30.3.14

Revisiting Tijuana 2008- A text from the California Biennale Catalogue 2008




Tijuana’s Haunt
Rene Peralta

In Tijuana everybody seems to be a poet or a painter.
Anthem magazine (2004)1

Artistic practice in the border region has tended to be multidisciplinary in nature. The
mechanisms and infrastructures that support cultural production elsewhere are limited
or absent here, so this multidisciplinary model has been developed as a survival
mechanism, countering the lack of economic stability as well as academic and institutional
support. Economic and sociopolitical dynamics have encouraged the creation
of countless “alternative” praxes in the city of Tijuana, as artists have addressed contemporary
issues pertaining to the volatile life of the U.S.-Mexico border. The most
considerable experimentation has taken place in the realms of literature and visual art.
A search for an understanding of border identity has produced conceptual reflections
on the city from writers and academics alike, ranging from counterculture narratives to
works of postmodern theory.
The challenges that the region presents have led to an effort to reach a general or
open definition of “border” urban and social space. Néstor García Canclini became
an important influence in the rereading of social and urban space produced by an
incongruent urban visual system made up of constructions characterized by cultural
hybridity and their users. In his seminal text Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering
and Leaving Modernity, hybridity is presented as an important concept through which
we can understand the processes that create the social and spatial conditions of
the border city. Canclini explains three processes that define the hybrid condition:
the breakup and mixture of the symbolic collections that organize cultural systems, the
deterritorialization of symbolic process, and the expansion of impure genres. Processes
combining decollection and deterritorialization have changed the structure of and
relationships between image and context as well as the semantic and historical references
that tie them together. In the space of the contemporary city, the lack of urban
regulation and a hybrid architectural culture create a mismatch of styles, together with
the interaction of monuments and advertising, situating the visual order and memory
of the city in heteroclite networks. Lastly, Canclini explains tensions of deterritorialization
and reterritorialization: the loss of innate relationships among culture, geography,
and social territories and at the same time territorial relocations of new and old
symbolic productions.2

Tijuana then is an example of this great hybrid experiment wherein the notion of
authentic culture and identity is no longer credible. Within its urban form the city mixes
desires and symbols that have a relation with a simulated history of the city itself.
Through this simulacrum Tijuana defines its identity, a simulation that requires the
production of hybrid readings. Its geographical location and these abstract codes
have put in place the symbols and mechanisms for art to emerge. Heriberto Yépez, a
young writer and philosophy professor from Tijuana, has argued that Tijuana has
not been defined by hybridity but, more importantly, has throughout its history parodied concept of hybrid culture is a neoliberal trap, a hegemonic discourse that intends to
erase the differences and realities of the border. In his book Made in Tijuana, Yépez
continues his critique of hybridity, stating that its fundamental basis lies in a Hegelian
synthesis that intends to fixate and transcend the same identities that produce the mix.
The hybrid culture concept is no more than a metaphor, while the realities of the border
are asymmetrical and in constant tension. The border region for Yépez is defined by
economic and cultural disparity, fission of cultures rather than the consolidating concept
of fusion that has been an ally of the hybrid discourse: “To understand the border
we must de-Hegelize ourselves.”3
Both Canclini and Yépez endorse important artistic practices that have somehow
included the discourse of identity and culture of the U.S.-Mexico border. Some of these
practices have promoted the fusion of languages, cultural traditions, cross-cultural
identities, and other urban representations of postmodernity, as in the case of
Guillermo Gómez-Peña. In Tijuana the artists Marcos Ramirez ERRE and Jaime Ruiz Otis
have developed practices dealing with conflict that respond to the disparities and
tensions in the realms of culture, labor, and binational politics. Century 21, a project
created by Ramirez ERRE in 1994, has been important and influential in regard to
current conceptualizations of the border region and immigration, globalization, and
other factors that have been critical to the development of the Tijuana–San Diego urban
binomial. The artist re-created a dwelling typical of the ones built in the informal settlements
of the city on the esplanade of the Centro Cultural de Tijuana, designed in the
late 1970s by the renowned Mexican architects Pedro Ramirez Vazquez and Manuel
Rosen Morrison, a building that represents the institutional modernism of the PRI, the
party that ruled Mexico for more than seventy years. Century 21 intended to decontextualize
both structures by making apparent and visible the formal and spatiotemporal
tensions inherent in the larger context of the city and acknowledging that the concept
of the border is illustrative of the antagonism that not only haunts the U.S.-Mexico region
but also is prevalent within the local urban space of the city of Tijuana. The tectonicconfrontation found in Century 21 is analogous to the many paradoxical effects within
the city and to the dyslexic architectures that never intend to integrate into a synthesized
form or space (hybrid), but instead engage in a violent dialogue temporarily
resolved by a series of negotiations that are necessary for survival and coexistence.
The work of Ramirez ERRE brings to the fore interesting issues and questions for
architectural/urban practices to consider. Can we consider an urban model for the
hybrid/fission counterparts? If these two primordial elements of the conceptualization
of the border region and the city of Tijuana are trajectories of contemporary city life,
can they produce spatial environments that are not only theoretical but also physical
and reproducible? There has been much interest in reproducing specific urban
phenomena, such as squatter settlements and informal structures made from recycled
construction materials and other nontraditional building materials. Yet somehow
this interest has not been based on a profound study of the economic and social tensions
that produce these phenomena. In the past decade we have witnessed mere
simulations and the creation of the myth of a system that is inherently pluralistic and
characterized by spatial heterogeneity and that seems to magically work and become
prescriptive once it is decontextualized—an exemplary postmodern idea. The issues
of hybridity and other conceptualizations of the border are part of a political discourse
yet are difficult to interpret as prescriptive urban-planning solutions. As Nezar AlSayyad
has written: “The assumption that hybrid environments simply accommodate or
encourage pluralistic tendencies or multicultural practices should be turned on its
head. Hybrid people do not always create hybrid places and hybrid places do not
always accommodate hybrid people. All that can be hoped for at the beginning of the
21st century are environments that harbor the potential for growth and change and
peoples who may find the possibility of adapting and adopting otherness as a legitimate
form of self-identification.”4
In the last eight years the Tijuana-based architecture firm Generica has been experimenting
with a sort of bottom-up theoretical field in which the practice expands and
contracts as it absorbs urban implications. In the border region mechanisms of critical
practice such as new forms of technology (be they material, computational, or academic)
are not always available or economically feasible. What is at hand is the social
and cultural dynamics of the border and its urban space. Generica as a practice tries to
integrate methods of analysis that can therefore react specifically to a varied realm of
conceptual and real circumstances. In many cases the process of production includes
many non architectural techniques, such as film, multidisciplinary research, site-specific
installation, and writing. It is between these alternate and/or alternative mediums
that the firm integrates conceptual dialogues, such as the ones discussed here, with the
intent to identify the concepts that best describe the conditions of the Tijuana–San
Diego urban border. In a project titled Contain(mex)3=Contiene(mex)3 (2006), Generica
tapped into two sources of production, one industrial and the other conceptual. The
installation was part of the exhibition Strange New World: Art and Design from Tijuana
(2006) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, and was constructed of modular
laser-cut wood panels whose designs mimic the familiar patterns used on the metalsecurity screens that cover many windows and doors in the border region. The objective
was to use the technological apparatus (in this case a digital laser cutter used to produce
mechanical parts for assembly plants across the border) employed by the
manufacturing industries of the free-trade border zone—a direct implementation of
skills and technology reserved for foreign industries taking advantage of cheap labor.
The pattern laser-cut on the panels was derived from a study of the security screens
that proliferate in residential and commercial structures throughout the city—a symbol
of fear as well as an aesthetic element that has now become a standard architectural
feature recognizable by all. The piece was not intended to mimic and decontextualize a
house inside the museum, emulating Ramirez ERRE’s Century 21, but took the form of
a cube whose configuration adapted to the visual, atmospheric, and spatial constraints
of the gallery. The result was not blatantly political but was intended to reconstruct,
at least in a phenomenological sense, the space of the border threshold.
The concept of hybridity has become an important topic in the history of postmodern
border art. Artists have tended to address issues of identity and multiculturalism
though arguments for or against it, and recently writers such as Yépez have critically
engaged the tactics of border art and its urgent dilemmas within the context of the
border as a site of asymmetrical globalization. In regard to alternative urban and architectural
practices, I would like to think that they exist or that they might be mere
fantasy in a city of myths. Tijuana is a city where 50 percent of all residential construction
is of illicit origin and self-constructed.5 In the last twenty years the east side of
Tijuana has grown beyond its critical mass, and housing conditions have moved from
self-built favelas to a phenomenon of overnight density—drag-and-drop suburbs are
becoming the normative housing strategy for the working class. A vast accumulation
of housing units have been left behind to develop into a city through their own
willpower. What is fascinating is the determination of the population to appropriate
urbanism and model it through their own idiosyncrasies. If a certain hybridism
characterized the informal self-built shacks, these mono-logical constructions include
seriality, production-line planning, and nonplace iconography as part of their pedigree. Architects have had a passive role in the construction of the urban realm. Major
urban developments have been made through forceful intervention, foreign and
national, in the name of decodifying the Mexican border with a national modern style
or marking it as a place of architectural decontextualization, as in the case of the Agua
Caliente Casino, designed in a Moorish/mission revival style for the mob by a San
Diego teenage draftsman named Wayne McAllister in 1928.6 Since its conception, this
city that the border created has had episodes of urban consolidation as well as
instances of rampant and irregular development. Art practices have evolved very efficiently
within the codes and concepts that define the urban border. It seems that urban
spatial practices still need to mature into elaborate multifunctional networks that can
find resources and mechanisms for a sense of criticality and adaptation. It may be that
in Tijuana everybody is (only) a poet or a painter, at least for now.

Notes
1. Excerpted in Fiamma Montezemolo, Rene Peralta, and Heriberto Yépez, Here Is Tijuana! (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2006), 111.
2. Néstor García Canclini, Culturas híbridas: Estrategias para entrar y salir de la modernidad (Mexico City: Grijalbo, 1990); published in English as Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity, trans. Christopher L. Chiappari and Silvia L. López
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).
3. Heriberto Yépez, Made in Tijuana (Mexicali: Instituto de Cultura de Baja California, 2005), 33.
4. Nezar AlSayyad, “Prologue: Hybrid Culture/Hybrid Urbanism: Pandora’s Box of the ‘Third Place,’” in Hybrid Urbanism: On the Identity Discourse and the Built Environment, ed. Nezar AlSayyad (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001), 16.
5. Tito Alegria, Legalizando la ciudad: Asentamientos informales y procesos de regularización en Tijuana (Tijuana: El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2005), 119.
6. See Chris Nichols, The Leisure Architecture of Wayne McAllister (Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 2007).

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