Contra Flujo: Independence and Revolution

Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts, UTEP

Erin Kimmel

(left) Marcela Armas, I-Machinarius, 2010; industrial chain and gears, ½ hp motor AC, lubricating system, crude oil, steel tank; (right) Ivan Puig, Lider de Opinión, 2008; video installation, models, closed circuit TV; courtesy the artists and Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts, El Paso

Arcangel Constantini, contra <~> flujo, 2010; wood, electronics; courtesy the artist and Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts, El Paso

Much of the new media work on view in Contra Flujo: Independence and Revolution at The University of Texas–El Paso’s Rubin Center delivers an unequivocal critique of the Mexican government and relations across the United States/Mexico border. In Marcela Armas’ wall sculpture I-Machinarius, for example, a hidden motor propels a metallic chain around a series of cogs to form a rotating outline in the shape of Mexico. Crude oil lubricates the cogs and drips down the walls, leaving pungent fumes wafting throughout the gallery. Furthermore, Gilberto Esparza’s ceiling-suspended mobile, Remanente (Remainder), drops bullet casings at intervals determined by a device that records the median daily number of deaths in the Mexican drug war during the past three months. Despite Armas’ emblematic representation of Mexico as a merciless machine and Esparza’s implication of the United States as arms supplier for the drug war, both artists reject the label “political” for their art.

In fact, each of the seven contemporary artists featured in the exhibition, all of whom live and work in Mexico City, repudiate the “political” label. Though none of them regularly take on Mexican sociopolitical issues in their individual practices, here the artists have made explicit gestures to that effect in keeping with the show’s curatorial premise. Kerry Doyle, assistant director of the Rubin Center, organized Contra Flujo (“against the flow”) to address current Mexican politics, particularly their manifestation in El Paso, Texas. El Paso is one of several international cities hosting elaborate celebrations of the bicentennial of Mexico’s Independence and the centennial of its Revolution organized by the Mexican consulate and embassy. For the past four years, the Mexican government has funneled huge sums into the renovation of museums and historical sites in preparation for the celebrations. Much of the funding for this fanfare, including galas and a bicentennial flame traveling the country, has come from the budget for traditional arts groups.

In response to these celebrations, Doyle, with assistance from Karla Jasso, assistant director of Laboratorio Arte Alameda in Mexico City, invited new-media artists to reflect on their country’s social and political issues in 2010. The topics these artists subsequently considered run the gamut of Mexico’s grave problems: a failing economy, drug cartel violence and government corruption, as well as inflammatory and ineffective accessory media coverage. Despite the pointed conceptual thrust of the show, some of the critiques offered are so broad that they become generalized visual and auditory reiterations of the all-too-familiar problems that plague Mexico. The exhibition’s strongest statements reflexively address such issues of representation, specifically, the mediated relationship between Mexico and the United States.

Ivan Puig, Lider de Opinión (detail), 2008; video installation, models, closed circuit TV; courtesy the artist and Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts, El Paso

Lider de Opinión (detail), 2008; video installation, models, closed circuit TV; courtesy the artist and Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts, El Paso

Foremost among these is Ivan Puig’s two-part multimedia installation Lider de Opinión (Opinion Leader), which spiritedly explores the role that stock images play in validating contemporary Mexican national—and, thanks to global media, international—news narratives. His work underscores the power of an image to shape, if not construct, social and political realities. The installation starts with a modest but comfortable sitting area where a nightly newscast, “Lider de Opinion Noticias,” the “one minute spot from Mexico and around the world,” flashes on an antiquated television. An attractive Mexican anchorwoman reviews the day’s news, chronicling the shutdown of PEMEX by Mexican Congress, the investigation of alternative energy, the discovery of a refinery complex built by organized crime to manufacture illegal drugs, an earthquake in Greece that unearthed ancient remains and, finally, the role of drug use in causing premature birth. In tandem with the narration, six images flash across the screen: an oil rig in the ocean, a showroom with a new car, an arsenal of contraband weapons, skeletons being exhumed in a ditch, city ruins and a congressional hall. Once the spot finishes, the broadcast begins again with the same images but slightly different stories. The installation’s adjacent room reveals the sources of the images: six cameras recording six large dioramas, feeding images in real time to the television in the first room. Puig’s intricately detailed miniatures replicate the stock images circulated nightly among worldwide media outlets. Viewers quickly realize that Puig’s sleight of hand parallels the workings of mass media, which do not present reality so much as construct it to meet the demands of the government and corporate interests that influence, if not, control the press. Though hardly a new revelation, Puig’s witty unveiling pushes his installation past ludic simulation to persuasive critique.

Arcangel Constantini’s contra <~> flujo also presents an experiential interrogation of mass media, namely, media’s effect on relationships across the border. The “other side,” according to Constantini, “is a spectacle to be watched from the comfort and safety of our own homes.” Circumventing alterity as pure spectacle, Constantini uses Ekiga, an open-source version of Skype, to create a full-body, cross-border connection between residents of the neighboring border towns El Paso and Juarez. Using metal tubes, a transformer and electrodes, Constantini constructed two icpiticayotl (Nahuatl for “electricity”) boxes, placing one in the Rubin Center and one at the Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez. Icpiticayotl shock boxes are a Mexican cantina staple. For a small price, customers can pay los señors de los toques to receive an electroshock. Constantini adds an auditory element to the box in the form of speakers that emit sound oscillations echoing the participants’ muscle contractions. He also adds Ekiga, the live visual feed, which allows participants on both sides of the border to see and hear the “other” getting shocked. Simply watching and hearing the full-body spasms that accompany each shock is a jarring experience.

Despite pervasive conceptions of media as non-corporeal, Constantini’s work delivers a very physical sensation to people whose contact with the other would otherwise remain abstract. Each shock becomes a startling reminder that there is a reality to Juarez ignored in the sensationalistic, murder-and-mayhem narrative reported each night via mass media outlets. As the collective understanding of what’s happening in Juarez slips from stereotyped visions of a new Wild West toward more hellish proportions, people want less and less to deal with Juarez and, perhaps, Mexico at large. Both Puig and Constantini challenge this media-fueled washing of hands and reintroduce human agency into a badly neglected cultural landscape.

Erin Kimmel is a writer living in Marfa.

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