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Cross-Border Art Cuts Across National Lines

By Ioana Patrigenaru | June 1, 2006

Teddy Cruz
Teddy Cruz
Photo by: Yvonne Venegas
Courtesy of MCASD

To some, it has become a new Iron Curtain or Berlin Wall. Others view it as an exciting place, where cultures meet and mix. To others still, it’s just plain sexy.

Whatever their views, the border between the United States and Mexico has become a focal point and a source of inspiration for artists in UCSD’s visual arts department. Some of the works they created are on display through Sept. 17 at the  La Jolla and downtown campuses of the San Diego at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD).

The visual arts department has been interested in cross-border projects for a while, but the issue seems to really have come into focus in the past couple of years, said Steve Fagin, department chair.

“It just became clear to me that if were going to be a strong place and not just a nice place by the beach, we should embrace the bi-national part of our identity,” he said.

The new focus includes a graduate seminar about Tijuana, events and exhibits on both sides of the border and partnerships with several organizations. It extends to faculty, graduate students and even some undergraduate students.


“They took something that’s treated like it’s the Berlin Wall and they turned it into something that is much more sexy,” Fagin said.

The department has hired faculty whose work cuts across national lines, including Roberto Tejada and Ruben Ortiz-Torres. But the new cross-border focus seemed to have reached critical mass when architect and artist Teddy Cruz joined the faculty last fall, Fagin said.

Cruz is a slight man with a mild manner and a keen interest in urban planning on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.  A native of Guatemala, he says he feels an affinity with Latin America and the United States, with Tijuana and San Diego. To him, the border has turned San Diego into a large gated community.

“The border is the ultimate emblem of puritan urbanism that divides the community, divides space,” he said.

One of his goals is to understand how the city reacts to this divide. Coming to UCSD allowed him to gain institutional support for his projects, he said. It also allowed the university to become more grounded in the community that surrounds it, he added.

Sergio de la Torre
Sergio de la Torre
Photo by: Yvonne Venegas
Courtesy of MCASD

When it comes to urban policy, San Diego is all about distance and separation, Cruz said. Rigid zoning laws aim to divide the city into residential and commercial areas. Meanwhile, Tijuana is all about density and proximity. Residences double up as store fronts and sometimes houses are stacked on top of one another. Since September 11, both sides of the border have been growing farther and farther apart, Cruz said. But at the same time, the border exists to be transformed and transgressed, he added. Some San Diego neighborhoods are taking a page from Tijuana urban planning. They are growing denser, with residences and businesses sharing the same space. At the same time, some Tijuana neighborhoods look more and more American, with suburban subdivisions and big box retailers.

Cruz translated his vision of the border area into a series of collages, on view at the La Jolla campus of MCASD. He cut and pasted pictures of Tijuana, Los Angeles and San Diego, mixing them all together. The resulting art works look almost abstract, with vibrant swirls and energetic jabs of color.

Cruz also aims to change the way American cities and suburbs are organized. Drawing inspiration from Tijuana, he is a staunch proponent of neighborhoods where housing, retail and public spaces co-exist. He is currently working with Casa Familiar, a non-profit organization, on a housing development in San Ysidro. It will include a community garden and center, arcades for shops and community activities, as well as affordable housing. Another project will combine housing for seniors who take care of their grandchildren with a childcare center. Both projects will come to life within the next three years, Cruz said.

In addition to faculty, students also have embraced the visual arts department’s cross-border focus, Fagin said. Some come from the other side of the border and have galleries in Tijuana.

Sergio De La Torre is one of them. He was born in San Diego, but grew up in Tijuana. He then chose to become a U.S. citizen and later moved to the Bay Area. He came to UCSD after studying at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. He said he didn’t realize at the time how much the visual arts department focused on cross-border issues. Faculty members drew him here, including Tejada and Jordan Crandall, he said.

“Just by meeting these people here, taking classes with them, it helped me understand what I wanted to do with my work,” De La Torre said.

Cross-Border Art Cuts Across National Lines
Photo collage by: Teddy Cruz

In the past five years, De La Torre’s work has gravitated to the factories that cluster along the U.S.-Mexico border, also know as “maquiladoras.” He co-directed and co-produced “Maquilapolis,” a documentary about the workers who toil in these factories every day. De la Torre and his partner on the project, Vicky Funari, collaborated with a group of 12 workers, who learned how to use digital video cameras. They then shot video diaries and worked in teams to document their lives and their stories. Producers then incorporated the workers’ footage into the documentary. De La Torre is now working on distributing and promoting the film. He is jetting all over the world, from South Korea, to Holland and Canada, often with a couple of workers at his side. The film will have its Tijuana premiere on Saturday.

The works he is showing at MCASD are an off-shoot of the “Maquilapolis” project. De La Torre took pictures of maquiladoras and their surroundings while scouting locations for the documentary. He then started altering them, erasing all signs of human life, including cars, windows and doors. The stark, ominous black and white prints now share a room with Cruz’ work in La Jolla.

Even though he often works in Tijuana, De La Torre has no love for the border.

“It’s a military zone,” he said. “No matter what you do, you’re a criminal.”

But De La Torre pointed out that for him, the border also is a fluid space, where he can easily go back and forth as a U.S. citizen. His friend Yvonne Venegas, a senior at UCSD, also is acutely aware of the border’s dual nature. She too grew up in Tijuana but was born in Long Beach. Unlike De La Torre, she had a sheltered, middle-class childhood, she said. The two met when he was dating Venegas’ twin sister. They’ve been friends ever since.

For her most recent project, Venegas photographed all the artists featured in “Strange New World, Art and Design from Tijuana,” the MCASD exhibit that includes De La Torre and Cruz, as well as Raul Cardenas Osuna, another UCSD graduate student. The portraits are on view in La Jolla. Venegas said the project allowed her to discover parts of her own city she didn’t know. For example, artist Carmela Castrejon Diego took her to a village under a maquiladora, where workers built their homes out of scraps and left-overs. The shantytown has no running water, but it has become a full-fledged blue collar suburb, she said.  MCASD also is showing in downtown San Diego 13 photographs from another Venegas project, titled “The Most Beautiful Brides of Baja California.” She documented the lives of upper-middle-class women in Tijuana, in a wide variety of situations. One picture shows a young girl being crowned at a debutante ball. Another shows a young woman, casually dressed, playing with a baby, while two other family members look on. That project is due to become a book next year. Venegas has recently received MCASD’s stART Up Award for emerging artists. 

She said she’s looking forward to enrolling in UCSD’s graduate visual arts program.

“It’s like the climax of my relationship with the border,” she said.

Artists like Venegas, Cruz and De La Torre are creating a strong rhythm that is driving UCSD’s visual arts department, Fagin said. In the future, the department would like to extend its focus further into Latin America. Plans for an exchange program with Buenos Aires are on the drawing board. The department also is expanding its reach worldwide. On June 9 to 11, it will host a three-day binational event called “The Political Equator,” which will examine issues along an imaginary line extended from the U.S.-Mexico border around the globe. Artists and academics, including Cruz, will discuss the US-Mexico border, China and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The event will take place in San Diego, Tijuana and a cosmopolitan La Jolla home.

“We’re building bridges between these spaces,” Fagin said.

More about UCSD’s Visual Arts department at:
http://visarts.ucsd.edu/

More about the Museum of Contemporary
Art San Diego and the “Strange New World” exhibit at:
http://www.mcasd.org

More on Sergio De La Torre’s work at:
http://www.maquilapolis.com
http://www.delatorreprojects.com

More on Yvonne Venegas’ work at:
http://www.mcasd.org/cerca

For more on Teddy Cruz’ work:
http://www.california-architects.com/content/profiles/index.cfm?fuseaction=profile&architect=2416&lang=e

More “The Political Equator” event at:
http://www.politicalequator.org
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