Superlative Places

March 20th, 2011

While I may someday publish here thoughts on my recent visit to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – someday, maybe, when I finish all the texts past due that I am still writing – I want to at least share some snapshots. Here are a few pictures of Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, where I participated last Monday in the first panel of the Global Art Forum. The following day we proceeded to the UAE to attend the Art Dubai fair, one of the forum’s co-organizers and our host for the following days. An interesting group of galleries participated in the fair; most were spaces from that region, and most were showing artists whose work I had never seen. On Wednesday, buses from Dubai took us to the neighboring city of Sharjah, where the tenth edition of its biennial was taking place. Here are a handful of installation views of Plot for a Biennial, the title of such exhibition, including excerpts of the catalog texts. I hopped on another bus on Thursday evening, this time to quickly visit Abu Dhabi and catch the solo-exhibition of Hassan Sharif. Here are some exhibition views of Sharif’s show, presented in what seems to be the temporary venue of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. It’s worth noting, if briefly, that Doha’s Mathaf, Art Dubai, Sharjah Biennial, and Abu Dhabi’s ADACH are a handful of “locally grown” institutions in the Gulf region. (Besides the well-known Guggenheim Museum projected for Abu Dhabi, there are plenty more educational and cultural institutions brought to the region through a form of institutional franchising.)

Thursday was my last day in the UAE and, aside from visiting Sharif’s exhibition I spent the morning and afternoon wandering through town with a colleague. We first took an Art Dubai architectural tour of Burj Khalifa. This is the tallest building in the world, the tour leader said to us, 828 meters to be exact. To clear up any doubt about what that meant, he explained that the Burj Khalifa measured the sum heights of New York’s iconic Empire State and Chrysler Building. Here are city views from Dubai, taken from that building’s observation deck in the 124th floor, as well as images of the largest aquarium in the world, which is sited in the same building complex. The burj (tower) is part of a new and innovative Dubai, and as big as it is it wasn’t enough for our wandering. We decided to look for the historical side of town. A day before, we had seen in the biennial Kamran Shirdel’s Pearls of the Persian Gulf: Dubai 1975, and didn’t want to leave Dubai without exploring some of the locations in that documentary film. After a taxi ride of some 20 minutes in a billboard-less freeway, we were suddenly set in another Dubai. Our hotel, we realized, was probably a steroidal Las Vegas version of the old town, with all the older building’s original proportions, wind towers and alleys for souks (markets). Indeed, the architecture and urban plan of this part of the city changed from vertical to horizontal. It was a flatterer and simpler, yet seemingly busier and livelier city, at least publicly so. Locals walking everywhere, or gathered in spontaneous meetings in the street or spending time outside their shops, or gathering in corners. Finally, I felt foreign.

Not even twenty percent of Dubai’s population is Emirati.

Some Independents

February 12th, 2011

There are a number of independent curators whom I have had a sustained dialogue with in the last decade or so. How and when we met is unclear; how we have maintained a dialogue is easier to say: the decade’s digital penpal frenzy has kept us together. But the pressing — albeit unvoiced — question of our epistolary exchanges is if we will continue relying on brief descriptions and low-res pics to share our curatorial projects. Implicit in this question is an interest in cultural developments happening beyond one’s local scene, and of the increasingly expanding global community bound by intellectual affinities. In addition, traveling to see every exhibition is impossible, and relying on published reviews in trade magazines and newspapers is an unsatisfactory convention. So, it’s a delight to know that independent curators who have documented their projects are sharing the materials online. Here are three cases:

Raimundas Malasauskas, a Lithuanian curator who now lives most of his time in Paris and whom I’ve collaborated with on several occasions, has posted online material relating to many of his unconventional and innovative exhibitions (leaving out most of the ones he realized at CAC in Vilnius, where he worked as curator during the 1990s, for that institutional website). Regine Basha, based in New York City, has recently launched her exhibition portfolio, also including a section of her published writing and links to her web-based projects including Pablo Leon de la Barra, originally from Mexico City but based in London for some time now, has a blog where he posts images of art he sees during his travels, as well as entries on his projects. (He founded the blog in 2000, but it’s significantly active since 2007.) Their sites tell of interesting projects taking place anywhere from a museum gallery to a white cube constructed in a far-off desert in Texas, from a basement at the Pompidou in Paris to a jungle in Colombia, even an exhibition inside a living brain.

Image: Rene Gabri for Ultimiere (2005) in

Taking The Take

October 31st, 2010

This summer, I contributed to the Guggenheim’s Museum The Take, a blog launched in conjunction to the online and multi-sited venue exhibition YouTube Play. A Biennial of Creative Video (October 22-24, 2010). The exhibition’s related blog featured entries by guest writers considered experts in film, video, and Internet culture. My contribution, “The New Video-Maker: Art Museums,” focused on video content produced by art institutions.

Image: Museo Tamayo’s new online magazine, launched in the spring.

For Curatorial Junkies

September 18th, 2010

Let me say it upfront: I consider myself a curatorial junkie. Since the mid-1990s, I began consuming what became a sudden surge of conferences and publications on exhibition history that addressed the ways in which art interpretation owes much to its forms of display. Position papers and essays presented in those platforms also argued that innovative contemporary curatorial practices have shaped new exhibition formats, and that some of these have even impacted the way art institutions redefine their cultural tasks.

Many more of the thesis presented therein attempt to define what a curator is. On this subject alone, descriptions abound. Depending on their background and vision, their motivation and projects, their degree of openness or hermeticism, their context or audiences, a curator may be: a historical researcher; an arts producer; a cultural broker; a political activist; a philosopher, theorist or translator; an events organizer; some kind of social worker; and just about any combination of these except a taste-maker alone.

Not that the most common kind of curator has disappeared –that whose specialty most often lies in an art genre, artist or artistic movement of a given time period, geography or nationality, and whose role is generally to authenticate, select and care for its corresponding oeuvre. It’s just that the field has significantly changed. And it’s just that longstanding institutional spaces are not the only sites of encounter with art. An increasing number of temporary and independent projects have emerged in the last decades, all requiring artistic directions and engaging curators. To name a few, consider site-specific exhibitions, public art festivals, biennales and other event-based forums, even publication-based projects.

Again, most of these developments in curatorial practice have been written about and theorized in conferences and books, which tend to be anthologies gathering a combination of historic and commissioned texts. It is seldom through articles published in art magazines and essays in scholarly journals. This is why the recent launch of The Exhibitionist is so promising. Edited by Jens Hoffmann, this journal is devoted to exhibition making. It is openly made by curators, and for curators. With an intention to be published twice a year, the journal promises continuity, that is, to raise questions, share processes, and address issues pertaining to curatorial practice consistently. For this last reason alone, I am already a fan.

In the editorial for The Exhibitionist inaugural issue, released in January 2010, Hoffmann points as its primary inspiration the French journal Cahiers du cinéma (f. 1951). The editor, a long-time independent curator and most recently institutionally affiliated—Hoffmann is the director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco—intends to position the work of the contemporary curator along the lines of what Francois Truffaut called the auteur filmmaker in 1950s. Certainly, Hoffmann is not thinking any curator’s work could be that of an auteur. He believes, however, that the act of exhibition making, a critical and creative endeavor, does develop and puts out there a language of its own.

The Exhibitionist commissions personal essays about influential exhibitions to curators in the field; scholarly approaches to historic exhibitions; various assessments on a current major exhibition; a section called Typologies examines a specific exhibition format (the first issue focuses on solo shows); another tackles with exhibition making; one more features curators writing one of their own recent projects; and lastly, a brief text addresses contemporary curatorial practice—along the lines of the auteur figure that the journal editorial board intends to articulate. The first issue of the journal is great, and much expected is the next.

This was originally published in the magazine Celeste (Mexico, summer 2010).


September 12th, 2010

Murmur’s second publication is the Spanish version of Dispersion, an essay by New York-based visual artist Seth Price. The essay was originally written in English and published in 2002 by the artist. Like Murmur’s Conceptualism and Economy, this publication is available here as a downloadable-PDF at no cost.

Murmur is an independent curatorial initiative that I am developing intuitively and quite apart from my institutional work.

Visual Arts Facsimile

April 1st, 2010

In 1973, the Museo de Arte Moderno (MAM) in Mexico City launched the magazine Artes Visuales. The magazine was one of the museum projects of the ever-dynamic Fernando Gamboa, MAM’s director from 1972 to 1981. During his lifetime, and through and beyond his work at MAM, Gamboa became a leading exhibition designer and organizer, museums director, arts promoter, as well as prominent figure in all matters relating to cultural politics in this country. His work is recognized for its attempts to present a “modern” Mexico to the world.

This year, MAM published an anthology of Artes Visuales compiling selected pages in facsimile of each of its issues, and including a forward by Josefa Ortega and an essay by Carla Stellweg, collaborator of Gamboa and co-founder end editor of the magazine. The book is released in conjunction to MAM’s current exhibition Fernando Gamboa: La utopía moderna. Curated by Ana Elena Mallet, the exhibition explores Gamboa’s work as exhibition maker, cultural politician and arts institution builder at large.

In the book’s Documenting the Undocumented, Carla Stellweg narrates the story of Artes Visuales. I take particular interest in her text, for beyond being a personal essay that describes the inspirations and history of the magazine, it takes the writing style of storytelling to anecdotally account a particular arts scene in Mexico during the 1960s and 1970s, and a little written-about, even seldom discussed, cultural institutional history of the time. Stellweg cites influential projects to the making and emergence of Artes Visuales, including The Counter Biennial (1971), a book of Museo de Independencia Cultural Latinoamericana, known as the project MICLA; the New York’s Museum of Modern Art exhibition and catalog Information (1970); and Mexico’s Taller de la Grafica Popular (founded 1937).

Stellweg openly states in her essay how Artes Visuales was tied to a political ideology beyond (and, perhaps, also through) the curatorial program of the state-run and publicly funded MAM. It was discursively part of larger cultural project of Mexico’s 1970-1976 President, Luis Echeverria, which she describes as being rooted in “a return to the democratic ideals of basic human rights and freedom of expression…” and a call to “intellectuals who had left Mexico in 1968 to return and be part of a reconstruction process.” Echeverria was recently prosecuted for the Tlatelolclo massacre of 1968, and other similar events and insurrections that led to killings while he served in the cabinet of the presidency before him and during his own. Notwithstanding, Stellweg acknowledges this, and that relating Artes Visuales with his governance is a tricky subject to address, yet, I should add, necessary for mapping public projects and their structures.

The image above is part of Vicente Rojo’s contribution for issue six of Artes Visuales (June 1975), guest-edited by Salvador Elizondo, and reprinted as facsimile in the new anthology of the same title published in 2010 by Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City. This issue was project-based, and approached the use of image, text and typeface in concrete poetry and contemporary art of that time. The visual artist Vicente Rojo collaborated as graphic designer of Artes Visuales.


March 17th, 2010

The first publication of Murmur is a brief but incisive anthology titled Conceptualism and Economy. The publication gathers text-based works by visual artists: a performance script by Mario Garcia Torres in collaboration with writer Aaron Schuster; a project proposal by Lee Lozano; an essay by Seth Price; and a manifesto-like speech by Joe Scanlan.

More than the market strategies of conceptualism or financial aspects of art, the texts included raise questions about the economy of means. With original texts in English and translations to the Spanish, this inaugural publication of Murmur is shy of 30 pages and available here as a downloadable-PDF at no cost. A small edition of a printed version is out, too.

Murmur is an independent curatorial initiative, which I’ll be developing intuitively and quite apart from my institutional work.

Only the truth —contemporary opera and the making of legends

March 15th, 2010

After years of conceptualization and production, visual artist Rubén Ortiz-Torres and his sister, the music composer Gabriela Ortiz, premiered their opera, Únicamente la verdad (Only the truth), last Thursday in Mexico City’s Teatro Julio Castillo. This new opera is an interpretation of the many myths and stories about a character, Camelia la Tejana, with a plot unfolding in contemporary times in the border region of Mexico and the United States. Starting with addressing the very question of where she is from, the opera’s overture is powerful, and it is accompanied by a rapid, tense performance of illegal border crossing.

The opera unfolds in a simple, elegant stage set: around the perimeter of the theater is a square, wooden platform as wide as a common sidewalk. Its edges are connected through the center by a mechanical bridge. This perimeter stage is elevated about three meters from the ground, and underneath, partially visible, plays the orchestra. The bridge is the only stage element that is mobile—at once curved, it is uncurled and raised depending on the scene. But this does not lessen the stage from being dynamic, as it is constantly being redefined with each act’s choreography. Different videos play in the background, as well as in the left- and right-hand walls of the stage, at times showing photography of landscapes, and at other times with more abstract, text-based or figurative animations that complement, or even question, the narratives sung.

The “Tejana” in Camelia’s name tells she is from Texas, one of the first truths questioned in the opera. According to most legends, though, she became known after assassinating her lover, Emilio Varela, due to an unexplained betrayal involving marijuana trafficking. After Varela’s death, Camelia la Tejana was increasingly implicated in other deaths, one of which was Eleazar Pacheco Moreno’s train-track suicide in the crime-ridden city of Ciudad Juarez. In Únicamente la verdad men who claim to have known her, sing about her life, often with contradictory stories.

Contrabando y traicion” (Contraband and Betrayal), a 1970s popular song by the music band Los Tigres del Norte, made Camelia la Tejana legendary. The band’s piece also popularized corridos —a narrative song characteristic of northern Mexican music tradition often about famed criminals, small-town heroes and emigration— and, more poignantly, narcocorridos— ballads with themes about narcotics, drug trafficking and other illegal activities.

While Camelia la Tejana is largely considered a fictional character, Alarma, the sensationalist newspaper covering the story of the man’s suicide in Ciudad Juarez, claims she exists in real life –and many people believe this, too. A photograph illustrating the scene of the crime attributes a weeping woman next to the mutilated body of Pacheco Moreno. As mass media takes over the story, different impersonators of Camelia la Tejana have begun to appear, claiming the infamous identity of this woman and developing more and more fables about her. We also hear from these Camelias in the opera.

Combining the folkloric corrido with orchestral interpretations of classic and pop music, mixing recorded soundtracks (by Gabriela) with digital videos (by Rubén), and interpreting a common-person fable in the high-form of opera, Únicamente la verdad knits one and a dozen different stories of Camelia la Tejana. The multiple perspectives and narratives given to a single character and event, like the assassination of Varela at one point, and the suicide of Pacheco Moreno at another, bring to mind structural aspects previously worked in film, such as in Kurosawa’s Rashomon. With some likely reference to Peter Watkins’s Paris Commune, the opera Únicamente la verdad also incorporates —in a creative off-stage live performance that’s doubled with live closed-circuit video— mass media’s role in popularizing, aggrandizing, even distorting a story.

Únicamente la verdad is a major production for the Ortiz’s, a wonderful contemporary opera, and quite worthily opens the citywide Festival de México, taking place from March 11-28, 2010 in Mexico City.

Intellectually Inauspicious Environments

August 30th, 2009

Over a year ago, while Yishai Jusidman was preparing for a major survey exhibition of his work, which is currently on view at the Museo de Arte Moderno (MAM) in Mexico City, I had an extended email exchange with the artist about his artistic process and practice. At some point, our correspondence was contemplated as a dialogue piece that could be included in that exhibition catalogue. But both Yishai and I had disagreements—of the good kind.

At the heart of our quarrel was how to interpret his work. In our exchange, we discussed art theory and art schools, aesthetics and semantics, the use of reference and the self-referential in contemporary art. While I pressed on social context to approach his painting, his insistence was on aesthetics. After a couple of months and over five thousand words exchanged, we parted ways. It was only until some weeks ago, that we informally chatted and reconsidered the dialogue again, this time not with the purpose to expand it, but simply to publish.

I believe this dialogue with Yishai is interesting for several reasons. On the one hand, the piece is quite personal without being coded in private language, and as such allows for a more intimate view of his work. On the other hand, the dialogue is grounded in contemporary debates about methodology, as it informally unpacks different yet synchronic approaches to making and interpreting art today.

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Out this summer

July 22nd, 2009

These days, with much moving to and from cities, I’ve had little to no time at my desk. Thankfully, I devoted much of the spring to writing and editing, and some of that is being published this summer. This makes me feel a bit less anxious. The current issue of Afterall has an essay of mine about a social art project by artist Michael Rakowitz. After reflecting upon his artistic practice, I developed an argument on the necessity of storytelling in his work, and the importance of anecdote in contemporary art.

Personal experience as an objective approach was also somewhat of a motivation for working on “The Aesthetics and Politics of Intimacy,” the inaugural issue of the online journal Where We Are Now. I worked on launching this journal and co-edited its first issue with artist Marisa Jahn. This is an excerpt from the issue’s editorial statement:

Intimacy is often thought of in terms of a feeling of rawness, confluence, and proximity. The space of intimacy often feels atemporal, privileging the safety of disclosure and heightened physiological, sexual, or affective response. But how does a geopolitical and micropolitical understanding of the conditions that frame intimacy questions notion of the body and self? The contributors examine these questions from the perspectives of art, architecture, film, and law.

The Aesthetics and Politics of Intimacy” includes contributions by an interesting group of people: Claire Barliant, Svetlana Boym, Rene Gabri, Andrea Geyer, Joseph Grima, Jill Magid, Dave Rankin & Marisa Jahn, and Mary Anne Staniszewski. The online journal Where We Are Now is programmed as a blog, and your comments to the articles on this issue are welcomed. The website also has a listings feature, and you can freely post event-listings of interesting programs and happenings.

Where We Are Now was launched at the Vera List Center at the New School in New York City on June 25th, and it included brief presentations by contributors to “The Aesthetics and Politics of Intimacy,” as well as a performance by Jill Magid and Eddie Vas. Images of the event are on Flickr.