After lunch the next keynote was Marco Vera, the founder and director of Mexicali Rose Media/Arts Center, a grass roots communitarian organization dedicated to providing free access to artistic media for the community youth of Mexicali, Mexico. In a very compelling and absorbing presentation Marco told us the story of Mexicali Rose, how it came about and why he wanted to create a space for the youth of the border town, Mexicali, his own hometown. It was a very inspiring story of risk, danger and great courage. And Marco told it like a true story-teller. For instance, the space that now houses Mexicali Rose was once used by criminals, drug pushers and people smugglers. It was a very dangerous place. In 2007, after some encouragement from Marco, these criminals left and Marco and his collaborators were able to begin rehabilitating the house, which was in such a terrible state that it took him and his friends a whole year to get the place in working order.
For Marco, a documentary film-maker, the driving passion was to create a media centre where local kids from the neighbourhood – who would not normally have access to such learning or equipment – could learn video-making and film-making and media in general through free workshops. However, the project soon expanded to include lots of different sorts of workshops. The initiative seemed to release an enormous amount of creative energy, with many different people offering workshops to the kids, including hairdressing. Marco remarked that people flocked to the centre, it seemed the city really needed a space like this. Originally conceived as a media centre, it soon began expanding its activities to include first an art gallery, needed to show the work being produced. Then with some govt funding they were able to build a micro-cinema, and soon after, an internet radio station was added to the mix. The last enterprise that Marco described was an independent gallery that is devoted to publishing. Surprisingly for such an incredibly worthwhile project Mexicali Rose receives no govt funding. Even though they did receive some specific govt funding previously, they are now surviving and struggling without any – and trying to find ways to pay the rent through selling art or selling beer at the art shows.
After a short break we were back to hear the second debate. “Utopian Spaces? To what extent can one talk about artist-run spaces as ideological entities?”
This was a wide ranging discussion with a diverse group of artists that meandered across issues of financial and economic models as well as social responsibility, social inclusion and the tensions between artists’ need for autonomy and their social responsibilities.
After describing their spaces the discussion moved to the question of participation and engaging vulnerable communities. Everyone seemed to agree that art can’t save anyone, only perhaps give people a different choice or sense of possibilities. In response to a question about disadvantaged kids and the need to help them stop hating their oppressors, like “the Americans or the Danes,” an artist from Queens Park Railway Club in Glasgow objected to what she thought was an underlying assumption in the discussions: that art must be good, art must be good for society — that art should be for the greater good and help the oppressed or change people’s behaviour in some way. Her response implied the question: what about artists who made work engaged with ideas other than ameliorating social ills? As she noted “I’m an artist I’m not qualified to be a social worker…And I’m happy for different people to exist”…rather than needing to change who they are.
This discussion revealed a very real tension in the way artists approach the social, the political and the economic. Not surprisingly, it seems to depend on where you are situated in the world. For several artists it is the real urgency they feel and the sense of social responsibility for the communities around them that drive their need for creating a public space of encounter and engagement. For other artists this urgency is not so real nor perhaps so necessary, but rather there is another need that is equally as important, which is the need for autonomy and independence. For Marco there actually are no ‘shoulds’, rather there is always a choice. Marco made clear that his own view is that whenever artists work together in independent spaces, either socially-engaged or otherwise to make something happen, they are already social.
The argument, that art cannot perform social work or be a bandaid, was echoed by an artist from the USA, where, she noted, socially-engaged art projects were proving to be very problematic, especially, as they are filling in the space left by governments and local councils depleted of funding, as neo-liberal privatisation decimates the public sector. As the public sector’s funding is cut and govt responsibilites for providing educational opportunities or other social services are diminished, art is now called upon to perform these social services. This is a very valid worry in these neo-liberal times. (Read Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” for a brilliant analysis of the last 30 years! )
Overall this was a very thought-provoking discussion for me. I found myself sympathising with all sides. Yet I do agree with the artist who asked: why is it assumed that if an artist-led organisation is not doing socially-engaged work then they are simply working towards a commercial and professional career? This simple division between artists working for and in the art market versus socially-engaged, politically aware artists does feel like a deep division. Although not insurmountable. Maybe that’s why this discussion was so fascinating. What it does do is occlude the vast majority of artists who make art with passion and belief, yet may not fit either category. Most of these latter artists work for little or no remuneration except the joy, intensity, curiosity or other non-monetary values that can drive an art practice and often sustain the artist-led community. And art can perform in many other ways too. Thinking here of Rancière where he writes of the aesthetics of the sensible, understanding that aesthetics is not supplementary to politics but fundamental to the vey idea of politics.