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Social Space Through Art: Purview

Return to 2013/14 MARNsalon

Purview Statement

Irene Tsatsos offers us the following purview on Social Space Through Art for our roundtable discussion with MARNsalon I participants on Saturday, September 28. Tsatsos' discussion of La Panaderia in Mexico City and related projects in Los Angeles where Tsatsos is currently based, will serve as a prompt for reflecting on the tendency in Milwaukee for artist-driven, neighborhood-based projects for engaged social space with regional, national and international resonance.

Transcript for the roundtable with Tsatsos' written response will be publicly available on the MARN website in November 2013. 

We are pleased to present 2013/14 MARNsalon I: Social Space Through Art with the 2012 Greater Milwaukee Foundation Mary L. Nohl Fellowship Jurors Irene Tsatsos, Lisa Dent and Astria Suparak who are visiting for the exhibition opening at INOVA on September 27, 2013 from 6-9pm.

Social Space Through Art

by Irene Tsatsos, Lead Guest Curator for MARNsalon I and Gallery Director/Chief Curator for The Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, California.

Last spring I began researching La Panadería, a neighborhood-based, contemporary art center in Mexico City (1994-2002) founded by artists Miguel Calderón and Yoshua Okón on the premise that making and experiencing art are social phenomena. Sited in an old bakery, La Panadería served as headquarters for a diverse range of exhibitions, presentations, and residencies. It was a dynamic space that offered a lively international program while nurturing artistic exploration, localized, neighborhood-based engagement, and community building across disciplines, backgrounds, and geography. La Panadería was conceived to fill a local void by supporting artistic risk-taking and experimentation, where successful outcomes were not determined by the market value of the art presented; to pressure and influence the area's established cultural institutions to support more expansive and ephemeral, socially based art; and to generate dialogue among diverse communities and individuals who would otherwise not connect. 

La Panadería is part of a rich lineage of projects by artists -- some well known, many quite obscure -- that have shaped new social spaces, such as: Centro Regional de Ejercicios Culturale (Regional Center for Cultural Exercises) by Felipe Ehrenberg, in which the artist appropriated the city street between two gallery spaces and declared that all activity that took place along the street between certain hours was art; Border Art Workshop, founded by Guillermo Gómez-Peña and others, which developed site-specific performances at the US/Mexico border such as "The End of the Line" (1986), in which members of the group sat on either side of a table placed directly on the border and swapped goods and gestures illegally across the divide; and Polva de Gallina Negra (Black Hen Powder) (1983-1991), founded by artists Maris Bustamante and Mónica Mayer, who applied practices and principles learned by Mayer while in residence at The Women's Building in Los Angeles to various political-artistic actions in Mexico City, where one of their events was a lecture series entitled Las Mujeres Aristas Mexicanas o se Solicita Esposa (Mexican Women Artists, or Wife Wanted).

Closer to home here in Los Angeles, several contemporary and recent art spaces characterize certain aspects of La Panadería's outcome of creating social space through connecting international and local artists. For example, in 1979 a group of LA-based Chicano artists received a CETA grant to create an alternative space that became Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE). Years later, Outpost for Contemporary Art [2004-2011] emerged in Highland Park as one of the LA-area's only international artist residencies, distinguished for its commitment to siting artworks deep within LA neighborhoods; its final two-year programmatic focus centered on Latin America. 

It is my aim to study La Panadería and the social space it generated against the backdrop of diverse artists' alternative spaces and actions in Mexico and Los Angeles. Through this study I anticipate developing an exhibition that addresses a single aspect of or project at La Panadería, focusing on one example of a program that highlights the organization's impact on the construct of artist-driven, neighborhood-based, internationally engaged social space.

Discussion with Yoshua Okón and Artemio about La Panaderia on unitednationsplaza.

Tsatsos' MARNsalon Response

At times ideas develop on the basis of rumor.  They bubble up around dominant discourse, often invisible even if proximate. 

During the Expo Arte fair in Guadalajara in the summer of 1997, stories circulated about an elusive artwork that, to be seen, required the effort of climbing six flights of stairs, after locating an address, in an obscure neighborhood, at night. There, upon the building’s roof, viewers were directed to regard specific lights across the skyline, existing fixtures on rooftops throughout the city.  That was the piece.  It existed in the actions of the artists who “found” the elements and “framed” them in the context of a site-specific, city-wide, durational (one-night only) installation, as well as in the recollection and recounting of those present.  Which, as it happens, is sketchy. There were no announcements or directions, and certainly no Internet invitations or live feeds. Yet for one moment this nearly invisible act entranced an international group of artists, curators, dealers, and others who had gathered in Guadalajara for an art fair.  A deceptively simple gesture created the complex result of receiving the familiar in wholly new ways. For a few fleeting hours one night a new social space unfolded in real time.  It was an alternative space.

To date I have been unable to locate any documentation of this mysterious, mundane, unbranded, alternative space, though I just recently learned the piece may have been the result of a partnership between artist/curator Guillermo Santamarina and a team of artists and architects that a year later formed the Grupo Incidental collective, which over the next two years produced four projects in an abandoned house, a squash court, and other one-off locations throughout Guadalajara.

The MARN Salon invites conversational prompts from guests.  For this purpose, submitted a proposal I wrote to research social spaces generated by alternative art practices in Mexico in the 1990s.  The ensuing conversation helped me realize that conversations that include the words “art,” “alternative,” and “space” inevitably turn to the alternative space movement of the ‘70s, invoking familiar questions such as “alternative to what?” or “what is an alternative space?”.  I now see that, for better or worse, within the field of contemporary art the term “alternative” has been branded. It invokes a specific era, organizational style, and mode of binary opposition. Despite its origins, or perhaps because of them, the word shuts down the possibilities it might otherwise connote, such as an interest in artworks, practices, networks, and other phenomena that defy, at least for a moment, categorization or co-optation.

I am still trying to track down information about a wholly transparent art-based gesture that occurred on a roof one night over fifteen years ago. This quiet art action was not conceived of as an organizational paradigm, an ameliorative program, or an oppositional stance, yet it was without question an alternative space. Perhaps I am still stubbornly clinging to the legitimacy of that term.  In any event, I am definitely looking for suitable language to describe the power of what is invisible, to explain my interest in peeling back the things that are visible to reveal what is overlooked, and to relate to the familiar in unexpected ways.

Irene Tsatsos
26 January 2014