Art, Diasporas and Globalization in Mexico: On the Limits of Instability

February 19, 2018

This is one of several articles commissioned for and published in conjunction with the 2018 Seminario Fundación Cisneros, Disruptions: Dilemmas Regarding the Image in Contemporaneity


Along with climate change, contemporary migration is the other massive problem defining the United Nations’ agenda for years to come. Current diasporas—in contrast to those produced by the dawn of modernity, including those that took place in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century—are characterized by a deepening of the ontological fracture of subjectivity, the body, and time.

Globalization, as Deleuze and Guattari saw it in the 1980s, is not merely a stadium for the development of capital, but for a configuration of a sense of the world and of existence in which differentiated forms are defined: on one hand, of subjects, objects, and desires, and on the other, forms of abstract exchange of added value (money) in which the chain of production and consumption generates an inequity and an originative disproportion that, far from overcoming the differences between rich and poor, deepens them to the degree that what becomes administrable is the lives of individuals. Precisely at the junction of subjects, their desires, and money as a value of abstract equivalence, a new configuration of economic and political relations is produced, one that makes way for a mode of production best described as neo-slavery, of which forced migrations are undoubtedly the epitome.

Let us reflect for a moment on two contemporary figures: that of undocumented immigrants and that of those displaced by war and crisis. If these forms of contemporary diaspora have something in common, it is the fact that in some way their bodies are expropriated. In this sense, the extractive logic of contemporary capitalism does not refer only to the harm that the economy produces in the territories of so-called emerging economies, but also the way in which the force of work inserts itself into said extractive economy.

This social dynamic of capital has not been foreign to contemporary art, in particular that produced in emerging economies, whose fundamental difference from what is produced in the first world is that the aesthetic and the conceptual (the art-life/art-language relationship as one of the constants that defines the contemporary practice of art in our time) is directly linked with the material and existential condition produced by the logic of subtractive capital. As opposed to developed economies, art from the poor regions of the world produces certain poetics and discourses that are only explained as functions of cultural, social, and political processes configured in the context of the third world.

After the development of art in the 20th century, the question is not whether or not there is critical art, but rather under what conditions art can or cannot be critical with respect to the hegemonic systems of power. In the case of Mexico, the critical radicality of art in the last decade has centered on violence as the vital pathos of Mexican society, in particular the violence produced by organized crime and, more concretely, that related to narcotrafficking. A paradigmatic example of this practice was the project titled De que otra cosa podemos hablar, presented by Teresa Margolles and the Venice Biennial in 2009. A violence that, in addition to being related not only to the distribution of drugs, but to the flow of the exchange of merchandise that has drawn the commercial routes generated from the signing of NAFTA, includes the flow of routes of undocumented immigrants who are tortured, kidnapped, and, in many cases, disappeared and murdered.

In this context, the relationship between art and migration is something more than an opportunistic topic that can be appropriated by the system of contemporary art. In Latin America, and particularly in Mexico, the art-migration relationship occupies, or at least should occupy, a fundamental place, by virtue of particular characteristics of Mexico’s migration processes that do not go unnoticed by certain types of artistic creation. This particularity has to do with at least three things: first, that the Mexican territory and the commercial relationship with North America (Canada and the United States) converts the border into something porous just as much as it seeks to close it; second, with the fact that Mexican immigration policies are full of ill-defined legal and political parameters that produce impunity and corruption within the migratory and security systems in Mexico; and third, that since the 1950s the contracting of cheap labor has favored unequal development among the economies of North America (specifically within the United States). In summary, there is a disparity that produces a condition of radical vulnerability, which materializes in what I previously defined as expropriation of the body in the contemporary regime of neo-slavery. In their totality, what these three elements define, among other questions, are the aesthetic-political conditions of artistic production.

I am particularly interested here in referring to three artists in whose works the relationship of the body, migration, and the border traces a certain aesthetic condition of migration: one that has to do with the presence of mythical violence to the “peasant or indigenous body” in the work of Edgardo Aragón (Mexico, 1985); one related to the trade of bodies and that which is sinister in the video-performance Paradox of Praxis 5 by Francis Alÿs (Belgium, 1959); and one that deals with the relationship between instinct and labor in the set of works by Miguel Fernández de Castro (Mexico, 1986).

Tinieblas, a video installation by Edgardo Aragón, is a multichannel video piece that looks at the contemporary configuration of the ruin of the Mexican countryside. The thirteen members of a Oaxacan music band play a funeral march: one for rural Mexico. In this piece the artist makes use of the most radical imagery of the modernizing project of the Mexican Revolution: the countryside and its environment. But, rather than recurring to a characteristic utopic construction, the artist shows the present actuality of an abandoned field. In the way of a remastered murmur out of the stories of Juan Rulfo, it would seem that the ghost of nationalism returns as a pulsing of death; as the violence of migration taking the form of melancholy and the ruin of the landscape.

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Installation shot of Edgardo Aragón's Tinieblas (2011)

 

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Still from Edgardo Aragón's Tinieblas (2011)

Murders (particularly those of women) in Ciudad Juárez are characterized by the fact that many of the remains of victims are never recovered. This may be for two reasons: family members’ fears that they will suffer retaliations, and many of these murders are of undocumented immigrants. The treatment of this theme in Alÿs’ video Paradox of Praxis 5 is approached via metaphor, as tends to be a constant in his work. Far from showing the violence or the cadavers, in the video the artist commits himself to kicking a burning soccer ball around the streets of Juárez during the course of an entire day. In what is tempting to see as a paraphrasing of the long journey from day to night, the ball that is consumed by flames illuminates the uncertain places of disappearance in this city on the border of Mexico and the United States. The fire is more than a form of light: it is the threshold of the disappearance of bodies that inhabit the edges of the sinister.

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Francis Alÿs (in collaboration with Julien Devaux, Rafael Ortega, Alejandro Morales, and Félix Blume), Paradox of Praxis 5: Sometimes we dream as we live & sometimes we live as we dream Ciudad Juárez, México (part of Ciudad Juárez projects) (2013)

 

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Francis Alÿs (in collaboration with Julien Devaux, Rafael Ortega, Alejandro Morales, and Félix Blume), Paradox of Praxis 5: Sometimes we dream as we live & sometimes we live as we dream Ciudad Juárez, México (part of Ciudad Juárez projects) (2013)

 

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Francis Alÿs (in collaboration with Julien Devaux, Rafael Ortega, Alejandro Morales, and Félix Blume), Paradox of Praxis 5: Sometimes we dream as we live & sometimes we live as we dream Ciudad Juárez, México (part of Ciudad Juárez projects) (2013)

Alternatively, Miguel Fernández de Castro’s production is intimately related to the transfer of drugs in the north of Mexico. Its “found objects,” photographs, videos, and installations are allegories that explore the relationships between place and animal. It is not a visual register of the transit of drugs from Mexico to the United States, but an aesthetic that shows the vital co-dependence between narcotrafficking micro-routes in northern Mexico with the forms of displacement of cattle in the desert. By way of minimum surface capture, Fernández de Castro activates the relationship between instinct and object as an elemental logic of capital. In this artist’s work the tension between the object-drugs (merchandise) and the desire-instinct is a metonymic and aesthetic criticism of the production relationships of contemporary capitalism.

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Miguel Fernández de Castro, Tambos quemados (2012)

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It is impossible to fully elucidate in such a brief space a problem as complex as the relationship among art, aesthetics, and migration.  Art has explored it through numerous forms and strategies; nevertheless, here I wanted to concentrate on some practices whose particularity on the subject does not have to do with the attempt to show the subjective moment of migration—the immigrant—but rather its material aesthetic-ontological substrata. Art’s presentation of the victim, as Primo Levy would think, falls into an ethical paradox in the measure by which it requires the witness to realize the expropriation of the body in a radical way, and perhaps for this reason in this record the silence of the image never achieves its revelation. Perhaps this is why, at least in respect to art (I leave aside film, narrative, and poetry), I have barely begun to describe these considerations. The arguments sketched here are mere traces that seek to show the mode in which the violence of capital exerts its subtractive force on “subjectivities” in which violence is shown more through ruin, absence and life itself—animal existence.