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How a Tijuana collective is refining the city’s outlook on contemporary art

July 25, 2013

It’s Thursday night at the second-floor warehouse loft that serves as the home of Fotografika, a Tijuana-based public relations startup. Filling the rows of folding chairs are 150-plus attendees, most under the age of 40, who hail from all ends of the local creative class: artists, musicians, fashion designers, chefs, entrepreneurs, the occasional plastic surgeon and other various who’s-whos of Tijuana’s cultural core. The occasion was the city’s third installment of Pechakucha, an internationally abundant series of show-and-tell sessions in which presenters explain a topic via 20 slides in 20 seconds apiece.

Someone back by the makeshift bar jokes that if a super-villain were out to hit the reset button on the Tijuana’s collection of cultural movers and shakers, this’d be the place to drop the bomb.

It’s no news flash that now is the time to be creatively active in Tijuana, and no one knows that better than Illya Haro, who heads the outfit that orchestrated tonight’s show, El Laboratorio de Agentes del Arte Contemporaneo (The Contemporary Art Agents’ Laboratory). Tack on an exclamation point and their mission statement reads almost like a political campaign: “For the dialogue and critical thought on the practice of contemporary art.” 
The fact that Tijuana has finally sparked its own Pechakucha sect – an entire decade after the original in Tokyo – says much about the city’s current cultural climate. You might even call it an open invitation to most anyone with a half-original idea that beckons, “Come on in, the water’s just fine.”

Pechakucha is just the tip of the Laboratory’s iceberg. A four-in-one catchall, so to speak, LAAC also heads a three-day intensive dialogue series known as El Encuentro bienal de Agentes de Arte Contemporaneo, (The Biannual Encounter of Agents of Contemporary Art), an international artist residency program known as Se Renta (For Rent) and La BiCA, a community art library whose collection currently consists of some 600 titles, most of which have come from private donors such as Steve Turner Contemporary in Los Angeles, one of the project’s principle backers. 

The 10 or so speakers form an eclectic lineup for sure.

There’s Sergio Gonzalez from La Mezcalera, the Almodovar-inspired mescal bar that sparked a nightlife boom downtown along Sixth Street and catapulted fearful but nonetheless restless young Tijuanenses out of their self-imposed sentences of house arrest.

There’s Sharlinee Ceniceros from Identidad Urbana en Tijuana, an urban planning outfit dedicated to the preservation of historic sites and structures around the city, a notion, which in most bordertowns tends to come only as an afterthought.

There’s Carlos Maria, a drummer currently active in several local bands, who for the past year or so has been giving monthly jazz concerts in orphanages and retirement homes.

There’s a pair of recent college grads who started their own business making and selling healthy snack foods made out of organic fruits and grains– no longer just a bougie novelty concept for a nation whose population recently became the world’s fattest.

There’s Dr. Carmen Calleja, who by day lectures on lapband surgeries but tonight is speaking on the sordid ins and outs of polyamourous affairs.

There’s even an expat gringo journalist doing his best to keep the mood light in between acts as emcee: Me.

Centro Cultural Tijuana’s exhibitions manager by day, Haro, 29, began LAAC just shy of a year ago when she decided to combine a series of initiatives that she had already launched. The merger resulted in the Laboratory, a curatorial movement dedicated to showboating who’s doing what, why and how they made it happen, from the early planning stages of ideas – which nobody is covering, she says – to projects that have already written their own success stories.

Haro’s timing to undertake such a task in Tijuana is punctual, to say the least. Crime and violence essentially burned the place to the ground, culturally speaking. That’s all over now, for the most part. The whole “phoenix rising from the ashes” metaphor couldn’t be more obvious around here even if it dropped a huge crap right on your head. Much of what is growing out of the ruins —some five years later—looks, sounds and tastes richer than much of what came before.

Much of it. But not everything.

In many ways the city is stuck in the Wild West, a place where whatever the guy with the biggest huevos says goes and no one really asks why. Case in point: The visual arts program at Universidad Autonoma de Baja California, Tijuana’s largest public university, includes no art history classes; the subject is covered in lectures and optional additional reading only.

“We need training, content, roots that support what we do. Not just happenings. There are so many galleries and intervention projects (in Tijuana),” Haro says. “But nobody questions them – they substantiate them – because they don’t know. They don’t teach us how. We don’t have the tools to do that.”

Tijuana has never been short on innovative ideas and a willingness to try most anything at least once, thanks to its unique context as the largest bordertown on the North American continent and home to the world’s busiest land border crossing. Nevertheless, its geographical placement on Mexico’s would-be pinky finger has embedded it with what you could call a “forever-ranchero” status. As metropolitan and diverse as it is, Tijuana lies thousands of miles away from cultural hubs like Mexico City and Guadalajara. And despite the fact that it’s shoved up against one of the most populated areas of the United States, for the majority of its history the rest of the republic thought it nothing more than a small, dusty frontier outpost. And, for many reasons – most more than obvious – it remains culturally sawed-off from its northern neighbor.

This has made for the supreme overload of identity crisises: “I feel like an American even though I know I’m not, but I don’t feel quite like a Mexican even though I know I technically am.”

Enter the need for fostering the sort of dialogue that LAAC aims to create. Before embarking on her crusade, Haro enlisted a band of collaborators: Maria Jose Crespo, 21, Daril Fortis, 25, Diana Haro, 24 and Eduardo Lozano, 27. The group members collectively juggle a mix of open-ended administrative roles and provide input based on their various visual arts backgrounds.

“Tijuana is a city hungry for knowledge,” says Diana, “and the laboratory aims to solve those needs, to generate knowledge from within the city via proposals emerging from the citizens themselves.”

“Emerging curators” was the topic at the inaugural edition of the lab’s biannual contemporary art summit last year. Around 70 collaborators, along with the support of six public and private institutions (including Cecut), and nearly 1,000 people attended the event over the course of the three days.

For Art Baja Tijuana, a three-day collaboration with Steve Turner that happened at various spots around the city from July 18-21, the lab invited its current Se Renta resident Pablo Rasgado, a Mexico City abstract architectural artist, to do an intervention piece in a abandoned pharmacy on the outskirts of downtown.

For Haro and crew, the mission is to create cultural agents on a local level: art critics, art investigators and curators who possess a global vision of the environment of art and are capable of thinking about what they do– and what everyone does– and why. From the works they see in galleries and museums, to the design of the new developments going up in their neighborhoods, right down to the concepts of the new bars and restaurants opening in those developments. It’s all relevant.

“There are very specific ideas that are born in this city and many only stay in the air,” says Crespo, “so there is a need to engage in exchanges and dialogues to help promote critical thinking around what is happening socially, how it is produced and then what are the dialogues that arise.”

The ultimate goal is to form a lasting enterprise in not just the city but the greater bi-border region that’s capable of managing itself, something that engages different cultural entities in an ongoing forum that via dialogue, education and the simple act of sharing ideas will ultimately, positively affect contemporary art and the greater cultural landscape in Tijuana.

“Tijuana is moving on the path to the next step,” says Fortis, “which isn’t about exhibits per se nor the cultural festival but a dialogic exercise and implementation of critical thinking in the course of modern art.”

Former entertainment reporter and photographer for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Derrik Chinn now operates Turista Libre, a day-trip company aimed at destigmatizing the border city by ushering foreigners to sights usually reserved for locals. Chinn calls the city “a postmodern mecca of otherworldliness and humble innovation,” adding, “beneath the veil of corruption and violence, Tijuana mesmerizes.”

By Derrik Chinn
Article published by Art Pulse →

LAAC founder Illya Haro amid a selection of the BiCa community library, currently housed at the Se Renta residency artist space in Tijuana’s Colonia Juarez neighborhood. Photo credit: Derrik Chinn

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