Artist Gary Garay provides the following example of what he finds so appealing about Tijuana's border aesthetic: "Say for instance you go through Tijuana and you drive by a casa de carton [an improvised cardboard shelter] and there's no electricity, there's no running water, but they got a big ass Nike sign painted on the house they live in, and they painted it!"
This sort of incongruous encounters are common in border cities, often times conflictive amalgamations of people and traditions defined structurally by the clash between large-scale global industrial manufacturing and micro-scale informal urban modifications, economically by the clash between some of the richest residential developments in the United States and some of the poorest shantytowns in Mexico, and culturally by the clash between American mass media and Mexican popular culture.
Gary Garay accomplishes the difficult task of navigating this hybrid landscape with a poetic fluidity that is rooted in a deep appreciation for visual and aural phenomenon that have evolved as adaptive strategies within marginalized communities on both sides of the border. His paintings, sculptures and mixed-media installations, which have in the past included cardboard replicas of Nike Cortez sneakers and gourmet paletas (Mexican popsicles), are alluring assemblages of popular signs, symbols and icons, incorporating aesthetics borrowed from things such as hand-painted signs, B-movie posters and forgotten album covers from both sides of the border. The culturally hybrid aesthetic is one Garay experienced traveling across the border as a child, and one he continues to immerse himself in, dividing his time between Tijuana, San Diego, and Los Angeles.
For Garay, this sort of rasquache, DIY, "by any means necessary," informal aesthetic represents a form of creative freedom that upends the structures of technique, form, class and taste: "The thing that draws me most to the style, is just the immediacy of doing it, even though maybe you are not a skilled renaissance or baroque painter or something like that, you still want to try to turn form and make these things...[saying] 'I may not be an amazing painter but I am going to paint this idea.'"
While cultural products produced in this vein are often considered derivative, backwards, naive, and/or kitsch, it is precisely this tension between fake and original, between authentic and inauthentic that Garay is interested in exploring and even exacerbating, stating that he sometimes considers his work as a "knockoff of the knockoff."
In a piece like "Gucci belt" for example, Garay literally reproduces a form of ironic designer knockoff that can be found in street markets and swap meets along the border. The act of knocking of the knockoff becomes a way of reflecting on the fetishistic desire and power of international designer brands like Gucci, while simultaneously commenting on the way these alien icons are incorporated and folded into an already existing cultural tradition -- in this case leather goods from northern Mexico.
Garay's presentation of this hybrid aesthetic allows him to play and subvert judgments of taste, class, and the divisions of high and low culture. He offers glimmers of the ability individuals and communities have to dictate the meaning and value of cultural objects and mainstream aesthetics -- the ability to make the sign or object work in ways that it was not meant to, to represent what it was not intended to represent.
This interest can also be seen in the musical output of Garay, an avid collector of vinyl records who performs live sets as DJ GANAS. One of the main staples in his impressive collection --which includes cumbias, baladas, go-go, jerk, shake, boogie, rap, soul, r&b, funk, experimental, comedy records, rock, punk, and tamborazo -- are Spanish covers of popular U.S. songs from the 60s, 70s and 80s.
"When I first started collecting the records. that wasn't at all an interest of mine.... This was just a cover of that.... But [then] I started realizing how great they were, and the interpretations and how the stories change in them... or how they try to keep the story intact with other words," Garay explains.
Part of this realization and increased valorization was the cross-border migratory pattern the songs followed -- how music began to reveal the movement of people and cultural exchange across the border. "These songs are being made here in the United States, then they cross over. People hear the original, then they are reinterpreted and then these things happen to cross back over the border, he said. "These songs are also migrating with the people."
This sort of migratory pattern is not limited to the border, but it is lived with a particular intensity in a region like Tijuana-San Diego-Los Angeles. And this is what appeals to Garay, as he explained: "It is interesting how that song [that crossed] changes its sound, changes its recording technique, changes its language and then even comes back, crosses back over the border where it originated from." Sometimes, the cover even overshadows the original.
The ability to repurpose the song appeals greatly to Garay. Growing up in a Mexican household but listening to mostly American music, Mexican music didn't appeal to him. This, however, ultimately led him on a quest to discover music he missed out on. This fuels his "near obsession" with vinyl records, pushing him to scour record stores on both sides of the border for vinyl gold. "It is like if I get to live or discover something that I didn't get to live originally... it is almost like I am going back and restoring that which I didn't live, and live in it [now]... getting these different stories and rhythms and perspectives and hybrids".
Garay has been sharing this experience of discovering something new -- or rediscovering songs that were originally unappealing and thus forgotten -- as part of Sonido Mas Exitos, a collective of selectors he began with fellow Art School student Kevin Ramos while studying in Los Angeles. What originally began as a group of friends sharing Latin records and recording mixes together, has evolved into a working collaboration between GANAS, DJ Enorbito (Ramos), DJ Lengua, and Chico Sonido, spanning a geographical and musical landscape from the highlands of Peru and Ecuador, through Central America and Mexico and deep into neighborhoods of East L.A. (Listen to a sample mix by GANAS and Enorbito here.)
"We were always bummed there wasn't a venue to hear these records besides our living room... [so] we started [organizing Mas Exitos nights] and it actually blew up with a lot of record heads, music enthusiasts and just overall raza too, who never heard these jams anywhere."
Mas Exitos performances mix music, dancing and video screenings, spanning visual culture and music from the 50s to the present. Garay explained, "[We're] getting people off on things that they didn't appreciate in their youth, or they taught were tacky, or maybe things they were embarrassed about, or maybe they were things that they loved and cherished and they're getting to relive it in this more social environment, with sound, drinks, public, and friends."
The back and forth across the border has been highly influential in the artistic and musical work of Garay, but it has also been a source of frustration. The constant mobility across the border can sometimes become a form of displacement between two countries, between two cultures, resulting in an unfixed, floating, and even ostracized cultural identity. In Spanish, this condition is sometimes described by labeling someone as "ni de aqui, ni de alla" [not from here, nor from there], indicating the person is considered to be too American to be Mexican, and too Mexican to be American. In response to such characterization, Gary Garay adopted and fully embraced the moniker "Alla" [there]: "The idea of 'Alla' is that I don't exist here or there, so it is almost like 'Alla' becomes this other place that doesn't really have a place... It is always over there, it is never present, it is never here and now."
The phrase is an appropriate testament to the unruly but captivating nature of Garay's work, to the ability it has to exist in many places and on many levels at once. Garay's work seems to want to remain accessible and seductive but to also beyond reach, always over there, forcing the viewer or the listener to venture towards it, only to discover when arriving at the work that the meaning isn't there, but "alla." In this way, Garay's visual and musical composition become catalysts for a journey that reflects on the always unfixed, nomadic nature of hybrid identities in border regions like Tijuana-San Diego-Los Angeles.
You can listen and experience Sonido Mas Exitos including GANAS live on Wednesday, September 19, at La Cita in Los Angeles. For more information on the event and on Mas Exitos please visit this page.