The Border Again: A Tijuana and Los Angeles Cultural Exchange

Marco Ramirez ERRE, Petrochinga, Riot shield made of a recycled oil barrel, 2014
Marco Ramirez ERRE, Petrochinga, Riot shield made of a recycled oil barrel, 2014

At Human Resources in Chinatown, "The Border Again" is a group show that explores Tijuana's complicated relationship with Los Angeles and the U.S., as well as its own internal issues as a beleaguered city with the unfortunate reputation as a place where people don't usually move to, but from. The exhibition features pieces by 13 both established and up-and-coming artists working in a range of media, from film, video, and photography to performance, sculpture and text-based conceptual art. "The only criteria for working in this show is that you've made work in Tijuana, or that you consider it a context -- that you kind of explore this divide," says curator Kelman Duran.

The exhibition grew out of the short-lived Tijuana-based gallery Otras Obras ("Other Works"), where Duran worked for six months. Originally born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Washington Heights, New York, Duran graduated from CalArts two years ago and then went back to New York to work at the Whitney. He hated it, so when he was offered the opportunity to work at a Otras Obras in Tijuana in September, 2013, he packed his bags and moved down there, not knowing what to expect.

Duran and his colleagues immediately found that some people in Tijuana resented the seemingly privileged art-school types who thought it would be a good idea to open a gallery in a place where violent drug-related criminal activity, human trafficking, immigration, and a problematic economy were more important issues. "People would come and destroy art at the gallery sometimes," Duran recalls. Otras Obras eventually managed to attract members of the community in a positive way, and as a result, the locals began to accept it. "It kind of became this place where people would go hang out, even if they didn't care about the art, they knew that it was a safe space for them." One of the Tijuana gallery's original vandals, Simon Pecco, is even an artist in Duran's show today, though Duran says, "I think what he originally did was more in the spirit of protest."

Back in Chinatown, "The Border Again" includes labor-intensive, message-laden pieces such as Marco Ramirez ERRE's oil-barrel-inspired riot shields, a commentary on the militarized U.S./Mexico border. The slick finished work contrasts with Jack Heard's mixed-media art that includes graffitied glass panes, remnants of another piece that was nearly destroyed at Otras Obras. It successfully conveys the contentious interaction with the public, revealing how both the gallery and its audiences achieved an oddly mutual goal -- for people to engage with the art.

Two small, intriguing sculptures include a cryptic abstract chess piece by Michael Ray-Von, who originally opened Otras Obras. Its white patina resembles ceramic or acrylic, but it's actually made out of modeling clay. The artwork alludes to three borders: Tijuana's, Southern California's, and a third that is perhaps neither, or both. The second sculpture is by Clay Gibson, and it's a simple plastic one-gallon bottle with water and a baseball inside. "When you cross the border, people on the border will leave gallons of water for the migrants, so when they finally cross, they can have a drink of water," Duran explains. Gibson adds, "I went down to the border in Arizona to check out the water tanks left out for crossing migrants and took some gallons of water to leave in the desert, and this was one of the gallons I brought with me." When asked about the meaning of the baseball, Duran responds, "I don't know, it seems like some sort of fake American dream."'

The show's photographs are more direct reflections on the problematic politics between L.A. and Tijuana. Ana Andrade's series Ñongos documents the harrowing existence of lost members in communities along the border, while Louis Hock's "NIGHTSCOPE SERIES" captured images of actual border crossers using their high body heat.

Detail, Louis Hock, "NIGHTSCOPE SERIES," 10 digital pigment prints of nocturnal U.S./Mexican border crossers (originally titled "La Mera Frontera Series"), 2000-2003
Detail, Louis Hock, "NIGHTSCOPE SERIES,"10 digital pigment prints of nocturnal U.S./Mexican border crossers 2000-2003
Mariah Garnett, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and Roberto Sifuentes, "Mexcercise," 20:00 runtime, HD, 2013
Mariah Garnett, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and Roberto Sifuentes, "Mexcercise," 20:00 runtime, HD, 2013

Duran himself is a filmmaker, and he's working on diary videos at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in a project called "OAPS" (the video is called "To The North"). So, the range of compelling videos in "The Border Again" reveals Duran's own love and fondness for film and video as an art form. A highlight is a 2013 video by Mariah Garnett, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and Roberto Sifuentes. It takes the form of a 20-minute workout video in which its instructors simulate smoking pot, do curls with chihuahua dogs, and enact exercises based on the movements of being arrested. It's called Mexcercise, and at the beginning of the video, there's a mock FBI warning that reads, "The term 'Mexcercise' was inspired by events that took place in Los Angeles in the 1990s during the Rampart scandal. When cops from the Rampart division would go out at night to harass, frame, and beat up Mexicans, they would say, 'Let's go for some Mexercise.'"

Duran says the main thing that ignited his current show were the open forums at Otras Obras, in which people would criticize Duran and his colleagues for being curious about border politics. The locals dismissed the issues as '90s and passé, perhaps because they had become so desensitized. But Duran remembers thinking, "No, my generation's actually interested in these politics. That's why we came down here." Hence the title, "The Border Again."

Still from "Vehicles" by Temra Pavlovic, 2014
Still from "Vehicles"; by Temra Pavlovic, 2014

"I think what some of this show's artists such as Michael Ray-Von, Todd Patrick, Clay Gibson, and Temra Pavlovic started in Tijuana was extremely important. At one open forum someone said, 'I can't really be mad at someone coming down to Tijuana to show me something.'"

So whatever happened to Otras Obras? After a year in operation, the gallery closed in 2014. "I think maybe TJ maybe didn't need an art gallery," Duran says. "There's more pressing problems."


Further Reading from Artbound:

Marcos Ramirez ERRE on Oil, Soccer, and National Sovereignty
Utilizing large-scale constructions and modified objects, Tijuana artist Marcos Ramirez ERRE address the use of natural resources and the partial privatization of Mexico's oil industry.

Ñongos: A Document of the Tijuana River's Improvised Housing Community
Ana Andrade is one of a handful of new-generation Tijuana artists involved in artistic practices desiring to produce social change.

From Mexican to American: Louis Hock's Decades of Documenting Immigrant Life
Louis Hock documented the experiences of his Los Analos neighbors, undocumented Mexican working class immigrant families, by filming the day-to-day lives of four families.


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