A write-up by Karsten Osterby about our 2019 excursion to Tijuana and San Diego with members of ICA LA’s Fieldwork Council.
Karsten Osterby is a writer, composer, and researcher based in Los Angeles, California.
In early November of 2019, members of ICA LA’s Fieldwork Council loaded into a passenger van and ventured south for a two-day exploration of contemporary art in Tijuana and San Diego. On both sides of the border visited during this excursion, the group discovered the faces and spaces connected to a broad continuum of art practices that incorporate architecture, public good, social policy, and political pluralism.
The ride from from Los Angeles to San Diego was unexpectedly quick and hence allowed the group to do a bit of unscheduled architectural exploration. We first wandered the serene exterior court of the Salk Institute in La Jolla. In 1963, the famed American architect Louis Kahn designed a symmetrical, two-building complex made of concrete and teak. Between the two structures, the central plaza is bisected by a simple water stream feature leading the eye straight to the ocean horizon. This minimal touch was developed in collaboration between Kahn and the Mexican architect Luis Barragán and became the project’s signature element. We then visited University of California, San Diego’s Geisel Library, named in honor of children’s book author Theodore Geiser, aka Dr. Suess, and his wife Audrey Geisel. Centrally located between the University’s three colleges, the library was designed by futurist architect William Pereira and completed in 1970. Pereira conceived a brutalist structure that roughly imagines two raised hands holding a stack of books. The decision to use reinforced concrete offered Pereira the opportunity to realize a more sculptural design.
Tijuana is not a very old place.
A breezy border crossing brought the Fieldwork group into central Tijuana. The group was then joined by young materials artist, Luis Alonso Sánchez, a hospitable TJ native who provided indispensable commentary and warmth throughout the day. Luis has shown work at many spaces in Tijuana and Southern California. Much of his work investigates the inherent cultural ouroboros that takes place within a border city. Cultural artifacts and materials are juxtaposed and reimagined, allowing for playful interactions with the constant change and decay of Tijuana. Luis is particularly affectionate towards Deslave, a relatively new space in Tijuana operated by artists Mauricio Muñoz and Andrew Roberts. Deslave has been a vital hub, supporting Tijuana’s burgeoning artist community while developing ties to sister spaces outside of Mexico. Recent artists shown by Deslave include Talia P. Gilbert, Sanchez’s own Rancho Infierno, and a joint show by Tony Cokes and Esther Ruiz.
We built a bunker and it changed everything.
To reach their next stop, the group was escorted to Camino Verde, the neighborhood of Tijuana, to visit the community center and headquarters of Torolab, a Tijuana-based art collective. We were guided to La Granja (the farm), the name of the HQ, by Carolina Gómez, a Torolab member, and welcomed by the collective’s founder Raúl Cardenas. Completed in 2010, La Granja is a simple concrete structure designed to serve Camino Verde residents and beyond, with an open-use kitchen, computer lab, vegetable garden, and gathering spaces for social engagement.
Raúl Cárdenas is pleased to offer a simple explanation of the collective’s mission: “to improve people’s quality of life.” In the hours following this introduction to Torolab’s vision, Fieldwork Council learned about the scope of that simple phrase through a dizzying and deep survey of their “molecular urbanism” projects that intersect public art, social engagement, community organizing, and a culinary laboratory. Each project, Raúl explains, is based in social diagnostics and a willingness to try anything within the specificity of a particular context. For Los Angeles’s 2019 public art triennial, CURRENT:LA FOOD, Torolab introduced their project Watts Cookbook. Based on extensive statistics and surveys of the Watts neighborhood, Torolab’s Watts Cookbook facilitated and engendered a collaborative social space centered with wood-fired cooking and community storytelling around food. The initial phase included Saturday barbeques where a pop-up taco restaurant brought community members together across where the notion of conflict was transcended to provide space and context for conversation and to gather recipes from neighbors. The collective narratives and recipes are to be compiled into a community cookbook titled Watts Cookbook. Torolab’s model aims for these happenings to act as a catalyst and germinate satellite hubs of the collective sustained by local community members. Another ambition for Torolab within the Camino Verde neighborhood includes a proposal to develop its first community high school.
We all have to continue moving; and we will continue moving.
The sun was already softly diminishing over Tijuana’s sprawling, house-covered hills as Fieldwork pulled up to the residence of ERRE, the nombre d’arte of Marcos Ramírez. Having recently finished installing a career-spanning survey of his work at MassMOCA, Ramírez lamented that his studio is a bit empty for visit, so his house became the alternative. The group agreed that his airy, self-built home, crawling with past works and prototypes, was well worth a trip. Having worked in both law and construction, ERRE’s widely praised and often large-scale artworks deal almost exclusively with the Mexican-US border politics and the effects of globalism on Latin America. Both bright-eyed and reserved, ERRE walked the Fieldwork Council group through much of his career in the arts, beginning with his iconic Toy-An-Horse, a two-headed, 50-foot tall Trojan horse installed at the San Ysidro border-crossing in 1995 and concluding with his recent MassMOCA survey. His previous professions clearly influence his work, which contains a consistent preoccupation with structure and logic, punctuated by amazing moments of poetry and radical political commentary.
The newly-risen full moon cast plenty of illumination over the group’s final stop for the day, CECUT, or the Centro Cultural Tijuana museum. Since 1982, this 100,000 square-foot collection of clay-toned buildings housing a multitude of museums, cafes, restaurants, an aquarium, and botanical garden has formed in an arc of spaces around a central five-story orb. With a year-round film program at the IMAX theatre nestled inside the orb, CECUT projects movies on the exterior with the Baja California Orchestra performing live accompaniments during the Summer. The result is strikingly modern and “perfectly representative of Tijuana,” says Leobardo Garcia, CECUT’s Director of Exhibitions. The group focused its visit on an exhibition space located at the intersection of the three main wings of CECUT. In Masc4Máscara, multimedia artist Mauricio Muñoz—a co-founder of the gallery Deslave—uses satire in video, skin-toned emoji lightboxes and bright neon signs to highlight the discrimination and dynamics of identity politics unique to gay dating communities. The LGBTQ+-centered show was the first to open in CECUT’s history. The location of Masc4Máscara within the building is critically significant: otherwise operating as a central passageway and artery to the rest of CECUT’s campus, this space is used by staff every day on their way to work and will inevitably confront the nearly two million visitors CECUT receives on average per year as they navigate the cultural centers galleries.
The more you pay attention, the more there is to pay attention to.
Mary Beebe seems to get two reactions while walking around the UCSD campus. Those who know her share warm greetings, wave from across walkways, and stop to smile and chat. Then, there are those who only know of her—they tend to move off to the side of the path whenever they see her coming for a simple reason: Mary Beebe means business and walks at a brisk, intentioned pace. “Come on, let’s pick up the pace everyone!” the 78-year-old calls out to the group’s rear ranks. “Lots of art to see yet!” The group, a bit sluggish due perhaps to the 2+ hour border crossing the previous night, meets Mary in her office where she rapidly explains what they will be seeing. The Stuart Collection at UCSD is unique as a public university’s sculpture collection and as an arts institution, as well. When appointed the Director in 1981, when University was beginning talks to build an art museum, Beebe was adamant about one thing: she wanted to work directly with artists on public works. She was not a curator and wanted no part in running a white cube gallery space. Almost 40 years later, Mary and a dedicated staff of just two have worked tirelessly to create an unparalleled landscape of large-scale public artworks across UCSD’s campus.
Fieldwork’s time did not allow for viewing all the works in the Stuart Collection, but Mary offered a satisfying greatest hits tour and pointed out the rest just out of view with a wave of her hand. For Mary and the staff, part of the fun and the challenge of working on so many disparate projects on site lies in the process of learning and coming up with creative solutions for installation and maintenance. The group walked over and witnessed a test for a forthcoming piece: a poem engraved in 2 different concrete swatches on the street. It seems to have held up decently to traffic, but “neither is right,” sighs the Stuart Collection’s Project Director, Mathieu Gregoire. They need another consultation with the University’s Engineering Department—an example of how art and science converge with each of these undertakings and how the resources of the University come into play. A striking example of this is Tim Hawkinson’s 30-foot “stuffed animal” Bear, which is made from six monumental boulders found in a nearby quarry. Each was individually scanned by the University’s supercomputer and made as a scale model for the Engineering Department tests of appropriate structural earthquake supports for placement underground. In another piece, artist Terry Allen claimed several dead trees from the campus’ central eucalyptus grove, sheathed them in metal, filled them with speakers, and reinstalled them as Trees, a series of sound sculptures situated where each had originally fallen, emanating music and poetry to the passersby.
Indeed most of the other works viewed by the group—from Mark Bradford’s 199-foot pole (FAA regulations prohibit any structure taller than 200 feet) to the iconic Fallen Star by Do Ho Suh, a house anxiously suspended mid-slide off the roof of the Jacobs Engineering Hall—share the characteristic of thrilling development and realization stories. Each describes a fierce dedication to the ideas of the artist and a commitment to accessibility.
The less-stated and perhaps more potently felt impression left to mull over after the tour was a sense of the deep impact of these works on the everyday life of this campus and how its example as a curatorial project is grossly taken for granted. A similar sentiment lingered of the work of Torolab, ERRE, and collaborations happening between Luis Alonso Sánchez and Mauricio Muñoz at spaces like Deslave and CECUT. This museum program Fieldwork: Tijuana was an exploration of critical work happening at a border, work that is difficult to categorize and to grasp without witnessing it firsthand, and work that is felt most by the community it exists within.
ICA LA’s Fieldwork is dedicated to learning from those tackling today’s most challenging issues. Led by Director of Learning & Engagement Asuka Hisa, members venture out into the field year-round for immersive workshops, behind-the-scenes research, and cultural and culinary explorations that illuminate the ways in which art is being used for social change, justice, and innovation.
Collectively, the group serves to support ICA LA’s Learning & Engagement programs, which are free and open to the public, reaching general audiences and under-resourced populations of all ages. In addition to creating access points to our exhibitions and highlighting the voices of artists, the programs are responsive to the needs of local communities by addressing such topics as youth leadership development, arts education in schools, and homelessness, and by encouraging civic engagement through voter registration, ballot study sessions, and Election Day voting.