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<nettime> The US-Mexico Border
Paul D. Miller on Wed, 5 Sep 2001 05:57:55 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> The US-Mexico Border


Coco - it saddens me a little bit to see you come down so hard on 
something that essentially, is trying to raise consciousness about 
the issue. I think that almost anything that raises awareness of 
what's going on down there is helpful and should be supported. 
Perhaps this is a generational issue - polyvalence (as I've seen with 
old left charlatan folks like Mark Dery) is incredibly difficult for 
more... uh... "literary" approaches to these issues that don't do 
anything except describe the situation in theory speak... and I give 
crazy props to Fran for trying to deal with the issue in an actionary 
and dynamic way rather than "re-actionary" rehashing of theory. 
Praxis makes this alot more fun. Hey! More dialog is better. Whatever 
happened to that old spirit of debate? I'd love to have people air 
their opinions on this kind of thing alot more often... it's much 
more refreshing than the usual Euro oriented "cyber-crit" stuff that 
goes on on this list...  is it all that difficult to be a fan of BOTH 
Electronic Disturbance Theater and the Border Hack concept? C'mon, 
there's room for all of this.... How about Ricardo and Fran have a 
debate posted through Nettime? That'd be fun to see, and enlightening 
as well. Not to mention would bring a refreshing multi-cultural 
ambiance to Nettime. Any thoughts? New thread?

okay,
peace as always,
Paul

>ps, I loved the section of your essay that deals with issues that I 
>think that Fran has been trying to explore as well. To quote you: 
>"the artists in question [in Coco's essay] examine the
>human cost of "progress." They all describe a world in which some human
>beings can exist impervious to the demands of the social while others are
>viewed as cumbersome weight. They make work about societies in which power is
>best expressed as the ability to commodify all elements of life, and whose
>impoverished majorities are subject to modes of objectification that the
privileged hide from view."
I think that Fran could have some material to add to this...




>      [also To: <faces-l {AT} yahoogroups.de>]
>
>In the wake of borderhack2 (which I did not attend) and the heated debates
>about its legitimacy and validity on nettime-latino (in which I did
>participate), I have received several emails from Europeans, Americans and
>Mexicans full of questions and comments that make painfully clear that there
>are several overdetermined structured absences in the net.art/activist
>dealings with the US-Mexico border. Cybertheory's overemphasis on spatial
>conceptualization of the virtual and its tendency to unquestioningly conflate
>abstract concepts with physical realities is encouraging a superficial
>"flanneur" approach to the border that equates "knowledge" with a quick tour
>of the border landscape, yet another version of leftist culture tourism. The
>fetishistic reduction of technology to computers occludes the possibility of
>understanding how metaphorical " hacking", recycling, detournement of
>American machines has been part of the Mexican and Chicano strategy of real
>survival and culture jamming for decades -- the culture of low rider cars
>being only one example.  The history of border art that has addressed the
>power relations that structure intercultural exchange appears to be unknown
>or willfully forgotten.  Worst of all, to my mind is the absence of
>comprehension about the psycho-dynamics of intercultural relations that
>border exchanges make so apparent. One particularly painful exchange with a
>Mexican cyberfeminist who wanted to discuss Sandy Stone and Helen Cixous with
>me while she dismissively equated her compatriots who make art about the
>border with those who make bad art about indigenous Mexicans in order to get
>grants revealed what I already suspected - that Euro-American cybertheory
>may, however inadvertently, be a form of escapism when reconfigured in a
>neo-colonial context. The Europeans and Americans involved with borderhack
>appear to have very little understanding of how their techno-formalism and
>postructuralist extrapolations of borders and hybrids easily serves the
>interests of the neoliberal technocratic elite now managing cultural affairs
>in Mexico that wants to do everything possible to obfuscate the relationship
>between new technologies, militarism,  privatization and the immiseration of
>the indigenous and mestizo Mexican majority, and to promote art works devoid
>of direct references to social, economic and political crises in Mexico
>brought on or exacerbated by free trade policies.
>
>In light of these problems, I am posting a chapter from my forthcoming book (
>The Bodies That Were Not Ours and Other Writings, Routledge/iNIVA, 2001) that
>reflects upon the work of several artists who have responded to the impact of
>free trade on Mexican people and social life.
>
>Coco Fusco
>
>The Unbearable Weightiness of Beings: Art in Mexico after NAFTA
>© 2001, Coco Fusco
>
>"Death is a mirror which reflects the vain gesticulations of the living."
>         Octavio Paz
>The Labyrinth of Solitude
>
>     When I arrived in Mexico City in the summer of 1994, just six months
>after the Free Trade Agreement went into effect and the Zapatistas launched
>the first indigenously based, electronically savvy revolution, there were two
>conversations I remember hearing at every gathering. One was about the
>eloquent letters appearing in the press by Subcomandante Marcos that were
>making the damas in the wealthy neighborhoods of the capital swoon. Many
>people I spoke to were impressed that news of the rebelsí occupation of San
>Cristobal had reverberated around the world, and this had given them hope
>that real political changes were imminent. Intellectuals and artists were
>preparing to journey to Chiapas for the first Encuentro that El Sub had
>convened to strengthen support for the rebelsí demands and to elaborate a
>critique of neoliberal policiesí effect on Mexicoís poor.
>The other conversation was about an exhibition that was taking place at the
>Museo Carrillo Gil that featured dead animals.  Ensconced in the affluent San
>Angel neighborhood in the south of the city, the museum was dedicated to
>showcasing contemporary art, but it did not have a reputation for taking
>risks or embracing the macabre. I joined a group of friends who were
>attending a gathering there one afternoon, and can remember being overwhelmed
>by the smells that greeted me as I entered the main gallery area and made my
>way up the ramps. Wafts of formaldehyde and a faint scent of putrescent flesh
>floated through the air.
>    The exhibit by the Mexican artistsí collective SEMEFO, entitled Lavatio
>Corporis, began with a reproduction of a JosÈ Clemente Orozco painting that
>lay in a box parallel to the floor. In the center of the image was the head
>of a fallen horse pointed vertically upward, framed by the slain riderís
>pierced palm and head. Beyond the reproduction was a rusted carousel with
>three preserved colts chained and suspended above a bed of spikes. Next to
>the carousel were three metal rings set above eye level, each containing a
>preserved horse fetus that was visibly desiccating. Further into the gallery
>were six Lucite blocks arranged in a descending row, each holding a sliced
>section of a horseís head. Finally, at the rear of the gallery were two older
>dead horses, each shackled to metal constructions reminiscent of torture
>paraphernalia. One horse was splayed out on all fours, while the other was
>held up with his head thrown backward and his rear legs chained wide apart.
>When I have spoken of this exhibition to American and European friends, they
>invariably think of Damien Hirst and his lifeless shark, lambs, and split
>pigs. But Hirstís animals are exhibited under glass, like specimens in a
>science display. SEMEFOís horses on the other hand were exposed to the
>elements in the museum, their poses suggest scenarios of pleasure and pain,
>and their oxidizing frames recalled the instruments of the Inquisition.
>Whereas Hirstís composition evokes the hyper-rationalist world of the
>laboratory, SEMEFOís theatre of death invokes Catholicismís embrace of
>suffering as the performative imitation of Christ.
>One could argue that Hirstís choices of animals carry specific symbolic
>meanings in the context of Britain, but SEMEFOís horses definitely demand a
>reading in relation to Mexican national allegory. The Orozco reference at the
>onset of the exhibition sets the wheels of such an interpretation in motion.
>The title of the painting, Los Teules, was the epithet the Aztecs used to
>denigrate the Spanish conquistadors, and the horse is a well-known icon of
>colonialism. Here the symbols of mastery are rendered abject, as corpses
>whose subjugation has not ended with their death. I have sifted through
>memories of this exhibition for years, and with each effort to reckon with
>the complicated sentiments it aroused, I see more clearly how SEMEFO offered
>a prescient commentary on Mexicoís condition at the onset of the countryís
>entry into the global economic order.
>SEMEFOís name is an acronym for Servicio MÈdico Forense, or Forensic Medical
>Service, a term they borrow from the actual state agency that manages the
>transfer of unclaimed bodies to the countryís many morgues. Over the past
>decade, the art group has elaborated a series of installations, performances
>and videos involving the corpses of human beings and other animals. Their
>works delve into the mushrooming culture of violence that has transformed
>urban life in the capital and in the northern cities that host the countryís
>drug trade. Recasting creativity as an analysis of human remains, they
>present themselves as pathologists and morticians who tend to the ruins of a
>dysfunctional social organism. To grasp the significance of their creative
>endeavors, one must take into account how neoliberalism (i.e. globalization)
>affects both their country and their practice as artists.
>Globalization is usually defined as an economic system in which the
>international circulation of information supplants nation-based industry as
>the primary source of wealth. It is characterized by the free flow of goods
>across borders; the dispersal of manufacture to export processing zones in
>different parts of the third world; the drastic reduction of government
>involvement in industries and services; and the rise of the multinational
>corporationsí whose assets surpass those of several nation-states.  Parallel
>to these developments, the artworld has reorganized itself around a string of
>global exhibitions managed by a network of itinerant curators from different
>parts of the planet. A series of moves by these arbiters and their artists
>have shifted the thematic focus on work from the periphery from the politics
>to the marketing of location. Several historical exhibitions mounted during
>this period have rewritten various chapters of modernism to posit that
>movement as a global rather than strictly European or American phenomenon, as
>if to cry out to the world that modernity was always already everywhere.
>These changes have contributed to the growth of high-art tourism, as artworld
>professionals globe trot in search of the avant-gardeís every permutation.
>And at the same time as pure information becomes the stock marketís most
>prized commodity, ephemeral art and new media have become the hottest genres
>on the global art circuit.
>Mexicoís transition to a neoliberal economic order has been particularly
>tumultuous. Its proximity to the US has turned Mexicans into the shock troops
>of free trade. But the changes are also difficult because the country was
>managed for seven decades by a one-party state in which the PRI or
>Institutional Revolutionary Party exercised almost total control over the
>economic, social and cultural life of its citizenry.  While privatization may
>signify increasing efficiency in management of the countryís resources to
>many, it also entails the dismantling state operated social services and
>agrarian reform, which has greatly imperiled Mexicoís vast underclass, which
>cannot afford the alternatives offered by the private sector.
>Mexican society is regularly described as tied to the past, to family, memory
>and tradition. Translated into economics, this actually means that most
>Mexicans are less voracious consumers, are more likely to engage in
>non-commercial social activity and to rely on kin or minimally remunerated
>and unregulated live-in servants for domestic labor. Current neoliberal
>policies promote increased dependence on consumer goods and service industries
>, which Mexicoís overwhelmingly poor population can access only minimally if
>at all. Mexicoís capital and border cities are bloated by a continuous flow
>of poor people who abandon rural areas to go to the urban centers in search
>of ways to insert themselves into an increasingly money-driven social order.
>Mexico City, the most populous urban center in the world with more than 20
>million inhabitants, is doubly invaded, by American chain stores and a
>floating army of chronically under and unemployed countrymen. The more the
>poor occupy public space, the more the rich barricade themselves behind
>gates, elaborate alarms systems and private security forces.
>What further exacerbated the difficulties of the transition was the wild
>financial speculation that preceded NAFTA.  From 1989 until 1994 under
>President Salinas, Mexico attracted $70 billion dollars in foreign
>investments. Only 10% of this actually made its way into the economy, while
>the rest went into stocks and bonds.  Twenty-four billionaires emerged in Me
>xico during this period, and around them a new technocratic elite with
>high-end consumerist habits.  At the end of the Salinas presidency, after the
>assassination of favored candidate Luis Donaldo Colossio and revelations of
>corruption that linked the president to the drug trade, the Mexican stock
>market collapsed, the peso suffered its third devaluation since 1982, and the
>countryís middle class and poor were decimated. Though the Clinton
>administration did organize a bail out that tied Mexico to yet another round
>of austerity measures, a steady flow of Mexicans have ventured northward
>across the border in search of any means of survival.
>While other crises, from earthquakes to the 1968 massacre at Tlatelolco
>generated swift and direct responses from artists in the past, the recent art
>from Mexico City that has received the most support, media coverage and
>international attention has evinced the most attenuated forms of social
>commentary, or avoided it altogether. (I am here thinking of such artists as
>Gabriel Orozco, Francis Alys, Miguel Calderon, Melanie Smith and Yishai
>Judisman.) As part of a break with a long history of promoting indigenist
>populism, art promotion in the wake of NAFTA has been directed toward
>inserting younger more experimental artists into the international art
>market, forging collaborations with American foundations and the private
>sector, and promoting a more modern image of Mexican culture.  The brash
>contradictions that mark everyday life are only intermittently visible as
>decorative detail in most art of the post-NAFTA era, despite the heated
>debates in the Mexican press about globalization, maquiladoras, political
>corruption, the drug trade, and the Zapatistas.
>Curators acting as brokers during this period have helped to redefine these
>priorities. That post-NAFTA spirit is evident, for example, in the apolitical
>character of featured art projects selected for San Diego-Tijuanaís In Site,
>the "border biennial." The more confrontational, locally based political art
>that put that region on the artworld map in the 1980s combined human rights
>activism, radical pedagogy and experimental and public art strategies and was
>resolutely anti-institutional. In Site, on the other hand, has domesticated
>border art by suppressing proposals that touch on controversial subjects and
>separating work into low profile community projects on the one hand and
>international artistsí showcases that are readily consumed by the arts media
>on the other.
>While it is undeniable that many artists are entirely complicit with these
>reworked mandates, the increasingly powerful artworld arbiters do play a
>pivotal role in the shift. One Mexican critic and curator who spoke on a
>panel with me in Madrid in 1997 suggested that Mexican artists were better
>off leaving politics to the comic talents of the artisans who each day
>devised new modes of caricaturing corrupt leaders. Another curator averred to
>me in an interview during this period that he was tired of artists who became
>famous as "vampires of misery," referring to avant-gardes of the 60s and 70s.
>What was consistently clear to me from conversations I had with the new
>protagonists of Mexico Cityís art scene in the wake of NAFTA was that
>neo-formalism was the strategy of choice. It made them more attractive
>candidates for the global art market, and it made them look and feel
>anti-statist, and therefore modern. The children of the new technocratic
>elite are attending art schools in the US and Europe, and are absorbing the
>lessons of the backlash against identity politics, which they interpret in
>relation to the seventy year PRI project of state supported populism that so
>many have learned to vilify.
>In the midst of an arts milieu such as the one I have described in Mexico
>City, SEMEFO and Santiago Sierra stand out as countervailing forces. These
>artists offer key critical visions of the social and political situation of
>the country.  Santiago Sierra has focused on the degradation of human labor
>as a symptom of social malaise, while SEMEFO concentrates of the culture of
>violence in the overblown metropolis. Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT),
>though not based in Mexico City, could be considered as a parallel force to
>the aforementioned artists, operating within the virtual sphere. Pointing to
>President Zedilloís hypocritical dealings with the EZLN and the peoples of
>Chiapas, EDT directs its internet actions against the Mexican government
>website as a virtual embodiment of the state.  I would like to consider some
>of these artistsí projects in detail here, as I believe they comprise a
>crucial link between older forms of avant-garde interventions and new
>aesthetic and political strategies for the global era.
>Santiago Sierra is a Spanish artist who has lived in Mexico City for the past
>five years.  Though several of his more recent projects have been carried out
>abroad, Mexico Cityís urban landscape is the laboratory in which Sierra
>concocts his experiments. Like many Americans and other Europeans who arrive
>in Mexico City with fresh eyes, Sierra was taken by just how visible the
>social contradictions were in the city center where he settled.  Walking out
>of his apartment onto the streets of the Centro HistÛrico, he is confronted
>by Precolombian, colonial, and modern architecture, extreme wealth and
>wrenching poverty, the most ancient cultural expressions existing side by
>side with pirated versions of the latest Disney characters. Most daunting of
>all is the sheer number of people, the presence of masses of humanity that
>bears down on the city with an astounding intensity. No urban experience in a
>European or American city is comparable. "Es que somos muchos! " (itís just
>that there are many of us!) Mexican friends often say to me when they lack
>concrete explanations for failures in social engineering.
>     Sierra calls upon the services of others and makes a public display of
>their work. His pieces have taken place in alternative spaces, galleries and
>museums. He purposely selects or offers employment to individuals from the
>most marginalized sectors of the cities in which he works; among the
>participants in his projects there have been petty criminals, prostitutes,
>drug addicts, unemployed day laborers and undocumented foreigners. The
>actions Sierra requests that others perform are repetitive, often nonsensical
>and even humiliating. People have been asked to sit under huge boxes, to hold
>up walls, to stand still in a hall for hours, or to allow their bodies to be
>permanently marked. The artist makes a point of paying his participants and
>sets their fees slightly above the day rate that comparable workers in
>non-art situations would receive. The amount of payment is noted in the
>documentation of the works, as are other details about the tasks performed.
>All information is presented in the cool, matter of fact tone associated with
>minimalism. Consider, for example, some of Sierraís titles: 30cm Line
>Tattooed on a Remunerated Person, A Person Remunerated for Remaining in the
>Trunk of a Car, or A Removed Gallery, Inclined at 60 degrees from the Floor
>and Held by Five People.
>     Sierra is not the first or only artist to involve others as bodies, props
>or laborers in the creation of an artwork. In 1968, Oscar Bony of Argentina
>put a worker family on a podium in a gallery and paid them double their
>regular wages for posing as works of art.  American artist Ann Hamilton
>incorporates people, usually a single person who engages in repetitive acts
>in her installations as a live element.  Earlier this year, the Nordic duo
>Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset contracted two unemployed house painters
>in Leipzig to execute an extended version of their performance 12 Hours of
>White Paint, renamed Between Other Events. Other more trendy artists
>currently employing people as ready-mades, such as Vanessa Beecroft with her
>fashion models and burly seamen, or Mauricio Cattelan with his buried fakir,
>capitalize on the spectacle of their physical presence without any attempt to
>critique the intercultural or inter-class dynamics those spectacles imply.
>     Of the artists cited, perhaps Elmgreen and Dragsetís relation to the
>workers in Leipzig most closely resembles Sierraís situation in Mexico. As
>the house painters painted the gallery walls white seven hours per day for
>seven weeks, the transfer of the task from the artists to the workers
>converted the performance into a commentary on the depressed labor conditions
>in Eastern Germany and the role of "western" investment in that context.  But
>Sierraís is a Spaniard and white in mostly mestizo Mexico, a point that some
>have made to suggest that this racial difference automatically marks him as
>an oppressor. He irritates the art elite with the obvious absurdity of the
>tasks he calls for and the mixing of members of different social classes
>inside the normally segregated spaces of the Mexico Cityís art world.
>Admittedly, Sierra seeks to shock, not as a flip gesture but as a form of
>institutional critique that is detonated by the breaking of social taboos.
>Tellingly, many of Sierraís most vocal critics in Mexico, who accuse him of
>further exploiting the exploited, hail from the cityís wealthiest families,
>whose fortunes were built on the backs of the same people in whose name they
>now complain.
>     It seems to me however, that there is another element of Sierraís work
>that is key to understanding its disruptive quality. The artistís stress on
>the pathetic condition of the underclass and the meaninglessness of their
>actions flies in the face of a venerable Mexican tradition of celebrating the
>creativity of the oppressed in the face of adversity. For seven decades, the
>PRIís romanticizing of indigenous tradition and popular culture functioned
>ideologically to legitimate the party as the true representative of "the
>Mexican people".  From the onset of the Mexican Revolution, progressive
>artists have made el pueblo central to their work. The muralists created
>heroic depictions of them; the Popular Graphics Workshop produced multiples
>designed for their use and education. Artists such as Felipe Ehrenberg have
>copied their vernacular cultural practices such as altar making and custom
>car decoration while others such as Guillermo GÛmez-PeÒa, who contracts
>Tijuana velvet painters, have employed artisans as executors of their
>concepts. Ruben Ortiz and Francis Alys have exhibited popular art by others
>as a conceptual gesture. With different degrees of paternalism, irony or
>identification, all these artists champion the resilience and ingenuity of
>the underdog, forging an imagined union between representatives of the elite
>and the "masses".
>     Sierraís work, on the other hand, foregrounds desperation and futility,
>the gap between rich and poor, the constant humiliation to which the needy
>are subjected and the discretionary power of those with even a modicum of
>wealth.  His performances suggest a view of contemporary  Mexican society
>clinging to the hierarchies established under Spanish rule. Transferring the
>interplay among contemporary castes to the gallery space and deflecting
>attention from issues of creativity or originality through the stress on
>repetitive tasks, Sierra brings this power dynamic into focus. He recasts a
>minimalist inquiry into the relation between the viewer and mass as an
>investigation in the relation between viewers and "the masses."  By
>concentrating on economic exploitation, in which many educated Mexicans
>participate through their employment of servants and day laborers, rather
>than political corruption from which most Mexicans can distinguish
>themselves, Sierra challenges the basic privileges that even the most liberal
>members of the middle class take for granted. It is unlikely that they would
>relinquish them, for it is the availability of cheap labor that enables even
>the middle class to inflate its standard of living and to imagine itself as
>the protector of poor people (i.e. el pueblo) who would otherwise be
>destitute.
>     One of Sierraí most large-scale projects to date was 465 Remunerated
>Persons which took place at the Museo Rufino Tamayo in October, 1999. Sierra
>solicited assistance from a casting agency, and called for 465 adult mestizo
>males between the ages of 30 and 40. Though the agency did not follow his
>instructions to the letter, Sierra was able to fill an exhibition hall with
>men who fit the "working class type" and who stood still in grid formation
>for three hours during an opening.  The groupís size and mien could have been
>comparable to all the custodial workers of Chapultepec Park, where the museum
>is located. Under normal conditions, those men would be compelled to seem
>invisible. It is not as if they cannot actually be seen, but they are trained
>and expected to operate in the presence of visitors as if their existence
>were insignificant. Their symbolic erasure parallels the elision of labor
>concerns that is multinational managementís favorite cost-cutting strategy.
>Sierraís piece functioned like a human version of Richard Serraís Tilted Arc.
>The museum visitors were physically constrained by the presence of this
>collective mass, and their well-being disturbed by the impropriety of sharing
>a gallery space with men of a lower social class who were not cleaning,
>serving or guarding the premises.
>     In other pieces by Sierra that he has carried out both in Mexico and in
>Cuba, another Latin American country in the midst of a rocky transition from
>centralized control by a "revolutionary" state to a privatize economy and
>social order, solicited labor takes the form of performed abjection.
>Reformulating the signs of Catholic martyrdom, Sierra posits that the price
>of survival extends beyond self-abnegation to include the commodification of
>the body. Person Remunerated for Cleaning Shoes of Attendees to an Opening
>Without Their Consent, which took place in March, 2000, at Ace Gallery in
>Mexico City, featured an eleven year old boy who usually cleaned shoes in a
>subway station, hoping to occasionally secure some payment.  Sierraís two
>actions to date in Cuba have underscored how, in an burgeoning dollar-driven
>economy organized around tourism, the islandís inhabitants can make more
>selling themselves than working in any trade for which they may have been
>trained.  For 250 cm Line Tattooed on Remunerated Persons, (El Espacio
>Aglutinador, January, 1999), Sierra paid $30 each to six unemployed mulatto
>men from Old Havana to stand shoulder to shoulder and have a line tattooed
>across their backs. In November, 2000, Sierra returned to Havana during the
>biennial to present Santiago Sierra Invites You for A Drink. He called on the
>international art tourists to join him on the roof garden of a local artistís
>home. The foreign guests were invited to sit on three long wooden cubes that
>served as benches, each of which contained and concealed a Cuban sex worker
>who was being paid $30.
>     Sierraís work throws into relief the harsh realities that many art world
>globe-trotters prefer to elide on their junkets and in their exhibitions.
>While I find the local controversies surrounding his work to be quite
>telling, I hardly find them hard hitting. Having witnessed some of Sierraís
>actions and having had the opportunity to speak to the participants, I do not
>come away with the impression that they see themselves as exploited.  That
>notwithstanding, Sierraís current popularity in Europe may be leading him
>into situations that could jeopardize his work and even dilute its force as
>institutional critique. In the past year, Sierra has received invitations to
>present his work in Berlin, Madrid, Pusan, Paris and New York, and some of
>these events have even been partially subsidized by the Mexican government.
>In accepting these invitations abroad, Sierra must rely more heavily on
>institutional support and relinquish some control over the selection of
>participants in his projects. The institutional structures he negotiates with
>often diminish the element of surprise he could use when he was operating
>independently. In some cases, advance notice produces a split audience in
>which some arrive to watch the othersí reactions, to act as anthropologists
>or to parody the behavior of a bourgeois ÈpatÈ.  These dangers are ones that
>any artist working on the international circuit face as s/he moves quickly
>from context to context. That nomadism makes it terribly difficult to engage
>in a protracted analysis or engagement with any social situation.  In
>addition, mega-exhibition audiences are frequently dominated by equally
>nomadic professionals without a stake in the political context of event
>locales. As artists like Sierra attempt to transfer a set of issues from
>their own working environment in a developing country to a first world arena,
>they face thrill-seeking audiences that consume the political drama of the
>periphery as spectacle.
>         During 1998 and 1999, Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) offered a
>strategy for managing contemporary nomadism without relinquishing political
>intervention. Their virtual performance promoted  "global citizenship" via
>the internet. The groupís project was rooted politically in the Zapatista
>struggle in Chiapas, but EDTís actual members are dispersed throughout the U
>.S.; Ricardo Dominguez and Stefan Wray are in New York, Carmin Karasic in
>Boston, and Brett Stalbaum in San Jose.  Through creative dÈtournement of
>HTML software, EDT devised means of bringing civic dialogue to a domain that
>is increasingly dominated by consumerism. Giving the issues raised by the
>Zapatistas a global platform, in which people all over the world contribute
>to a debate about the civil and economic rights of an indigenous group, EDT
>established links across borders based on political solidarity rather than
>escapist identification with the indian as romantic "other."   This
>discussion helped to transform the privileged signifier of official Mexican
>discourse, el indio, from silent symbol to political agent.
>     The activities of EDT derive from the theory of Electronic Civil
>Disobedience which was elaborated by Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), a
>collective that Ricardo Dominguez was a member of prior to founding EDT.  In
>their 1995 essay on Electronic Civil Disobedience, CAE argued that blockage
>and information dispersal were the key means of intervening politically in
>the virtual domain.  This idea was predicated on the notion that information
>is currency in the global economic order and that those who own it seek to
>block othersí access to it. Therefore, CAE argued that subversion of the
>system lay in controlling institutions by blocking their information
>circuits, and democratizing the internet by rerouting information free of
>cost to the public.  These strategies, according to CAE, blend the political
>radicalism of the old left with the technical expertise of new and
>transgressive, albeit apolitical hackers. What EDT did was to develop the
>means for thousands of internet users to "block" the Mexican governmentís we
>bsite as a gesture in support of the EZLNís demands that President Zedilloís
>government recognize indigenous rights. They created their actions in direct
>response to the December, 1997 massacre of Zapatista supporters in Acteal,
>when 45 women and children were killed by paramilitary forces.
>     EDTís virtual actions structurally altered the electronic embodiment of
>the Mexican state. They did so via an operation that they developed called
>FloodNet, a command that retools the usual "refresh" or "reload" button on a
>web server.  Whereas under normal conditions a user would hit the "refresh"
>button to obtain updated information, FloodNet activates this command each
>time a user enters a site. In this sense, the server being acted upon "feels"
>the presence of the users. If several hundred or several thousand users
>activate this procedure simultaneously, it is unlikely that a server will be
>able to manage the entries and will thus be forced to shut down. In the
>course of a year, some 80,000 people participated in EDTís FloodnNet actions.
>The virtual sit-ins did in fact shut down the Mexican governmentís official
>website several times. That these mass occupations of the Mexican
>governmentís website disabled its capacity to represent the country is an
>uncannily accurate metaphor for the PRIís dysfunctional relationship to the
>citizenry ñ the more people applied pressure the state to recognize their
>presence, the less able it was to maintain itself in operation.
>     FloodNet also makes structured absences on a website intelligible.  In
>addition to alerting the server to user presence, FloodNet offers a second
>upload function, enabling users to send information into the site. EDT
>programmed FloodNet to continuously upload the names of the Acteal victims
>into the Mexican government website, cognizant of the implications of the
>serverís failure to recognize the dead. Users also have the option of
>manually uploading other information of their choice. For example, if users
>uploaded questions about human rights on the Mexican government site, the
>serverís response would be a 404 file, which signifies that the server cannot
>locate any information on this subject. This also suggested that there was no
>space accorded to human rights on the server, which could be read as
>government resistance to the issue. Those uploaded requests, though
>unanswered, left a trace ñ of precisely what was left unanswered. Virtual
>sit-ins activated scores of requests for this kind of absent information,
>thus creating a record for the server of that information which it could not
>recognize. In this sense, FloodNet not only blocked and deterred; it also
>cast negative space.
>     That EDT would call its actions "theater" might seem odd, particularly
>because of what is actually visible on-screen. A virtual sit-in participant
>will have received a call to action via internet and may have imagined
>hundreds of collaborators, but sharing a physical space was not part of the
>experience; instead it was shared time and a consensual collective
>hallucination that constituted a group. These factors notwithstanding, EDTís
>Floodnet actions did follow a script, and they had a beginning, middle and an
>end.  What appeared at the bottom of the screen was a row of vertical black
>lines moving up and down ñ a barometer of FloodNet activity, but it hardly a
>mimetic representation of actions. EDTís theater is resolutely non-mimetic;
>instead, it operates in a manner similar to that of early conceptual art by
>such artists as Douglas Huebler, in that the effects of a textual description
>of something imagined resonated in the minds of its audience-participants
>without a realist representation serving as an intermediary. The difference
>was that what was "imagined" did actually happen, even though what happened
>was not visible to the agents of the action.  Judging by EDT"s impressive
>audience-participant numbers and the high-rate of repeat-participants, it
>seems fair to argue that audience-participantsí consciousness was indeed
>altered by their experience of virtual theater.
>     EDTís FloodNet actions also engendered a whirlwind of controversy among
>hackers. In tampering with software, EDTís activities resembled those of
>hackers; but unlike hackers who operate surreptitiously, EDT acted in the
>open, announced its projects, introduced its members and invited
>collaboration. As a result, several hackers attacked EDT as "digitally
>incorrect" for their non-conformity to the unwritten principle of electronic
>subversion: secrecy above all. The reactions to EDT from the US Department of
>Defense and the Mexican government betray their difficulty in distinguishing
>between criminal activity and political action. EDTís transparency appears to
>have baffled the US military, which interpreted the theory and practice of "e
>lectronic civil disobedience" as a euphemism for cyberterrorism.
>During EDTís Swarm action against the Mexican government, the Pentagon and
>the Frankfurt Stock Exchange at the 1998 Ars Electronica New Media Festival
>in Linz, Austria, the Defense Information Systems Agency, a division of the
>US Department of Defense, launched a counter-offensive.  Requests from EDT
>were redirected to a hostile applet that crashed the browsers and froze
>FloodNet. This constituted the first time the US had unleashed its electronic
>arsenal against a civilian organization, which, in the eyes of EDT members,
>violated the Posse Comitatus Law that forbids the US military from attacking
>American civilians. That attack came on the heels of telephoned threats to
>Dominguez from a Mexican who he identified as a government representative.
>One year later, in the wake of dozens of articles about this skirmish in the
>mainstream media, the Domiguez and Wray were invited to Washington by a
>security consultant for the US military to exchange information about
>electronic warfare with the National Security Agency.  The two EDT members
>gave a presentation on their activities and were subjected to hours of
>interrogation by military about the future of electronic civil disobedience.
>In the aftermath of the controversy over EDTís methods, other similar means
>of virtual intervention emerged that have led to moves by several governments
>to criminalize such activity. In the two years since EDT distributed its
>Disturbance Developer Kits, Floodnet political actions have taken place
>around the world in support of such causes as termination of the death
>penalty in the US, and dismantling of nuclear bombs in India. The tactics of
>Floodnet, however, continued to mutate. In 2000, major commercial servers
>such as Yahoo and America On Line were brought down by means of "distributed
>denial of service (DDoS)," a mechanism that enables one computer to perform
>even
>more potent flooding actions than EDTís Floodnet. These shutdowns, for
>which as yet no one has claimed responsibility, prompted the European
>Community to legislation banning "distributed denial of service, " based on
>Britain's the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act that passed last year.
>Though EDTís Floodnet systems demands mass participation to achieve its
>goals, the fact that the DDKís circulate worldwide is being construed by some
>governments as tantamount to "distributed denial of service." Current virtual
>skirmishes between Israeli and Palestinians have come under the scrutiny of
>the Israeli government, which is now seeking to make their activities illegal.
>
>     Though most of the metaphors Dominguez uses to describe EDT actions are
>drawn from the language of theatre, he also borrows frequently from the
>vocabulary of sculpture to describe the structures his group build, jam and
>alter. For example, Dominguez describes the FloodNet as an electronic
>tombstone that repeatedly inscribed the names of the Acteal dead. To him,
>servers are social sculpture, with endless potential for creating new
>communications networks and cooperative relationships with street level
>political action. Like Sierra, EDTís fundamental task is to make the presence
>of the forgotten sectors of Mexican society felt. The groupís notoriety in
>the cyberart world has enabled them to spread their tactics to other
>"hactivists" by generating a multiple interactive artwork. Last year, EDT
>culminated its FloodNet action by issuing Disturbance Developer Kits (DDK)
>via internet for other organizations and individuals who sought to create
>FloodNet operations for other causes.
>     Why the Zedillo government might not have chosen of its own accord to
>recognize the names of victims killed by its own military hardly needs
>explanation. Organizing an examination of social ills around the exploration
>of the status and history of corpses links the efforts of EDT with the work
>of SEMEFO. SEMEFOís focus, however, highlights another effect of
>globalization ñ the social disintegration in the metropolis. During the
>1990s, Mexicoís cities experienced soaring crime rates; the urban
>infrastructures have been heavily taxed by exploding population growth and
>diminished resources; and kinship structures have been ruptured by
>accelerated migration and extended work hours. As the number of displaced and
>disappeared persons increases, so does the number of unclaimed bodies, which
>end up in the countryís morgues as property of the state. Though the majority
>of the bodies that find their way to the morgues are victims of crimes, some
>are simply casualties of poverty. Even for those who retain family contacts,
>the cost of even the most basic funeral services offered by the state -- $250
>US ñ far exceeds the purchase power of good portion of the citizenry, many of
>whom mete out an existence on less that $5 per day.
>     Those cadavers and their personal effects are the stuff with which SEMEFO
>weaves its unseemly tales. Some works seem to have sprung from the covers of
>Mexicoís many scandal sheets, such as the laminated cards for cutting cocaine
>lines that feature photos of murdered drug dealers. In their other projects
>appear clothing marked by the bloodstains of fatal wounds and pounds of hair
>shorn from heads in preparation for dissection. SEMEFO has taken government
>issued sheets impregnated with body fluids, attached them to stretchers and
>exhibited them as painting. They have imbedded objects found on murder
>victims in blocks of cement resembling sidewalks. They have filled glass
>cases with the carbonized bones of unknown people that they extracted from
>crematory ovens.
>     The artist who is perhaps best known for exhibiting objects as charged
>traces of actions is Joseph Beuys; but the actions recalled by his objects
>were his own. Beuys, Chris Burden and many others have exhibited props and
>instruments from performances, while numerous other artists from Adrian Piper
>to Andres Serrano and Bob Flanagan have made their own flesh, fluids and
>waste the stuff of their work. That focus on the artistís body and actions
>was part of an attempt to reframe aesthetic value as the performative residue
>recalled by a used substance rather than the intrinsic qualities of matter.
>Still, all these practices draw on a history of the Catholic relic, the
>exhibit of human remains and personal effects as curiosity and mystical
>object par excellence. In the Middle Ages, relics, particularly those that
>showed no evidence of decay, were relished and revered as evidence of the
>triumph of spirit over matter, of the saintliness of those martyrs who were
>metonymically represented in the displays. In the centuries that have
>followed, numerous candidacies for sainthood have been proposed based on the
>belief that the flesh of the Christian in question withstood torture,
>destruction and even death. The specter of those traditions lingers behind
>these contemporary artworks that thrust the unclaimed bodies into spotlight
>in an effort to thwart the efforts to efface them, and with them the
>unspeakable violence that brought an end to each oneís life.
>     SEMEFO does not champion the sanctity of the body with its focus on
>corpses, but rather underscores the desacralizing of life that is the
>suppressed underside of Mexicoís ongoing economic crisis. The work is not
>simplistically denunciatory; instead it evinces a strange ambivalence about
>if not fascination with decomposition, The groupís most eloquent
>spokesperson, Teresa Margolles, readily avers her attraction to the processes
>that cadavers undergo; physical decay, hair growth and nail growth after
>death. Margolles, a photographer and installation artist, has established an
>ongoing relationship with the staff of the real SEMEFO morgue. This has
>enabled her to participate in dissections, to obtain discarded body parts,
>and to learn about taxidermy and techniques for preserving flesh. Whereas
>Michelangelo studied cadavers to improve his ability to represent live human
>form; Margolles remains fixed on the corpse qua corpse.
>  To my mind, SEMEFOís project has more in common with a Gothic sensibility
>that begins with Mary Shelleyís Frankenstein than it does with the anatomical
>obsessions of Renaissance artists. Shelleyís story is organized around the
>revival of a corpse as an allegory about repressed desires; the monster
>embodies a split and projected part of the self.  That composite corpse is a
>man-made entity, a scientific product that functions as a metaphor for
>socially constructed aspects of the self, whose genesis and very being
>threaten life as we know it. As many critics have noted, Shelleyís monster
>was a symbol that explained a philosophical dilemma for which no rational
>language had been codified. Similarly, SEMEFOís projects draw us into a space
>beyond life as we usually see it by bringing us in contact with the dead.
>SEMEFO thus inhabits a metaphor that theatricalizes the irrational dimension
>of Mexicoís present.
>Much in the same way that Sierraís work flies in the face of a longstanding
>tradition of romanticizing Mexicoís poor, SEMEFOís endeavors call into
>question the widely held assumptions about the cultureís embrace of death. Ar
>tists, anthropologists and tourists are routinely enamoured with altars to
>the dead, JosÈ Guadalupe Posadaís skeletonís, the popular cultural
>personification of death as "La Pelona," and many other symbolic means by
>which Mexican society supposedly confronts mortality. It has almost become a
>clichÈ to suggest Mexicans are more culturally adjusted to death than
>Americans, and that that sensibility is rooted in a purportedly Aztec view of
>death as a regenerative force. This view veers dangerously close to an
>essentialist characterization of contemporary Mexicans as people destined by
>ancestry to respond to endless fatal violence with humor and resignation, an
>argument that can easily be used to legitimate their further exploitation.
>SEMEFO does invoke the Aztecs in their citation of Orozcoís painting, but the
>group also regularly cites George Batailleís theories about how cultures
>ritualize violence as a form of social control.  Whereas Shelley was
>preoccupied with scienceís encroachment on morality in the age of
>Enlightenment, SEMEFO enables us to grasp global economics as a form of
>instrumental reason levied against a people in the name of "modernization."
>Through their focus on violent death they chronicle the social disintegration
>that is a by -product of an imploding economic order.
>     SEMEFO, Sierra and EDT are caught in the interstices between the
>post-human and the antihuman aspects of our current moment. The term
>"post-human" usually refers to the possibilities of sentience outside the
>body, the advent of artificial reproduction and the dissolution of
>recognizable boundaries between life and death engendered by organ
>transplants. Instead of rehashing cybercultureís glorification of these
>developments as intrinsically liberating, the artists in question examine the
>human cost of "progress." They all describe a world in which some human
>beings can exist impervious to the demands of the social while others are
>viewed as cumbersome weight. They make work about societies in which power is
>best expressed as the ability to commodify all elements of life, and whose
>impoverished majorities are subject to modes of objectification that the
>privileged hide from view. Commodification of the human body nonetheless runs
>rampant in the age of globalization in the form of illegal organ traffic, the
>international traffic of sex workers from the third world, and the sale of
>children from poor countries to adoptive parents in the first world.
>     The artwork that makes this point most poignantly is a piece that Teresa
>Margolles presented at Ace Gallery in New York in the spring of 2000 called
>Tongue. It consisted of a taxidermied human tongue, perforated by an earring,
>that protruded from a white wall in a small room. Directly across from it was
>a tiny sign that explained how to tongue was obtained by the artist from the
>mother of the deceased in exchange for a coffin in which to bury the rest of
>his remains. Margolles explained in an interview that she had approached the
>mother upon learning of the situation. The womanís teenage son had died of a
>drug overdose and the mother could not afford the cost of a funeral.
>According Margolles, the mother was shocked by the artistís offer at first,
>but after a lengthy conversation they reached an agreement to exchange the
>tongue for the coffin. Margolles herself surgically removed and preserved the
>tongue.
>     For the first exhibition of the tongue in Mexico City, Margolles invited
>the deceasedís relatives. Out of discretion, the artist had not mentioned the
>name of the deceased in the gallery flyers or in the description of the work
>on the gallery wall. The boyís relatives complained to Margolles about this.
>At one point, one of them said that if he were to die and if she were to
>exhibit any of his body parts, he would want to have his name to be mentioned
>in the artwork.
>     In a world in which the subject of organ donation still stirs up profound
>questions about the integrity of the human organism, this tale is
>particularly resonant. That a subaltern would accept the transformation of a
>part of his body into an artwork that would be credited to another person
>runs counter to one might expect. I cannot help but recall for moment the
>tragic colonial history of exhibiting remains of indigenous peoples and the
>later efforts to repatriate and bury those remains. So many postcolonial
>critiques of anthropology and of Primitivism have been centered on the
>failure of both to attribute agency to the subjects who produce the
>artifacts. Yet here is someone in the present that matter-of-factly imagines
>himself bartering his own flesh with an artist to pay his coffin. One could
>read this as an assertion of agency or a symptom of profound social decay. I
>prefer to see it as a combination of the two. The artists I have discussed
>here call upon us to contemplate the implications of these ethical and
>aesthetic dilemmas, which are proliferating at the onset of a new millennium.
>Note: Much of the information in this piece came from interviews that I
>conducted with Ricardo Dominguez (Nov. 1999), Santiago Sierra (May, 2000) and
>Teresa Margolles (May, 2000). I thank them for their help in the development
>of this essay.
>
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