Border Lines: The Border Arts Workshop Goes High Tech
Village Voice, September 26, 1989
High technology has been traditionally denied to us and this is a political fact which we must acknowledge. Do you know of any Chicanos, blacks or Americans Indians who can just walk down the street, enter into a video studio, and borrow some equipment?
Cinematograph, vol. 3, 1988
For two months this past summer, Guillermo Gómez-Peña and the seven other Mexican, Chicano, and Anglo artists who make up the San Diego-based Border Arts Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo (BAW/TAF), could hardly complain about a lack of access to technology. They worked at San Francisco's Capp Street Project (a prestigious artists' residency and exhibition center), surrounded by modern communications hardware including fax and Xerox machines, an 800 phone line, and video equipment. For the Border Axes project, the art world's savviest exemplars of multiculturalism took a new and ambitious approach to symbolically dissolving the border in pursuit of their vision of synthetic, North-South consciousness. A June 6 press release announced that the multidisciplinary collective would develop nothing less than "an alternative news/information/analysis/criticism/distribution center to promote communication between different communities in Mexico and the U.S."
BAW/TAF would link the Capp Street Project site by fax with 12 far-flung institutions ranging from Postarte (an association of Latin-American artists in Mexico City) to CUNY's Center for the Study of Women and Society, and from Highways (a performance space in Los Angeles) to the Washington Project for the Arts. Social issues such as immigration, homelessness, and AIDS would be addressed through the filters of artwork and information. The project's breadth was encapsulated in BAW/TAF member Emily Hick's remark to me that "we can't just talk about restructuring the art world; we have to talk about reconstructing society." Simultaneously intriguing and off-putting, Border Axes was clearly a project in search of itself.
BAW/TAF hit San Francisco in two human waves. On July 3, Bertha Jottar, Gerardo Navarro, Robert Sanchez, and Michael Schnorr arrived to activate the fax network. They also transformed the gallery into a reading room environment ringed with informational installations about censorship and the border, gave radio interviews, and even performed at the fourth International Anarchist Conference and Festival, which was coincidentally subtitled "Without Borders."
Two of the tireless foursome--Sanchez and Schnorr--were replaced during the first week of August by Gómez-Peña, Hicks, Victor Ochoa, Rocio Weiss, and Hugo Sanchez, a Tijuana performance artist and BAW/TAF guest. This changing of the guard allowed the group to catch its collective breath and indulge in some good old-fashioned self-criticism. The project's highly conceptual, laboratory-like process hadn't yet yielded clearly defined--or exhibitable--results. Some local Hispanic artists were pressuring the group to produce a museum-style installation, and Ann Hatch, Capp Street Project's founder, worried aloud to me, saying that she hoped "they can either make a visual statement or get the community network to happen, but not do both halfway."
The tension between presenting art objects and creating a communications network dogged the collective and forced its members to continually redefine Border Axes. The new crew made dramatic changes in the visual presentation at the Capp Street site. It replaced the simple installations with a simulated border of chain-link fencing that stretched across the gallery entry and sported a NO TRESPASSING sign. The show's new centerpiece was the Techno-Altar, a table-based tableau coupling the communications hardware with cacti, Day of the Dead skeletons, and even a lumpy little effigy of Jesse Helms. A testament to BAW/TAF's multicultural raison d'être and a reminder of the upscale gallery's location on the literal border of the predominantly Hispanic Mission District, it certainly demonstrated BAW/TAF's ability to create on demand--but probably failed to satisfy those hungry for art objects, anyway.
Infinitely more evocative were the works that sprang from the informational network and the media. The hottest issue in San Francisco's Hispanic communities at the end of July was the controversial Immigration and Naturalization Service raid on Club Elegante, a popular Mission District nightclub, that resulted in the arrest of 30 persons as illegal aliens and their deportation to El Salvador. The July 22 incident inspired a portable mural for the Capp Street site--one of two facilitated by veteran muralist Victor Ochoa--and providing the basis for one of many videotaped interviews with Bay Area feminists such as Suzanne Lacy, Amelia Mesa-Bains, and Moira Roth for a project called Breakfast with Santa Frida. Latina television producer Patricia Aguayo, one for the Club Elegante patrons harassed in the raid, complained of being treated like a prostitute by the police who conducted the raid alongside INS agents. In the manner of the Depression-era Mercury Theatre's Living Newspaper, Hicks and Weiss performed the interview before an audience the next day at the Headlands Art Center in Marin. The tapes of the interviews will be edited for television and exhibition.
Meanwhile back at the fax machine, BAW/TAF began sending a daily 10- to 15-page ration of newspaper clippings, commentary, poetry, collages, and announcements of events to the 12 institution-members of the network. A typical day's bilingual output included news about Central America, AIDS, and Agent Orange, a solicitation for funds from the Chicano Moratorium Committee, an announcement of the upcoming "Xeroxaction" BAW/TAF would host for performance artist Guadalupe Garcia, and a collage/text piece from an artist in San Jose. BAW/TAF has received some of the material from the network--including dozens of artists' works on the theme of the border--and recirculated it.
Like the daily fax transmissions, much of Border Axes was virtually invisible to the average gallergy-goer. (The sign on the fence should have read "Visitor-Participants Only.") Many viewers would not regard such activities as art, despite the conceptual art models of Joseph Beuys's Free University or of PADD (Political Art Documentation and Distribution), and the work of fellow art travelers Hans Haacke or Gran Fury, which also rises from the ruins of the once-clear distinctions between media, art, and the dissemination of information. BAW/TAF's inspiration comes from sources closer to home, too--including Mexican artist Felipe Ehrenberg, who worked to distribute the technology required for the production of murals and books throughout Mexico, and the group's own experiences within the community center environment of its headquarters, the Centro Cultural de la Raza. The mainstream art world's culture-bound definition of art as the production of politically disengaged tchotchkes was underlined by Kenneth Baker's skimpy San Francisco Chronicle review that concluded that BAW/TAF's work "is one of the more vital attempts now being made to consolidate dissent under the cover of art."
BAW/TAF's goal of restructuring society may be utopian, but its belief that such a redefinition must begin with the role of the artist is exhilaratingly clear-headed. As Gómez-Peña observed in The Multicultural Paradigm, which he and Hicks performed at the Galeria de la Raza on August 8, "In Latin America the artist has multiple roles. He/She is not just an image maker or a marginal genius, but a social thinker/educator/counter-journalist/civilian-diplomat and human rights observer. His/her activities take place in the center of society and not in specialized corners." Although it's too early to predict the cultural benefits of a web of electronically linked, community based art organizations (Border Axes is likely to be carried on by BAW/TAF in abbreviated form), Jesse Helms's summer blitzkrieg demonstrated the need for faster means of communications as a way of warding off repression. Some kinds of border skirmishes, after all, are just as likely to erupt in Soho as San Diego.