Situated Practice

I grew up in Phoenix and first participated in a border immersion workshop in Ciudad Juarez in 1998. We toured a Siemen’s maquila along with visiting families living informally outside the city. Currently, I am a Master in Fine Art student at UC San Diego with a focus on public culture. During the beginning of my program I worked in this area, Colonia San Bernardo, under a collaborative community oriented project focusing on gardening. My research as an artist often focuses on sculpture and public space; insomuch as the border between Tijuana and San Diego is a very public concern, I've been drawn to better understand how it functions, and who is participating in its daily formation as the world’s most trafficked and policed border. More specifically during my time as a Fulbright grantee, I am collaborating with the grassroots collective, Ollin Calli, a multilateral binational front acting in support of workers’ rights in the region. They provide a legal accessory, run a craft store, host tours of important industrial sites, and more broadly, act in the absence of independent unions in the factory industry. 

As you can imagine this is a very tall order. The capacity for labor dispute and collective bargaining in Tijuana has suffered greatly following the failed Han Young Strike of 98. More presently, maquila jobs have become increasingly competitive, and often require references as well as job-specific work history. The present goal of Ollin Calli, and what we are working on most directly as a situated collaboration, is a public survey of factory employees. The interview is designed to generate a database of mixed methods, sociological data about the factories and the people who work there. The complexity of such a survey can be found in the extreme diversity of the industry. It is difficult from the micro level to speak of the “maquila” as a specific entity, separate from manufacturing or even seasonal agriculture, as employees invariably move from one sector to the next. On the macro-level, yes, we can begin to characterize Mexico’s primary export relationship to the U.S., but hyper-globalist projections often miss many of the very localized structural aspects of border trade, especially in locations such as Tijuana, where factories often exist as twin enterprises of nearby “American” plants. The question remains: how do we understand the local conditions of labor in a post-NAFTA economy with increasingly transnational capital investment?

After Ollin Calli’s first round of interviews they have come to face the problems in isolating that question. Two trends, however, may be generalizable:  increasing production for the medical supply industry, and a larger frequency of “outsourcing” scenarios. In the latter instance many of the minimum standards of hiring and firing practices suffer greatly at the further distancing of workers to capital. Guarantee of employment in these settings is the most tenuous, and often lacks such bare advantages as living nearby to the factory where you are employed, or having access to a human resources department. As we continue with the interviews the collective operates as it does best, with shifting orientations and recursive negotiation of correspondent needs and input.

Evidently, how does all of this become an artwork? 

For me the research period thus far has proved to be extremely challenging, both with regard to my projected plan as an artist, but also my sense of what constitutes the discrete elements of the project, itself. Ill equipped as a sociologist I have struggled to formalize my research in the area, and, as a collaborating artist and activist in Ollin Calli’s agenda, I have equally experienced divergent orientations to their collective work. In many ways I have realized that the impetus for my research remains embedded in certain, perhaps, idiosyncratic concerns within the arts, these being relatable to the role of aesthetics and moral encounter. If the arts are to successfully mediate representation of social fabrics, we must further situate ourselves as artists within those settings. This calls for increasingly situated investigations which test the artist’s ability to operate from the immediate practice of social configurations. The greatest obstacle I experience in that process is what I would describe as “transferability” and the potential for consolidation of social practice into symbolic orders. Placing, as I have done, video footage and testimony in the domain of art making renders a nearly inescapable collapse, in which the subjectivities of participants on either end of the camera become fixed actors. While it is often art making’s goal to erode those explicit boundaries, it is difficult to say who benefits from exposure to the knowledge produced under such criteria.