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Fault Metaphors: Reflecting Art from Tijuana

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A metaphor entails migration: the transference of meaning from one site to another. It is a process that constructs new meaning through the juxtaposition of signs (words, images, phrases) -- a process of interaction, negotiation and adaptation that builds new connections between the concrete and the abstract.

In the exhibition "Fault Metaphors," curated by Abril Castro-Prieto and Felipe Zuñiga, the works of Tijuana artists Monica Arreola and Omar Pimienta document and analyze what happens when this process is unsuccessful within a project of nation, posing the questions: what meaning can be derived, what knowledge can be produced when confronting the failure of metaphor? How/why do metaphors decay? And, how can metaphors be (re)created and translated into concrete systems?

For curators Castro-Prieto and Zuñiga, there is a relationship to the city and to the border implicit in these questions that is particular to Arreola's and Pimienta's generation of artists. "The theme of the border in the previous generation dealt with the friction of where critique or research was conducted from," explains Zuniga, "Who [gets to] define this territory and from where?" Within this discourse of production, Tijuana became a site defined by the clash between nations, cultures and disciplines, a site of trans-itory/itional/formational/border identity. For Castro-Prieto, this amounted to an "approximation...of border issues [that] was undertaken in a way that was clearer, more obvious, less metaphorical". And she adds that emerging artists in Tijuana today, who follow in the wake of Arreola's and Pimienta's generation, "intentionally break with border issues...returning to work on issues that are more universal...relating to subjectivity."

Zuñiga describes a shift in focus away from the wall that explores particular, concrete conditions in Tijuana. For Zuñiga this is what comes to define the work of Arreola, Pimienta and other artists of their moment: the emergence of concrete representations of the city -- "the city as site, as topic. Tijuana. Not the border, not the wall. The city itself".

In their practice, Arreola and Pimienta document social and political intricacies of complex regional and national processes from within the city, siting their practice in its concrete urban geography. The artistic process begins for the artists with experiencing the on-the-ground reality, the ambiguities and complexities, at play in local terrains -- a reality that complicates hegemonic narratives and reveals faults in metaphors about the city and the border region as a whole.

From this vantage point, the city functions and is experienced differently, and so too are its needs and conceptual potentials. Tijuana becomes not just a site where contesting national narratives collide, but also and more importantly, a site where foundational metaphors of nation crumble, disintegrating into the fault that lies between discourse and lived experience. It is this metaphor for the city, its sites and its relationship to national imaginaries, which permeates the work in "Fault Metaphors."

From "Tijuana (Works in Progress)" by Monica Arreola

Monica Arreola

Early in her work, Tijuana artist Monica Arreola set out to represent the border stripped to its purest geometric essence: a line across a plane. The results, a series she titles "Cartas Geograficas" [Geographic Maps/Chart], are conceptual exercises that use the lines on ruled paper as metaphor for the national boundary: a delineation dissected by other lines, by other flows that cut across it, challenging its static horizontality.

This conceptual approach to the geography she inhabited, in which the border looms as prominent figure, began to shift through her studies in architecture. Arreola explains that she "began to know the city through other points of view, architectural ones, urban ones, and began to move through it and to live it, and to recognize it in a way that was more social, cultural, and economic."

Her practice as an architect coincided with a boom in the housing market in Tijuana that saw private companies develop and construct tract housing en masse--Tijuana's very own suburbs on the periphery of the city. Between 2000 and 2006, nearly 100,000 new homes were constructed, and in 2007 alone over 25,000 were built. Banks financed the purchase of these homes, through mortgages that were to be paid over a period of 25 years. This represented an opportunity for citizens in need of housing and for those looking to improve their living conditions -- a leap forward for families on the road towards upward socio-economic mobility.

From "Tijuana (Works in Progress)" by Monica Arreola

Arreola began working for one of these companies, and experienced the mechanism of rapid residential mass production first hand. What fascinated her most was the scale of the project: at once immense in terms of number of units, but also extremely compressed, in terms of the size of individual units. Unlike the sprawling residential complexes that line the edges of the American city, these suburban homes were small, compact, serialized living spaces -- a style and scale that garnered them the nickname conejeras [rabbit hutches].

"When I began [working], I was intrigued by the space [of the homes], I would ask myself why reduce it? Why make so many people live in such small spaces?" Arreola wondered, "I understood that such small residences, of 32 sq. meters [approximately 345 sq. ft], might perhaps accommodate young couples, but not a typical Mexican family, which tend to be substantially large, especially when it comes to the urban poor."

The failure to account for the necessities of those most in need of housing proved to be a fatal flaw of these tract housing developments. But for Arreola, "This was a failed project not only because of the problem of producing extremely cramped spaces, but also a problem of situating these [developments] on the periphery of the city, which only continued to marginalize the poorest citizens outside of the city, outside of the urban footprint proper, concealing them through distance."

From "Tijuana (Works in Progress)" by Monica Arreola

Thus, these homes came to signify upward mobility, but only abstractly. In practice, the literal disconnect between residents in these housing tracts and the city proper only served to further marginalize those in precarious socio-economic standing. Arreola explains that if you were to live in these housing tracts "it becomes complicated to come to the city to work, transportation becomes an issue, managing children's schooling becomes difficult as well."

From "Tijuana (Works in Progress)" by Monica Arreola

The coup de grace for these developments came in 2008 with the global economic crisis. As it occurred everywhere, not only were families unable to pay their mortgages, but entire companies were unable to complete projects. Arreola recalls that the recession, "hit not only families, who abandoned these houses [because they were unable to pay the mortgage], but entire companies, established construction companies had to abandon projects, which were left standing, unfinished."

From "Tijuana (Works in Progress)" by Monica Arreola

In her project "Tijuana (Work in Progress)," Arreola portrays these buildings at different stages of construction, as elements of a larger landscape--the seriality of their structure juxtaposed with the natural environment of undeveloped terrain. The resulting picturesque landscape, a metaphor for harmony, order and progress, is revealed as artifice in Arreola's photographs of the homes' interior. What might have appeared to be a moment of pause in the construction process from the exterior is actually revealed to be the end when one looks inside: construction will never be completed. These photographs candidly reveal what Arreola calls, "Desolation. It is a void, it is sadness, it is seeing that there was something being planned that no longer could be." The interior of abandoned homes become "spaces of transition...spaces of no one, that generate violence... [where] you encounter people that were not part of the original context [not an intended inhabitant] making use of them" for illicit purposes or as a temporary shelter as Arreola explains.

These buildings and abandoned homes became monuments to a false victory, demonstrative of failures in shaping and altering geographic, social and economic terrain to provide stable homes and a path towards individual and collective advancement.
What were meant to be spaces of stability and signs of progress, became spaces of liminality and emblems of faulty economic and urban policy -- abstract metaphors that are now a concrete feature of the Tijuana landscape.

welcometocolonialibertad from Omar PImienta on Vimeo.

Omar Pimienta

Omar Pimienta is born and raised in one of the first neighborhoods in the city: Colonia Libertad. His artistic practice is interdisciplinary, site-specific and distinctly local--almost exclusively based in and around his neighborhood. "My geographic space has always fascinated me," Pimienta explains, "because to a certain extent it synthesizes everything that is Tijuana."

Colonia Libertad has the distinction of being one of few neighborhoods in the world that is so evidently delineated by a national border, by an actual fence that marks the boundary between two nations, "Growing up [in Colonia Libertad is like] having the border as the fourth wall of your house... it is something that is always present...you have it in front of you, you have it in its raw state."

The neighborhood's proximity to the border wall made it an important way station for migrants looking to cross the border into the United States. The neighborhood became in many social and economic ways inextricably tied to the process of migration -- the last stop before leaving one nation for another.

The name of the neighborhood, Libertad, or Liberty seems very apt considering this history. And it was precisely the concept of liberty that became the central concern of Pimienta's work, who explains his practice as "a play with the concept of liberty... how liberty functions and how it fails."

The symbol that has grounded this exploration is the Statue of Liberty, as emblem of migration, and symbol of opportunity. Pimienta took on the task of imagining a figure that could also welcome migrants coming into his neighborhood. Using a sketch by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi (sculptor of the Statue of Liberty), which pictures the pedestal for the sculpture as a Pre-Colombian pyramidal structure, Pimienta created an icon for the neighborhood: our Lady of Libertad.

The symbol that has grounded this exploration is the Statue of Liberty, as emblem of migration, and symbol of opportunity. Pimienta took on the task of imagining a figure that could also welcome migrants coming into his neighborhood. Using a sketch by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi (sculptor of the Statue of Liberty), which pictures the pedestal for the sculpture as a Pre-Colombian pyramidal structure, Pimienta created an icon for the neighborhood: our Lady of Libertad.

On view in "Fault Metaphors," is a monumental, inflatable Lady Libertad -- a fitting metaphor for how Pimienta feels the concept of liberty has been appropriated by the United States, and how it has become "a concept that is full of air, collapsing, inflating, then collapsing once again, at once fragile and volatile." Formally, the inflatable piece evokes the soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg, who scrutinized the symbolic implications of American everyday consumption -- of hamburgers, fries, slices of cake -- by transforming objects we consume physically (concretely), into ones that must be consumed visually (abstractly). If in such Pop Art, tangible everyday objects can be analyzed as emblems of national values and identity by being transformed into metaphors, Pimienta's work asks: how can you reverse that process, to transform an abstracted national value like liberty into a concrete object in the everyday?

Omar Pimienta, Pasaporte Libre

Addressing this question entails rethinking citizenship and migration, a process that Pimienta begins by retooling the passport. The inability of many to cross the border because they lack the necessary documents is for the artist a sign of a failed Mexican State: "[It] has failed them... [it] has not been able to establish these people as citizens, it has been unable to conduct a census and extend its own dominion to have everyone counted. To have your passport is to be counted, it is a sign that you are within the boundary of the nation."

v2 2 from Omar PImienta on Vimeo.

The expired passports collected during the first performance of the project at 206 Arte Contemporaneo in Tijuana, are included in "Fault Metaphors." The stamped seals of Lady Libertad on these defunct documents accentuate the end of pre-determined relationships between the individuals and their respective nations. The passports received in exchange "do not limit you geographically, but rather empower you as a universal citizen," asking participants to imagine what such boundless parameters would mean for national identity. Would nations seize to exist if such liberty was realized?

Omar Pimienta, Ciudadania Libre installation

Fault Zone

In the work of Arreola and Pimienta, Tijuana is positioned not as a "strange pearl," as Zuñiga describes, but as "a national referent," a node where national social, economic, and cultural networks intersect.

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And from the sites presented in the exhibition, the view of the nation is striking. Zuñiga argues: "The problem of transborder identity today is that there no longer is a nation, that the nation in terms of politics has disappeared, the Mexican state is disappearing, not in cultural terms, but in terms of economy, politics and society."

In their work, Arreola and Pimienta document and explore spaces where this becomes evident; where in the place of nation, there is only a fault. The task ahead for projects navigating the line between the abstract and the concrete is to imagine and manifest realities that transcend metaphorical faults. The works included in "Fault Metaphors" begin mapping what such a task will entail for the city, and for the nation as a whole.

"Fault Metaphors" is on view at The Collaborative (421 West Broadway
Long Beach, CA) until January 12. It features "Tijuana (Work in Progress)" by Monica Arreola, and Omar Pimienta's Lady Libertad V1, Lady Libertad V2 and Ciudadania Libre. The exhibition is curated by Felipe Zuñiga and Abril Castro-Prieto, who collaborated previously on the project Espacios Comunes in Ciudad Juarez.

See more information on the exhibition.

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About the Author

I was born in LA, grew up in Tijuana and now live in San Diego where I study and teach Visual Arts and Writing at UCSD. I divide my time between San Diego/Tijuana and the Imperial Valley/Mexicali working as part of the bi-national...
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