Francis Alÿs, Ambulantes I (Peddlers I), 1992–2000, 1 of 80 projected 35 mm slides. From the series “Ambulantes,” 1992–2003.

Francis Alÿs, Ambulantes I (Peddlers I), 1992–2000, 1 of 80 projected 35 mm slides. From the series “Ambulantes,” 1992–2003.


Various Venues

When first appearing in 1992, inSite—a biennial artistic event that engages the border area between San Diego and Tijuana through a series of specially commissioned and site-specific works and exhibitions—caused barely a ripple, being underreported and underdiscussed. But within two short years it had the support of the Centro Cultural Tijuana (CeCuT) and has steadily gained in funding and prestige with each subsequent installment. While the sprawling nature of the project has necessarily made for patchy affairs on occasion, inSite has also delivered such memorable moments as the Trojan horse sculpture by Marcos Ramírez (aka ERRE) positioned beside the cabins of border guards in 1997, and Krzysztof Wodiczko’s projection of a staring, Big Brother–like head on the exterior of Tijuana’s Omnimax Dome theater in 2001.

Speaking more broadly, one must acknowledge inSite’s instrumental role during the past decade in demarginalizing “border aesthetics” as a category within artistic discourse. We have seen its consolidation in Documenta11 and the last two Venice Biennales, and also in the “tropical modernist” sensibility that is increasingly prevalent in US architecture. All evidence a growing fascination with third-world takes on first-world culture, or with a process of exchange that upsets this global hierarchy. To a great extent, this has always been part of inSite’s mission, not only “to broaden the scope of international cultural activities that allow Mexico to take part in dialogue through art practice with the rest of the world,” as CeCuT director Teresa Vicencio Alvarez puts it, but to begin tipping the scales in turn.

Of course, in a post-NAFTA era, the nature of the border itself has changed. While inSite still fosters an exchange between North and South America, it must now contend with such cultural developments as the defensive mobilization of NIMBYish neighborhood-watch groups into large-scale nationalistic militias patrolling the American side of the border. On the one hand, such a politically charged context creates a real problem for curators when it becomes an unavoidable, potentially limiting imperative to relevance: Art must engage tensions directly or else face charges of cynical detachment. On the other hand, these circumstances put inSite in a newly resonant critical position among so many international biennials that fail to reflect on the socioeconomic infrastructure of their immediate surroundings. In effect, this fifth manifestation of inSite greatly benefits from the fact that an increasing number of contemporary artists around the world are concerned with a “dialectic of inside and outside,” as Gaston Bachelard puts it, that explicitly acknowledges the personal impact of economic expansion (as well as its periodic social contractions). Consequently, developments on both sides of the American-Mexican border offer a fulcrum for a larger system of tense relations among global cultures. One is reminded that this particular border provided that ideal setting for Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, a 1958 film that similarly aims to tell an international story in local terms: It is the contiguity of two communities here, their intimate apartness, that affords a uniquely sharp perspective on social dynamics that elsewhere are often overlaid, cluttered, buried.

Accordingly, inSite_05 organizers substantially expanded the usual program of newly commissioned public works and performances, collectively dubbed “Interventions,” which here runs a gamut from Thomas Glassford and José Parral’s relatively straightforward, civically minded landscaping of a stretch of choice beachfront land (La esquina/ Jardines de playas de Tijuana [The Corner/Gardens on the Beaches of Tijuana]) to Javier Téllez’s broadly satirical depiction of the border jumper as a human cannonball (One Flew Over the Void [Bala perdida]). A standout was the live, achingly poetic recital that Althea Thauberger coaxed from a choir of soldiers’ wives left behind at a local army base (Murphy Canyon Choir). This piece, collaboratively written and then formalized through months of rehearsal with a vocal coach, spoke to the crossing of a border miles away from this one—Iraq’s—in intensely personal and implicated language. Empathy—in such short supply on any military front and forum of political debate—was here resuscitated via intimate interpersonal exchange.

Possibly taking a cue from the last Documenta’s expansive, time-based approach to the large-scale exhibition, there is also a dense schedule of lectures and workshops (called “Conversations”) that are likewise devoted to stimulating a more intimate discussion of the show’s underlying concerns. This event also includes a by-now-obligatory Web component called “Scenarios.” Even more significant for the arc of inSite’s cultural concerns, however, is a more conventional exhibition that has been added to the mix, the bulk of which is distributed between two venues, CeCuT and the San Diego Museum of Art. Titled “Farsites: Urban Crisis and Domestic Symptoms in Recent Contemporary Art,” the show is sensitively curated by Adriano Pedrosa, who enlisted a team of five adjunct curators (Santiago García Navarro, Julieta González, Ana Elena Mallet, Betti-Sue Hertz, and Carla Zaccagnini). Each is charged with presenting work related to the specific circumstances of a different metropolis—Buenos Aires, Caracas, Mexico City, New York, and São Paulo—whose setting can be understood as a cultural flashpoint: the scene for a shared condition, both the boon and burden, in which communities are engaged in an unequal exchange. Borders are meant to contain zones of egregious socioeconomic disparity while simultaneously enabling their mutual exploitation. And so the theme of “crisis” cannot be confined to one side or the other. As with San Diego and Tijuana, every one of the show’s chosen cities is haunted by the specter of an “other”—a city, or terrain, better or worse off than itself.

Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that Robert Smithson, though not officially included, should nevertheless seem a shadowy patron saint of “Farsites,” if not the “border aesthetic” in general, since his theorization of entropy here gains a near-universal applicability. Within Geraldine Lanteri’s deadpan, Ruscha-esque documentation of failed Argentine businesses (Negocios cerrados, 2001–2004) just as much as the tokens of ingeniously jerry-rigged consumer detritus that catch Cao Guimarães’ eye (the series “Gambiarra” [Making Do, 2002– 2004]), the process of cultural exchange is consistently figured as that ongoing movement between black and white sandboxes that will eventually turn all the sand grey. Of course this reconciliation is still a long way off, and what these works show us instead are, for the most part, instances of uneven development, where the perpetuation of a unified master plan of International Style urbanism has met with vernacular, or as Pedrosa puts it, “domestic,” resistance. Whether this is the result of systemic breakdown or deliberate strategy, an opposition that is openly activist (as in the guerrilla street-theater antics of the Etcétera group) or reactionary (Armin Linke’s images of the architecture of crowd control at the 2001 G8 Summit in Genoa), it yields an art that is as formally heterodox as it is morally ambiguous.

Although “Farsites” touches on the whole range of objective forms—from painting, sculpture, and installation art to architectural models and proposals—it tends to favor photography and film. Both, however, are mainly deployed in service of a regime of the found object, suggesting in particular those early conceptual riffs on the form of the photo-essay, such as Smithson’s “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” (1967) and Dan Graham’s “Homes for America” (1966)—with which so-called advanced art began the exodus first out of the gallery, then out of New York City as the second “capital of modern art.” That era’s search for a landscape imprinted with what Donald Judd described as the “look of non-art” may have ended with Smithson’s Hotel Palenque, 1969–72, and if images of South American urbanism predominate in “Farsites,” it is because these cities retain unto perpetuity the unfinished condition so crucial to these earlier artists. In the rifts that appear between one abandoned building project and the next, the cityscape opens up like a rotten smile.

Documentary media, typically confined to the external “skin of the world,” here gains access to the interior: The “crisis” appears as a wound, a surface effect that clearly exposes its cause. Between the similarly layered photographs of Thomas Struth and Eduardo Consuegra, for instance, a crucial shift is registered. The first draws on what is for him a novel subject, the city of São Paulo, through a familiar aesthetic filter, his scaled-up, painterly appropriation of the exacting style of German Neue Sachlichkeit. Conversely, for Consuegra, who is photographing his native Bogotá, it is the style that is experienced as “exotic” and that is appropriated through the concrete matrix of the city. Each attributes the “crisis” to a very different source.

“Farsites” comprises a quite comprehensive overview of contemporary Latin American artists (wall plaques provide their cities and countries of origin: Gabriel Orozco, Veracruz, Mexico; Doris Salcedo, Bogotá, Colombia; Rivane Neuenschwander, Belo Horizonte, Brazil); a sizable American and Western European contingent (Rita McBride, Des Moines, Iowa; Johan Grimonprez, Roeselare, Belgium; Gregor Schneider, Rheydt, Germany); and finally, rounding out the international proceedings, African- and Eastern European–born individuals (Julie Mehretu, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Kendell Geers, Johannesburg, South Africa; Marjetica Potr?c, Ljubljana, Slovenia). This diverse sampling might seem comparable to that of any number of biennials today, and the grouping offers visitors much more than the usual validation of a host country. What once was a limiting factor, the specificity of the site, now serves rather to ground a wide range of practices—one that comes close to representing a global response to the theme of globalism—to a set of concrete local contingencies. The discussion of national boundaries, trade protocols, labor disputes, and translation problems that is endemic to this particular context is echoed inwardly in the content of the works on view, but more to the point, it is echoed outwardly in their objective status as literal objects of exchange.

While the subject of the city is closely bound up with the history of modern art—the turn to abstraction coming as artists aesthetically reconfigured the already-built landscape of the modern metropolis—inSite_05 suggests that the present task of the urban artist consists of recording the process of urban development as such. More specifically, it is a matter of locating, within a rapidly changing topography, those visible marks and signs of human intentionality—whether productive, counterproductive, or openly destructive—that may serve as analogies for aesthetic production. Hence, for instance, one finds Francis Alÿs’s exhaustive slide-show taxonomy of the elemental forms of economic life, the “Ambulantes” (Peddlers, 1992–2003). This work depicts a series of individual street-merchants that the artist has encountered while wandering in and around Mexico City and that, despite their obvious lack of means, have adapted to a highly mobililized market by fashioning from found materials rudimentary vehicles to transport their goods. Alÿs pays tribute to this canny enterpreneurialism without glossing over the various civic infractions on which it is founded, as his protagonists tend to operate without permit and thereby also without regulation; their cargo is often questionable; and perhaps most distressing of all, it tends to create, by its very nature, a precarious threat or an outright obstruction to the flow of the street. As an urban drifter himself, Alÿs clearly identifies the intuitive aesthetic of the “Ambulantes” series as his own, both in its creativity and transgression.

A very similar point is made in Fernando Ortega’s deceptively simple video Para xó, 2002, which tracks the excruciatingly slow progress of a similarly improvised bicycle taxi down a country road. Titled after a song by Caetano Veloso (a senior member of Brazil’s Tropicalismo movement) that is playing inside the car that transports the artist and his camera at an equally sluggish pace, this piece pointedly links the fortunes of these two vehicles and their drivers in a moment of solidarity that is simultaneously triumphant and abject. Depending on where you stand, that is, the taxi driver is an icon of either ad-hoc pragmatism or social domination, merely the latest version of the Baudelairean ragpicker. Likewise, the impression that he is incrementally impeding the flow of global trade can be inverted into a saving grace, a statement of autonomy. This sense of ambiguous commitment permeates almost every work in the show, as evidence not of a general cop out but rather of nuanced response to an authentic complexity. Echoed within the general structure of “Farsites,” itself internally—I want to say, “dialectically”—divided, it becomes equally contingent upon the audience to consider, as it were, both sides of the argument. Within the present context, to choose this tangled web of problems over any unilateral solution in itself amounts to a political statement.

Jan Tumlir is a critic based in Los Angeles.