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Art & Social Space
The Collaborative Art of inSITE: Producing the Cultural Economy
by George Yúdice

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Dead Letter Office, Allan Sekula

Dead Letter Office, Allan Sekula

Dead Letter Office, Allan Sekula

Dead Letter Office, Allan Sekula

"The [apartheid] machine [at the intersection of the U.S. and Mexico] is increasingly indifferent to democracy on either side of the line, but not indifferent to culture, to the pouring of oil on troubled waters."

THE EMERGENCE OF BINATIONAL CULTURAL COLLABORATION The epigraph is the caption to a photo in a 1997 installation by U.S. artist Allan Sekula (Dead Letter Office), whose various components capture images of the power differentials at the intersection of the United States and Mexico. We see photos of the border patrol and wealthy Republican politicians on the San Diego side, and on the Tijuana side, images of poverty and industrial blight. Sekula also follows the trail of poverty into San Diego in the person of a "scavenger at work during the Republican Convention" and, reciprocally, registers the encroachment into Mexico of the culture industry in the guise of a Twentieth-Century Fox set constructed for the making of Titanic in Popotla, a village in the border region. The metaphor of oil poured on troubled waters is meant to be ironic, an indictment of the toxic social spill produced by the "apartheid machine" at the border: the disenfranchisement of cheap labor in asymmetrical exchange for commercial culture. A further, self-reflexive irony in Sekula's statement may be that the very venue in which he articulates it is an expression of the problem he identifies. inSITE97, the venue in which this installation is included, can, like the movie set, be conceived of as an artistic "maquiladora" whose executives (the directors of the art event) contract with managers (the curators) to map out the agenda for flexible workers-for-hire (artists) who in turn produce or extract (cultural) capital by processing a range of materials: the region (especially the border and the neighboring urban ecologies); the publics and communities who invest their collaboration in the success of a "project"; social issues transformed into "art"; local cultures and international artistic trends that constitute the two poles of the new international division of cultural labor. inSITE is comprised of a network of assembly sites where the artists and their collaborators put together cultural events of increasing national and international recognition. By equating culture with oil, Sekula captures the contradiction inherent in a program that would use culture both to salve wounds, heal the bi-national rift, on the one hand, and to exacerbate the asymmetries of the region, on the other, perhaps by showcasing it for international audiences. Indeed, when "culture" is made to happen at the border, the effects exacerbate the inequalities there, especially if the cultural capital derived therein accrues to those who already have plenty of it; the sponsors, directors, curators, artists, and art-going publics. Because cultural capital is translatable into aesthetic, social, political, and even commercial value, there is a "return" on the investment of capital and labor. But what is the return for the local population?

Sekula's Dead Letter Office and many other compelling inSITE97 projects among the 58 installations, site-specific works, and community-based process collaborations speak to the power of this bi-national art "festival" or "series of installations throughout the San Diego/Tijuana region." The first version in 1992 was organized by Installation Gallery to "celebrate our bi-national arts community" over a two month period, and involved the participation of other institutions; community colleges, public and private spaces, the Centro Cultural de la Raza, the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, and Installation Gallery. This first version was a small operation, largely carried out by friends of the organizers at Installation Gallery and with the participation of local museums and galleries that established close inter-institutional ties for this purpose. The exhibitions were repeated on a much larger scale in 1994, 1997 and 2000, evolving into a triennial with increasing national and international recognition. While most press and review coverage has been local, the 1997 version had greater exposure in the mainstream art world, with over twenty reviews and feature articles in journals like Art in America, Art Nexus, Artfocus, Artforum, ARTnews, Contemporary Art, Flash Art, International Contemporary Art, New Art Examiner, Public Art Review, Sculpture, and World Sculpture News, as well as the most important newspapers in Los Angeles, Mexico City, Sao Paulo and Toronto. While inSITE may not have yet attained the status of other biennials in Venice, Sidney, Johannesburg, Sao Paulo, and art "festivals" like Documenta, some of the above mentioned reviews and articles compare it favorably to these larger venues as well as to "younger art bashes such as the Korean Kwangju Biennial, the Munster Sculpture Projects, or the American SITE Santa Fe festivals, [because] inSITE distinguished itself from these by being both a residency and exhibition program," commissioning new work rather than recycling work exhibited elsewhere.

Indeed, many of the artists who have done projects for these international venues have been invited to inSITE. After 1992, the exhibitions expanded widely to include anywhere from 27 to 38 nonprofit institutions located in San Diego and Tijuana, as well as sponsorship from the private, nonprofit and foundation sectors, including several governmental agencies in Mexico. The roster of artists also increased exponentially to over 100 in 1994. Although originally meant to showcase local talent, since 1994 inSITE has counterbalanced localism with such internationally recognized artists as Vito Acconci, José Bedia, Chris Burden, Mark Dion, Andrea Fraser, Allen Kaprow, Vitaly Komar & Alex Melamid, Alfredo Jaar, Allan McCollum, Allen Sekula, Lorna Simpson, and Krzysztof Wodiczko.

inSITE also belongs to a new genre of exhibitions, or more accurately public art programs, for which artists are commissioned to create new works, usually installations involving performance, film, and video, developed over weeks and months in specific sites and interacting with local publics, communities, institutions, and corporations. In this regard, inSITE differs from the typical biennial that displays already existing works. Moreover, the city or region in which this new genre of public art is held, in this case the San Diego-Tijuana corridor, is crucial to the elaboration of the projects. There is a two-decades-long history of community-based and activist art projects that deal with the border region, the best known of which are those organized by the Border Arts Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo (BAW/TAF), formed in 1984. The very idea of a bi-national project, eventually brought to fruition as La Frontera/The Frontier, had already been proposed by the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art

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