Borderblaster was conceived as a way to document, alter and/or spark new forms of dialogue and exchange between groups that inhabit the site of the crossing. With this in mind, "Transmission 2 - Market Exchange" documents the history, evolution, and challenges facing vendors and shopowners at the Mercado de Artesanias de la Linea, a market at the crossing that has served as the base of operations for cognate collective's projects. The transmission sought to engage vendors and shopowners beyond the typical conversation had in the space regarding the price of their products, to understand how the commercial and personal dimension of their labor intersects and shapes their experience of the site.
Borderblaster: Transmission 2 "Market Exchange"
I first visited the Mercado de Artesanias de La Linea in 2010 with Amy Sanchez, when we began collaborating on projects analyzing popular culture at the border. In spite of passing the market hundreds if not thousands of times, neither of us had ever ventured inside. After speaking with other friends and artists who live in Tijuana or cross the border often, we found that like us, few had ever ventured into the market or engaged vendors who work at the crossing.
A strong deterrent is the highly commercial environment that pervades the site--the act of merely looking at a product will spark a swarm of vendors to approach you with the price of the item and/or other colors or sizes to choose from. With the knowledge that this overwhelming commercial exchange will be the principal mode of interaction with the many people who work at the crossing, most choose to drive or walk by vendors and their products without making eye contact, to avoid entering into an uncomfortable, uncalled for negotiation over a zarape, an alcancia, or a painting.
In Transmission 2, we wanted to alter this dynamic of the space by conducting a series of interviews with vendors and shopowners. These interviews reveal a long tradition of selling artisan goods at the market, as well as the challenges that are forcing changes to the approach and function of the space.
Vendors have been selling goods at the crossing between San Diego and Tijuana since the early 20th century. Many of the market's current shopowners -- some of which share their stories in the Transmission -- are second or third generation border vendors. Their parents and grandparents began businesses at the crossing by selling different products they themselves produced in nearby workshops, especially plaster figurines, from the back of their family vehicles in the 1950s. Gradually vendors began gathering on a specific plot of land between the traffic, establishing informal stands to showcase their products, and even constructing small informal kitchens on the weekends, the days that saw the most traffic at the crossing.
By organizing themselves as a collective unit, and joining major labor unions like the CTM (Confedaracion de Trabajadores de Mexico), a group of about 120 vendors were able to purchase the small plot of land where they were working from government authorities. By purchasing the land, vendors guaranteed their businesses a space in the heavily regulated site of the crossing. This fact was of special interest for us, as it opened the possibility of developing interventions at the crossing in collaboration with market vendors that would not have to involve or depend on institutional and/or governmental approval or support. The market, for us, is a sliver of autonomy at one of the most regulated, patrolled and limiting sites on the planet.
For shopowners, the market and the crossing more generally is a space that had for decades allowed their families to make a living. This was due in large part to the constant influx of tourism to the city of Tijuana. In the 1980s shopowners came together, to commission the design and construction of the market's current infrastructure. The Mercado was designed to showcase artisan products from Tijuana and various regions of Mexico -- a total of 80 shops offered a wide variety of products, and two central courtyards served as gathering spaces inside of the market, a refuge from the long lines outside.
The market functioned in this capacity and continued to provide a decent living for shopowners and vendors until the influx of tourism was disrupted during the last decade. In 2001, lines of traffic to cross the border grew as border enforcement increased after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. What was once a 20-45 minute wait time to cross the border became a 2-3 hour wait, deterring tourists from making the trek into Tijuana. Then, in 2007 and 2008, tourism took another hit with the increase in drug-related violence and kidnappings that struck the city. For approximately two years, violence practically stopped all tourism to Tijuana.
Many business-owners realized that their clientele had changed from tourists to citizens of Tijuana, and decided to trade in their artisan vending licenses for food-selling permits, and shop spaces that had once housed a proud display of folk art and craft products, began to serve as storage spaces for carts used to sell food and snacks between the car lanes. Today, only about 20 of the 80 spaces still function as shops, making the Mercado appear and feel like a "phantom market," as longtime shopowner Juan Torres Medina describes.
To try to offset the losses, shopowners and vendors struggling to improve their profit margins introduced cheaper variations of traditional products, forcing other vendors to sell these imported products or go out of business. As a result, the quality of products sold at the market has drastically deteriorated. For example, once poor quality Chinese-made imitations of traditional blankets were introduced and sold at far lower prices than the hand-sewn blankets produced in Mexico, all other blanket vendors were forced into selling these imitations as well. This is problematic for vendors who would prefer to give business to Mexican artisans, but cannot afford to sell products at the low prices other vendors selling lower quality imitations are able to offer.
Additionally, recent redevelopment of the San Ysidro Port of Entry and demolition of the Puerta Mexico (entryway into Tijuana), led the municipal government to declare a pause in the processing of modifications to current vending permits and the issuing of new permits, which means that even if a shopowner would like to start selling new products or begin offering new services, they are unable to do so legally. They are in other words forced to sell items that only ever sold to tourists, and the tourists are gone.
Such uncertainty and dire economic outlook has sparked worry in the market that the government will retake control of the property -- essentially kicking the workers off the space to redevelop it as they see fit. Many fear such redevelopment would take the form of increasingly corporate commercial ventures, transforming the space of the crossing from a site of cultural exchange, into advertising space.
Our work has made use of empty spaces at the market, reconceiving them as small laboratories in which develop new functions for individual shops and envision new cultural and economic possibilities for the market as a whole. As part of Borderblaster, we are hosting a series of Live Recording Events at our permanent workshop/exhibition space inside of the market: Espacio Cognado|Cognate Space. These events will continue to explore new ways of reactivating the space, and serve to imagine new forms of making the Mercado de Artesanias de La Linea relevant to citizens of Tijuana and San Diego once again.
We hosted the first Live Recording Event, a conversation on social practice art and literature entitled "Civic Dialogue," this weekend. It will be transmitted next Friday at 3pm at the crossing and at the UAG.