Poetic Survival: Learning from Tijuana


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Cárdenas Osuna
Raúl Cárdenas Osuna has taught at CENTRO (Mexico City), Universidad Iberoamericana’s School of Architecture (Tijuana), the San Francisco Art Institute, the California College of the Arts, and the University of Rennes in France. He holds a degree in architecture from the Universidad Iberoamericana in Tijuana as well as a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of California in San Diego. In 2011 he founded and directed the Digital and Creative axis for the Metropolitan Strategic Plan of Tecate-Rosarito-Tijuana. He currently works as a sustainable development and social innovation advisor to Tijuana’s municipal government.
Cárdenas founded Torolab— a hybrid art collective-think tank–in Tijuana in 1995. The work of the lab centers around infrastructural, socioeconomic, and cultural contextual analysis specifically of ideas of quality of life and how to improve it. Torolab projects undertake everything from housing to community building to nourishment to survival. Torolab represented Mexico at the Venice Biennial last year and has previously shown internationally everywhere from the New York Museum of Modern Art and Biennials in Havana, Liverpool, Beijing, Mercosur, and Lyon. In 2011 they were awarded the best arts-intervention project with social impact by Harvard’s Cultural Agents Initiative. @torolab
La Granja
Torolab is currently running a huge-scale permanent project called La Granja TransfronterizaThe Transfrontier Farm in Camino Verde, formerly known as Tijuana’s most violent neighborhood. A big concrete bunker with a large community garden, it houses classes of all kinds from music to art to coding to cooking. Since building a soccer field and skate park over a canal that used to be a gang division line in 2010 and building out the diverse programming of The Farm–which Cardenas calls a “knowledge farm,”–violence in Camino Verde is down 85%.What are the core principles that guide the work of Torolab?

Torolab focuses on ideas of how to live better. The core thread is to help people envision how their lives can be better. It’s about how they perceive concepts from wellness to luxury to necessity with the poetics of survival which depends on place.

Every place has a cartography, a landscape, but Tijuana is a laboratory and a caricature of globalization. It is built upon relationships between ideas of how to enhance your life and how to survive hostile environments. The DIY life of Tijuana is a double-edged sword in which you balance how you envision a place to be and how you think it will actually work.

It is within those arenas that you can visualize how other people produce experiments that are about survival but also have an aesthetic characteristic that pushes you. It’s not about the absolute beauty of the buildings. It’s more about the exchanges between people and their lifestyle conditions. It’s more about experience than actual objects, so these things are much easier to live and see than to talk about.

The results of our projects are not maps or buildings. They’re educational systems and food systems and clothing systems. It all depends on the context, but it’s all about improving quality of life. It’s about envisioning systems. That’s where the aesthetic of the poetics of survival reside.

Can you explain that term, “poetics of survival”?

In the disciplines of urbanism and architecture, you do contextual analysis. This is a way to relate the map to a prognostic cartography. But this doesn’t necessarily capture a parameter unique to a place. They actually make you not understand it, because in trying to make a portrait of a place, it gives you a weird frame with overly specific language. But we need to broaden the spectrum of understanding, the system, the relationships.

Complex systems with high levels of informality are hard to understand. It’s hard to make decisions and make transformative, positive projects. If we don’t take into account the way we do these projects that are connected into these systems, then we miss the point, and we try to do what they did in Denmark or Chicago instead of building what we really need here. It can take months to change policy. The city has its own temporality, and it doesn’t wait for the government to make policy — it just makes its own decisions.

There’s something to be learned from the tactics of the art world that are incredible tools to make decisions that make projects that relate better to complex cities. “One tactic is to build what artist Alan Capro called “happenings.” It’s not a performance, it’s a situation. We build situations too. We make relationships in which negotiation and conversation go beyond the art object and become active systems.

In San Diego, projects describing these same social ecosystems are symbolic — about awareness and the aesthetics of necessity and poverty — as opposed to transformative. I’m not pointing fingers, I understand everyone has their context that they’re responding to. But it’s the relationships that build functional, nonsymbolic systems that are the roots of where the idea of “poetics of necessity” comes from.

What kind of active systems does La Granja employ?

We started a series of discussions with organizations and businesses in Tijuana that wanted to help the city. We made a map with the state police, the municipal police, the business association, and the Economic Development Corp (CDT). It looked at crime, poverty, nutritional deficiency, violence, and other metrics.

Our hypothesis was that if we could intervene in ways that develop public space and mobility and see what access to wealth means or production of wealth means–since we live in this horrible capitalist system and it’s all we got–then we could activate the natural resources and riches of these places. We believed that these places could become resources for development for the metropolis. We decided any projects that we could get the Federal government to fund, like football fields or skate parks, we would put them all into those communities.

The job of Torolab was to have conversations with these neighborhoods to build participatory models. We asked: “Can we build a new Baja Californian system that will help recuperate mobility, public space, and wealth in these places that have the highest rates of violence and poverty?” That’s how the Farm was born.

It’s a research institute between science and applied art with community. Universities and artists come and use it as a center for field operations which is a lot of what we do. We have established relationships with our community, which is valuable to researchers. But then we put those researchers and artists to work for, in, and with these communities, building together.

We usually have ephemeral solutions because we live in this ridiculous system in which the government changes every six years, and they spend money on re-branding institutions rather than keeping successful programs going. So we made Torolab something permanent. We’re not going away. We’re not government, we’re an art collective that works with scientists. We’re your new neighbors. What are we going to do together?

One thing important to us is to change the conversation. So we reviewed how the city was being portrayed in the news. We had meetings with the people from the papers and national programs and asked them to change their alarmist language and to report on the new and productive projects popping up in the city and not just on crime.

La Granja, designed to demonstrate its permanence to the community

How can local governments and mayors, as you’ve said, “empower and impulse people who are agents of change”?

On the metropolitan scale, for example, we pushed and got through a public policy to fund a creative metropolis initiative. It’s about understanding bottom-up models, small scale, microsystems and building innovative ways to turn those into economy. So now, if you’re doing some interesting art project that creates jobs or something that’s building community around music, then you have a high chance of becoming a strategic project getting funding  And it’s not just focused on tech, it’s also gastronomy. It’s anything that will develop the city.

Also, there’s this word in Spanish that doesn’t translate well to English: gestion. It’s a word we can learn a lot from. It doesn’t just mean management, as it’s often translated to in English. It also means to give birth to something and to see it through. And there’s a word in English that we don’t have in Spanish too: accountability. It’s not just “rendir cuentas” as it’s often translated–”to report back.” It’s to report back with a sense of responsibility. The combination of those two words is powerful. It allows you not only to reimagine but to revalue places. It’s not about starting over in places that you have a lot of land, but to recuperate public space and structures of belonging. Tijuana has made a great case for this.

Right now for example, we’re running the CoCo Club which is a computing and coding club. We have our scientists in residence teaching community residents. That’s the way they’re participating in the neighborhood. That’s how we’re holding them accountable to the community. That’s accountability plus gestion. If governments did that, they might be able to get in tune with the levels of necessity of this complex organism that is the city.