Billions y Billions

Travis Diehl on “1992 Toyota Corolla (BLACK)” at Otras Obras

Left: At the US-Mexican border. Right: Otras Obras. (Photos: Travis Diehl)

THE GREYHOUND STOPPED behind a McDonald’s on the US side. Through a grubby door, around the restaurant’s dumpster and grease trap, past several guards and through a parking deck and you’re in Mexico. There, silhouetted in the dusk of the seedy Centro district, was the Tijuana Arch, a replica of the Saint Louis Gateway Arch—cruelly tripled, it seemed, by a pair of Golden Arches, looming just as large. Past stalls of drug rugs, statues, beers, and so on, after a few blocks down a semideserted Avenida Revolución and then a left on Sexta I saw a guy in a Kings cap—Los Angeles artist Keith Rocka Knittel, thank gawd. I had just started reaching for my printout directions. I’d traveled many kilometers that day for the opening of his and NAFTA-based, Japanese-Canadian artist Steve Kado’s “1992 Toyota Corolla (BLACK),” at temporary alt-space Otras Obras (“Other Works”). Following their collaboration in Toronto a few months back, this show completes the artists’ self-described “America sandwich.” “The Mud Man confirmed,” Keith said. I gave him a dry look. “Oh—Steve didn’t tell you? Never mind . . . ”

Otras Obras is a white-walled former hair salon squeezed between a chic bar and a squat, a block from the main tourist drag. Kado and Los Angeles/Tijuana–based Michael Ray-Von (aka Mikey, curator and caretaker of the gallery underwritten and cocurated by New York scene promoter Todd Patrick [aka Todd P]) were doing some final touchups. Half an hour till the opening and still no “Mud Man,” but there was a line of artworks centered in the gallery, back to front: a video of some Solo cups and tennis balls tossed down various slopes, a small chunk of plywood, a four-by-eight-foot wall at 3:4 scale, and behind that a single PA speaker unspooling a twenty-four-hour cycle of mood-altering binaural waves—in mono. “Right now you’re supposed to feel attentive,” said Kado. Clashing, rubbing, heaving, oscillating tones simmered just under everyone’s skin.

Left: Artist Keith Rocka Knittel. Right: Artist Steve Kado. (Photos: Travis Diehl)

We hopped across the road for a pallet of Monster energy drinks and when we got back Geraldo Guzman was there as Mud Man. He spread mud onto the plywood with a little trowel, then dabbed mud all over his skin, boots, and cap. His eyes were covered by dark glasses. As he took his place on the plywood Kado prepared the evening’s only refreshment: a mix of Monster and El Mezcalito cane liquor titled Blind Rage. The Mud Man stood like a statue in the absolute middle of the gallery; the binaurals worked their quiet magic and ice cubes bobbed in the Blind Rage. It was a strange opening.

People drifted in, coming in twos and threes, mostly Tijuana and San Diego residents—from some curious stoned kids to Luis Ituarte, director of the nearby Casa del Túnel Art Center. Temra Pavlovic was there, a Los Angeles–based filmmaker who had curated the previous show at Otras Obras; so was Clay Gibson, artist and friend of Mikey’s from CalArts, recently engaged in a $120 MX/$10 US Sabadó Tattoo project at the gallery. Most of the LA crowd blew their wad last time, though, or for one reason or another hadn’t made the trek. Spirits were high and queasy—most folks walked in and around the Mud Man and then back outside to hold up the front of the building, or stuck close to the punch, keeping the diminutive wall between them and that eerie human:

¡¡¡El hombre de lodo!!!

He is a Centro fixture; more than a few viewers recognized him. When you put a dollar or a peso in his muddy tip box he gives a slight, viscous bow. He was also getting paid by the gallery—“muddying” the question of exploitation—but the piece was having the desired effect. People talked in low tones and took furtive pictures. Solo cups rattled. Guzman aka Mud Man stood statuesquely and a neighborhood kitten who had been terrorizing the furniture and shoelaces all night started fishing for those bright peso notes in the tip box. The bilingual multigenerational transnational crowd breathed into the weirdness.

Left: Geraldo Guzman (left). (Photo: Keith Rocka Knittel) Right: Curator Michael Ray-Von. (Photo: Travis Diehl)

It’d been almost three hours and the Mud Man was getting shaky; the mud was dry; he needed a break. Keith ran down the street for some empanadas. Filmmaker Daniel Roses asked Guzman about his life as he rested, eating with mud-crusted hands. Yes, as it turns out Guzman had spent almost thirty years in Los Angeles before being deported. Meanwhile, the artists faced some sharp questions.

“So how different is it for you guys to actually experience the Mud Man, in contrast to your idea of having the Mud Man?” asked Pavlovic.

“It’s crazy having the real person. Really weird,” said Kado. And Rocka Knittel: “It’s kind of exactly how I imagined it though.”

A bit later, a woman out front prodded for an explanation. “Inanimate objects becoming animate,” said Kado, “and the opposite happening.”

“Like you hiring this man?”

It’s stock Marxist critique and the work lay there helpless but Kado is one of those funny Marxists and he could handle it: “Although he does it every day.” So is the Mud Man an extension of You the Artist’s mind? Is your degree in exploitation? “You’ve never met a person who hasn’t been exploited,” said Kado. Never, out of all our billions and billions.

Left: At the US-Mexican border. Right: DJ Tony Gallardo at the afterparty at Bodega Aragón. (Photos: Travis Diehl)

“And oh, excuse me . . . ” The Mud Man was closing down shop, and it was time to take one last group photo. The binaurals seemed to have doubled in volume and now cued “relaxation”; Guzman rinsed off in the bathroom, leaving a muddy ring around the toilet bowl, and there was somehow no more Blind Rage and there was lipstick all over that cat and Guzman took off. Buenas noches Guzman and thank you.

There was a tableau vivant against one wall with the street kitten as Christ-child centerpiece, smooched by Los Angeles saxophonist Zumi Rosow, who had shown up at the last minute with a carload of Angeleno artists. All that was left were rumors of Mud Men, though. And now we could let loose. The afterparty was at Bodega Aragón a few blocks away; the beers were twenty pesos and DJ Tony Gallardo wore a camo jacket circa Desert Storm. The next morning, surrounded by crooning vendors in the screech and stop of border traffic, those three arches, Golden and Tijuana, modulated into throbbing mono.