There’s Art for Art’s Sake, and There’s ToroLab


“This is your true desire” is the motto of ToroLab, a husband-and-wife design collaborative based in Tijuana, whose first major museum exhibition, “Laboratorio of the Future in the Present,” is on display at the downtown branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego.

Trained as architects at Tijuana’s Universidad Iberoamericana, the founders of ToroLab, Raul Cardenas Osuna, 32, and Marcela Guadiana Cardenas, 30, design architecture, modular furniture, graphics, fashion, video and DJ music. The couple’s motto, “Este es tu verdadero deseo,” is prominently displayed throughout the exhibition in Spanish and English. They say their mission is to propose solutions to the myriad problems plaguing Tijuana, a border city of 1.2 million inhabitants, where 600,000 people lack adequate housing.

The two are part of a generation of artists, musicians and DJs living in Tijuana whose innovations are attracting international attention--thanks, in part, to the success last year of the CD “Nortec Collective,” a hybrid of Norteno and techno music.

“Raul and ToroLab are a center for something really exciting going on in Tijuana, which is coming into its own as a world city. They are in the lead in terms of what the transborder region can be,” says Toby Kamps, curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Cardenas Osuna grew up in the coastal city of Mazatlan, where both his father and grandfather were famous bullfighters. He took the name of the studio from the spirit of the Toro--the bull--who “has nothing to lose and everything to win.” He moved to Tijuana 13 years ago, in part because of the city’s proximity to the United States, but also because he wanted to be near the ocean.


To his surprise, Cardenas Osuna quickly discovered that Tijuana seems to have forgotten its seashore, focusing all of its attention and energy on the border. “If you look at an aerial map of Tijuana, the streets do not run to the ocean. Everything is running on axis to the border. Even at the start of Tijuana, they didn’t care that the ocean was there.”

Guadiana Cardenas, a luminous young woman, entered architecture school while planning to become a nun. She embraces Tijuana as a vibrant, transitory place where everyone is always asking where you are from.

“This is a city where things change very quickly. One day there will be nothing there, the next day there will be houses,” she says, pointing out a shanty town built of materials scavenged by desperately poor workers arriving from all over Mexico seeking jobs in the city’s maquiladoras, or factories.

The signature image of their exhibition, “Where the Ephemeral Is Converted Into the Permanent” (1999), is a large-scale photo-collage of a small shack built from wooden pallets perched on a foundation of worn tires set against a bull’s-eye red sky. A lone tree in the foreground lends a poetic elegance to what otherwise might be considered an eyesore.

ToroLab focuses on providing “optimistic and elegant solutions to absurd problems that shouldn’t exist,” says Kamps. A major project of ToroLab is ToroVestimenta, a utilitarian clothing line sold in a few U.S. stores, which Kamps likens to “the Russian Constructivists’ new clothes for the new worker.” Investing a quasi-evangelical faith in the power of the T-shirt as the great social equalizer and mouthpiece for individual politics, Cardenas Osuna calls the generic T-shirt, “the most important garment of the 20th century because of its maintenance, meaning and cost. To look good is only a plus.”

The other mainstay of Toro Vestimenta is the Transborder pant--a wide-legged pair of heavy blue-denim trousers, which function as a survival suit for the frontier. The multipocketed Transborder pant is designed with flat pockets on the inside to protect vital documents from a potentially hostile environment. One pocket is perfectly sized to fit a Mexican passport; another fits a laser-read visa card, essential for easy transit by Mexicans into the United States.

For Americans, who often don’t need to show any form of identification to cross the border, the pockets can be used for money, credit cards and pharmaceuticals purchased cheaply south of the border.

In a similar cross-cultural double entendre, a black and silver T-shirt from the Subversivo line sports the family silhouette, with the little girl’s pigtails flying, that haunts freeways close to the border. The nominally bilingual sign, notes Kamps, “says ‘caution’ in English and ‘prohibido’ or prohibited, in Spanish. It is speaking two languages with two different messages.”

With the help of Michael Brown, son of San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and owner of True boutique in San Francisco, ToroLab has sold its clothing designs in cities from Paris to Tokyo. A world map printed on long sheets of bubble wrap hanging in the museum’s lobby charts the collaborative’s reach into the global economy.

The show also features designs for CD packages for BMG Entertainment Mexico, as well as architectural plans for a sci-fi-inspired and environmentally sensitive residence for Joselo Rangel of the Mexican band, Cafe Tacuba. There’s hexagonal, multiuse modular furniture, an animated science-fiction video and a DJ booth made of pallets, with the entire exhibition blasting a constant Nortec soundtrack.

Dismantling some of the more fortress-like aspects of the museum environment, ToroLab incorporates the museum’s security guards into the exhibition by encouraging them to bring in their own music to play for visitors.

By far the most ambitious project in the exhibition is the proposal for “The Vertex,” a border station conceived to replace a dismantled pedestrian bridge between Friendship Park in San Ysidro, Calif., and Playas de Tijuana in Baja California.

Designed to transform the dreary and bureaucratic checkpoint into a celebration of the frontier, plans for “The Vertex” call for a translucent fiberglass wall to run parallel to the border. While emphasizing the divisions between the two nations and cultures, the proposed wall is also the antithesis of the totalitarian structure that divided Berlin.

Arcing perpendicularly over the wall would be a narrow pedestrian walkway wide enough for two wheelchairs to cross in opposite directions. Programmable video and computer stations would allow travelers to project their hopes and dreams onto side-by-side video walls, transgressing prohibitions on broadcasting across national boundaries.

Plans and a full-video model for “The Vertex” are installed in a darkened room, where the museum’s large windows have been scaled down to small surveillance-monitor-size holes, allowing viewers to watch the trolley outside the museum loading and unloading passengers to and from the Otay Mesa border crossing.

Projected onto a screen next to the model is “White Noise"--a video in four movements that examines the four “possibilities” of the transborder region. Beginning with the “possibilities denied” of the sea and Tijuana’s shipbuilding industry, Cardenas Osuna remarks that Tijuana “has lots of beach, but not one beach resort.” Next come the possibilities squandered when the region’s wealth failed to develop significant or appropriate architecture.

“Everywhere in Tijuana,” says Cardenas Osuna are “bad copies of San Diego, when there isn’t money for the essential. You take something ridiculous and you copy it and it becomes grotesque.”

A garage door closing on a minivan driving into a bastardized Spanish-style tract development, triggers the possibilities born of necessity. “For 175 pesos you can buy a used garage door from the U.S. to build a cheap wall. Old tires and the pallets of industry are the building blocks of emergency architecture.” The fourth and final movement of “White Noise” focuses on the people drawn to the economic and social possibilities of the transborder region.

After participating in the “Utopia Now” exhibit in the Bay Area this fall, ToroLab plans to apply its architectural training to help make Tijuana’s makeshift temporary housing safer and more aesthetically pleasing for residents.

Combining missionary zeal with the tenacity of the bullfighter, Cardenas Osuna vows, “This is our reality, we live it, we don’t romanticize it. We want to change it. The time for protest has ended; the time for proposal has begun.”