—did Nortec quickly become a sort of soundtrack to border life, but as well, its members were identified throughout the decade as Latin America’s most influential electronic musicians.
In 2014, fifteen years after putting together Nortec, its two principal members, Fussible (Pepe Mogt) and Bostich (Ramón Amezcua) announced the musical concept that had underlain their general aesthetic had exhausted its innovative possibilities and they declared that, as far as they were concerned, the Nortec laboratory had come to an end. They did not wish to repeat themselves.
This was an unusual move in the Mexican and even international border-art realm. Generally, artists that acquire a style or recognition for an artistic concept continue to produce it (at the cost of self-imitation) or, in the best of cases, simply move on to a new phase or proposal. In their case, given the artistic concept was linked to a name, they proposed an original solution: to die as an identity or concept. Declaring the project-identity-name as finalized was part of an experiment to reach another, at-that-time unknown artistic proposal.
Finally, I’d like to take up the case of an Italian anthropologist named Fiamma Montezemolo. She established herself in Tijuana in 2002 to specifically study border art as part of her project as a researcher from El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (Colef) Cultural Studies Department. Her research project involved ethnography and an anthropological analysis of the movement surrounding border artists.
That said, six years later Montezemolo announced her own transformation into an artistic producer, as an outcome of her research process and interactions with the Tijuana artistic community, as well as her abandonment of her role as a social scientist and observer, in order to participate as a border-based creator.
Montezemolo’s work has expanded rapidly and centers on video and installation. Some of her artworks are thematically linked to the border and its laboratories. For example, Traces (2012) is a video that includes a sort of prose-poem where the artist speaks of the dividing wall between Tijuana and San Diego by trying to turn it into a powder-elixir to renovate her own life; in another video entitled Eco (2014), Montezemolo examines what happened with eight installation projects realized as part of the InSite art festivals (1994-2005) once they ended and their organizers and artists stopped directly keeping tabs on their site-specific pieces in Tijuana. Montezemolo’s work is part of a second moment in border aesthetics that emerged from that city, and hers is the most interesting work from that latter phase.
III. BORDER ARTISTS AS MUTATING PRODUCERS
Assuredly border art playfully evinced and explored changes to cultural identities during the first phases of globalization. Its artists explored the mix of signs, languages, codes, imaginaries and contexts that were then occurring between the global North and South, particularly the culture clash between the United States and Mexico in the age of NAFTA. An important part of the material with which their pieces worked were repertoires that emerged from relationships, flows, exchanges, clashes and asymmetries between societies on the North and South sides of the border.
The first commentators (such as García Canclini) and, above all, the artists themselves clearly identified working with these materials as one of the intentions fueling their border poetics, as well as a creative reflection on (national and post-national) identity as one of its principal themes.
If a first phase of border art has been defined as a material exploration of cross-border repertoires and a thematic concern with cultural identity, these artists’ laboratory, however, was not reduced to those elements. Its experimentation with identity included “altering oneself” or “becoming others” through new practices, disciplines, conditions or phases, or even by questioning or abandoning a professional identity to develop another.
Up to the end of his productive career, Rafa Saavedra opened up his interdisciplinary range, rejecting a sole identity as a literary writer; major figures from Nortec pronounced the end of their project and a mutation of their identity, materials, name and overall concept; and, coming off of an institutional ethnographic project, Fiamma Montezemolo ended up becoming a new, trans-national, cross-border artist (now residing in the San Francisco Bay Area) by constructing an explosive conceptual-professional bridge between being an academic and being an artist, becoming the kind of creator that originally she only sought to analyze. These mutations, more than being a new collective trend among communities, were a component that was present from the beginning; and this has become an increasingly preponderant aesthetic element in recent phases. The creation of new subjectivities might well be the new center of border-related arts.
This persistent mutation of productive identity is currently joined to a sensation that border art’s initial boom period has ended. The aesthetic based on mix and hybridization is no longer self-sustaining as a sufficient definition. Critics identified them with that aesthetic but border artists, from the start insisted that what they sought could not be reduced to hybridism. Faced with an exhaustion of that second-tier component, their search, obviously, has gone on; other elements, present since the early stage, and new elements that have been added over time as part of their explorations, now guide their proposals.
As well, this collective sensation of exhaustion with regard to the hybrid aesthetic opens up a new set of possibilities no longer derived from the first materials, the hybridizing mix or the art object in general, but rather, centered on the subject and its identity mutations; specifically, changes to the neo-border artistic subject’s identity/profession, identity/discipline and identity/concept.
Border art’s first critics identified it as centered on an exploration of cultural identity. But in their works and trajectories, in fact, border artists demonstrate that what is put into play is not so much “cultural” identity but more precisely work-related identity. This distinction, in turn, allows for another: border art is less an archive of aesthetic products born of mixing than a community of mutating producers. Border art has insisted on destabilizing the artist’s work-related identity and now experiments with its own (re)plasticity.
The key word to border art is work. Border artists, given they have operated within a markedly local context—where the art market or even official art history (national or international) has not been determinant to the form their artworks have taken—contrived to have other forces configure them. As has been stated, the nature of Tijuana’s economic dynamic shaped its artists, and in particular their ways of working—from maquiladora-style assembly, ubiquitous recycling and labor flows to informal and bi-national employment—seem to have become more determinant forces driving the formation of their artworks and subjectivity than galleries, Mexican tradition or art histories.
To begin with, most of Tijuana’s border artists did not come out of art-related university training. From the beginning, becoming an artist in Tijuana meant radically transforming their professional/work-related identities. More than two decades out from Tijuana border art’s beginnings, we can define it as a laboratory for experimentation corresponding to a community that decided to build its own profile as art-subjects and that as a community continues to give rise to new mutations in subjectivity. When observed in retrospect, border art reveals that one of its key components has been experimentation that skews to new types of artistic producers. In the quarter century since its emergence, it’s also clear that this subjectivizing laboratory for experimentation continues to reinvent itself.
(1) García Canclini, Nestor, Culturas híbridas. Estrategias para entrar y salir de la modernidad, 1990. Paidós Ibérica, Madrid. p. 293.
(2) Bowden, Charles, Juárez, the Laboratory of Our Future, Aperture, Mexico, 1998.