Postborder City: Cultural Spaces of Bajalta California. Michael Dear and Gustavo Leclerc, eds. London and New York: Routledge
From the Annals of the Association of American Geographers
In this volume, editors Michael Dear and Gustavo Leclerc tackle one of the key issues for border scholars today. In brief, they question the nature of the relationship between the paradoxical space of the borderlands between Mexico and the United StatesFa space that becomes ever more traversed, open, and fluid, yet simultaneously clamps down, walls up, and becomes ever more impermeableFand the multiplicity of artistic representations, experiences, and performances about and on that paradoxical space. The volumes contributors root their explorations in what the editors term Bajalta California, a transborder region comprised of Southern California in the United States (Alta California) and the northern part the Mexican state of Baja California. In coining this regional neologism the editors underscore the historical and contemporary union of this space made two by an artificial but powerful international border.
The contributions focus particularly on the urban areas of Los Angeles, San Diego, Tijuana, and Mexicali, lending the volume a particular flavor, given the West Coast twist on cultural (and most other) production arising here, as contrasted to points farther east along the border. The editors make the intriguing but somewhat dubious claim that these four urban areas have coalesced spatially and culturally to the point that they now form one of the planets most important world cities. . . . the prototypical postmodern border metropolis (p. xii, emphasis in the original). If this is taken as the conceptual point of departure, howeverFand it isFthen the cultural production arising from and on this space is of paramount importance for understanding what the editors term the postborder condition, a localized but suggestive harbinger of a more general post-border existence on the horizon.
This volume consists of an introduction and nine chapters organized into three sections. The introduction by Dear and Leclerc focuses on the complex relationship between place and art, proposing that a form of cultural production which they term postborder art constitutes a new cultural aesthetic being created in the in-between spaces, and manufactured from the archaeologies of past and emerging identities (p. 14, emphasis in the original). The introduction concludes with an insightful discussion of pieces displayed at the exhibit Mixed Feelings: Art and Culture in the Postborder Metropolis/Sentimientos Contradictorios: Arte y Cultura en la Metro´polis Posfronteriza, held at the Fisher Gallerey of the University of Southern California in 2002. Color plates of the pieces discussed are included.
The first section, Regional Groundedness, includes contributions by the well-known Mexican author and cultural critic Carlos Monsiva´is, a chapter coauthored by Phoebe S. Kropp and Michael Dear, and a piece by He´ctor Manuel Lucero. In typical Monsiva´is style, the writing in the first chapter is lyrical, provocative, and at times polemical. Monsiva´is traces the journey north to border cities on the Mexican side, and then onward to the shimmering promised land of Los Angeles, a journey made in the flesh by many Mexicans and in the desires of all, and one that traverses a path of surprises, disappointments, and flashes of beautiful insight. The next two chapters, Peopling Alta California and Peopling Baja California, respectively, shift gears to focus on the historical details of the settlement of the two Californias. The careful, rich overview of the demographic changes in these long-linked places provides a wealth of information for the scholar interested in the intertwined ethnic, racialized, and urban transformations of the region, but there is very little regarding the cultural production associated with these transformations.
The second section, Regional Imaginations, consists of three chapters, authored respectively by Lawrence A. Herzog, Jo-Anne Berelowitz, and Norma Igle´sias. Herzog lays out a typology of seven urban ecologies arising in the transfrontier metropolis comprised of Tijuana and its increasingly sociospatially-stretched-out association with Southern California on the one hand and the Mexican provincial interior on the other. Consumption, production, tourism, neighborhoods, community, and conflict all provide spaces that Herzog views as new or refashioned in the globalizing context in which Tijuana is immersed. Berelowitz focuses on so-called border art since 1965. She centralizes the complex, shifting, and often fraught relationship between localized border art on and by artists working from the U.S.Mexican border region, and the mainstream art world of commissions, funding, and legitimation. Berelowitz chronicles three periods in border art, beginning with the Chicano movement and its utilization of art from 19681980, the evolution of the Border Arts Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo from 19841992, and the post-1992 fascination of the mainstream art community with border art by way of four successive InSITE events that have highlighted internationally renowned artists and large installations on both sides of the U.S.Mexico border. Berelowitz argues that as a result of these evolving relationships and identities, border art has become globalized and increasingly uncoupled from the literal border, in ways that are not unproblematic. Igle´sias shifts the focus to representations of the border on film. She contrasts the historical development of a stereotypical, shallow genre of commercial filmmaking marketed to the somewhat captive audience of Spanish-speaking recent immigrants to the United States and in northern Mexican cities, with the much more critical Chicano cinematography concerned with positive dimensions of interaction and identity on the border, and finally with the innovative work of independent Mexican filmmakers, videographers, and musicians in Tijuana. The border has been constructed alternatively as a space of dollars, violence, vice, and loss of Mexican identity by commercial films, as a recuperative space of cultural interaction by Chicano films, and as a space of complex everyday realities for border dwellers by young independent Tijuanenses.
The third section, Regional Hybridities, includes chapters by Richard Ca´ndida Smith, David Palumbo-Liu, and Ne´stor Garci´a Canclini. Ca´ndida Smith uses the work of two artists, U.S.-born Daniel Joseph Marti´nez and Mexican-born Ramo´n Tamayo, to discuss the differences in the U.S. and Mexican educational systems and the roles of the arts and of artists in both countries. He argues that although both men are usually discussed as Latino artists, Tamayos decision to stay in Mexicali as a practicing artist and faculty member has focused his work on the local context, utilization of vernacular materials, and emphasis on the public service dimension of his artistic work, whereas Marti´nezs base in the United States has accorded him greater liberties to work in far-flung sites, producing often confrontational public art. Both, however, are public intellectuals who view art as potentially transformative, though of the quite different contexts in which each works.
In one of the best essays in the collection, Palumbo-Liu discusses the long association of Alta California with the Pacific Rim and Asia, extending the volumes focus from the U.S.Mexico connection to another, equally important regional relationship. He picks up the mixed feelings theme set up in the introduction to discuss nation, identity, ethnicity, and artistic production, utilizing several pieces to focus his questioning of culture and its products in light of all this mixing. Though Pal-umbo-Liu does not note this in his essay, Northern Mexico has a long history of Asian labor immigration, thus his points apply to both Californias. Garci´a Canclinis brief conclusion queries the specificities of the meaning of hybridity, and the nature of the openings and closings that are offered at this moment of mixing. He notes that a truly postborder condition may be more of a productive metaphor than a lived condition for most who dwell on and around the U.S.Mexico border, thus bringing a note of caution to balance the introductory chapters heralding of so many posts.
It was not entirely clear to me why the volume was organized into the three sections that were utilized, nor why the sections were titled as they were. I suspect that if the chapters themselves had focused a bit more systematically on the key questions raised in the introduction, the volume as a whole would have coalesced more strongly. All the same, the chapters in this volume raise more questions than they answer, and in some instances they answer the same questions quite differently, both of which are the hallmarks of an inherently difficult premise addressed in thoughtful and complex ways. Perhaps the key question here is the perennial one concerning the role of the arts in social change. Do artists and cultural production act as a vanguard, or do they react to deeper material changes in society? The best answer is provided by Palumbo-Liu, who suggests that the conditions of immense social, economic, and political flux within which contemporary border artists work put the artist in an anticipatory role, attempting to make sense of that which has not yet solidified: Art is thus itself placed at a sort of borderFand mixed feelings thus dwell in that liminal, unsettled, anticipatory state (p. 274).
Another key question involves site specificity. For the contributors to this volume, the focus is on the U.S Mexico border in particular. Does the border, and art produced and exhibited on and about this border by artists from this border, matter? Is site specificity integral to the public function of art, or does it limit its potential? These are difficult questions, answered differently by the contributors. Ca´ndida Smith states, for example, that the designation border art is the most trivializing of all labels (p. 218), and Igle´sias argues that it is the very site specificity of Tijuanas young filmmakers, videographers, and musicians that has allowed these artists to recover their city from stereotyping, urban decay, and loss of identity. Berelowitz takes a more situational approach in her chronicle of the shift from a localized border art and border artists to a more portable, internationalized context, arguing that site specificity was politically vital to border art and artists at a certain period in its development. To be fair, these are inherently vexing questions, questions that our tradition of cultural critique at least in the social sciences, which tends to view cultural production as derivativeFgives us precious little to work with. Therefore, addressing the role of arts in social change from the perspective of artists is particularly useful for social scientists. In addition, given the inherent spatiality of the focus of so much academic work on the U.S.Mexico border, as well as other borders, this volume should be particularly well received by geographers. In sum, Postborder City provides a timely, provocative, rich collection that underscores the value of interdisciplinary perspectives.
Key Words: art, hybridity, transnationalism, U.S.Mexico border.