Freephone Art Project offers the deported a chance to phone home*


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A group of Master of Fine Arts students and recent graduates from UC San Diego are busy organizing the Freephone Art Project, an unusual art ‘installation’ that will provide people who may have been deported from the United States via the Tijuana border a chance to make one free call after they have been returned to Mexico.

To be specific, what the artists are installing is the phone on an outside wall of the student-run Lui Velazquez Gallery in Tijuana -- funded by the UCSD visual arts department -- which sits in a busy area close to the turnstiles where deported people frequently are dropped off by the U.S. Border Patrol.


‘We wanted to do an art project that engaged the space,’ says artist Micha Cardenas, 32. ‘The gallery in Tijuana is like right up against the wall -- you go through the turnstiles, you turn to the right, and it’s right there ... we wanted to do an art piece that really engages the space outside the gallery. It’s at the intersection of shops, there’s a pharmacy, all kinds of activity.’

Cardenas and the other artists -- Elle Mehrmand, Katherine Sweetman, Felipe Zuniga, Camilo Ontiveros and Katherine Sweetman -- purchased a nonworking pay-phone casing on EBay, wired it to a new $10 phone and then hooked the contraption up to an adapter that will allow the phone to make calls over the Internet. The artists are splitting the $20-per-month cost of Skype service, which allows calls to anywhere in the world.

The phone will be open for business, so to speak, beginning May 30; Cardenas says the artists hope to keep the phone operating for at least a month. The phone will be unveiled as part of a May 30 ‘performance’ at a larger art event that will include posting signs, sign-spinning, handing out fliers and talking about the project with people coming through the turnstiles. (UPDATE: A previous post said the performance would take place May 29).

Cardenas, who also serves as a curator and collective member of the Lui Velazquez Gallery, says the artwork is not being done under the auspices of UCSD, but the students’ MFA advisers are all aware of the project. Cardenas’ adviser is UCSD assistant professor Ricardo Dominguez, co-founder of the Electronic Disturbance Theatre and frequently involved in sociopolitical art happenings, including last year’s re-creation of farm labor leader Cesar Chavez’ famous anti-Vietnam War speech at Exposition Park as part of the Port Huron Project.

Dominguez says that the free phone project fits perfectly into what he and other like-minded artists call ‘artivism,’ in this case using ‘border disturbance technologies’ to explore the social issues raised by the barrier between nations. Providing free telephone service, he says, is a way of making a statement that the border should not be about blocking and walls, but about fostering communication.

And what makes the Freephone Art Project art, rather than simply public service? For Cardenas, a longtime border activist, ‘it’s part of the trajectory that I’ve been involved in -- it uses this strategy of building the world we want instead of asking for it, or waiting for the president to do it.’ The work will become part of an international ‘aesthetico-political event’ coordinated by the Sense Lab at Montreal’s Concordia University.


Cardenas added that the biggest worry the artists have is that people using the phone ‘are going to be asking for more help than we can provide.’ The group plans to direct those in need to the Tijuana offices of Casa Migrante, a humanitarian aid organization.

-- Diane Haithman