The Collaborative Art of inSITE: Producing the Cultural Economy
by George Yúdice
"To show that its programs are relevant to nontraditional publics, inSITE accommodated to an already existing bureaucratic rhetoric whereby “community” functions as a code word for poor and racialized people.
inSITE is not alone, of course, in having to manage the distribution of cultural capital, an issue that is particularly sticky when it migrates from communities to institutions, whether this involves the “development” of tribal uses of rain forest plants for producing pharmaceuticals, the fusion of indigenous rhythms into world music, or the “processing” of community practices by relatively well-off directors, curators and artists for the biennial and art festival circuit. When it comes to artist-community relations, it really doesn’t matter whether we are dealing with “minority” artists such as those involved in BAW/TAF or the directors and curators of museums and new institutional venues like inSITE. The pursuit of legitimacy for claims to represent a community adequately, that is, to exercise cultural property rights with respect to community experiences and resources, is certain to produce tensions. Native Tijuana residents, for example, have taken exception to the BAW/TAF’s representations of their experience, protesting that “these . . . people . . . have just arrived and immediately they tell us who we are, they dictate how we should discover ourselves.' It is thus clear that neither the artists in BAW/TAF, nor the directors, curators and artists participating in inSITE, are “organic” to these communities. Legitimacy can only be established by discursive strategies and when these lack verisimilitude, it may be best to take another tack.
...and Helen Escobedo’s By the Night Tide/Junto a la marea nocturna (1994), an installation on the Mexican side of the border of three wire-mesh sculptures resembling ships armed with coconut-loaded catapults, suggesting a defiant but quixotic counteroffensive against the power of the Goliath next door. Similarly, Vito Acconci’s unrealized Island on the Fence/Isla en la muralla (1997), each of whose halves was to be placed on either side of the stretch of fence that extends into the ocean, would have risen and fallen with the tide, thus constantly separating and joining the persons standing on it.
At a further remove, there were more allegorical projects like Francis Alÿs’s The Loop (1997), that avoided the border altogether. It consisted of a twenty-day trip around the world, starting in Tijuana and following a “perpendicular route away from the fence . . . heading 67º SE, NE, and SE again until meeting [the] departure point,” but on the San Diego side. What the audience got to see was documentation from his brief stopovers in airports and hotels in tourist must-visit cities. According to 1997 co-curator Olivier Debroise, there was a “very political stake” in Alÿs’s effort to not cross the border the way Mexican migrants do, going to the extent of circumnavigating the globe. For Debroise, Alÿs’ politics reside in his self-reflective cynicism. Rather than sympathize with the “wretched of the earth” by assuming their plight, Alÿs turned his gaze on himself as a relatively privileged artist who rather than parachute into a site, took a round-the-world tour. In this way, he endowed the site with spatial insinuations, particularly cosmopolitan ones, not usually associated with this border. In doing so, however, he brings us back to one of the aspects of the material conditions of inSITE that is usually lost in the various projects that commiserate and collaborate with the downtrodden or attempt to unveil the ideological underpinnings of power differentials between the two countries. Alÿs’s allusive project reminds us of the cosmopolitan character of art festivals and biennials. Cosmopolitan artists who are “in the loop,” many of whom have participated in inSITE, are commodities “‘packaged’ . . . for this new, apparently marginal, diplomatic industry called a biennial.”
...The “community-engagement” projects introduced by inSITE in 1997 have as their direct predecessors the alternative (feminist, ethnic, Marxist and other activist) practices that by the 1980s began to be incorporated into the bureaucracy of government and foundation arts departments. Diversity and multiculturalism became rallying cries for the new public art, “emphasiz[ing] Otherness, marginalization, and oppression” and questioning prevailing (andro- and Eurocentric) values and privilege. By the mid to late 1980s, the role of the artist as educator, activist and collaborator was firmly established, although the effects of this “aesthetic evangelist” role have been questioned, both for the bureaucratization that resulted from it and for the governmental or pastoral function that artists took on with respect to poor communities. Indeed, as neo-liberalism took root and the responsibility for the welfare of the population was increasingly shifted onto “civil society” (as in Bush’s Thousand Points of Light), the developed arts administration sector saw an opportunity to tap resources for the arts, claiming that they could solve America’s problems; enhance education, salve racial strife, help reverse urban blight through cultural tourism, create jobs, reduce crime, and so on.
...Outside the U.S. there are also large-scale urban art programs like Nelson Brissac’s series of City Art (Arte Cidade) projects, which, although different in scope and intention from those of Jacob, also mobilize the features of their locale (in this case the urban blight of a de-industrialized São Paulo) as a resource that elicits the intervention of artists and architects, in collaboration with researchers, communities and public authorities, to provide new mappings for a more accessible habitation in and transit through the increasingly fragmented landscape of the post-industrial megacity. It is no coincidence that many of the artists invited to inSITE in the past two versions (e.g., Krzysztof Wodiczko, Andrea Fraser, Iñigo Manglano Ovalle, Mauricio Dias and Walter Riedweg) have also participated in Jacob or Brissac’s events.
Indeed, as inSITE evolved, its focus shifted from showcasing finished works to those process-oriented projects in the 2000 version that “enlist the active participation of the public in their development” and “interweav[e] artists and works into the fabric of communities . . . sustained over an eighteen?month period.”
One of the projects that best exemplify the complex of competing agendas is Krzysztof Wodiczko’s video projection of women’s testimonials of abuse by men, managers, and officials onto the huge globe at the Centro Cultural Tijuana. According to the project description, Wodiczko sought to “give visibility and voice, through the use of advanced media technologies, to women who work in Tijuana’s maquiladora industry.” Discussing his work after the projection, Wodizcko explained that he sought to bring the privatized suffering of women into a public space controlled by class and gender hierarchies, especially in the Mexican context. This intrusion of the repressed into public space no doubt has consequences, and Wodiczko and his assistants from the inSITE staff–Cecilia Garza Bolio and Tobias Ostrander–worked with these women over a one-year period to help them develop psychologically in order to make their denunciations and face the potential repercussions.
Wodiczko’s project condensed a social justice agenda, a psychological aim, and a public stratagem into an almost surreal event in which huge distorted heads talked of private traumas in the most public monument in Tijuana. The effect was more powerful than Breton’s characterization of the intoxicating surrealist image: a dewdrop with the face of a cat. But in Wodiczko’s project, the unconscious took on a public dimension, unlike the privatized and individualized surrealist image. If Breton’s Nadja dealt with an individual madness, the madness of the women in Wodiczko’s project was a public manifestation. The effect was quite powerful.