BY Charles LaBelle in Opinion | 11 NOV 02
Featured in
Issue 71

Down Mexico Way

The hybrid culture of Tijuana

BY Charles LaBelle in Opinion | 11 NOV 02

If the ramifications of globalization mean that everyone and everything is headed for hybrid status, then Tijuana and its artists are way ahead of the curve. In fact, Tijuana and the entire California-Mexico border region can be viewed as something of a naturally occurring test case, a contested space riven by a fault-line of colliding economic, social and cultural forces; an a-territory whose very fluidity makes it a model from which the rest of the world can learn.

The evidence of these de-territorializing forces is everywhere in sight. From the tops of the craggy hills that lie between downtown TJ and the playas one has an amazing view of the border region to the north. It's a view that reveals much about the relationship between the two countries. On the Mexican side the city presses right up against the rusted border fence, a swell of ramshackle buildings and dusty roads that has been temporarily contained. On the US side there is a huge gulf: no houses, shops, roads or signs of civilization. Visibly recoiling, the US steps back from the border. In the foggy distance you can just make out the shiny Shangri-La skyscrapers of downtown San Diego and the swooping bridge that connects the mainland to Coronado Island. So near, yet so far.

If the successful Hollywood film Traffic (2000) portrayed Tijuana as a hopelessly corrupt netherworld of vice and drugs, the day-to-day reality is, unfortunately, not too removed from this. Talk to any of the artists from TJ about life in their city and eventually one of these words will pop up: chaos, anarchy, lawlessness, craziness. It's a state of affairs that most shrug off, yet this sense of disorder, corruption and immanent violence - fuelled by weekly executions, kidnappings and gangland-style shoot-outs - is an omnipresent force that colours everything. Just last spring the Mexican Federal authorities staged a surprise raid, not on the infamous drug cartels but on the Tijuana Police Department, arresting over 40 police officers, including the Chief of Police. And, of course, the 1994 assassination of popular PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, which took place at a rally in Tijuana, did little to help erase TJ's reputation as a wild frontier.

In some ways the violence and instability create a fertile climate for art in Tijuana. The city is a tabula rasa on which are inscribed Julio Orozco's stark photographs of burnt-out cinemas, Jaime Ruiz Otis' work that utilizes waste material collected from the maquiladoras, and the map-like paintings of Leslie Garcia. These are works that wear their politics in subtle, provocative ways. Indeed, to make more direct political statements would be dangerous. In 1994 LA-based artist Ruben Ortiz-Torres was arrested while filming a performance on the streets of TJ in which Hugo Sanchez, dressed as a black-clad Zapatista rebel, pushed nails through a severed cow's tongue hanging from his mouth. And currently a well-known TJ artist is living under the threat of jail for a piece that involved altering the Mexican flag. Similarly, this state of violent flux can be seen in the architecture of Tijuana: rapid growth over the last ten years has left the city a rambling, rough-hewn mélange of cinder-block structures interspersed with colourful glass and steel office buildings, many stalled in a permanent state of semi-completion: in TJ you're never quite sure if a building is still under construction or being torn down. Cramming the hillsides, hodgepodge conglomerations of old tyres, shipping palettes and used garage doors brought over from the US create an indigenous form of makeshift housing that Torolab, a TJ-based collective of young architects and designers, has labelled 'Emergency Architecture.'

Looking back, one can see a number of forces that played a significant role in Tijuana's recent development into a cultural hot spot. The first was the 'inSITE' series of international art exhibitions (1994, 1997 and 2000), which invited a number of well-known artists from New York, LA, Europe and Mexico City to make site-specific works in both San Diego and Tijuana. While only a couple of TJ-based artists were asked to participate, their work - such as Marcos Ramirez' Toy-an Horse (1997), a giant wooden two-headed horse that literally straddled the border - addressed the complex issues of the region with the greatest poignancy. The second force was the music of Nortec, a mixture of traditional Norteno and Techno. Collective in nature, the DJs spinning Nortec worked jointly with visual artists such as Ramirez and Torolab to make videos and installations that proved local art could cross over and speak to a broader audience. Lastly, the recent exhibition 'Pintura Fresca' (Fresh Paint), organized by artist Luis Ituarte, brought a number of significant TJ artists to LA for the first time, raising the profile of the whole TJ scene.

On a deeper level the rise of post-colonial discourse and concurrent debates regarding Western cultural hegemony and Third World otherness have made Tijuana a focal point for investigation and intervention. Significantly, Documenta 11 made issues of post-colonialism and globalization the subject of a thorough, multi-faceted dialogue. One of the outstanding works in the exhibition was the video installation by Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, The Other Side (2002), which featured numerous scenes shot in Tijuana and along the California-Mexico border. While the beauty of the images was in austere contrast to their subject - illegal border-crossers captured by US patrols, night scenes in the seedy Zona Roja - there was an underlying humanist urgency to the work that is echoed in the more general attention suddenly being focused on the region.

Yet if globalization has resulted in the sudden 'terrible nearness of distant places', to quote Okwui Enwezor, we need to distinguish carefully between a sympathetic sense of neighbourliness and an objectifying fascination with an exotic elsewhere. While outsiders may feel good about assisting disempowered, Third World subjects living in the shadow of First World might, even going so far as to imagine themselves participating in new, exciting modes of post-colonial a-territoriality, there is a covert imperialism in the art world's desire quickly to capitalize on hitherto unindoctrinated, unplumbed art scenes and a concomitant, problematic exportation of Western systems and values. As curators have been driven to far-flung corners of the globe in the search for fresh product, they have carried with them infectious and circumscribed notions of cultural production. In today's art world these preference work that cleverly blends regional vernaculars with internationalist, post-Conceptual stratagems. Like the anthropologist in the field, the curator's presence inevitably alters the culture they have come to study.

This imbalance of power between the curator and the curated is a dilemma for which there is little solution beyond a vigilant awareness and our conscience. It's also something that the street-wise artists of Tijuana understand perfectly. Coming of age in the incubator of the border, they are proud of their mestizo heritage and fiercely independent. While their ambitions and talents may land them on the international stage, their hearts remain firmly in their homes. Indeed, almost every artist I spoke to in TJ said that, no matter what success may bring, they would not leave.