Since the early 1990s, both neoliberal economic strategists and cultural theorists/practitioners have claimed the city of Tijuana as a poster child, the former, as an example of the successes of globalization and the latter position it as a case study for the exploitative realities of that success. Tijuana's position at the crossroads of transnational social, cultural and economic networks continues to make it a lucrative site for both industrial and cultural speculation -- an ideal global city, transcending national boundaries by functioning at once inside and outside two countries.
The economic appeal of Tijuana is represented best by the maquiladora, mega-factories south of the border that allow "U.S. firms [to] become more competitive in world markets by combining American advanced technology with the lower costs of Mexican labor and materials... [because] Mexico offers lower wage rates than many Asian countries," as the City of San Diego website describes.
For thinkers like George Yudice, cultural production along the border can fall into the trap of emulating this industrial formula. For Yudice, artistic festivals and cultural events that emerged in the mid-90s began to function as cultural factories of sorts: importing curators from abroad, hiring artists to produce work, and then exporting projects to become part of the international contemporary art market and the discourse that legitimizes its value.
Because of this, many cultural initiatives spear-headed by Institutions like the Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT) were seen as suspect by Tijuana intellectuals, destined to be be subsumed by Municipal, State and Federal tactics seeking to attract tourism, and other more nefarious forms of foreign investment and redevelopment. Tijuana's art scene became plagued by the weight of its own appeal and promise, unable to escape the shadow of free-trade economics.
Then came the violence -- the unprecedented rise of homicides and public executions and shootouts tied to drug trafficking rivalries and a national crackdown on cartels beginning around 2007. The cloak of a global factory disguised as a "tourist haven" was torn away, and the city -- its corruption, its lack of civic participation, and its lack of urban and cultural infrastructure -- was left utterly exposed. The traditional city center was literally torn apart, as streets, businesses and buildings once filled with American tourists, were now vacant -- abandoned.
It is at this moment that discourse about Contemporary Art changed, spurred by a search for what architect/artist Melisa Arreola describes as the "center of the city", a search for what was and more importantly perhaps, what could become the literal and symbolic core of Tijuana. Beginning in late 2009, artists and musicians began to reimagine the function of the center of the city, "El Centro" -- the historic tourist district that stretches about 10 blocks along Avenida Revolucion -- by opening small independent, largely self-funded art galleries and spaces.
View Contemporary Art Galleries in Downtown Tijuana in a larger map
During and in the immediate wake of the transformation, critical artistic discourse became less about co-opting and more about restoration: art became a way of returning the city to a state of well-being that it perhaps never had actually enjoyed. Independent art spaces altered the engagement and interaction citizens could have with Contemporary art -- transforming the art-going experience from the standard Institutional protocol of strict social codes and surveillance in museums, to a more casual and inviting environment in small galleries where the public could often interact directly with the artist.
The rise of such spaces began with negotiations by local artists and community organizations to rent an arcade in the city center known as the Pasaje Rodriguez, and transform and retrofit shop spaces to house galleries, coffee-shops, bookstores, studios and clothing stores. The success of this initial artistic takeover prompted the similar redevelopment of another arcade in the city center: the Pasaje Gomez, which like the Pasaje Rodriguez before it, catered primarily to locals seeking to experience and learn more about art and culture.
Together, the Pasajes and galleries popping up on the outskirts of the Avenida Revolucion, have established a Downtown Art District in the historic tourist center of Tijuana. I recently spoke to the founders/directors of three spaces in "El Centro", Espacio Freelance, 206 Arte Contemporaneo and Otras Obras, about the role Contemporary Art galleries have taken in rebuilding the city of Tijuana.
Gallery: Pasaje Rodriguez (Second Floor) #6, Between Calle 3ra and Calle 4ta
Open Mon-Thurs 1pm-7pm, Friday 3-7pm, Saturday 2-7pm
Record/Book Store: Bona! Revolucion 1348, Between Calle 6ta and Calle 7ma
Open Mon-Wed 10am-9pm, Saturday 10am-10pm, Sunday 12:30-5pm
Espacio Freelance was established in the Pasaje Rodriguez in 2010, as part of the first wave of artistic spaces to emerge in the city center. Co-directors and founders Ximena Jasso and Ruben Franco Notch wanted to create a space where artists and photographers could exchange skills and trade (barter) goods.
To fund this venture, Jasso and Franco Notch initially divided the space, on the second floor of the Pasaje Rodriguez, into a store on one side (selling vinyl records, screen-printed t-shirts, and art books) and a full-fledged gallery on the other. True to the ideal its name implies -- of a space uncommitted to one particular goal/agenda, adapting to the changing needs of the community -- the store was recently moved inside of the design space Bona! to make room for larger exhibitions and workshops.
Free/ low-cost design workshops include courses on Photoshop CS6 and a lecture series titled "Tardes de Fotografia" (Afternoons of Photography), which invites established photographers to discuss their work with participants who bring their own work to share. Freelance is currently hosting a show titled "Historias de Flores" (Stories/Histories of Flowers), featuring the work of Street artist Nestor Mondragón "Spel" from the now infamous graffiti collective H.E.M. Crew.
I spoke with Jasso and Franco Notch about the rise and evolution of Freelance and the role of Tijuana within larger cultural networks in Mexico and around the world. This is a short excerpt of our conversation:
Ximena Jasso: Recently, we have showcased mostly local artists, but we would like to begin showing work from abroad, so that we have the opportunity to see work that we would not have seen in Tijuana otherwise. We saw the positive effect of this when we brought an exhibition of large-scale lithographs from Oaxaca, which drew a lot of attention and a great response, because even though it is from within Mexico, work like this doesn't usually reach us. And you learn from this.
Ruben Franco: In terms of Contemporary Art in Mexico, there is basically Mexico City, Oaxaca and Tijuana. Internationally, apart from the infamy of the city, and the bad name it received because of the violence, people heard the response from citizens of the city, who gave the city an artistic focus. So Tijuana has the advantage of creating something new, a new sort of megalopolis, and I think people are paying attention.
Ximena Jasso: In past years violence was always the first thing. You said Tijuana, and then came violence, and I think that we are now breaking with this mold. Tijuana is beginning to assert itself through its cultural scene, and that makes me happy because it wasn't pleasant to go somewhere and have people ask "Wow! Aren't you scared of living in Tijuana?." No! Now we are able to do what we love, we have strong artists, we have strong art, and we have developed sustainable methods to continue growing.
206 Arte Contemporaneo
Pasaje Gomez (Second Floor) #206, Between Calle 3ra and Calle 4ta
Open Thur-Fri 6pm-8pm, Saturday 5-8pm
Galeria 206 Arte Contemporaneo is a gallery venture of artists/architects Melissa and Monica Arreola, and cultural promoter Yavé Lobsang, which opened its doors in July 2012. The gallery makes every inch of the small shop on the second floor of the Pasaje Gomez count, hosting exhibitions, artist talks, workshops, and offering a curated selection of art books from mostly small independent presses. The gallery kicked off February with the presentation of Yvonne Venegas' newest book "Inedito," which is now available.
206 is unabashed about the commercial dimension of the gallery, and in fact, seeks to transform the relationship to purchasing and collecting art. An average piece from the most recent exhibition of the work of local street artist Panca, was priced at $30, and a few weeks from the end of the exhibition, most of the pieces in the show had been sold.
I spoke to Monica and Melisa Arreola about the origins of the gallery and the function of their venture. Below is a selection from our conversation:
Monica Arreola: I would have loved for the spaces that are emerging now to have existed 15 years ago [when I was beginning my career]. But, basically, my formation was within institutions, the Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT), the Instituto de Cultura de Baja California (ICBC), the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and the Centro de La Imagen in Mexico City.
However, there was a moment of rupture with the CECUT [around 2009], with the arrival of a new director, and there was a break with a group of Baja Californian artists, and because of this, we were forced to ask ourselves what to do when the doors to the institutions [you depend on] are no longer open. What are you to do? You can't just sit there.
So why not open a space in Tijuana to show what is happening in the city? We initially had envisioned solely featuring emerging artists, but as we started working with the space and developing the project, we realized that we could use the space to bring together these two communities [emerging artists and established artists].
For example, right now, we are showing the work of Panca an emerging artist, a youthful point of view, very dynamic, very attractive work, and our next exhibition will be of the work of Alejandro Zacarias, a well established artist, with a very distinct point of view, and a mature technical and visual body of work. We are very interested in bringing together these two groups in terms of exhibition of work, and engagement with the public.
Melisa Arreola: As Monica explains, I feel like the moment of rupture with the Cecut, was a negative moment for many of us, but from that negative experience, many positive opportunities emerged, among which are the new spaces that are emerging in the city center. Artists are seizing the opportunity to rediscover the center of the city, to shape its core and reclaim it as a space for its citizens.
Francisco I. Madero 1250, Between Calle 6ta and Calle 7ma
Otras Obras is a "temporary" six-month art gallery venture spearheaded by New York Festival organizer Todd Patrick and L.A./Tijuana artist Michael Ray Von, the gallery's primary curator. The Gallery, one of the newest spaces to emerge outside of the Pasajes, held its first exhibition in November 2012 with an exhibition of the work of collaborating duo Jesse Hlebo and Joaquin Segura from New York and Mexico City respectively. Its most recent exhibition titled "Involution," features video works from international artists Ivan Argote, Balam Bartolome, Cristian Franco, Amy Howden-Chapman, Oliver Laric, Lindsay Lawson, Sara Ludy, and Anne de Vries.
Otras Obras primary concern is not the sale of artworks presented in the gallery, but as Patrick, describes, the space is interested in using the city as a venue for exhibitions that create interruptions in the critical discourses of Contemporary Art, bridging and highlighting distinctions between the critical traditions of Western and Non-Western art history. And, building on the bridge as metaphor, Patrick also hopes the space can serve to draw in artists and visitors from across the border, to instigate what can be considered a more cosmopolitan discourse about art and the city of Tijuana -- discourse that transcends the clichéd fixation and tropes about the border.
I spoke to Michael Ray Von, who moved to Tijuana four months ago with little indication of what he would find, about aspects of the city that have peaked his interests, and how he hopes Otras Obras will function within the burgeoning cultural milieu of "El Centro".
Michael Ray Von: This is what's interesting about Tijuana to me: the identity of Tijuana is very difficult to describe, to locate. There was a time where the identity of Tijuana was very easy to locate: it was this tourist town, where you can go to get drunk etc., etc...but that's not the case anymore in many ways, the economy is in such a state of flux that is difficult to locate.
That's what's interesting about Tijuana, it's just that: I don't know what Tijuana is, and I have an inkling, I don't want to speak for anybody, but this is my idea, that Tijuana doesn't know what it is either. It is difficult to articulate what is in progress or what the destination is, it's a very postmodern progress in a way, because there isn't a strict trajectory, it's just experimental.
That's all [Otras Obras] is for me, it is a space, taken out of the idea of what an art gallery is, or what an artist run space is, it is a room that can generate the context for critical thinking and imagination.
A few months ago two Tijuana municipal police officers entered a coffeeshop in the Pasaje Rodriguez and arrested Sr. Juan, a frequent customer. The police officers felt that his disheveled appearance was scaring and driving away potential tourists from the Avenida Revolución.
When the owner of the coffee shop came to his defense, explaining that Sr. Juan was a friend and valued customer, the officers were unresponsive. When the owner tried to write their names and badge numbers down, one of the officers forcefully grabbed the pen and paper from his hand and twisted his arm back, while the other reprimanded the owner for "attacking" his partner, cuffing him aggressively. When he was taken before a judge, the judge made it clear that he was "a nobody," that he shouldn't be involved in trying to help people like Sr. Juan, telling him that he was not a "social worker," that he should stop pretending to be one, explaining that Sr. Juan was driving away business and tourism. After a few hours and a $15 fine, the owner was released with two bruises on his arms. Sr. Juan was not released until the following day, with a badly injured leg. He later apologized to the owner of the coffee shop for the trouble his presence had caused.
In spite of the success of efforts to repurpose spaces like the Pasaje Rodriguez and Pasaje Gomez for the citizens of Tijuana, the history of the city center continues to loom overhead, as does the threat of co-opting these initiatives by vested economic and political interests, catering to those with the most capital to expend. It seems likely that the struggle to define the center of the city will continue to be subject to such tension.