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mexico is different…

nigel helyer at the transitio_mx02 festival

Tierra y Libertad, Iván Puig Tierra y Libertad, Iván Puig

God is feeling friendly so he invites all the devils and demons to a dinner party but he imposes one condition, they must eat and drink without bending their arms! Without a second thought, the devils and demons accept and arrive promptly for the feast. They eat voraciously, lifting the delicious food and drink vertically above their heads with arms outstretched, pouring the victuals into their mouths like an avalanche. It is a bunch of happy, but very messy, devils who return home that evening, God is well pleased.

Following this success, God decides to hold another dinner party and this time he invites all the angels, democratically imposing exactly the same conditions. The angels think about this awhile and then accept. They fly into the dining room to take their seats and say grace. God watches with a smile on his face as the angels begin to eat, taking food in their hands and offering it to their neighbours.

This metaphor of communal action was the foundation for the curatorial strategy behind Transitio_MX02 festival, this year entitled Nomadic Borders. Conceived as a frontier upon which we temporarily converge before transit, the festival experimented with a series of multi-skilled curatorial teams tasked to interrogate concepts of Communities-in-Process and Processes-in-Community addressing the problematic relationships between communities and technologies.

As an Australian participant it was inevitable I’d contrast and compare México and Australia as two ‘New World’ post-colonial cultures, that exhibit a curious blend of parallel and divergent cultural formations. Both are peopled by Indigenous cultures, both were savaged by aggressive European invasion and both are now ironically tied to the apron strings of the USA economy. The salient issue, why do the two cultures feel so different?

Stereotypes are never useful, and here in Los Estados Unitos Méxicanos (The United States of México) they are redundant. At Tenotihilan (México City) the Conquistadors encountered an extraordinary urban complex, geometrically organised at a massive scale. Following the conquest, the Spanish (literally) overlaid it with the colonial architecture of Imperial Spain, grandiose and expansive.

Revolutionary México re-organised colonial urbanism with the mark of Socialist triumph, leaving contemporary México City with vistas, monuments and public buildings that dwarf those of Hausmann’s or Mitterand’s Paris.

In contra distinction, the Indigenous people of Australia had evolved a subtle and mostly immaterial culture, stabilised sometime in the Palaeolithic era, that was in effect, invisible to the industrial era English colonisers. The English brought with them the crude utilitarian architecture of the penal colony; gaols, wharfs, warehouses and the odd bourgeoisie villa, formed the architectural palette, cemented by little or no urban planning until the Victorian Gold Rush finally established both urban planning and civic architecture of a comprehensive nature.

The divergence between Méxican and Australian patrimony begins from first contact. Both sets of colonisers were ruthless but the Spanish, unlike the English, mixed. México is 80% mestizo, producing a hybrid culture typical of so many colonised countries, richly complex, eclectic, and wide open to receive and adopt new forms. Such pluralism makes for a complex and at times contradictory society but one that is essentially free of fundamentalist or purist views. The Australian government sanctioned mantra of multiculturalism is less of an organic hybrid in its fragmentary mosaic form—neatly lampooned by the Chicano artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña as culti-multuralism.

To compound this divergence, Spain was at the zenith of an agrarian empire but England was rapidly developing as an industrial powerhouse set on establishing a global economy. Despite being exploited as a mine and farm site, Australia remained connected to the paradigms of invention, research and industry, whereas by and large México has a poor international reputation in these areas but is strongly identified with the arts and literature, in effect the Méxican national product.

New technology is thus a fully-imported consumer product, with which Méxicans in general and artists in particular have a flirtatious relationship, playing with the seductiveness of such technology but at the same time cultivating an awareness of the pitfalls that such seduction implies. Grace Quintanilla pointed out to me that an artist can be a very good photographer even if they have no part in constructing the camera; likewise México is producing serious and mature works of technological art focused on the development of a critical discourse rather than being obsessed by the technology employed.

To elaborate, here are six vignettes drawn from a large and polyglot event, which spread over three impressive venues and which included a four-day critical symposium. Whilst all of these works rely upon technology it was not the principal focus. The level of experiment and risk-taking designed into the curatorial process was clearly expressed in the exhibition venues.


Sheen, slick and cool are not adjectives that spring to mind when contemplating Jardin by Chicano artist Jamie Ruiz Otis (México). One could use technoserene to describe this formal zen garden setting totally constructed from grains of grey recycled computer plastic, the solemn grey rocks themselves VDU monitor cases. Being zen the work was otherwise mute and self-effacing but drew the visitor into a conflicted world of technological pollution, recycling, conspicuous consumption and the ersatz in general.

carreta nagua siglo xxi

Ricardo Miranda (Nicaragua/USA) worked pretty hard for his money performing his Carreta Nagua siglo XXI project. Each day he took visitors for a spin in La Alameda park in his homemade rickshaw, muscle power providing both the motive force and the electrical energy to power the interactive AV narrative dealing with the migrant experiences of his family in New York City. A collision of two forms of basic technology but employed as a pretext for direct social engagement, this work dissolved the barriers between artist and audience in an earnest manner—a sweating artist cannot be accused of being idle.

continuum, continuus

The Laboratorio Alameda was once a nunnery, replete with an outdoor barbeque area used to burn heretics during the inquisition (yes they got to the New World too). Continuum, Continuus, a video-sound work by the Croatian artist Toni Mestrovic swells to fill one of the huge arched interior spaces. Enveloped by a fat, rich and totally immersive surround-sound field, reminiscent of the bottom end of a Gregorian chant, is a simple looped image of a man endlessly handling rocks. The protagonist is rebuilding a Croatian dwelling; no moral play is attempted but the work is pregnant with potential.

sonic bench

Sonic Bench by British artist Kaffe Matthews presented both a stand-alone outdoor public sonic-object and a performance work. With origins in the collaborative Music for Bodies project [], Kaffe’s audio sculpture invited an embrace of the haptic and the kinaesthetic. Destined for reception in the viscera rather than the ear, a shifting palette of tones enveloped visitors via skin and muscle contact, in a sonic massage. Like many other works in Nomadic Borders, the Sonic Bench shouted out for a re-enchantment and re-embodiment of new media in a shift of attention away from technical delivery to affect.

black market

Walking under a massive stone arch, a small coin falls on my shoulder, an insignificant, almost valueless silvery disc. But the coins keep coming, a slow cascade launched into the void by an industrial conveyor belt, jutting over the balustrade above. Black Market, by Mario de Vega (México), employs these diminutive specks of value to represent the minimum wage of a day labourer in México City. It seems pitiful—it is pitiful in a city full of people struggling, in a country struggling, against the behemoth of the USA.

tierra y libertad

In a not dissimilar vein, Iván Puig, another Méxican artist, has established an electro-mechanical drilling and excavation mechanism in the galleries of CENART (Centro Nacional de las Artes, a 35 acre art, architecture and performing arts academy). Tierra y Libertad (Land and Freedom) has ground through the floor and brings to the surface a meagre supply of brown México City dirt. Another canny mechanism processes the payload and heat-seals it into small plastic bags, free for the taking, the conjunction of land and economy, the constant depletion of resources and the avarice of the cultural market do not fail to surface.

Transitio_MX02 Internal Festival of Electronic Arts & Video, México City, Oct 12-20, 2007,

RealTime issue #83 Feb-March 2008 pg. 18

© Nigel Helyer; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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