To have a discussion about alternative spaces in Latin America, it is useful to situate them within a broader history of the formation of artist-run initiatives on an international scope and to point to congruencies in other, sometimes radically different contexts. AA Bronson has written a very telling history of the emergence of artist-run centres in Canada during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Overshadowed by the massive influence of American media culture, Canadian artists found themselves in a position subservient to the dominance of a centralized, New York-based art circuit. Coupled with the absence of venues in which to show their work and thereby gain exposure even on a solely national level, this situation often forced artists to take matters into their own hands, forming small, overlapping circuits working around precariously funded publications, workshops, and spaces. As Bronson points out, perhaps most significant to this phenomena was how it contributed to the self-projection of the artists themselves—in other words, to what extent these activities would be productive of a visible space that would move their practices beyond the isolation of individual artist studios. To the present day, so much of how we think about art is influenced by a romanticized image of the artist removed from his/her context, engaged in an elite activity that is misunderstood or simply ignored. If we can point to one unifying feature of contemporary art, it is the desire to break with this myth, to reinsert artistic practices into our everyday lives, to demonstrate that the making of art is a job like any other. To do this it is necessary that artists have access to media channels because media culture—TV, radio, magazines, etc.—is perhaps the most important and far-reaching element of contemporary life. As Bronson describes it, “we forgot that we ourselves were real artists, because we had not seen ourselves in the media.”[i]
La Panadería has often been written about as something that burst upon the Mexican art scene in a highly spontaneous manner, created by artists frustrated by the lack of any space in which to show their work. In 1993, local artists Yoshua Okon and Miguel Calderón appropriated a defunct bakery and, along with a group of friends, set about creating a self-sufficient structure that would support work based on their own criteria, which, to a great extent, responded to the limitations of more conventional institutions. This sort of space, unprecedented in its context, was then initially bound to a rebellious, independent attitude that actively sought confrontation with an established system of exhibiting art that had turned a blind eye to the multiple and eclectic subcultures specific to Mexico City. La Panadería became noted for its willingness to embrace such marginalized practices by exhibiting the works of extremely young artists showing primarily video, photography, and installation, organizing concerts and parties—reflecting and producing more of a social dynamic than merely adhering to a static, rigid set of paradigms dictating what art should be. One might argue that already inscribed into the formation of an artist-run space is a critique of the institutional apparatus of art, which tends to flatten out even the most critical, polemical sort of practices, domesticating them into objects of consumption. In its spontaneous manner of operating (often too precarious in economic terms), La Panadería actively sought to offer a generation of young artists an alternative to what its organizers believed to be the stagnant museum culture of Mexico City.
Yet, as is often pointed out in Mexico (and not well known outside of it) is that the Panadería group possessed a certain set of characteristics that made it alternative but at the same time more exclusionary than some accounts of this story would admit. This particular account is based on my own experience as director of the space from 2000 to 2001. For the most part, the organizers of the space were men—upper middle class, self-assured, and bright, whose transgressive, fuck-you attitude was effective in challenging art establishment values but equally effective in alienating those individuals who might have collaborated in the project but simply could not fit in with the “cool” crowd. Perhaps most significant, and more problematic, was the fact that this desire to break with a dominant value system associated with traditional Catholic morality, present at every level of Mexican society, became translated into a highly masculinist, even misogynistic subject position whose visual repertoire consisted of titty shots, guns, monster trucks, and other “bad boy” and “bad taste” instances of cultural slumming. In their obsession with and appropriation of low culture, the Panadería group sought to break with accepted norms of behavior associated with their social class by appropriating and making visible an entire subculture of extreme machismo that evidently exists in Mexico but had never really been treated on the level of “high” culture. While the satirical nature of this “making visible” does indicate the presence of at least some level of criticality, the end result in so many cases was the reinforcement of the worst kind of traditional gender roles that proved to be damaging to a space that prided itself on being so inclusive—but damaging perhaps only within its immediate context.
The image of La Panadería projected outside of Mexico in the art media, primarily in the US and Canada, presented an uncritical, heroic, and at times overly enthusiastic image of it, and, indeed, of the Mexican art scene in general. Here, Bronson’s words ring true: so many images of Mexican artists and their work published in mainstream magazines like Artforum, Art News, Paper, and Poliester in the mid to late 1990s legitimated and consolidated this scene both inside the country and out. We can point to yet another instance of cultural slumming—but one that is far more unsettling in its political connotations. All throughout the 1990s (and still today to some extent), art criticism about Mexico trafficked in a set of tired, narcissistic clichés about the chaotic, overwhelming (i.e. exotic, glamorous, and exciting) experience of living in an overpopulated and violent metropolis like Mexico City. Miguel Calderón’s gun-toting, lowrider, urban gang banger from his amazing photographic intervention piece Historia Artificial (1995) in many ways embodied that romanticized image of our North American other: poor, dangerous, different, and yet ever so enticing. Mexico’s geographic proximity to the US and Canada, as well as its economic power in relation to the rest of Latin America, and perhaps most importantly, its influence on the level of the mass media, had always granted it a privileged position within the North American imaginary. (In fact, during those years I lived in Mexico I never felt that I had altogether left New York.) There so many instances in which Mexico quite simply stands in for the entire continent, so many instances of conflating Mexican and Latin American art. It is this packaging and consumption of Mexico that has produced so many “booms” of Mexican art and culture throughout the 1990s and into the early twenty-first century.
It is somewhat ironic, then, that a project set against art world conventions so quickly became assimilated into that world’s entire mechanism by ultimately fulfilling a representative function in relation to the very art scene from which it sought to differentiate itself. Does this mean that La Panadería should be written off as another failed attempt to create a space of experimentation and critique? Is it just further proof of the homogenizing and assimilating capacity of an advanced stage of culture industry? Not at all. Rather, the case of La Panadería raises issues in relation to the development and fate of any self-described alternative space. It was due, in great part, to attitudes and positions like those held by the organizers of La Panadería, that the landscape of Mexican art experienced such radical changes during the 1990s. From a stuffy, conservative environment dominated by Neo-Mexicanist painting, Mexico City grew to become a thoroughly contemporary cultural terrain, filled with viable exhibition venues, even including traditionally modernist art museums like the Museo Carrillo Gil and the Museo Rufino Tamayo, both of which underwent enormous change during those years in order to accommodate this new generation of artists. Also new to this period was the appearance of state-sponsored funding possibilities for emerging, non-commercial artists (monies no longer subject to the construction of nationalistic identities) and the creation of the Jumex Collection, which began buying works of very young Mexican artists alongside works by established international figures such as Dan Graham and Mike Kelley.
By 1999, La Panadería had become a permanent fixture in the Mexican art scene and, as some would say, an institution. Museums and galleries had begun to use the space as a sort of screen to filter out the best and brightest of a new generation of artists. As a “professional curator,” I was implicitly hired to guarantee a smooth transition toward a more economically viable, self-sufficient space by procuring stable funding among other things. Although the days of funding exhibitions exclusively on beer and tequila sales at openings were long gone, fundraising activities were still very limited and needed to be diversified. My own experience during those years proved that given its stature, La Panadería could virtually count on receiving support from any foreign foundation or governmental agency just by asking. However, the space’s eight-year history brought with it a tremendous amount of baggage and other, more complicated problems. Directors had come and gone and many friendships had broken up in the process, making for a space that people either loved or hated. And so began the polemic among its founding members, close friends, and other participants, myself included, regarding the space’s future. Some argued that the natural evolution of such a space would be its ultimate inclusion into the mainstream while others, particularly those nostalgic for those early years, argued that it was necessary to keep that original spirit of rebelliousness alive. Between these two extreme positions there were others who tried to imagine a space at once spontaneous and historical, intellectually challenging, but that, at the same time, didn’t take itself too seriously. Not surprisingly, the question of what to do remained unresolved. In September 2002, La Panadería shut its doors forever, but not without leaving an enormous legacy behind.
Galería Chilena was founded on December 13, 1997 on the occasion of a twenty-four-hour exhibition of works by Cristóbal Lehyt, held on the upper floor of a nondescript house in the residential neighborhood of Providencia. Founded by three local artists between the ages of twenty-four and twenty-seven—Diego Fernández, Felipe Mujica, and Joe Villablanca—Galería Chilena, like La Panadería before it, arose in response to a local scene crippled by a lack of viable exhibition spaces for emerging artists. One of the first significant acts of the group was the printing of a low-budget, four-colour flyer documenting this first exhibition that served almost as a kind of heroic manifesto (albeit a highly self-conscious one), which clearly stated the goals of the gallery while critiquing the specific situation that had made its existence necessary. In Chile, there was a strong tradition of non-commercial, critical art practice, most notably the so-called “escena de avanzada”—a group of politicized artists and writers who, during the 1980s, actively sought to work against the military dictatorship and was thus initially relinquished to a space of relative marginality and invisibility. Later, they became part of the academic establishment, influencing (sometimes too dogmatically) an entire generation of young artists. The case of Galería Chilena, then, is unique in that its organizers did, in fact, recognize the existence of non-commercial, non-profit spaces dedicated to artistic experimentation, but very rightly pointed out the fact that such spaces were state-run institutions and would thus always be subject to political interests and ideologies. In 1997, the political mood was marked by the relatively recent ascendance of neo-liberalism along with what has been termed, the “culture of consensus”: the implementation of progressive, liberal policies that have attempted to quickly develop the country while simultaneously burying—and not adequately dealing with—its past. Although Chile is often touted as the most developed, stable, or even “civilized” country in Latin America, there is a great deal of internal discussion about the long-term effects of the radical change that has taken place in a country that went from an oppressive dictatorship to a neoliberal, democratic state in a span of less than fifteen years.
Problematic to Galería Chilena’s organizers was the very idea that all artistic practice must be grouped into two opposing categories: commercial (i.e. uninteresting, uncritical, and ethically questionable) or experimental (interesting, critical, but economically unviable). Galería Chilena wanted to make it known to young artists that it could be possible to think about art-making in professional terms—as an actual career—without having to sell out to elitist galleries. Articulated consistently in texts, interviews, and catalogues, Galería Chilena’s for-profit strategy set it apart from other alternative spaces that tended to shun all commercial activity. However, it should be pointed out that the term utilized by the group in Spanish, empresarial, has a double meaning that becomes very telling in this story. While empresa typically refers to a business enterprise, it can also mean “an arduous and difficult action that requires a great deal of initiative and energy.” As part of its carefully constructed public image (directed toward the media and, as was intended by the gallery’s founders, future generations of Chilean artists), Galería Chilena had come up with a clever logo: the initials GCH, pronounced “Galchi,” inscribed into a heart. To anyone who has spent some time in a Spanish speaking country, the reference is clear: el Chapulín Colorado, a popular television character from the Mexican sitcom of the same name that aired all over the Spanish speaking world from 1970 to 1979 and can still be seen today in syndication. Invented by Roberto Gomez Bolaños, who also played him, el Chapulín Colorado was the Latin American antithesis of Superman. He was clumsy, dumb, and cowardly, and did not possess the characteristics typical of super heroes. However, as it was pointed out in the final episode of the series, el Chapulín’s heroism consisted precisely in the fact that he was able to overcome his cowardice and confront all of the obstacles and enemies that came his way.
GCH seemed to consciously embody a whole set of contradictions that its organizers desired to productively put to use: a collective of recent graduates with no money, no physical space, and limited social contacts intent upon single-handedly creating a market for contemporary art in Chile. Perhaps the least of their problems was recruiting interesting young artists to participate in the project—Chile was, at the time, home to a relatively cohesive art scene which had been theorized by a prior generation of critics schooled in post-structuralist methodologies. Most notable was Galería Chilena’s decision in 1998 to scout out local art schools—resulting in the “discovery” of Juan Céspedes. In an interview published in August 1998, Joe Villablanca stated hyperbolically that in just six months of operation, GCH had already changed the historical course of the visual arts in that country forever. During those years, Villablanca’s dedication to his new role as entrepreneur came to occupy a central place in his artwork. In 1998, Galería Chilena was invited to exhibit as a gallery in Galería Posada del Corregidor, one of those municipal, non-profit art spaces against which GCH so explicitly sought to set itself apart. The very invitation was unprecedented in that Posada del Corregidor was not inviting the gallery to curate a show of its artists but rather was inviting Galería Chilena as a group of artists and entrepreneurs. The invitation could have been interpreted in many different ways. Fernández, Mujica, and Villablanca accepted the invitation, describing it in the catalogue produced for the exhibition as an opportunity to present “a commercial gallery […] as an art object, in order to show the legitimating role of publicity and the art market within a local context.”[ii] At the same time, they claimed that as individual artists they never would have been invited to show in this particular space. The very legitimating mechanism that they had thoroughly exploited and thus made explicit successfully gained them entry into a space that would otherwise have been closed to them. Like everything GCH has ever said about itself, the tone of the catalogue text was both extremely cynical and at the same time euphorically heroic. In it they stated,“we are utilizing the official status of Galería Posada del Corregidor to publicly celebrate our business activities.”[iii]
In his own work, Villablanca exemplified his new public persona in a series of videos that depict the artist in various related situations. In one, Villablanca, clothed in a clerical robe, stands behind an impromptu podium delivering an impassioned discourse (in the style of political populism) about Galería Chilena to an empty room. Here, the speech is a word for word repetition of that very first text printed the previous year and sent to a select list of curators, artists, and critics in Chile and all over the world—it is the image of the artist repeating the party line to a silent, indifferent audience. In another piece, Gran Santiago, the artist places a call to a local talk show program that aired very early in the morning, at a time that presumably nobody watched. The show, like the video, is called Gran Santiago and is hosted by two middle aged AM radio personalities. Holding the camera in one hand, Villablanca talks to his absent public about the role of Galería Chilena in relation to the emergence of a new artistic scene in Chile. The hosts nod patiently, politely attempting, unsuccessfully, to end the call. It is perhaps this video, which most eloquently articulates the fate of a project that already had the knowledge and acceptance of (and perhaps desire for) its ultimate failure built into it from its inception: an artist alone and awake in his room at four o’clock in the morning, wasting his words on deaf ears, conscious of the indifference of those who only pretend to listen, and yet, is just a little bit hopeful. All of this ambiguity had been incorporated into the project from the very beginning.
A constant parody of itself, Galería Chilena simply stated the obvious: that the creation of an informed group of collectors of contemporary art in Chile was simply not possible at this stage of the country’s development. In making explicit this failure, Galería Chilena was effectively articulating a set of negative truths about its immediate context against the spastic, unwarranted optimism that had gripped Chile during the first phase of the post-dictatorship as well as the manner in which the art world must constantly prostitute itself to publicists and buyers in order to have the necessary visibility to be socially relevant. Even their notably effective milking of the local media machine was not enough to gain international recognition and this is due to the fact that contemporary Chilean art is strongly tied to a localist paradigm that is quite hermetic. Unlike Mexico, Chile has never profited from any sort of international “boom” and possibility never will. This, it might be argued, is a blessing in disguise.
In 2000, Galería Chilena was temporarily suspended when two of its founding members relocated to New York. It appeared again briefly in 2003 producing work for the group show To be political it has to look nice, at Apexart in New York, vis-a-vis a series of e-mail discussions between Mujica and Fernández in New York and Villablanca in Santiago. These discussions were later published in a low-budget photocopy catalogue made for the show. In April 2004 the group reunited again to participate in an international conference of independent spaces organized by another Chilean collective, Hoffmann’s House, in Valparaiso, Chile.
There are many conclusions that might be drawn from this account. Alternative spaces in contexts like the ones I have just described are too precarious, sporadic, and ephemeral, to constitute anything like the more stable, state sponsored artist-run culture that exists in Canada. Although not necessarily a bad thing, it makes it difficult to measure the long-term effects of such initiatives. It seems that the kind of heroic or sacrificial tropes that continue to inhabit discourses surrounding artist-run culture in Canada might be anachronistic and need to be revisited in the context of a much changed cultural landscape. And yet, the reality of under-funded but also highly bureaucratized entities allows us to indulge in such tropes because this middle ground position sometimes feels like the worst of both extremes.
Perhaps more significant to this text is an attempt to articulate the legitimating role of official narratives that make everything that goes on outside of them invisible. As critics of the institution, presumably those of us who seek to work in an independent (or irreverent) manner are always still subject to those mechanisms (commercial, institutional, ideological, social) that determine our own roles within the entire structure. Sometimes those instances that elude recognition or legitimation are the most interesting, misinterpreted, and quickly forgotten. Despite all the rhetoric of globalization and the circulation of information, knowledge is still so restricted by the limited parameters to which we are expected to adhere and willingly do so. Anything outside of those parameters must be forced in as something else or quite simply excluded and dismissed. I am thinking about geography but not exclusively.
[i] AA Bronson, “The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-Run Centres as Museums by Artists,” Museums by Artists, eds. AA Bronson and Peggy Gale (Toronto: Art Metropole,1983), 30.