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.
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.
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...
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.
Heh. OK. Esta.
I name this works "Geodes"
like a geological term of the stones.
In this one, we use, uh, cardboard boxes
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
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, 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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
[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.
Reyes, voice-over: This is one of the many workshops
that I've been doing where we turn weapons into instruments.
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.
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.
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.
♪ 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,
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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]
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!
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.
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?
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...
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.
94) Announcer: To learn more about "Art21"
and our educational resources,
please visit us online at pbs.org/art21.
"Art in the 21st Century,"
Season 8, is available on DVD
To order, visit shoppbs.org
or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS.
This series is also available
for download on iTunes.