Genital Panic

Michèle Faguet on the eighth annual SITAC conference

Mexico City

Left: P.S. 1 director Klaus Biesenbach with artist Silvia Gruner. Right: A view of Kurimanzutto gallery. (All photos: Martha Rosler)

IN HINDSIGHT, I suppose it was inevitable that this year’s SITAC would be controversial. Titled “Blind Spots,” the eighth edition of the annual art-theory conference in Mexico City was organized by Americas Society’s visual-arts director Gabriela Rangel and dedicated to “an analysis of radical discourses and practices such as feminism, cinema, and performance that have originated as ‘blind spots’ or ‘stains’ on contemporary art criticism and theory.” It all sounded benign enough on paper, but doesn’t any discussion of discursive marginalization merit at least a little drama?

After a seventeen-hour trip and the requisite sprint through Charles de Gaulle to make the connecting flight, I was picked up at the airport and taken to my boutique hotel in La Condesa, just a few blocks away from La Panadería, the former alternative space I’d directed in the early 2000s. Once in my room, I was mesmerized by a new age sound track and images of soft porn emitted from the “video art” channel programmed for each new guest’s arrival before I was shuttled off to a cocktail party where other invited speakers had gathered for a preliminary meet and greet. Light banter promptly took a heady turn as Patronato de Arte Contemporáneo (PAC) cofounder Patricia Sloane explained to art historian Lane Relyea and co-organizer Jennifer Sorkin that local advisers had recommended the word feminism be kept out of the conference title to avoid alienating potential audience members unsympathetic to the cause.

A bad case of jet lag excused my participation from some of the mandatory preconference art- and cultural-tourist activities—among them a visit to an exhibition curated by Javier Téllez at the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros (SAPS), later agreed by many, including me after getting there a few days later, to be the best show seen on that trip. On the way to a lunch hosted by Kurimanzutto gallery in its relatively new permanent exhibition space (its industrial splendor rivaled only by the recently opened gallery LABOR), I shared a car with Klaus Biesenbach (his second time back since his controversial 2002 show “Mexico City: An Exhibition About the Exchange Rate of Bodies and Values” at P.S. 1). We speculated about the current polarizations and rivalries within the Mexican art scene and concurred on the inevitability of return-induced paranoia. The conversation then turned to Berlin, and he mocked my intention to learn German with the wry remark, “It’s a country that deserves for people not to learn its language.” (I admitted I’d always felt the same way about the US.)

Like any endeavor of this scale, the conference had its ups and downs. One particularly adverse condition was the freakishly cold, rainy weather, which kept the massive theater at what felt to be near-freezing temperatures so that panelists were frequently buried under multiple scarves and blankets generously brought from home by PAC director Aimée Labarrere de Servitje, always the image of elegance and grace under pressure. Content ranged from formal academic papers—Tom McDonough’s comparative analysis of the everyday in early ’60s Parisian cinema; Rita Eder’s recuperation of pioneer Mexican video artist Pola Weiss (“Surprising and wonderful!” gushed Museo Rufino Tamayo director Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy later that day)—to more intimate artist-talk-type presentations by Martha Rosler, Vasco Araujo, Dias & Riedweg, and Kader Attia. In response to the question “Is the personal still political?” Silvia Gruner read a thoughtful autobiographical text (appropriately named “An Overdose of Me”) against a montage of seductive filmic images while Judi Werthein performed a work in progress (Obras contadas) in quirky, MC style. Expert respondent Relyea wrapped up a session that included a discussion by curator Sabine Breitwieser on Valie Export’s legacy within Austrian feminist practice with a spontaneous (and uncannily prophetic) call for “dissensus rather than consensus.”

Left: A view of Carlos Amorales's performance. Right: The closing buffet.

The sun finally reemerged from its weeklong hiatus on the final day of the conference, which was scheduled to close just before lunch to offer a much-needed respite from three days of frenetic activity. Shortly after noon, artist Carlos Amorales (né Carlos Aguirre) took the stage dressed in an elegant black suit and delivered what appeared to be a formal lecture about the “migration of form” that took his silhouetted drawings from artworks to record-label logos to designer dresses to sexy women’s lingerie. As he did so, a bulky, mustached man dressed in military attire appeared to his left and began barking out threats to strip-search select audience members. A rather complying young woman—performance artist Galia Eibenschutz, who also happens to be Amorales’s wife—presented herself onstage and was stripped down to her lingerie to the applause of some five hundred delighted fans. A ripple of shock could be felt in the first two rows (consisting largely of guest speakers), and the ever-feisty Sorkin (who the previous day had leveled a devastating critique against Pipilotti Rist’s MoMA installation Pour Your Body Out as its curator, Biesenbach, looked on with perverse delight) quickly grabbed the microphone and demanded to know why Amorales had chosen to undress a woman at a conference on feminism. The artist expressed confusion about why he’d been invited in the first place, gave a feeble apology, and made a hasty retreat before things got really ugly . . . which they did.

Maybe it was all that latent dissensus that had been building up over the prior three days (critic Cuauhtémoc Medina later claimed that it was my “moralistic” position on “poverty porn” during my own talk that had sparked the problem early on) that precipitated such a violent reaction from both sides. Against the advice to just “relax,” given by a young man and his sneering girlfriend seated just to her right (their bad manners mirrored by an alarming number of audience members), Rosler eloquently critiqued the conventional appeal of the naked female body while Monica Mayer (an important fixture of feminist art practice in Mexico City) shot back with a reference to the controversy surrounding the use of Rosler’s collage of naked women on the cover of the catalogue for LA MoCA’s “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution.” (Rosler, of course, took on that comment as well.) The debate eventually took a predictable turn with claims for cultural relativism and accusations about the imposition of foreign discourses that came to a head with Medina’s mistaken attribution of a Seamus Deane quote to Benjamin Buchloh, denounced by Rangel (who obviously relished the error) as part of his overall distortion of her opening arguments. As the tone in the auditorium grew almost unbearably hostile, art historian Francisco Reyes Palma intervened with an earnest attempt to mediate what was clearly an irreparable situation.

Not even the potential for casual networking at a lavish outdoor buffet populated by some of Mexico City’s most preeminent art stars—with the exception of my personal favorite, Miguel Calderón—could remedy the decisively dampened mood of many conference participants, who took their leave of Mexico City the next day with the promises of bland hospitality in a warm and exotic destination somewhat unfulfilled. This year, SITAC’s most memorable elements may very well be not the food or the parties or the chaotic but fun urban setting (all of the above were, of course, great), but a taste of real provocation, unpleasant but perhaps productive.