Mexico City

In this episode, artists exit their homes and studios to use the growing megalopolis as their canvas. The artists present everyday materials as artworks, mine recognizable images for their poetic potential, and take their art to the streets. Featuring artists Natalia Almada, Minerva Cuevas, Damián Ortega, and Pedro Reyes.

AIRED: September 16, 2016 | 0:55:16

94) Hi. I'm Claire Danes.

Welcome to the "Art21" series "Art in the 21st Century."

"Art21" travels the globe to present some

of the most innovative artists of our time.

Artists today influence how we see the world

and how creativity can transform society.

This episode features Mexico City,

where Damian Ortega, Pedro Reyes,

Minerva Cuevas, and Natalia Almada

show us how art and culture and the personal and political

are intricately intertwined.

Here is "Art in the 21st Century."

Cuevas: Mexico City is the impossible city.

Reyes: If you don't do it, no one else will.

Ortega: Some days, I love to be here,

and sometimes I would like to move to another planet.

Ha ha!

Almada: Imagine what it would be like if there weren't writers

and painters and artists and filmmakers

reflecting on what's happening.

94) [Dog barking]

Ortega: I like the objects when they have experience, history.

My work is a form of appropriation.

Appropriation is a political statement

because it gives me the chance to transform and recontextualize

everyday objects we take for granted.

It's just, uh, the way of working in Mexico,

the way of found materials in the everyday life.

"Cosmologia Doméstica" is a crazy

or schizophrenic carousel, uh, kind of cosmos,

more like a homemade solar system.

It was my own chairs, my own table.

I planned it, but never with the real context of the weather,

and then we have a lot of problems after a few days

because the leather stings grows and expanded

with rainy weather...

[Drill whirring]

and we decide to bring the piece again to the studio

to repair and to adjust everything.

Ortega, voice-over: I think one of the most exciting moments

during the construction of an art work

is to take some risks.

The most important thing is the, umthe failure

because you learn a lot of things.

I always had the idea to be an artist

since being very young.

It's funny because my my brother likes a lot the

to do experiments and to take apart kitchen appliances

to see how they work, and I was watching him carefully.


We grow up like this always with curiosity

because our parents was permissive with us

and we had the chance toto play.

Ortega, voice-over: It's very exciting.

It's, uh, really a revelation, what is happening inside.

Ah, esta.

OK. Entonces

Heh. OK. Esta.

I name this works "Geodes"

like a geological term of the stones.

In this one, we use, uh, cardboard boxes

andand newspaper...

and we found this paper they find in the streets,

especially during the Day of the Dead,

and I think it's really beautiful,

and I decide to include them into the pieces.

You can see the skull,

the eye, the nose, and the mouth.

It's really interesting, the dialogue

with thewith the street.

[Door lock clicking]

[Drum and trumpet playing]

Ortega, voice-over: I was in high school,

and I had really bad relation with my professors.

I took one day off, and I went to visit

the university to see how it works,

and I get really shocked because I thought it was boring.

Hola. ¿ Que tal? Hola.

Ortega, voice-over: I decide I create my own, um,

self-organized, uh, university...

and I found a painter.

His name is Gabriel Orozco, and we meet every Friday

in a very informal, absolutely nonacademic

but self-made school...

like a Renaissance studio with a mentor

who shares his knowledge...

but at the same time, it's a party

where you can find your friends and have a beer and paint.

We start to move little by little

to understand the painting more as an object,

as a sculpture.

Then we start to use everyday objects,

and you can see this change from representation

to presentation...

because, uh, if you, uh, don't use anymore,

um, oil painting and you start toto use tortillas,

the town, the guy who works in the factory,

the culture is involved in the piece.

People said, "What are you doing?

"You are very good to paint.

"You are very good to draw, and what is this [beep]

what you are doing?"

Ortega: Si.

Ortega, voice-over: All my friends from the workshops,

we are doing this show, first time all together.

Right. Poquito mas. OK.

Ortega, voice-over: I love when a new work, a new piece

needs to create their own tools.

The piece which I'm doing is a big cube

made with Styrofoam, and I am carving

a big hole inside to create your own living space.

[Scraping continues]

The ideas comes from different places.

Sometimes reading, sometimes materials

give some ideas.

Well, I found a beautiful book years ago,

"Architecture Without Architects,"

and, uh, I saw beautiful pictures of, um,

troglodyte, uh, househouses which are a cave.

They start to carve from inside,

which is a completely different approach than architecture,

and you start toto understand the space fromfrom inside.

I think it's interesting just to follow my own curiosity.

It's important, this dialogue between¿ como se dice?

uh, intuition and rationality

toto produce, uh, the click or the twist.

[Speaking Spanish]

Ortega, voice-over: I love tools.

The tool is a kind of hand, an extension of your hand,

and you can touch, and you can transform.

You can modify,

and then the tools are this extension

of your own knowledge.

In Mexico, we say...

I went to Berlin, and one of my pleasures

was to visit the flea market every Sunday,

and I found beautiful tools and amazing tools,

different thanthan the ones we use in Mexico.

I start to collect them, and when I had many,

I start to play with idea to to put all around me,

to hold all of them.

The idea, for me, was to permit the audience

to come inside of the piece and feel

how many possibilities

and how we see everything through tools,

through instruments to transform everything.

[Speaking Spanish]

Ortega, voice-over: I found a book

toto repair your own car,

and it was some beautiful, exploded views

or the car and the engine, the transmission.

I decide to use the Beetle because it was my own car.

It was part of my own family.

Second is because it was the most popular car in Mexico City,

and then, uh, I start to do

these kind of exploded installations.

You can find a universe in every single object.

It's amazing how objects have this life and this energy.

I don't know exactly how comes thethe idea to do a trilogy.

The second piece is "Moby Dick."

I have my white Beetle car,

and I thought it's a kind of whale,

and you need to control it, and you need

to move it and to push it.

It's a kind of obsession, no, how Captain Ahab

becomes completely engaged with the power of that whale,

and he tried to control,

and my performance was a caricature

of this domestic mythology.

The third piece is I had the idea to create

this mythology of this character who was a car as a hero.

To have a mythological tour, going back to the same place

where the car was born in Puebla

in the factory of Volkswagen

and going exactly to the same place to die...

and it was a sad moment,

like everyone was like in a funeral,

but it was a beautiful experience.

[Barrel organ playing]

[Dog barking]

[Speaks Spanish]

OK. Bueno.

Bien. Es perfecto.

Ortega, voice-over: Actually I get

very obsessed with order.

I try to classify the pieces and the objects

to make comprehensible.


Ortega, voice-over: Of course, it's nicer than the dark side,

no, what you saw.

Order is boring, and disorder is exciting...

but I like this dialogue between both.

I think it's also part of the language of my works.

If you ask me toto put in the balance

what is more important, the object or the idea,

I think the important is the combustion,

the sparks between both when they create a new experience

because, uh, maybe the object itself is not important,

but if you put in a different context,

there's, um, the chance to understand life

in a different way.

[Speaking Spanish]

[Plays "A" note]

Reyes, voice-over: I believe that anything

can become material for art.

It's one of the freest environments

because you're requested to reinvent the rules.


Si. Si.

Reyes, voice-over: This is one of the many workshops

that I've been doing where we turn weapons into instruments.

[Speaking Spanish]

Reyes, voice-over: The notion of sculpture is having

the understanding that you can take that material

and give it shape.

[Plays "A" note]

Reyes, voice-over: Something that was designed to kill,

how will it produce sounds for music?


I often find myself knocking at the doors

of different government agencies trying to persuade them

to embrace this initiative as something

that could happen on a national scale

because we need to get rid of all the weapons

that are entering our territory from the United States.

Doing these workshops is an attempt to transform

not only the material metal but also to

to try to create a psychological transformation

and, hopefully, a social transformation.

[Music continues]

I grew up in Mexico City, and I have always lived here,

and I don't have any plans to move.

I love it.

I studied architecture,

although I had always wanted to be an artist.

After architecture school, I wanted to have

a kind of a space for doing experiments,

and I opened an artist-run space called Torre de los Vientos.

It was a hollow tower made in 1968,

and I knew this space was abandoned.

I squatted in, and I started to use it as a studio

and then invite other artists to do projects there,

so when I started that, I was 23 years old,

and I didn't have a kind of artistic dedication,

but I learned through curating

what was the trade of being an artist.

[Rain falling]


Reyes, voice-over: I consider myself a sculptor.

As an artist, I'm very interested

with how things are built

and how you can walk around them.

I also am very concerned with with form and, uh, materials...

and it's interesting because in architecture,

you learn to solve problems,

so I think that that sstick with me, you know,

the issue of having to solve problems

to a degree that often, it's hard for me to think

just art for art's sake.

like a...

♪ Ping ping ping ping

♪ Ping ping ping ping ping ping ping ping ♪

Reyes, voice-over: Artists change

the perception of things...

so something that is considered disgusting,

such as an insect,

you could turn that into a source for protein

and make food out of insects.

These are the crickets,

so, you see

mm mm, mm

they have their

you know, like, their little legs and stuff.

Mm mm. They're very yummy.

Making a hamburger which, instead of meat,

you use crickets could have a tremendous effect

in the environment.

Our reliance of meat as a source for protein

is driving the planet to extinction.

This was an idea that my son gave to me.

Ha ha ha!



Perdon. ¿ Si?

Reyes, voice-over: Other people may copy the idea,

so you hope that, in a way, you spark a trend.

Reyes: Camarada, I have a new idea

for a manifesto.

Good, good, friend. What idea?

All that is solid melts into air.


I don't know if that could happen.

Reyes, voice-over: When I became a parent, I started to see

how my kids were feeding their mind,

so I decided to do this puppet show

where I could present the political debate

between, you know, capitalism and socialism,

like Marx on one side or Adam Smith on the other.

Smith: And I have no cookie, and, therefore,

you should give me your cookie.

OK. Well, you're gonna fight over who eats the cookie

but using these kind of, uh, ideological ideas.

Marx: Well, according to you, the capitalist,

you should have bought a cookie

so you would have ownership of the cookie,

and then you would have the right

to eat all of the cookie.

OK. Just give me the cookie.

You can't have my cookie.

Give me the cookie.

Ha ha ha!

Reyes: Mythology, mathematics,

neurology, pacifism,

poetry, psychology.

That's social sciences, feminism,

social justice, uh, Latin America.

I mean, like, It think that my library is like my brain.

In any moment, one section of the library

becomes the raw material for a new series.

For me, every year, I need to move to a different planet...

one big, new field of research that I start.

It becomes an entire system of reading materials

and sculptures that will be made and a show.

All right.

Reyes, voice-over: The People's United Nations, or pUN,

is an idea that I had since I was a kid.

I did it.

Reyes, voice-over: There's a comic strip made in the Sixties

called "Mafalda."

She's saying, "Yes. When I grow up,

"I'm gonna be an interpreter at the UN

"so when one delegate tells another,

"Your country stinks," uh, I'm gonna translate,

"Oh, your country's charming," and then, you know,

I'm gonna avoid global war,"

and then she looks at the planet and says, like,

"Well, you have to promise you will last

until I grow up."

Ha ha ha!

On the count of 3. 1, 2, 3.

Reyes, voice-over: Role-play is something that is

very much present in pUN.

The fact of being in character and the character being

that you're the delegate of your country

makes this game very serious, and I love serious games.

I mean, I love serious fun.

So I'm from Mexico City. Oh.

I've been living in California for 4 years.


I love my city. I love my country...


but it isn't like, people are scared.

"If you were the president

"or head of state of China,

what change would you implement?"

In the past two years,

two members of my family have been killed.

Remove the nationalistic component

of a school curriculum.

We need to rise as citizens.

We need to not just complain.

Super fun talking to you.

So fun talking to you, too. Ha ha ha!

That is why art is useful,

because you can have this rehearsal space

where you can play.

Reyes: This workshop is called "pUN Times."

Each of you say to the group something about your country,

but it's, like, actually something

that you don't like about your country,

so we're gonna turn that negative thing

into a positive headline of extremely optimist scenarios.

[People murmur]

Man: Hi. I'm the delegate from Venezuela,

and when I shared my concerns about violence and crime

in my country, the delegates of Germany, Australia, Yemen,

and Paraguay, um, helped me think of a solution,

so soon, the headline in the papers in Venezuela will be,

"Mandatory Use of U-Turn Bullets in All Guns in the Country."

[Laughter and applause]

Reyes, voice-over: I love my life.

Ha ha ha! It's super fun.

You're like a kid, and everybody, like, um,

gets to do what you wish, I mean, in terms

"Oh, I have this one idea. Let's make it."

"Yes," and it happens.

It's amazing.


[People chanting]

Cuevas: I feel my work is very rooted to Mexico,

to my background,

the sense of community and social justice.

We are in a general crisis.

The disappearance of the 43 students

of the Ayotzinapa school is, I think,

one of the most, uh, well-known situations

andand political crises in Mexico at the moment.

I started working with "Disidencia" project in 2007.

I was going to film and very much trace

a cartography of resistance and dissidence in Mexico City.

Mexico City, for me, it's, um, so rich.

I think the city's inspiring

because it's full of improvisation.

It's very mixed in terms of class, of race.

It's very much built by the indigenous,

the people that came from all the other states in Mexico...

and I think the other element that is present

together with this rural element is the sense of community.

I was born in Mexico City, here,

but my family comes from Oaxaca...

so if I have to say that my roots

are somewhere in the country, it would be the south.

I studied visual arts, but I quit school.

It was around the early Nineties.

And the art scene became quite interesting

because anything was possible.

It was not evident at the beginning

of my production that it was going to take

a political direction, but suddenly,

it just became obvious.

From here, we can see the Latin-American Tower.

That's where I used to have the office space on the 14th floor.

It used to be in every postcard of Mexico City.

Now that's changing, but, yeah, it's still a

a very symbolic building.

The Better Life Corporation started around '98.

It's probably my most important work.

At the beginning, it was not planned as an art project...

Just these symbolic actions, some giving away little gifts.

It could be a subway ticket.

It could be a barcode sticker for the supermarket,

student I.D. card.

It created this sense of freedom

that actions are possible.

So I think you empower people...

this little disturbance in the system, no?

It's finding the gap in the bureaucratic process.

With the barcodes intervention, I could alter just the lines,

and people were buying cheaper food

of course, it's micro sabotage

and then little by little, it became an art project, as well.

It gets exhibited in cultural spaces,

and that's very important because it became

the second stage of this street intervention.

In any conceptual art, the main thing

is to generate the idea, and in my case,

it's the social idea.

It's, um


No mas.

Cuevas, voice-over: In this visual society,

it seems that we are at the same time blinded.

All the things that we face every day

that are signs of the social crisis,

sometimes they get transparent and, uh, forgotten,

so some of my projects, the exercise is

very much reworking the visual code

to make things visible again.

One of the first ones was the "Del Montte" campaign.

I decided to, uh, alter the brand

and generate a campaign about, um, the actual situation

of, uh, how the company is influencing politics

or land struggles in countries like Guatemala.

Yeah. Ha ha!

Cuevas, voice-over: In my case, as everything is generated

as conceptual art, it's secondary if it's made by me

or if it's painted by me, but usually, I let those things

to the professional sign painters.

For me, it's a strategy that connects

to billboards or other kind of advertising...

the branding of companies.

You are already familiar with the image,

and then you get this other connotation

connected to that image,

so it's playful.


Cuevas, voice-over: I got interested

in primitive currency.

And cacao was used as currency in pre-Hispanic times in Mexico.

Cuevas: Mm-hmm.

Cuevas, voice-over: For me, the exhibition

"Feast and Famine" was very much a reference

to the capitalist system,

considering the whole, um, capitalist system

as a cannibalist process...


Cuevas, voice-over: because I think that puts together

two of the characteristics of capitalism

the exploitation of all the resources in the planet

so it's all this, uh, feast

but at the end, we are reaching, uh, the point

of societies that are dying of starvation.


For me, the most important art work in the whole show,

it's the chocolate dripping from the ceiling of the gallery.

[Dripping continues]

Every time the chocolate drips,

one person dies of starvation in the world,

and that's every 3.6 seconds.

It's a terrible fact, but somehow it's translated

into this chocolate sculpture.

[Dripping continues]

[Dripping continues]

Since pre-Hispanic times, the neighborhood of Tepito

was a place for a market,

and that's why they are somehow occupying the streets

to have their businesses.

I like when there are these spaces of freedom

on the streets in Mexico City.

The area itself has been very united

and almost autonomous.

It's an alternative way of commerce

and a very interesting way to resist and survive.

Yep. OK.

Cuevas, voice-over: The slogan part of the poster,

"Against the Forbidden: The Streets of the Possible,"

refers to the neighborhood Tepito

and the bigger movement that really wants

to take the streets as a public place

to demonstrate or to act politically.

Man: Ay. Yeah.

Cuevas, voice-over: And some part of that kind

of street culture or community life

is getting forgotten.

Art is totally connected to social change.

We don't have a way to measure how art can impact society,

and that's good because that's part of the freedom to do.

[Car horns honk]

[Whistle blows]

[Bell ringing]

Almada: Chris Marker at the beginning of "Sans Soleil" says,

"I do not know how those who do not film remember."

As a filmmaker, like, the act of filming

is kind of an act of creating memory for yourself.

I was doing my Master's in photography

at the Rhode Island School of Design,

and I took an elective in video,

and I just kind of got hooked, and I ended up doing

my Master's thesis was a short film.

It's called "All Water Has a Perfect Memory,"

and it's a film that looks at the death of my sister

through audio recordings of my American mother

and my Mexican father remembering how she drowned...

and what I kind of tried to do was create a visual memory

of my own because I'm the only one

in my family who wasn't around.

I was too little to remember,

so I knew that if I interviewed my family

that they would answer my questions,

as opposed to giving me their memories,

and so I got each of them a decent audio recorder

and said, "Just send me a recording."

Man: los carinos, y...

que es una sensacion...

Woman: And I've thought so many times that, uh,

throughout since the beginning of time,

a mother's wail ofof agony

of losing one of her children, losing a child

has probably always sounded the same,

the same as mine, always.

Almada, voice-over: I was born in Mexico,

but my, uh, parents divorced when I was very young,

and then my mother moved back to the States,

so I grew up, really, half and half.

I feel more rooted in Mexico because my father

kind of stayed put in one place

and had a much closer tie to the land.

He was a cattle rancher, and so my summers

were spent on a cattle ranch in Sinaloa,

and there was just more family history,

was closer to my grandmother.

Somebody gave me these audio recordings on cassette tape

that my grandmother had made in the Seventies.

My great-grandfather was one of Mexico's

most polemical historical figures

because he closed a church, and he was considered a dictator.

Almada: Ultimately, itit's a film about my experience

of this history and how it kind of

how I inherit it and how we create memory and history,

so it's very much a personal film.

Like, I had this thread, like, this historical thread

in my grandmother's voice that I wanted to kind of keep

as a bed but to play with Mexico City.

How can I tie these things together?

And the film, really, it was a game, you know,

a game of how do I how do I play with this present

in the context of the past?

I think making the film was kind of my reconnection

to Mexico City as an adult.

Hola. Ha ha!

[Speaks Spanish]

Almada, voice-over: In the last

maybe it's 8 years or so

since Calderon declared war on the cartels.

Uh, we have an increase in violence in Mexico.

[Rain falling]

When I set out to make "El Velador,"

I shot it in a cemetery in Culiacan, Sinaloa,

which is where my family's from.

It's like a little city.

The kind of growth and opulence of the mausoleums

was a mirror of what's happening.

I would go doing sound and camera,

and I went with Ramiro, who was a cowboy

who had worked with my dad on the ranch,

so he basically was kind of my bodyguard

because it was quite a dangerous place to be.

Whenever violence is happening, I think that one

of the first things that happens is that there's silence.

I couldn't ask, like, "Who is buried here,

and why did they get killed?"

Those questions would have put me in danger

and the person I was asking in danger,

so why not try to understand the situation in its silence?

[Glasses clatter]

I've edited all my own films, and I love the process.

There's a really nice balance, also, in terms of being

out in the world and kind of exposed and vulnerable

to the elements and the outside and then kind of coming

into your nice, reflective space.

I don't think it's such a huge leap

from the documentary to fiction,

at least not the kinds of documentaries I've made

and the fiction I'm I'm making.

It's called "Todo Lo Demas," "Everything Else."

It's about the violence of bureaucracy,

and it comes out of Hannah Arendt's idea that

that bureaucracies are a form of violence

because they dehumanize the individual.

I was swimming at a pool that belonged

to the government of taxation...

Almada: See? That's me in the

taking my pictures in my bathing suit.

Ha! That's how you get access.

Almada, voice-over: and the women who would be at the pool

when I would go swimming were retired bureaucrats

in their, you know, 50s, 60s, 70s,

and at the pool, they were so open and kind of naked and fleshy,

and they would be chatting and putting creams on each other,

and I thought, "Well, this is so different.

"Like, this is so real, you know,

"compared to the woman that I have encountered

"at some office who I probably didn't even really see

or really didn't even think of as a person,"

and the idea to kind of write a story about one of these women

and her internal life,

that was kind of the impetus to make the film.

Often, the photographs would lead to the writing,

so I would go out with my camera

and kind of see something, photograph something,

and then come home and insert my character

into that moment or that place

or that feeling that that I had photographed.

She decides to learn to swim, but she's afraid of the water,

and, in my mind, you know, she knew how to swim,

and she's someone who became afraid,

and it's very much what happened to mymy mom,

that my mother knew how to swim, and some years ago,

she developed a fear of the water

that was very much related to my sister

but kind of abstract, and so I was wondering,

you know, what makes a kind of wound like that

open up again and manifest itself in that way,

and so my character is a kind of mix of my mother

in that sense that she has this personal experience

and inner life that very much is like my mom's in many ways, um,

but she's set in this Mexico City context

of being a bureaucrat, and, you know, it's a challenge

for me right now to see, well, how am I gonna negotiate

the kind of personal inner life of this woman

with these ideas of power and class

and how society works, uh, into one film

that kind of works as a film.

I think when you're making films that are very minimalist

in some ways but it's, um, the stillness of the camera

or the kind of formality of the frame...

[Girl gasping]

Almada, voice-over: The sound becomes very important

to give it a fullness and life.

Almada, voice-over: In a lot of ways, I think, Alejandro

has been my most consistent and valuable

and closest collaborator.

This is our third film together.

Almada, voice-over: At one point, I thought,

"I'm tried of saying I'm half Mexican, half American.

"Why am I not 100% Mexican and 100% American?

Like, why can't I fully be both things?"

I think in terms of my work and as being a filmmaker,

an artist, um, I think I connect more

to my Mexican side in terms of what I want to speak about.

You know, there are things that definitely come out

of being American, a kind of independence

as a woman, for example.

Like, maybe part of what allows me to go out

and make the films I make and feel that I have

the entitlement to do that maybe has to do

with, you know, going to an all-girls Catholic school

in Chicago, so I think that when I embrace that duality

and I understand that it shapes the way I see things

and it gives me something special in terms

of how I look at the world and how I relate to people

and if I can embrace that about myself

and kind of allow that to be part of my work,

it's a very rich space in which to work.

94) Announcer: Next time on "Art in the 21st Century"...

Man: Art is not inherently good,

it's not inherently bad,

but it is inherently contradictory.

You're marvelous!

94) Announcer: To learn more about "Art21"

and our educational resources,

please visit us online at

"Art in the 21st Century,"

Season 8, is available on DVD

To order, visit

or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS.

This series is also available

for download on iTunes.


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