The year 1997 was important for installation art in Tijuana. It was the year that a 30 ft. wooden Trojan horse appeared at the border-crossing and a human cannonball flew across the border as part of InSite, which brought together local and international artists to produce site-specific installations across the Tijuana/San Diego border-region. And, it was the year that a group of women artists decided to get together every Tuesday to establish one of the longest-lasting artist collectives working in the city today.
In a workshop taught by Felipe Ehrenberger, a self-proclaimed neologist participating in InSite '97, a group of artists began to voice their concerns with what they perceived to be the clear disadvantage they faced compared to their male counterparts working in the medium of installation. Lidice Figueroa Lewis, one of the artists participating in the workshop, recalls Ehrenberg's answer: "Well if you don't get together and organize, they aren't going to let you get through."
The group of artists began to meet regularly every Tuesday, and came to organize themselves under the name Colectivo Martes -- a contraction of "Mujeres en las artes" [Women in the arts] and a reference to the day on which they met (martes is Tuesday in Spanish). Over a span of nearly two decades, Colectivo Martes has produced work and organized exhibitions representing and calling attention to issues affecting women that are largely absent from the cultural discourse in Mexico.
Their process began with an homage of sorts to "Womanhouse" (1972) -- an early Feminist Art project organized by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, in collaboration with students from the Cal Arts Feminist Art program, that renovated a condemned Hollywood mansion slated for demolition, transforming it into a venue for consciousness-raising circles and a series of installations and performances in each of its rooms addressing issues of gender.
For "La Casa" [The House], each founding member of Colectivo Martes was commissioned to produce an installation that took as a theme a single room/section of a house. As the individual projects came together in the gallery of the Centro Cultural [Cultural Center] (CECUT), a collective representation of a house emerged. In the process, the group set the foundation for their approach to collective artistic production -- fostering through dialogue the richness of a unified voice, while respecting the creative autonomy of its individual members.
Lewis describes their methodology as a "very free, playful and respectful" workshopping, where members produce "sketches and mockups that are presented to the collective in workshop sessions, and the possibilities of the piece are discussed, its relationship to the exhibition space and its generative potential, that is, the relationship between concept, form, and material".
Monica Arreola, who joined the collective with her sister Melisa Arreola in 2001, adds that a defining characteristic of the group is that "the working processes within the collective are organized horizontally" -- politically, the opinion of each member carries equal weight and decisions are arrived at by consensus or through voting, and aesthetically, in material and form.
This is evidenced by their ongoing series of exhibitions "Tapetes" [Rugs] (2001), where the collective invites artists to produce rugs that function as interactive props for dialogue around issues such as violence against women. Horizontality as a non or even anti-hierarchical position, is also a factor in the collective's choice to often adopt the language of craft-making, rejecting the hierarchy that differentiates hobby or kitsch forms of cultural production from high art. The piece "Bling Bling Latino" (2007), made up of 10,640 pins is an excellent example of this affinity for working with materials associated with the space of the domestic as a way of subverting the division between personal and collective identity, as well as the separation between private and public concerns.
Their most recent exhibition, "Hogar" [Home], is curated by Abril Castro and features a collection of installations dissecting social, spatial, psychological and sensorial constructions that define how home is experienced privately and publicly. The exhibition marks a new phase of sorts for a collective whose production has in a way mirrored the social and cultural evolution of the city: from its rise to national and international attention from 1997-2005 in the wake InSite, to a period of mounting crisis brought on by a wave of violence from 2005-2007, to the silencing blow of the wave's crash of 2008, and finally to the recent reaffirmation of its collective voice.
Artbound spoke with founders Ludice Figueroa Lewis and Silvia Galindo, seasoned members Monica Arreola, Melissa Arreola, and the most recent members Fernanda Uski and China Lamadein about the history and evolution of the group, its return to the topic of home/life, and what they hope this current phase of production will bring.
Is one way of understanding the history and evolution of the collective in relation to three phases of production: 1) 1997-2005, 2) 2005-2007, 3) 2014- ?
Lidice Figueroa Lewis: Yes, we think that it's a schema that identifies three phases that explain the history of our collective. The initial moment was one where there was a lot of enthusiasm, but little by little it began to wane as the first members of the group began developing their own language and individual projects, increasing the gaps between each collective exhibition.
During the second phase, some founding members began collaborating with new members, and it was in my point of view, a period of greater dynamism and increased complexity in terms of themes addressed and approaches to mediums used to carry out the projects.
This [most] current phase is interesting because those of us involved are [truly] convinced that the structure of a collective can open up new spaces for dialogue and creativity, as well as allowing us to reexamine many of the ideas that have constituted our discourse as a group, for example horizontality, the search for themes that move us and are tied to our lives.
How would you describe the context in which the collective first emerged?
LFW: The collective emerged because there was a need shared by a group of women artists to gain presence and access to spaces working in a medium [installation] in which the majority of exhibitions were of men and in which there were no artistic discourses that made clear references to issues of gender.
How did the group come to be interested in working in installation?
LFW: From the beginning the group decided to explore various artistic disciplines, and considered that in particular the best mediums to use to speak to issues that we were interested in at that point in time were installation, found objects and other forms that were not traditional disciplines, that led to a specific type of public and spatial interaction. However, we have worked on some exhibitions that feature 2D pieces like painting and drawing.
Silvia Galindo: I think it emerged and that was it. For a majority of us installation comes naturally, particularly for me I like working in three-dimensions, the open space and being able to circle the work.
Monica Arreola: Working with installation as a medium became an almost organic language of the collective. [It is] one that forces you to instantly go and discover the space in which you are working. An installation allows us to build with issues, objects are made functional and are activated by the interaction between viewer, space and idea.
The first project the collective produced was an exhibition titled "La Casa" [The House] in 1997. Your most recent exhibition is "Hogar" [Home]. What does this return to the concept house/home represent for you?
LFW: I think coming together again to work collectively has implied a rebirth. Beyond the fact that the exhibition was taking place in the same venue as our first project, in the CECUT [Cultural Center], for us returning to this theme once again was interesting because the idea of "house" and the idea of "home" are related but they are not one in the same thing.
A house is always a physical space, while the home can also be a physical space but it first and foremost, symbolic space that opens the way for a more complex level of engagement. For us it was like walking in a spiral, we came to a similar place, but it wasn't the same as the one we started from.
MA: The exhibition "Hogar" touches on various themes, some of my fellow collective members address intimate issues, [others address] political ones. In my case I worked on a piece titled "Simulaciones" [Simulations], a three-dimensional graph, composed of folders and blank sheets of paper.
Each folder is marked with a year, and [the number of sheets of paper inside] corresponds to the number of permits granted by the government for the construction of homes in the city of Tijuana [in that year]. The 3D graph represents both the moments of the real estate "boom" in Tijuana as well as its fall.
Fernanda Uski: We addressed the topic of home in a broad sense, beyond questions of the domestic or of housing, which was very enriching for the exhibition because home is approached through very different perspectives and processes. In my case, I wanted to approach the theme of home in a global way, in relation to ecological or environmental crisis.
In [my] installation ["Irridiated Life"] the viewer moves through two transparent acrylic sheets, stamped with an organic pattern that takes as reference maps showing both the dispersion of radioactivity in the Pacific Ocean, and growth sequences of flowers. This makes evident an invisible world that is constantly changing [and changing] us in spite of remaining unseen.
China Lamadein: In my point of view, a dwelling is a ramification of how individuals conceptually construct an understanding of the word HOME. A house is only a physical space that changes over time, but a home is the space that determines the character, personality, and outlook on life of every being.
In this project, I took on the topic of violence, focusing on violence experienced during childhood, because I think that this phenomenon repeats itself through generations and has resulted in various social problems we are suffering today. My discourse centers on raising awareness to break with this chain and begin to construct a more balanced global home for future generations. Art is a weapon, but a non-violent one, [that can be used] to raise awareness but also to create documents for future reflection.
MA: After a couple of meetings with the collective, we arrived at the conclusion that the theme we wanted to work on for this exhibition was: Home. What resulted were 11 distinct perspectives showing what home means to each one of us. The piece I am showing in the exhibition is a grouping of 6 small houses suspended from the roof. Each one of them has a sound that was recorded inside and outside of my home. The result is a sonic memory of the home I have lived in for the last 30 years.
Would you say the reasons for working collectively have changed since the collective came together in 1997?
SG: Naturally there have been changes, some of those who began [the collective] are in search of new goals outside the city, there are others that for different reasons have left art, and the majority of us now have a trajectory as individual [artists] so we respond to new proposals without leaving the group. [But] those who have come aboard enrich the collective with their work and ideas. We have changed as people, but I think we have held on to our motivation to "Join our voices to make us stronger as a gender."
LFW: To a certain extent, yes [the reasons have changed]. There are more women working in Visual Arts in Tijuana then there were in 1997, in fact, in the Department of Art at UABC [the Autonomous University of Baja California, the public state university in Tijuana], there are more than twice as many women studying Visual Arts then there are men. However, it is still necessary to speak about issues of gender because Mexico is a country where there is great inequality in opportunities and much violence still enacted against women.
What would you like this current phase of Colectivo Martes to bring?
MA: I would like us to continue working. I think we have taken the first step with this marvelous encounter through the exhibition "Hogar", and this will help in planning new exhibitions. We would like to realize a new version of "Tapetes" and develop a retrospective exhibition to mark the 20 year-anniversary of the collective. During these last 17 years, nearly 30 artists have been a part of [the collective], and this speaks to the strength of those who have been working from its beginning.
FU: I am excited by the idea of integrating new generations of artists into the collective, because working collectively across generations is very interesting.
CL: Art challenges you to keep working and I think that as a collective our challenge is to strengthen ourselves by integrating fresh and creative perspectives, because in hard times like the ones we are living through -- I see it as a global crisis -- we must analyze, reflect and experiment with uncomfortable topics. This is part of an art of emergency that opens dialogue and possibility in society.
MA: Without a doubt this [exhibition]...helps us to find ourselves again, reposition ourselves, and rediscover ourselves as part of another phase in our lives as artists. The last collective exhibition was in 2007 (Mi Tema [My Theme] curated by Marta Palau) in the same place as where "Hogar" is now. That means 7 years have passed sine the last exhibition. Reactivating the collective opens up a huge realm of possibilities, to weave new dialogues. We are three years away from the 20 year anniversary of the collective and it is clear that the road to the retrospective will be paved with more shows.