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Border encounters of a public kind.

Metallic, rigid, corroded, the fence that separates the northwestern corner of Mexico from the southwestern reaches of the United States cuts like a scar across the natural curves of the border region's hills and valleys. Then, as though attempting to divide the waters of the Pacific Ocean itself, this man-made barrier marches headlong into the sea.

Late last August, on the U.S. side, a small cluster of spectators gathered on a rise overlooking the fence, perhaps drawn by the noisy spectacle taking place on the Mexican side, or perhaps attracted by the news that a "human cannonball" was poised to sail more than one hundred feet over the fence, from Playas de Tijuana to California's Border Field State Park.

The daredevil stunt was planned as the culmination of a production by artist Javier Tellez, whose project in turn made up part of inSite_05/Art Practices in the Public Domain, the latest in a series of cross-border art initiatives that periodically shake up the neighboring cities of San Diego and Tijuana. The fifth--and most ambitious-of the programs, inSite_05 drew more than one hundred international artists, curators, and academics to the two border cities.

San Diego architect Teddy Cruz set the scene with a visual chronology of the fence itself, which in the space of a generation has morphed from imaginary line to formidable barricade. Photographs from the early 1970s show children blithely flying kites where the fence now stands, unaware of any boundaries. Several years later, a porous chain-link fence gave way to a ten-foot steel wall, fourteen miles long, constructed from corrugated landing mats left over from the Gulf War. (Ironically, notes Cruz, "the horizontal ridges give people a foothold for climbing.") Current proposals verge on the fortifications of the Berlin Wall.

Though augmented by other types of artistic expressions--museum exhibitions, performance events, and "conversations" (lectures and dialogues), the heart of inSite_05 is its "interventions," in which commissioned artists create encounters in the public domain. With the support of individuals, foundations, corporations, and government agencies on both sides of the border, twenty-two artists from fifteen countries took up residence in the region. These residencies, spanning two to three months each over a two-year period, promoted informal discussions among artists and curators. More importantly, they enabled the artists to immerse themselves in the charged atmosphere of the border area and build collaborative relationships with community members.

"San Diego and Tijuana are so close, yet so far," says Brazilian curator Adriano Pedrosa, explaining that though the two cities are physically close, they are "contextually very different." Disparate cultures, languages, and life-styles merge and clash in the border region, fostering misconceptions and stereotypes. Challenged to engage with the specific dynamics of the borderlands, artists find fertile ground for their inventiveness.

At the main crossing between Tijuana and the San Diego suburb of San Ysidro, a steady stream of pedestrians clicks through metal turnstiles into Mexico, where endless lines of cars inch forward toward the world's most heavily trafficked border. Vendors who are part of Tijuana's informal economy circulate among the trapped drivers, proffering serapes, Aztec calendars, and miniature replicas of theme-park characters from north of the border.

On Sundays families divided by draconian laws reach out to one another between the bars that separate them. intermittently, the border becomes a flashpoint of conflict, with vigilantes patrolling and immigrant activists protesting their presence.

Artists often focus on the border as a conduit for the flow of people, goods, and services in both directions. A case in point: the video installation Osmosis and Excess (Osmosis y Exceso), by Dutch artist Aernout Mik, contrasts the migration of used cars southward with the northward flow of medications purchased in Tijuana pharmacies by U.S. customers. "Americans visit Tijuana to stock up on medicines and to get cheap medical attention," says Carmen Cuenca, inSite co-director from Tijuana. "Many of them abandon their cars in order to collect the insurance for theft." Mik's silent film alternately focuses on one of Tijuana's many pharmacies, inexplicably flooded with mud, and the abandoned cars left behind by Americans. The film runs continuously on three screens in the bowels of a downtown San Diego parking structure, surrounded by cars that will one day join the wrecks shown in panoramic views of Tijuana's derelict-littered hillsides.

On the Mexican side, Brazilian artists Felipe Barbosa and Rosana Ricalde extend a welcome to visitors by way of their installation Hospitality/Hospitalidad. Their focus is a pedestrian bridge over the Tijuana River, a waterway that meanders, oblivious of national boundaries, through both countries. By painting the first of people who cross the Puente Mexico, they create a colorful carpet of names, in a variety of fonts, underfoot. Meanwhile, the souvenir sellers who line the approaches to the bridge sell cloth bracelets with names woven into them--a parallel, but portable, souvenir.

Matt Lynch and Steven Badgett, who form the U.S. art collective known as SIMPARCH, have become known for large-scale interactive artworks. For inSite_05 they constructed a "public fountain" in the pedestrian walkway at the San Ysidro port of entry--but unlike a mere decorative fountain, this one purifies water by means of solar power. The Dirty Water Initiative (Iniciativa del agua sucia) prompts passersby to reflect on global problems of water scarcity. SIMPARCH's individual stills will later be donated to one of Tijuana's colonias to provide clean drinking water for the residents.

Starting in 1992, San Diego's Installation Gallery, under the direction of Michael Krichman, invited forty-two artists to move outside the confines of the museum and design temporary, site-specific art installations at various locations in San Diego and Tijuana. The goal was to stimulate and celebrate the cutting-edge artistic practices of the border arts community. Two years later, inSite 1994 took on the nature of a binational collaboration when Mexico City's Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes joined Installation in coordinating the event.

A locus of fascination for the artists is the exact line where Mexico meets the United States, a line crossed frequently by Tijuana artist Marcos Raminez "ERRE." One memorable intervention from 1997 saw Raminez's Toy an Horse, a two-headed version of the Trojan Horse, straddle the international border, with one head facing north and the other south. The itinerant vendors who ply the lines of stalled traffic thus added new souvenirs to their wares: T-shirts and postcards emblazoned with the thirty-foot horse.

At this juncture of two dissimilar nations, extremes of poverty and affluence abut one another. Job-hungry workers from the south crouch next to the fence, waiting their chance to "jump" to the other side, while U.S. Border Patrol agents scan the horizon, assisted by high-tech devices such as motion detectors, surveillance cameras, and infrared thermal imaging systems. The increasing militarization of the western border pushes immigration eastward, into remote areas of the desert, where long distances and extreme temperatures take a deadly toll on border-crossers.

During inSite 2000 Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar addressed the continuing tragedy head-on in his project, La Nube/The Cloud. In conjunction with immigrants-rights groups from Mexico and the U.S., Jaar designed a program to memorialize the thousands of would-be immigrants who have died trying to cross the border. A crowd of six hundred people, many relatives of the deceased, observed a minute of silence in honor of the victims. They listened to poems read by the Tijuana-based poet Victor Hugo Limon and classical music played by musicians on both sides of the border. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the assembled crowd watched as a mass of a thousand white balloons suspended over the fence were released into the sky.

This year, in addition to co-directors Carmen Cuenca and Michael Krichman, inSite boasted its first artistic director: Cuban-born Oswaldo Sanchez. One of four curators of inSite 2000, Sanchez has curated at Mexico City's Museo de Arte Carriilo Gil and Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporaneo. He acknowledges the difficulties of dealing with governmental agencies in the separate jurisdictions engaged by inSite. "Certainly a great deal of negotiation is required," he says. "But these projects are so grass-roots, and the artists are so committed, that they're willing to do whatever it takes to bring them about."

Also for the first time, inSite_05 incorporated a museum component, with the San Diego Museum of Art and the Centro Cultural de Tijuana jointly organizing an exhibition to be shown in both institutions simultaneously. Curated by Adriano Pedrosa, FarSites (Sitios distantes) brought together fifty-two international artists to examine urban crises in five cities--Buenos Aires, Caracas, Mexico City, New York, and Silo Paulo. As indicated by the subtitle, Urban Orisis and Domestic Symptoms in Recent Contemporary Art, the works focus on local artists' responses to the crisis in their own environment.

Artist Betti-Sue Hertz documented New York's major blackouts, especially the 1977 crisis, which occurred against a backdrop of a failing fiscal situation. It was likewise the economic meltdown of Buenos Aires that prompted the formation of a popular people's organization known as the Palermo Viejo Assembly, filmed by Santiago Garcia Navarro. Also documented: the Tlatelolco Housing Project and the importance of Tlatelolco in the history of Mexico City; the tunnels, bridges, and viaducts of Sao Paulo; and the changing face of the Avenida Libertador in Caracas. Among other cities represented is Brasilia, where the modernist streets and buildings shown in Sean Snyder's photos are eerily devoid of people.

Recycling, a recurrent theme in inSite and in the border area itself, appears in numerous guises in the two museums. One such endeavor is the work of Eloisa Cartonera, a cooperative that recycles cardboard from vendors to make rough-textured mini-books. A series of black and white photos of closed businesses, Negocios Cerrados, by Geraldine Lanteri of Buenos Aires, runs like a leitmotif through both museum exhibitions.

InSite_05 offers new media under the heading Tijuana Calling (Llamando Tijuana), a set of five online exhibitions that explore themes specific to the borderlands. Artist Ricardo Miranda Zuniga takes a playful look at a serious issue: the concentration of Mexican dentists in border towns (thirty-five hundred in Tijuana alone) who provide dental services to patients from the U.S. seeking affordable dental care. Animation enlivens his Dentimundo (www.Dentimundo.com), a site that includes a directory of dentists who practice along the border. The highlight is the jaunty "Corrido al dentista," a humorous ditty with lyrics that sing the praises of the brave Mexican dentists, "armed with pick, mirror, and floss."

InSite's first permanent project beautifies the corner of Mexico that's wedged against the border fence and the ocean, adjacent to the Tijuana bullring. Once a forlorn, dusty bluff, the area is now an attractive meeting place known as La Esquina/Jardines de Playas de Tijuana, thanks to artists Jose Parral of San Diego and Thomas Glassford, from Laredo, Texas, by way of Mexico City. The old lighthouse sports a fresh coat of paint, and drought-resistant plants soften the landscape adjoining pleasantly curved walkways leading to the beach. Round concrete platforms, one atop new public restrooms, echo the shape of the nearby bullring and offer a view toward the ocean.

It was the perfect venue for Venezuelan artist Javier Tellez's project, One Flew Over the Void (Bala perdida), in which he enlisted the participation of psychiatric patients from the Baja California Mental Health Center in Mexicali. For their part, the patients helped design posters and publicity, planned the production, draped a collage of flags against the fence, then marched onstage in costumes ranging from clowns to a Mexican charro and Uncle Sam. Curious sightseers examined the oversized "cannon" pointed toward the fence.

Human Cannonball Dave Smith, a slight figure in a royal blue jumpsuit, mingled with spectators as he examined the canyon from the heights of the new park. Explaining that he's been flying over such expanses for thirty years, the former mathematics teacher assured onlookers that he would have no trouble clearing the twenty-foot poles along the fence. But Smith admitted that this would be the first time he'd catapulted over a national border. Was he making a political statement? "They say this is illegal," he responded, "but on the other hand it's okay. So I guess it is political."

Waving a passport, Smith paused for a moment, then disappeared inside the cannon. A brass band churned out rousing tunes; photographers jostled for a good angle; and finally the crowd chanted the countdown en masse: cinco--cuatro-tres--dos--uno--a whoosh, and Dave Smith, human cannonball, flew over the void, to land safely in a net on the other side.

Applause erupted from both sides of the fence. For a fleeting moment, the symbolic act brought together sometimes-estranged neighbors--surely a worthy outcome of any intervention.

Joyce Gregory Wyels is a freelance writer based in California and a frequent contributor to Americas.
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Title Annotation:GALLARY PLACE; inSite_05, art exhibition
Author:Wyels, Joyce Gregory
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Mar 1, 2006
Words:2126
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