November 4, 2005

The border instigates provocative video art

By Geneva Gamez-Vallejo

If you thought the border-hype was something unexpectedly new, think again. U.S.-Mexico borders have been a subject matter that has raised conversations among politicians, border-crossers, their communities, vendors and media for decades. In response, many artists have used the border sites as a groundbreaker for provocative creations.

Recently, the Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, presented Surveying the Border: Three Decades of Video Art about the United States and Mexico. The 90-minute program screened 23 videos produced between the late seventies to the present, addressing the experience of immigration and the subsequent reality of living in the neighboring country, including provocative political works by a number of artist activists.

The selected videos screened juxtaposed urban border tension and stereotypes about the Mexican culture with a humorous political haven that’s become absurd. The program featured a number of video genres, including conceptual and performance art, experimental documentary, short fiction, and music video.

Some of the videos that stood out were Bruno Varela’s forty-five second “Balas de Gomas,” a satire on Bush talking to a Spanish network about his friendly relations with Mexico in Spanish. Alex Rivera’s “The Borders Trilogy: Love on the Line,” is about the split between families. Rivera interviews wives, parents and children who have been left behind by husbands, sons and brothers who’ve come to the U.S. in search of a job. Every weekend, they meet at the dividing fence, there they talk, eat and exchange a hug or a kiss, if even through a small space between the fence bars.

Top: Still from Greg Berger, Gringo-thon, 2003. Bottom: Still from Alex Rivera, The Borders Trilogy, 2002

Other videos poked fun at the irony of absurd stereotypes. Omar Pimienta’s and Octavio Castellanos’ “The Bookleggers” follows what is considered a typical Mexican gangster car as it awaits crossing the Tijuana border and into the United States. The car’s trunk is loaded with hidden books. The video emphasizes on the number of students that cross the border each day and the U.S. border patrol officers who are increasingly on the lookout for books as incriminating evidence of the crime of illegal education.

Shannon Spanhake and Camilo Ontiveros, of the DoEAT collective, presented “Ear of the Pollo”, a documentary produced during the Minuteman Project in Naco, Arizona. Spanhake and Ontiveros wired two pollos (chickens) -a commonly used term referring to undocumented immigrants- with audio transmitters. The chickens were then sent off to cross the Mexico-Arizona border while transmitting the sounds and conversations of the Minuteman Project to a live radio broadcast. You’d be amazed to hear what was aired.

In Yoshua Okon’s excerpt from “Cockfight” he portrays a young school-girl imitating the verbal and visual harassment she experienced from working-class men while walking the streets of Mexico City. For a minute and twenty-nine seconds, she does nothing but make degrading hand and facial gestures as her lips ramble off words you wouldn’t even think to pronounce.

In “Contemporary Artist” by Ximena Cuevas, the artist films herself having a nervous breakdown as she hides herself in the ladies room to practice her introduction to an influential video curator from New York. She reveals the anxiety felt by Mexican artists over the dominating contemporary art world of the U.S.

On a more political note, Nathan Gibbs’ “0v3r104d” 3 minutes of shot sound-bytes over the American flag left quite a silent audience. The symbolic shredding of the flag couldn’t have spoken louder without words.

“Gringo-thon” by Greg Berger is about a gringo –term used to refer to an American male- who decides to rally up Mexican support against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Even though his efforts were supported, the invasion hasn’t vanished.

It’s no doubt that the border is a nebulous situation that will continue to feed a sense of preoccupation, distraction, grief, anger and conversation into people’s lives, always concluding as an inspirational element for artists to create.

“Surveying The Border” presented work by artists based in Southern California, Tijuana, New York, Mexico City, Florida, El Paso, and Oaxaca. Artists: Greg Berger, Ira Scheider, Border Arts Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo (BAW/TAF), Alan Calpe, Octavio Castellanos, Ximena Cuevas, Nathan Gibbs, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Art Jones, Andrew Lampert, Jesse Lerner, Yoshua Okon, Camilo Ontiveros, Omar Pimienta, Sal V. Ricalde, Alex Rivera, Shannon Spanhake, Rubén Ortiz Torres, Bruno Varela, Willie Varela, and others.

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