CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR…
With a touch of dramatic irony, this year’s installment of the annual SITAC conference, at the Teatro Julio Castillo in Mexico City, centered on the “Theory and Practice of Catastrophe” and began with the circulation of two competing, contradictory program schedules. The resulting bafflement, however, was quickly forgotten as the bone-chilling coldness of the poorly designed lecture hall lulled guests into a state of torpor that would come to characterize the next three days of the conference.
On Thursday, day one of the colloquium, the first speaker was the hotly anticipated author Juan Villoro. No stranger to literary invention, he proffered a sly image of the “paparazzo of hell” to knot together how the ubiquity of crises in daily life was matched by a growing number of artistic commentaries (the work of J. G. Ballard in particular) on the subject and a constant media thirst for disaster. Villoro managed to implicate both the audience’s voyeurism as attendees of a conference on catastrophe and his own simultaneous complicity. Adding a bit of (unintended) humor, conference organizer and artist Eduardo Abaroa joined the stage after the talk in full parka. The audience chuckled—camaraderie in misery, perhaps—then bundled up and settled in for the rest of the proceedings.
Day one down, Colección Jumex consultant Victor Zamudio-Taylor offered to be my guide for the various openings that coincided with the conference. The main stop of the night was at Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros, where we caught two works, POSTMISERIA by Artemio and Restauración de una pintura mural by the collaborative Tercerunquinto. These displays were well up to the task of stirring reflection and emotion more rewarding than the day of theory. POSTMISERIA, which in part manifests as a lighted facade-work spelling out its title, begs audiences to move on from the tired mythology of Mexico as a place of violence—SITAC, take note. Taking a stand against forgetting, Tercerunquinto’s showcase of “restored” political advertisements was easily the highlight of the week. The central piece in this series is a painstaking cleaning and retouching of a PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) mural left over from the 2000 election in which the autocratic and long-ruling party finally lost power.
As the gallery’s inhabitants spilled into the street, I was happy to find myself in a small huddle with artists Francis Alÿs, G. T. Pellizzi, and Gabriel Cázares Salas. After some discussion, we decided our best bet was to grab a mezcal at Portal de Cartagena and spearhead the afterparty. Once there, bar mates inquired as to what I had seen while in town. Jogging my memory with the help of “a little blood” (aka sangrita) and documentarian Natalia Almada, I thought about Irene Kopelman’s exhibition at Labor.
Titled “50 Metres Distance or More,” Kopelman’s show presented reportage completed by the artist while on an expedition in Antarctica. This elegiac collection, composed at a distance from the coast, depicts the continent’s sublime, and soon to be lost, mixes of rock, ice, and ocean. Then there was Héctor Zamora’s opening at El Museo Experimental El Eco, for which the artist filled the courtyard with a group of inflatable bouncy castles. In a possible play on the expression “castles in the air,” the courtyard was locked up and thus engagement with the festive objects denied. Unfortunately, this critique of privilege and/or delusion was overshadowed by the castles’ shabby appearance—perhaps the sanction was in place to prevent them from popping?
Day two of the conference was no better than the first, and it began with a remedial yet lively talk by theorist Manuel De Landa. Basically Earth Science 101, De Landa’s presentation described how dynamic forces like high and low pressure systems collide to produce valences such as tornados, which can be seen as “discovery” or “chaos” depending on the observer. Parodying this focus on physical thresholds, composer Juan Cristóbal Cerrillo texted my neighbor REACHING THE CRITICAL POINT AT WHICH I WANT TO LEAVE. Bjornstjerne Christiansen and Jakob Fenger of the art group Superflex and curator-collector Patrick Charpenel followed with a set of prescriptive art-activist initiatives by the collective, including a gas-harvesting machine that turns manure into energy for the impoverished. As the day plodded on, the theme continued to drift away from “catastrophe” as Pablo Vargas Lugo presented a talk on finales in the Western classical music tradition. Adding comic relief, the US embassy’s simultaneous translators began to hum along to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. After this lullaby, the day’s final panel explored the sea, biological determinism, and political borders, a loose grouping if ever there was one. At this point, I spoke with curator Magali Arriola and a crowd of people gathered out front about other possible takes on the alleged topic so as to clear my head and to buck up for the final round. Alternatives aside, we all agreed that at the very least something would have to happen in the final day to justify the expenditure of the first two.
On Saturday, T. J. Demos, trying to steer the conference back on course, queried the artist Minerva Cuevas on the subject of ecological disaster, which resulted in a rather bland condemnation of capitalism by Cuevas. Going further afield, curator José Roca seemed set on reading the proliferations of biennials as some sort of catastrophe in itself, and, later, curator Julieta González talked about artists Luis Camnitzer, Gustav Metzger, and others who fled to Latin America due to the Holocaust. At this point a “surprise guest,” Felipe Ehrenberg, was Skyped in to invigorate the panel. Running outside for a preplanned breath of air, I bumped into artist Carlos Amorales, whose “shocking” presentation during last year’s SITAC on feminism featured his wife doing an onstage striptease and was still hot on current attendees lips. With this panel down, I was finally prepared to embrace the ultimate presentation, in which artist Johan Grimonprez began to beat old, dead horses with a talk on that cad, American hegemony and ideology—insert Rumsfeld et al.
When the SITAC was said and done, I rode to the closing lunch at the Casa Luis Barragán with collector César Cervantes, who suggested that the meandering inattention to the overarching theme might have fostered an uninspired conference. Indeed, he mentioned that SITAC and its panel-laden format night have become “antiquated” (a sentiment echoed by curator and SITAC committee member Mariana Munguia, who had to go as far back as Issa Benítez’s edition in 2004 for a high-water mark). Leave it to the academy to make a conference on “catastrophe” so complacent. Maybe this apparent lethargy is symptomatic of a need for more time between each version and fewer iterations overall (it is now in its ninth edition). In any case, thankfully, there are signs of life outside the institution.