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A New Frame for the Border

inSITE97 examines the relationship between the United States and Mexico through numerous site-specific projects.

September 21, 1997|Leah Ollman | Leah Ollman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

SAN DIEGO — Depending on where it's parked, a mutant bicycle with two seats and two opposing sets of handlebars could mean many things.

Starting Saturday, one will be on display inside the Centro Cultural Tijuana, as part of inSITE97, a binational exhibition of art in public places. There, the bike is likely to be read instantly as a metaphor for the United States border with Mexico, that continuous stretch of land occupied by two radically different cultures, political agendas and economies driving it in opposite directions.

Kim Adams, an artist who lives near Toronto, had, in fact, been making variants on two-headed, child-size bikes for years before a commission from the inSITE curators landed one in this loaded context. Adams traces the idea back to his boyhood in Australia, when he saw a two-headed lizard.

"One end of the bike is dead [false], just like the lizard, and then there's the power end," explains Adams, who has been in San Diego to work on the project. "One kid steers, and one's always going backwards. That's where the struggle starts happening. There has to be some kind of negotiation. If one just throws the other off, it doesn't work, because as soon as one kid starts pedaling, the other end starts spinning around. It takes two."

Adams doesn't mind if the border comes to mind first when viewers see the bike. He regards the little vehicles as metaphors for negotiation, which is just as relevant to the setting. Indeed, negotiation is the lifeblood of inSITE97, which encompasses not only a nine-week exhibition of art in public places, but also 15 longer-term community engagement projects and a dense calendar of artists' lectures, workshops and a symposium.

inSITE started out ambitious and, over the years, has expanded and evolved, while keeping to the fundamental premise that site-specific art has the potential to transform a space, to define it and even redefine it. In its first incarnation, in 1992, 21 galleries, museums, vacant office buildings and bookstores in San Diego and Tijuana hosted site-specific works by area artists.

The results were promising enough to inspire Installation, the San Diego nonprofit that coordinated the effort, to up the order of magnitude. For inSITE94, Installation partnered with 38 other nonprofit arts institutions to invite more than 100 artists from around the globe--including Terry Allen, Silvia Gruner, Allan Kaprow, Ulf Rollof, Nancy Rubins, Yukinori Yanagi and Andy Goldsworthy--to create site-specific installations for a five-week show.

"Sprawling" was the word most favored by critics (the show claimed 37 sites over a span of 60 miles), but many praised its energy and the incisive quality of several of the works on view. One critic, writing for the magazine Art in America, gave the artists points for chutzpah, for daring to even attempt work that responds to the border when the most daunting "installation" of all--the border fence itself--stands so close by.

This time around, inSITE has been reined in a bit and refined. The artist roster has been trimmed to just over 50--the bigger names this year are Lorna Simpson, Vito Acconci, Rosa^ngela Renno, Francis Alys, Rebecca Belmore, Gary Simmons, Miguel Rio Branco and Allan Sekula--and all live and work in 11 countries in the Americas.

Rather than leave curatorial choices up to the participating institutions, as was done in 1992, this year a committee of four did the picking: Jessica Bradley of Canada, Olivier Debroise of Mexico, Ivo Mesquita of Brazil and Sally Yard of the U.S.

Once again, the projects will be distributed on both sides of the border, but to make comprehensive viewing more manageable than in the past, the sites are concentrated in two main areas, downtown San Diego and the beaches of Tijuana. Bus, car, trolley and walking tours have been organized for weekends and some weekdays during the exhibition, to make what the organizers call a "scavenger hunt" more fun than frustrating.

Perhaps the biggest step in the maturation of inSITE92 and '94 into inSITE97 has been raising Mexico to the status of equal partner in planning and supporting the $1.5 million project, which is funded by the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico, the National Endowment for the Arts, several American foundations and a variety of other private, corporate and governmental sources.

"It's a fairly big project, but I don't think the complexities or the difficulties come necessarily from its size as much as from its structure," says San Diegan Michael Krichman, who co-directs inSITE with Tijuana's Carmen Cuenca. "What we're doing is inventing a lot of systems, constantly, to accommodate two very different institutional cultures and ways of working. This project really is organized binationally, with all the good things and bad things that implies."

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