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The Privilege of Broken Windows

A Report on Two Conversations: Geography, Imagination, and the Traffic in the Everyday (San Diego - Institute of the Americas, UCSD) + A Dialogue on Urbanisms (Centro Cultural Tijuana), May 27/28

The drive back to Los Angeles from Tijuana was a bit louder than the initial drive South. A busted out rear window on my anonymously dull Corolla made 80 miles per hour on I-5 sound more like I was approaching the sound barrier at 30,000 feet. The window must have been broken by someone who mistook my travel bag for something more valuable, like a purse. It was surely an unpleasant surprise for the person, who realized this only after finding a half-used tube of toothpaste instead of bundles of cash, credit cards, or a passport. I'm recounting this banal anecdote not because it speaks to where it happened, but because of how it pulled me from the distanced, comfortable conversations about culture I had just attended, and reminded me that what was being talked about is not an abstraction that exists somewhere else, but is an ongoing process of negotiations and movements within a material system of asymmetrical distribution.

The conversations I'm referring to were part of the inSite_05 series of panel discussions and art events that explore the complex border ecology of the San Diego-Tijuana region. Since 1992, inSite has brought together cultural workers of all kinds to foster discourse about this US-Mexican border zone, as well as add to the larger body of work on social, political and economic borders in general. inSite_05's programmatic theme is "Bypass," a broad concept that continues inSite's historical mission and participates in the current art world interest in formulating cultural utopias. On 27 and 28 May, two Conversations, the third and fourth in a series organized by San Diego-based art historian Sally Yard, were held, one at the University of California, San Diego, the other at the Centro Cultural Tijuana.
The first, held at UCSD's Institute of the Americas, and entitled "Geography, Imagination, and the Traffic in the Everyday," included presentations by Arjun Appadurai, Judith Barry and Sally Stein.

If there was a unified theme to the panelists' talks, it was a concern for the role of visual culture in formulating understandings and new possibilities for social relationships. Appadurai, a professor of social sciences who has written on different aspects of globalization, discussed the "politics of hope," often referring to his current work with housing activists in Bombay. For Appadurai, "hope" is a socially generated and reproduced meme, so to speak, that is the product of a social imaginary, or what he calls the collective "work of the imagination." The social imaginary is responsible for both the positive and negative aspects of culture according to Appadurai, and was discussed in terms of the coexistence of both repressive and emancipatory organizations in Bombay. Underlying this seeming contradiction of experience (something arguably present in varying degrees everywhere) is what the speaker refers to as the "capacity to aspire" - the cognitive map of life possibilities that determines the decisions available to each of us.

Multimedia artist and writer, Judith Barry (US), presented an illustrated thesis that connected the phenomenological orientation of early minimal and land art to the ongoing development of critical site-specific art practice. Tracing the interest in ephemerality and action-based experience to Tony Smith's famous account of his nighttime drive on the incomplete New Jersey Turnpike through Robert Irwin's development of an incidental optics, Barry brought her discussion up to the present with Francis Alÿs' "When Faith Moves Mountains" work that involved the displacement of an entire sand dune in Peru and the recent "My Doomsday Weapon" performance by Jakob S. Boeskov that spread (fictional) rumors across the net of a rifle that shoots traceable microchips into unsuspecting civilians.

The moderator and respondent, Sally Stein, followed with a fairly brief polemic on the role of information communication technologies in the construction of social spaces. Stein, a historian of photography and media teaching at UC, Irvine, as well as a self-described "elected outsider" to cell phone culture, projected a series of photographs picturing cell phone users in urban space and invited the audience to turn on their cell phones to create a participatory "multimedia experience." While the presentation was humorously critical of these new "umbilical cords" of communication, it is the technology's role in facilitating both connection and isolation that was of interest to Stein. "We may be more 'connected' more often, but to whom?" she asked. Are our social circles more inclusive or exclusive as a result of how we choose to use communication devices?

In the open discussion that followed, many questions, both directly connected and tangential to the formal talks, were raised regarding the role of visual culture in the various current geopolitical situations surrounding US foreign policy. Of particular interest was the power assigned to images, and the emerging technologies that allow for their quick, and global, dissemination, exemplified by the photographs of US military abuses in Iraq. This was followed by a related line of questioning about the importance of narrative in some recent art, similar to the perceived "allegorical impulse" of the 1980s.

The next evening's event, entitled "A Dialogue on Urbanisms," at the Centro Cultural Tijuana, while still centered on concepts of borders and the cultures that operate in such spaces, was concerned with the material structures that make up border zones, rather than actions occurring within them. Tijuana-based Raúl Cárdenas talked about a recent series of projects undertaken by Torolab, a collective he helped form in 1995 to investigate the spaces of the Tijuana/San Diego border zone. This series of projects included work with nine Tijuana families to co-design new residential structures using modular building materials as one way that the group is exploring the concept of "emergency architecture." This is not a response to catastrophic situations, but rather a structural answer to necessities by those needing them, rather than by architects and urban planners - or what were called "human," as opposed to "architectural" conditions.

Next, architect and curator, Peter Zellner presented a photo essay called "Culture or Bust," that looked at the booming area of the Inland Empire, a vast collection of suburbs just east of Los Angeles. The essay, a project by ValDes, a non-profit co-founded by Zellner, used photographs (by California-based photographer Alex Slade) and info graphics to explicate the current decline of urban LA and the rise of low density, suburban communities that are, for the most part, unplanned. "Culture or Bust," theorized one potential reason for the problem: while LA attempts to "revitalize" its downtown with new, high profile structures (the Gehry designed Disney music hall) and other examples of "high culture" (plans for "Gallery Row"), the 'burbs prioritize such mundane things as communications infrastructure and providing low cost, large spaces for business. But, as Zellner made clear, the Southern California suburban boom has huge costs. In order to accommodate the population that must commute from the Inland Empire to the more urban coastal counties for work each day ("supercommuters" they're called), there are plans to construct a massive freeway tunnel, under the Santa Ana Mountains between LA and Riverside.

José Castillo, an architect working in Mexico City, looked at the periphery of large urban centers to find what he called the "pathologies of urbanisms." The problem of urbanism, according to Castillo, is one of knowledge as much as of physical space. Using Mexico City as primary source material, Castillo illustrated a theory of urban space as a complex set of coexisting languages, where the margins form a kind of "horizontal Babel" made up of informal organization, much like creative slang and creole linguistics.

All three speakers performed an interest in the periphery and marginal, whether it is represented by disenfranchised residents of Tijuana or the very different examples of suburban sprawl in Southern California and Mexico City. This connection was taken up in some of the questions posed by audience members, one questioning the authority given to Western scholarship and practice in analyzing global problems while another wondered about the use of language that seemed to naturalize the development of suburbs, when it's been well documented that they are actually a product of deliberate planning and regulation, at least in the US.

When I arrived at the North-bound US border post, I showed my passport, stated the purpose of my visit and said that I had "nothing to declare." Thanks to the national origin of my passport, the process took under two minutes, and I was home in less than two hours. I wasn't even stopped at all crossing into Mexico (the security is all focused on traffic moving in the other direction). The broken car window became a uniquely urban symbol for me, not because it speaks to an "urban condition," but because the imaginary border between the private and social urban space is often depicted as constantly threatened - by difference, by density, by the proximity to the problems of others. In the car culture of Southern California (or the suburban US Midwest for that matter), the moving second home of one's car is just another protective border used to quarantine the inside from the outside. As I headed north for LA, my attempts to describe the discussions to a friend by cell phone were drowned out by the noise of public space rushing past at 80 miles per hour.

Ryan Griffis

For more info:

inSite http://www.insite05.org/

ValDes http://www.lab71.org/issue04/l71section180/l71section180.html

Torolab http://www.metropolismag.com/html/content_1001/ob/ob07.html

My Doomsday Weapon http://events.thing.net/Boeskov_text.html