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Side by Side

Tijuana and San Diego's inSITE2000 show emphasizes cultural and artistic coexistence. On a basketball court, in a wax museum . . .

October 21, 2000|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

SAN DIEGO/TIJUANA — For inSITE2000, the binational exhibition of newly commissioned art made specifically for sites around the border region, young Mexico City-based artist Gustavo Artigas invited two Boys Club basketball teams from San Diego to play a match in the gymnasium at Tijuana's Lazaro Cardenas High School. He also invited two Tijuana high school football (or soccer) teams to play a match there. Last week, the two games were played before bleachers filled with screaming kids (and some screaming adults), in what proved to be the exhibition's most thrilling and savvy presentation.

Here's why: The basketball game and the football game were played simultaneously, on the same gymnasium court. "The Rules of the Game," as Artigas titled the extraordinary event, provided a bracing metaphor for the difficult realities of two cultures fitfully occupying the same space.

Four teams, two sets of referees, two groups of cheerleaders to whip the crowds into a frenzy and a loudly amplified play-by-play of each match from bilingual announcers all conspired to transform the routine energy of youthful athletics into delirious, rowdy, barely contained chaos. A basketball team making a drive for a hoop could be racing directly into the oncoming traffic of soccer players heading a ball. (To accommodate an indoor court, the soccer ball was slightly smaller than regulation size.) With the soccer nets set directly beneath the hoops, goalies were regularly surrounded by flying bodies attempting to grab rebounding basketballs, even as soccer wings jostled for scoring position and fullbacks struggled to block them.

Outside the gym, a waiting ambulance signaled appropriate caution.

Over at court side, trophies spread out on a table awaited the final score. Each featured two golden figures perched atop a column, one in a slam-dunk leap and the other in an over-the-head kick. The trophies' eye-popping visual collision of play, violence and concentrated grace perfectly described the raucous action on the court.

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The conflicted theme of the performance is one that has been central to inSITE since the exhibition series began in 1992. Here, it got a highly charged, exuberantly optimistic spin. What was most amazing was the way the players, all teenagers, adapted so easily to the tangled situation.

According to organizers, the coaches and referees had received training for the event, but the players had not. There were no practice games. The kids took what their elders taught them, but they entered a new and unprecedented arena on their own. There, they managed. And they had a blast.

So did the audience. Artigas' risky and electrifying performance piece was emblematic of the potential power of inSITE. But it also spoke of a fundamental weakness in the current installment. If you were there, it was an experience you won't soon forget; but if you weren't--well, one of just two strong works I saw during two eight-hour days of touring the exhibition, "The Rules of the Game" will not be staged again.

InSITE2000 is considerably different from its three earlier incarnations. As in the past, projects were commissioned from 30 artists and artist-teams hailing from throughout the Americas. But the focus this time was not on creating a public exhibition at various sites around San Diego and Tijuana. Instead, the emphasis was placed on community arts: Direct interaction between artists and local residents was a major goal.

That's fine for the participants, but it doesn't make for much of a public exhibition. Community-based art is attractive to many philanthropic funders; but it's not necessarily satisfying for an audience, whose experience is not the point.

Indeed, fewer than half the 30 projects commissioned by inSITE2000 could be experienced at the exhibition's opening. Some of that was documentation of past activities--Diego Gutierrez's videos and texts chronicling the ways in which he introduced himself to families in two neighborhoods, for example, or Mo^nica Nador's video about ornamenting bungalows with personal symbols in collaboration with a number of families. What these events meant to participants I cannot say, but the documentary materials are dull and uninvolving.

A lot of performance events will take place during the five-month run of the show, such as Carlos Amorales' planned participation in a regularly scheduled Friday night wrestling match in Tijuana, or two outdoor projections on the side of a building planned for February by Krzystof Wodiczko. Rita Gonzalez and Norma Iglesias have organized a film and video series on a variety of urban themes--traffic, window shopping, home, etc.--and Armando Rascon is doing one on immigration. Glenn Wilson is orchestrating an improvisational series of digital-video projections at sites around the border region, which will culminate next February in a finished work.

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