COVER STORY : Art That Crosses the Line : Dozens of artists on the San Diego-Tijuana border take up the cause of illegal immigrants with attention-getting works
Aida Mancillas was scared.
She’d come to Dairy Mart Road, at the U.S. border, as part of a counter-protest against a campaign by conservative San Diegans angry at the rapid flow of illegal immigrants coming from Mexico.
As she joined the line that night little more than a year ago, she held up a mirror and turned back the beams from hundreds of burning headlights toward the anonymous cars.
The people in the cars were there as part of a “Light Up the Border” campaign to signal their displeasure with the porous border. The headlights were supposed to illuminate a dark region where people often crossed.
Mancillas, a San Diego native, wanted to protect the migrants coming to the United States. She wanted to stand up to what she saw as a racially motivated hate movement.
She was also making art.
Mancillas was part of a process that has taken hold in the San Diego-Tijuana border region whereby art and social activism have often become one and the same.
Blending performance and protest, art and life, these artists--who live in a region where the border makes daily headlines--have taken the issues of immigration as their muse.
Border art, as it is often called, is the most prevalent type of artwork made in San Diego. Dozens of artists regularly take on the international frontier as their theme, often collaborating in groups of two to 20 to make polemical projects specifically designed to attract attention from the press and any possible audiences outside the art world.
Although the works vary from video to site-specific installation, from painting to sculpture to performance, their message usually is didactic, and the works often are accompanied by pamphlets quoting academics and other immigration experts, as well as newspaper clippings.
Some of this art has been shown in galleries and museums and on public television, some of it on billboards and in other more public sites, and some of it has been done at sites along the border, seen only by those who happen upon it. All of the work sympathizes with the undocumented immigrant.
Although border art has continually been exhibited since its inception in the early 1980s, a splintering of the various collaborative groups over the past few years and the formation of new collaborations have made the genre even more prevalent. It has also become more popular than ever among art institutions.
Mancillas is a member of Las Comadres, a feminist collective of 20 women artists and writers, which last year presented an exhibition about “Light Up the Border” at San Diego’s Centro Cultural de la Raza and El Paso’s Bridge Gallery.
Mancillas and her colleagues in Las Comadres were joined at the protest by members of the Border Art Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronteriza, which remains the best-known producer of this work. The group was formed in San Diego in 1984; its original members were Isaac Artenstein, David Avalos, Sara Jo Berman, Jude Eberhard, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Victor Ochoa and Michael Schnorr. Since its inception, the group has had an evolving membership of male and female Latinos and non-Latinos from both sides of the international frontier.
Throughout the late 1980s, the artists performed and produced their work at Sushi Performance Gallery, Centro Cultural de la Raza and a variety of other sites throughout San Diego--supported and sponsored primarily by the Centro. On Columbus Day, 1986, for example, they staged an event at Imperial Beach, where the border between San Diego and Tijuana meets in the Pacific Ocean. Dressed as the binoculars of a Border Patrol agent, in one case, and other stereotypes from both lands, they burned a ship representing Columbus’ maiden voyage to “discover” America.
The San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art also co-sponsored, with the Centro, a small exhibition and series of lectures in its former satellite downtown space. Annual shows continue at the Centro, and the Border Art Workshop exhibited at Artists Space in New York in 1989, Capp Street in San Francisco in 1989, the Venice Biennale in Italy in 1990 and the Lancaster (Ohio) Festival in 1990.
One of the workshop’s most graphic projects took place in the summer of 1990. Eight artists--Ochoa, Schnorr, Richard Lou, Carmela Castrejon, Robert Sanchez, Loudres Grobert, Berta Jottar and Patricio Chavez--traveled the full length of the border between Brownsville, Tex., and San Diego. They saw the project as “part border research, part performance/interventions/suspensions, part traveling medicine show, part humble acts of healing, and part osmosis,” according to a statement written by Lou.
Using large sculptural staples of anywhere from 2 to 6 feet long, the artists performed a daily ritual of stapling the border together either by pounding the objects into the earth or floating them down the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo. The group also performed border baptisms on themselves in the Gulf of Mexico, the river and, finally, the Pacific Ocean.
They also sought out people not just from the art world, but also lay residents of the border, in an attempt to extend their knowledge beyond the San Diego-Tijuana region.
But the workshop hit a low point. By September, 1990, nearly all of the original members had left, and so had some of the most active later joiners such as Lou, Sanchez, Jottar, Emily Hicks and Yareli Arizmendi.
Many considerations prompted the departures, including family needs--the time demanded by the workshop is often mentioned by many of the artists involved--but some of the earlier members also began to question the goals of the group.
After the 1989 show at San Francisco’s Capp Street, a flood of exhibition offers came in, and some members pulled back in an attempt to re-evaluate their goals.
Many new artists have taken their places, supported in spirit, at least, if not in body, by most of those who have left. They are actively continuing the work that the others began long ago, although some bad feelings remain. Gomez-Pena, in particular, has openly expressed the most anger about the group not dissolving when the majority of the original members left, and last spring he published an article in the journal High Performance titled “Death on the Border: A Eulogy to Border Art.”
He claimed that border art has been dead since the resignation of “all but one of the original members, the only white male of the group.” He was referring to Schnorr, who continues to work with artists from both sides of the border--some of whom have used border issues as their medium longer than the life of the workshop.
Today, Gomez-Pena says his anger was mostly directed at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art because of a major project it was undertaking.
In late 1989, the museum announced that it had received a $250,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to finance a project called “Dos Ciudades/Two Cities,” an exploration of border art and related issues. That grant, which had to be matched three times, meant that over the course of the next three to five years, the museum would be spending $1 million on border art.
A group of artists met with museum curators, including director Hugh Davies and curator Madeleine Grynsztejn, and the acrimony began. Among other complaints by the artists was the fact that the Centro Cultural de la Raza, which had from its inception been intimately involved in representing border art, had not been consulted or collaborated with in the grant process.
Gomez-Pena was among the most outspoken at the time, and he continues to carry the torch that the museum has co-opted money that ought to have gone to artists and the Centro, since they have focused on the border in their art for much longer than the La Jolla-based museum.
The museum also hit a sore spot when it proposed bringing in artists from outside the region to explore concepts of border art, and to date that has been its primary activity. An intermittent billboard project that displays images by artists in locations throughout San Diego County, for example, has commissioned works by New York-based Alfredo Jaar and Los Angeles-based Daniel J. Martinez and Alexis Smith. The only local artist involved has been Tijuana-based Gerardo Navarro.
In addition to an ongoing series of lectures and films related to border issues, the museum has also sponsored solo exhibitions by Texas artist Celia Alvarez Munoz, as well as Vancouver-based Jeff Wall, who recently traveled to Tijuana to create one of his large Cibachrome transparencies about this region that, in a show here in November, he will exhibit with his work about the border between the United States and Canada.
To date no solo shows by San Diego artists have been scheduled for the project.
Many people are awaiting the outcome of next year’s major border show--scheduled to open in July--to see what the museum’s commitment to this region’s output will be.
After that first meeting with the local arts community, the museum decided to invite the Centro Cultural de la Raza to co-curate and co-present the final “Dos Ciudades” exhibition, which has been budgeted at about $80,000, curator Grynsztejn said. It will be divided between the Balboa Park-based Centro and the museum’s new downtown exhibition space, which the show will inaugurate.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, 11 artists from San Diego and Tijuana gathered at Michael Schnorr’s studio in Imperial Beach to discuss plans for the workshop’s latest project. Schnorr, as the only one of the first seven still in the group, tries not to act as a leader but clearly his experience with the workshop has given him that role to some extent.
The talk was of working with migrant school children in Vista, a plan led by Manuel Mancillas, a Tijuana resident and trained anthropologist. Mancillas had found a contact in the school system who wanted the artists to work with the migrant youths two days a week for the rest of the academic year.
During July and August of this year, many of these same artists spent a month in Upstate New York, on the Canadian border, living and learning from Mexican and Puerto Rican migrant workers there. They met with children, learned their stories, performed with them, then spent two weeks in Buffalo at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center creating a major installation/performance about immigration, labor and the act of picking heavy heads of cabbage.
The artists plan to take a similar tack closer to home. “Destination L.A.,” an exhibition slated for December at LACE, will study migrant groups from San Diego to Los Angeles--watch how they live, talk to them about their hopes and goals, struggles and frustrations.
Edgardo Reynoso arrived late to the meeting, sat down on the floor and started to gush. “It was amazing,” he said of his experience the night before. Reynoso had ridden with a group from Angels’ Wings, a Catholic charity group in Los Angeles, passing out sandwiches and meeting migrants in hidden camps outside the city.
He described the hands reaching out, and the squalor of the living conditions. He talked of the dedication of the social workers, and of the burnout factor. Then he and the others agreed to be part of a performance piece at LACE that would describe some of what they were learning. That commitment made, the focus went back to the issues--there was no talk of how the piece would be executed, how it might look, who would play what roles. That would come much later.
“The art in the gallery is the smallest possible part of what we are doing,” said Carmela Castrejon, a Tijuana-based artist and teacher. “We are interested in process.”
Process and communication have dominated most of this art from the first. Although the works produced are often bold and very memorable, more often than not, content and effect--not form--measure their success.
The best-known artists to emerge from the border art movement are David Avalos, a native and current resident of National City, just south of San Diego, and Guillermo Gomez-Pena, a Mexico City-born artist who spent nearly a decade in San Diego but late last year moved to New York.
During the past few years, Avalos has received national attention for two provocative projects, both with border themes.
In 1986, his “Donkey Cart” sculpture--a replica of a prop commonly used by Tijuana street photographers to attract tourists--was temporarily installed surrounded by a mesh-and-barbed-wire fence in a plaza in front of a federal building in downtown San Diego. Although the work was presented by Sushi Gallery--long a supporter of border art projects--and although the artist had received prior permission for its placement, a federal judge objected to the work, called it a hazard and ordered it removed to a storage area.
Avalos sued, claiming he had been censored. Though he ultimately lost the case, the news was covered nationally, and the work has since been shown in exhibitions nationwide as a symbol of one artist’s fight for free speech.
In 1988, just before the Super Bowl, Avalos, Louis Hock and Elizabeth Sisco created a poster that was placed on the back of 100 San Diego city buses. It pointedly depicted the contradiction between the city’s image as a tourist haven and its hard-line treatment of undocumented workers in the tourist trade.
Gomez-Pena, a performance artist and writer, has also continually returned to issues of immigration and the border as his theme since the early 1980s. His performances in collaboration with Sara Jo Berman, as well as Emily Hicks and, most recently, New Yorker Coco Fusco, have all been part of his ongoing commentary performed in English, Spanish and Spanglish--a combination of the two. Gomez-Pena’s “Border Brujo” video, a solo performance produced and directed by Isaac Artenstein, developed 15 different border personas in an hourlong recording that recently won first prize in the 1991 National Latino Film and Video Festival. Gomez-Pena also won a New York Performance Award, or Bessie, in 1989 for his theatrical performances.
In June, Gomez-Pena was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Foundation grant. He just premiered “1991"--a revisionist view of the Spanish invasion of the Americas--at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and will bring the work to Highways in Santa Monica on Nov. 1-2.
But while Avalos and Gomez-Pena each have earned some individual celebrity, it was their initial collaboration with the Border Art Workshop that shaped the area’s cross-cultural art.
“The (group) was put together as a workshop ,” Avalos said recently, “to be ongoing in nature, to seek out, to puzzle out, what it is to make art in the context of the border region.” It formed informally when Avalos, then an artist in residence at the Centro Cultural de la Raza, was invited to curate a show at the Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco.
“I called on people who were working in a particular sensibility,” Avalos said. “People who were seeing art as a social act, seeing it as involved with communication and power. Seeing the art world as part of a larger world. As a platform for reaching that larger world. People whose activities were not confined to galleries and museums. Who were working in mass media, video, film, working in community contexts, schools, libraries, recreation centers. People with a commitment to art education from the kindergarten to the college and university level. People who believed in the idea that our various art forms enable us to participate in the shaping and making of society.
“Not just the art-racket types.”
Once the first show took place, the discussions continued weekly, and sometimes even more often, and the artists decided to continue working together. The multicultural nature of the group was a given. All of these artists were informed by the cultural activism of the 1970s and the Chicano mural movement. That synergy in San Diego alone produced both the politically charged murals of Chicano Park and the inception of the Centro Cultural de la Raza, which by the mid-'80s had become the entrenched, though still modestly funded, multidisciplinary arts institution that it remains today.
The workshop artists were also very art savvy. Eschewing the traditional Chicano political mural format, as well as the separatism of much of that movement, they embraced dialogue from two sides of the border, took on an avant-garde visual approach and made art that was both politically and, at least in theory, aesthetically on the cutting edge.
Installation, video, documentary photography and performance meshed in installations that prized collaboration over individual contributions. Non-members collaborated right from the first, making the workshop a laboratory for intellectual exchange that the artists hoped would establish a utopian ideal.
Former member Jude Eberhard has since collaborated on films about the region with Artenstein, including the independent feature “Break of Dawn,” which she produced and he wrote and directed, as well as the documentaries “Mi Otro Yo/My Other Self” and “Ballad of an Unsung Hero.” She doesn’t remember the early days of the workshop as utopian but, rather, a reflection of society at large.
“I was drawn to the group because I feel artists should be part of their environment,” Eberhard said recently from her Coronado office. “I contributed photos of women in different parts of Latin America who were different from the stereotypes--women who were doing daily things.”
However, Eberhard said, her interests were not shared by the rest of the group, which, despite its utopian ideals, in the early years had a ratio of five men to two women and, she said, tended to be ruled to some extent by machismo.
“In terms of the women’s question,” she said, “my experience was that in those early days (the workshop) reflected the society at large. There were just two women in the group, and I was saying sexism is equal to racism. It was an enlightened group, and your expectations tend to be higher. It wasn’t like people didn’t make stabs at it, but it was hard to be recognized as a serious contender.”
In late 1986, Eberhard and Artenstein dropped out to promote their films and never returned, although they have since collaborated with members of the group on some projects.
Artenstein says the ideals of the workshop still inform his work, however. Born in Southern California, raised as a Jew in Mexico, he is well aware of the realities of borders, both metaphorical and real.
“What was foremost in our minds were the realities of the Reagan-Bush Administration,” Artenstein said. “We saw a resurgence of militarization of the border--this was at the height of the Cold War. In the face of the conservative right wing, we saw a need to come together. A lot of artists didn’t get hit with that need until later, when (conservatives) started to dislodge the National Endowment for the Arts.”
Also, Artenstein saw the formation of a political art group as a natural outgrowth of the artists’ backgrounds: “People who have grown up in Latin America see artists as part of the political discourse. That’s something that came natural to us.”
Indeed, precedents like the Mexican muralists seem part of the group’s family tree, as does the populist Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada. Both the Border Art Workshop and Las Comadres often print pamphlets and artistic documents as part of their art of communication.
In the upcoming show, the museum and the Centro plan to broaden the view of border art to include work from throughout the U.S.-Mexico region--particularly Texas, where artists have also shown a strong interest in the subject matter. The show will focus on new work, and although the artists to be included have not been decided upon, a spirit of cooperation now governs the show’s two curators: the Centro’s Patricio Chavez, who also has collaborated with the workshop, and the museum’s Grynsztejn.
“One of the best things that art is about,” Chavez said, “is the idea that culture is the fabric that binds us. It’s one of the tools of articulating visually, through ideas.
“This show is being committed to the same mission, and working with the museum is part of that. It’s part of the challenge of working within the community. If multiculturalism is ever going to mean anything and not just be words, this is what has to happen.”
Grynsztejn agrees: “The fabulous thing about this project is that we don’t know what form it will take. It’s really about an experiment in dialogue, and it’s about learning from each other.”
This same spirit of exchange continues to inspire many San Diego artists. There are great stakes in collaboration, Richard Lou said recently in a conversation in a studio at Mesa College, where he teaches. “This is not just about art, it is about community and family.”
This is also the spirit that took Aida Mancillas into a crowd of people she considered dangerous that night just over a year ago.
It is a spirit that allows these artists, curators and writers to examine not only the border between countries, but also the borders among themselves.