Turista Libre tour of Tijuana Photo Festival captures border town’s moment of change
By George Howell
What better way to get to a photography festival than to sit in an old school bus with the artist-organizers and a handful of curious Americans, listening to booming dance music while the eastern hinterlands of Tijuana whiz past your window?
On Saturday, October 3rd, I hopped on board the bus tour co-sponsored by Turista Libre, the Tijuana-based tour operator, and the coordinating team of the modest, but highly ambitious First International Festival of Photography Tijuana (FiFT). As artist Rebecca Goldschmidt told me, “We don’t just want to take people to the sites where the festival events are taking place. We want a dialogue.”
Indeed, the artists, architects and cultural promoters we met on the tour are also engaged in a dialogue with Tijuana, which is transforming itself from the place to go for a cheap drunk into a sophisticated international town with its eyes on Asia and Latin America. In fact, the title of the festival’s main exhibit, “Remedios Para El Síndrome de Archivo Ausente” (Remedies for the Syndrome of Absent Archives), expresses in somewhat obscure, but telling language, the mission of these young artists and innovators. Using the language of contemporary art and social criticism, they are plumbing Tijuana’s collective memory to recover its overlooked history, and in the process, transform the identity of the border town by locating what is absent, or missing, in the city.
Our tour began at the international foot bridge, where the Turista Libre school bus waited to take us to the first stop, the Escuela Libre de Arquitectura (ELA) and Centro Ventures, for a look at how architects and developers are reimagining Tijuana’s living and work spaces.
“We’re in the middle of the Red Light district,” joked ELA director Enrique González Silva. The small school sits at the intersection of Avenida Revolución and Coahuila, down the street from Hong Kong, Tijuana’s mega strip joint. “We’re in a place where we don’t belong and we’re going to change things.”
How is the school “free?” In the sense that it is unaffiliated with other state or private institutions, and free from the traditional approach to architectural training that emphasizes theory over practice. González Silva stressed that the students – current enrollment is about 29 – are encouraged to think outside the box as they work on real-world projects.
Upstairs from ELA, Miguel Marshall, CEO of the development firm Centro Ventures, also stressed a pragmatic and socially conscious approach to building. In place of gentrification, Marshall talked about “urbanization”; that is, taking the city’s uninhabited spaces and creating housing and mixed-use facilities that reflect the everyday, lived needs of the community. Centro Ventures projects include Bordofarms, a produce garden for newly-returned migrants, and an apartment complex in Colonia Federal for Tijuanenses who walk across the border to work in the U.S.
But the firm’s best efforts have not always paid off. Marshall described Centro Ventures’ frustration with a project that converted the abandoned Mexicoach station on Avenida Revolución into a state-of-the-art work space for free-lancers, only to see the property owner tear it down within two years.
Leaving the ELA building, our group walked past the giant silver arch on Avenida Revolución and continued south on the street, avoiding the merchants who read out our name tags and personally invited us into their shops. Just past Calle Tercera, we came to our next stop, Pasaje Revolución , home of 206 Arte Contemporáneo and Galería la Blástula.
Pasajes, covered passageways usually packed with restaurants, produce markets and souvenir shops, are a unique feature of the city. In fact, Pasaje Revolución is located close to two others, Pasaje Gómez and Pasaje Rodríguez, that were key to bringing art and culture back to a street savaged by the drug-related violence that reached its peak in 2008. Unfortunately, Pasaje Gómez has fallen on hard times again, though Pasaje Rodríguez offers an impressive collection of wall murals, along with small galleries, used-book stores and Mamut, a micro-brewery. Because none of the festival events took place in either of these two pasajes, our tour had to pass them by.
206 Arte Contemporáneo, which opened in Pasaje Rodríguez in 2012, is run by two sisters, Monica and Melisa Arreola, both architects and prize-winning artists in their own right. After a demonstration of amazingly flexible book objects currently on display, Melisa Arreola described the gallery’s mission as a show place for Baja California’s emerging artists and as a training ground for young buyers learning the art of collection building. Again, those themes of absence and recovery surfaced in the Arreola sisters’ mission: creating opportunities for intellectual exchange amongst Tijuana’s artists and a financial base, via art collection, that the sisters say is missing in the city.
Down the hallway, we got a helping the city’s pop culture history with a display of Lucha Libre wrestling masks and other memorabilia at Galería La Blástula.
Our group next headed for a snack and a bit of Tijuana culinary history. Who knew that the Caesar salad originated in the kitchen at Caesar’s, the tradition-heavy, family restaurant on Avenida Revolución? After a demonstration of the right way to make a Caesar salad (lots of garlic, anchovy paste and olive oil!), we chatted over plates of fresh salad and cold mugs of beer, getting to know each other better.
So, who goes on a Turista Libre tour? From the U.S. side, our group included a nurse and a dental hygienist, a couple of artists and one museum administrator, and professional photographers like Kristin Bedford of Los Angeles and Scott Davis, coordinator of San Diego’s Medium Festival of Photography, one of FiFT’s co-sponsors. On the Mexican side, Remedios artists Rebecca Goldschmidt and Mariel Miranda were joined by Daril Fortis and Diana Haro, a cultural producer and host of Fuckup Nights San Diego, a venue where working professionals discuss their business failures.
And then there were folks like concert photographer Paty Torres and Sarah Alvarado-Zarda, who easily shifted from stories about growing up in Tijuana to offering high-level critiques of her efforts, as an artist, to excavate the city’s hidden memories.
Daril Fortis, a Tijuana-based critic and writer who curated the “Remedios” exhibit, is also focused on reclaiming the recent past. He spoke to me about his research for an exhibit exploring Tijuana’s Queer history, which includes an archive that begins in the 1970s and covers the impact of La SIDA (AIDS) on the city’s gay artist community. “It’s hard to build this archive because much of the records are hidden away,” Fortis explained.
Already a bit tour weary and heady from beer at Caesar’s, our group now found ourselves at Index Open Studio, another innovative work space catering to freelance professionals, located behind the Jai Alai stadium on Calle Octava. We took advantage of the sofas in the lounge to lounge or snag an espresso or Café Americano at Interval, Index’s coffee bar.
And finally, we boarded the bus for that fun ride on the Via Rapida Oriente to Centro Estatal de Las Artes Tijuana (CEART), a massive arts and cultural complex within sight of the giant statue of Christ in the nearby Los Alamos neighborhood. Once I realized how far we were from Centro, I thanked Turista Libre for the good fortune of skipping the drive in my car!
The “Remedios” exhibit, located in a small exhibition space at CEART, was modest in scale, but grand in ambition. Featuring video projections, family photo albums, assemblages and prints produced by artists living in Mexicali, Ensenada and Tijuana, the exhibit mined the material records of a culture to re-examine the nature of social relationships captured in personal and public images. According to Rebecca Goldschmidt, not all of the work directly related to Tijuana. Instead, the exhibit reflected a broad range of approaches to working in recovered archives within the border region.
Talk about ambitious. Along with the exhibit itself, the festival includes lectures on photo and cultural criticism, photography workshops and artist discussions, all held at the various spaces that we visited on the tour. That’s a full month’s worth of programming coordinated by a team of five or six people.
“We didn’t have any financial support from anyone,” artist Mariel Miranda told me when I asked about funding for the festival. “Everyone is working as a volunteer and we begged and pleaded with businesses to find spaces for the venues, to get plane tickets, and to feed everyone. Other festivals this week have 6 and 7 million pesos to work with. We just had ourselves.”
Miranda, in fact, is one of the standouts in “Remedios.” Her striking photo-montages, joining people from distinct classes and social backgrounds into startling hybrid portraits, are the result of research into the private archives of two fotógrafos ambulantes, or strolling photographers, the men with Polaroid cameras who wandered the parks and public events, taking snapshots of people desiring a memory of the moment. With the advent of smart phones and digital cameras, the fotógrafos ambulantes is a thing of the past.
“These weren’t anonymous subjects,” Miranda says of the people in her photo montages. “The photographers knew their neighbors, who they were photographing. So the images are documents of people in their social relations, presenting themselves at their best and revealing their public selves. And I’m interesting in gender issues as well, of the traditional roles of women and how they present themselves in public.”
From CEART, we sped through the glittering lights of cosmopolitan Tijuana to our last stop, La Caza Club, for a taste of contemporary Tijuana cuisine. If Caesar’s was the big eatery for an older generation, La Caza Club was their kind of place – slick and trendy, with food everyone raved about.
As we exchanged hugs and phone numbers at the border, I thought about Rebecca Goldschmidt’s call for dialogue. After spending a day talking non-stop with these artists, and listening to the architects and curators describe their commitment to recovering what is missing in the city, I couldn’t help but think of all of them as hip young change agents caught up in a historic moment as Tijuana transforms its identity before our eyes. I think they are helping to make it happen. That is quite remarkable. What a ride!
The photography festival runs through the end of October. Check the web site for details.
Turista Libre offers more tours this month: A Tijuana Brewery Hop and photo opportunities in the Cinco y Diez neighborhood, both on Saturday, October 17, with a tour of Valle de Guadeloupe wine country the following Saturday, October 24. In November, visit Tijuana’s main cemetery as the city prepares for the Day of the Dead. Go to the web site for tickets and more tour details. Note: Turista Libre uses PayPal for ticket purchases.
Writer and artist George Howell moved to Wonder Valley, a unique desert community outside of Twentynine Palms, California, in December 2013. His articles, reviews and artist interviews have appeared in Art Papers, Sculpture, Raw Vision and other publications. He and his wife Mary divide their time between Wonder Valley, San Diego and Rosarito Mexico.