Artforum, March 1998
For the third installment of INSITE, a binationally organized trienial of the Americas, forty two custom-made projects dotted the decidedly un-identical twin cities of Tijuana and San Diego with just about any artform your post-conceptual appetites might fancy—that is, anything except painting. Showing off multiculturalist chic gone continental, INSITE 97’ was further proof that it no longer matters whether you’re in Buenos Aires, Tijuana or Vancouver: wither so ever you can just as well drink Coca-Cola, watch the Simpsons and enjoy pretty much the same generic contemporary art being done—apparently—everywhere else.
Even though most of the participating artists aren’t quite yet major league players, together they displayed an exemplary instance of today’s favored maneuvers within the avant-garde’s establishment, a la par with its more celebrious mega-shows. Moreover, quality here had little to do with stature—an indication that nowadays prominence is assurance of the artist’s strategic smarts, and not necessarily of his/her artistic skills (as was corroborated by Gary Simmons’ airplane-drawn misshapen asterisks, which were supposed to resemble snowflake prisms, yet hardly did. No one around seemed to mind.)
As a matter of course, the grueling contrasts between TJ and SD were yet again propitious for hollow aesthetized exploitations of socio-economic afflictions. A photomontage labeling the hometowns of Tijuana’s dwellers (intending to show “…the lack of identity of a people that desires to be the Other…”), a set of pictures of Baja’s dump yards, a speech that seeked to deconstructively spotlight the power structures underneath INSITE (respectively by Rosângela Rennó, Alan Sekula and Andrea Fraser) were as enlightening as a sermon on the perils of walking over land-mines would be to Bosnians.
Luckily, the multinational curatorial task-force in charge did not monopolize the show’s discourse, allowing the artists themselves to do the talking. So, uneventful didactics aside, there was room for a good number of works to justify many an art-seeker’s journey. Some of these were of the public-invasive genre that has become a staple of multitudinous contemporary-art events. Melanie Smith’s mock tourist-information office in downtown San Diego promoted rather ordinary urban “sights” with brochures, posters and souvenirs, while the infomercional monitors in the city’s International Information Center were hijacked by Thomas Glassford’s spies & golf pseudo-saga City of Greens, (all works 1997). If these intrusions served as additional bridges over the good old art/life divide, then Eduardo Abaroa’s “Black Star” Border Capsule Ritual actually let you carry some soul-engaging art along into your material life, that is, if you were willing to collect a complete set of his somewhat deranged, bittersweetly satanic figurines in vending machines around town.
But not all the gratification took place on the streets. While local museums for the most part did not lend their spaces for the event, art-shelters were set up to house works in need of room & board, or more accurately here, a darkroom and a screen. In Miguel Rio Branco’s dig, his lyrical Between the eyes, the desert entranced the audience in endlessly dissolving slide-sequences of indigenous faces and landscapes, inducing forgetfulness of the worldly going-ons right outside. In turn, the cities’ clatter was recorded and digitally altered by Judith Barry in Consigned to Border, where video projections of tides of urbanistic becoming succeeded in liquefying the sides of two free standing walls into virtual moving continuums of hypnotizing beauty.
On the analytic front, Lorna Simpson’s video-puzzle of interwoven fragments of personal phone conversations in further interwoven tongues, Call Waiting, beckoned the viewer to rescue the disjointed narrative by bringing into play his/her own assumptions and inferences, an effective and enticing experiment in the symbiotic workings of communication.
Symbiosis also powered Alien Toy UCO (Unidentified Cruising Object) , for which Ruben Ortiz Torres appropriated a thoroughly unfolding low-rider modified by all-time “radical bed dancing” champion Chava Munoz and served it up with a video-clip juxtaposing the car and UFO’s. Beyond its expected politicized report and its readymade intricacies, the altogether cubist Alien Toy… did manage to make artistic standards of weight and composition resonate, and so also to make the quality codes of low-riding vibrate along with those of, yes, classic art. Such an unassuming close encounter between pop-cult and art-cult points the way to fertile territory where site-specifics might yet hold some ground.