San Diego

“inSITE 97”

Various Venues

For the third installment of “inSITE,” a binationally organized triennial of art from the Americas, forty-two site-specific projects dotted the decidedly unidentical twin cities of Tijuana and San Diego with just about any kind of work post-Conceptual appetites might fancy—that is, anything except painting. Multicultural chic gone continental, “inSITE 97” was further proof that it no longer matters whether you’re in Buenos Aires, Tijuana, or Vancouver: wherever you are, you can just as easily drink Coca-Cola, watch The Simpsons, and enjoy pretty much the same generic contemporary art.

Even though most of the participating artists aren’t yet major-league players, together their work represented a panorama of the maneuvers favored by today’s avant-garde establishment, much like more celebrated mega-shows. Moreover, quality here had little to do with stature—an indication that these days prominence is proof of an artist’s strategic smarts, and not necessarily his or her artistic skills. (This was confirmed by Gary Simmons’ sky-writing piece, misshapen asterisks that were supposed to look like snowflakes, but didn’t. No one seemed to mind.)

As a matter of course, the glaring contrasts between TJ and SD paved the way for the aestheticized exploitation of socioeconomic problems. A photomontage labeling the hometowns of Tijuana’s dwellers (according to the catalogue it was intended to show “the lack of identity of a people that desires to be the Other”); a set of pictures of Baja’s dump yards; and a speech that sought to deconstruct the power structures underlying “inSITE” (by, respectively, Rosangela Renno, Allan Sekula, and Andrea Fraser) were as enlightening as a sermon on the perils of land mines would be to Bosnians.

At least the multinational curatorial team let the artists themselves do all the talking. So, didactics aside, there was room for a good number of works to justify many an art pilgrim’s journey. Some of these belonged to the genre of public intervention that has become a staple of many contemporary-art events. Melanie Smith’s mock tourist-information office in downtown San Diego promoted rather ordinary urban “sights” with brochures, posters, and souvenirs; while the monitors typically used for infomercials in the city’s International Information Center were hijacked by Thomas Glassford to present a portion of his golf pseudo-thriller City of Greens, (all works 1997). If these intrusions served as additional bridges over the good old art/life divide, then Eduardo Abaroa’s “Black Star” Border Capsule Ritual actually let you carry away some soul-engaging art—that is, if you were willing to collect a complete set of his bittersweet, somewhat deranged-looking satanic figurines from vending machines around town.

But not all the gratification was found on the streets. Although for the most part local museums did not supply space, art shelters were set up to house works in need of room and board, or more accurately, a darkroom and a screen. In Miguel Rio Branco’s digs, his lyrical Between the eyes, the desert entranced the audience with endlessly dissolving slide-sequences of indigenous faces and landscapes, causing one to forget the worldly goings-on outside. In turn, the clatter of the two cities was recorded and digitally altered by Judith Barry in her piece Consigned to Border, video projections showing tides of urban becoming that liquefied the sides of two freestanding walls, yielding a hypnotically beautiful virtual continuum.

More analytical than lyrical, Call Waiting, Lorna Simpson’s video-puzzle formed of interwoven fragments of personal phone conversations in similarly overlapping tongues—which invited the viewer to rescue the disjointed narrative by bringing into play his or her own assumptions and inferences—was an effective and enticing investigation into the symbiotic workings of communication. Symbiosis was also an important element in Alien Toy UCO (Unidentified Cruising Object), in which Ruben Ortiz Torres appropriated an unfolding low-rider modified by all-time “radical bed dancing” champion Chava Munoz, and served it up with a video clip that juxtaposed the car with UFOs. Beyond a political message and readymade intricacies, the cubistic Alien Toy was formally intriguing, allowing low-riding quality codes to resonate along with those of “classic” art. This unassuming close encounter between art and popular culture pointed to a fertile territory where site-specificity might still hold some ground.

Yishai Jusidman