REMIXING CREATIVE REVITALIZATION — DISRUPTING THE MATRIX
"Creative ability is a resource upon which the people of Oaxaca have historically drawn to survive and revitalize. The assembly of revolutionary artists arises from the need to reject and transcend authoritarian forms of governance and institutional culture and societal structures which have been characterized as discriminatory and dehumanizing for seeking to impose a single version of reality and morality or simulacrum." — ASARO Manifesto
A 2007 exhibition in Oaxaca titled Grafiteros al Paredón (roughly "Graffiti Artists Up Against the Wall") demonstrates the second statement in ASARO's manifesto. This indoor replication of scenes (once visible, but since removed from Oaxaca's streets) asserts memory by remixing art and space. The exhibition serves as visual documentation of both artistic rebellion and state censorship. In it, a larger-than-life likeness of Oaxacan anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón overwhelms repeated profiles of Ruiz Ortiz with labels identifying the governor as many things, including thief, murderer, authoritarian, and innocent. Shown in the Oaxaca Graphic Arts Institute (IAGO), the installation is replete with added graffitied phrases like "Stop the information blockade," "Unite people," "The resistance continues," and "APPO lives." These regenerated works proclaim ASARO's continued employment of creative re-vitalization to transcend discriminatory and dehumanizing authoritarian restraints.
"These icons are a way for young people to express their power. To say, 'Well, okay, let's use these images that the State has appropriated but they can also be ours with symbolism that come from the youth.'" — Ita, ASARO
Bringing retooled street images back together in a gallery provokes important debates about the consequences of Mexico's authoritarian history and Oaxaca's cultural patrimony. In 1920, Flores Magón wrote a letter to a Russian-American confidant denouncing the notion of "art for art's sake" by describing adherents as incapable of expressing feelings and ideas. His image encourages debate about art and space. Revered for equating public ownership with liberty, Flores Magón provokes questions about who is responsible for Oaxaca's patrimony. His image in this exhibit suggests that officials had it wrong a year earlier when they called ASARO's street installations "act(s) of aggression against the built heritage of Oaxaca." The exhibit asks: what is the "built" heritage of Oaxaca; who constructed it and for what purposes; and who determines its future?
"An intervention could start with a person reading a line in a magazine, or something written in the bathroom. Or it can be a vagabond every day in front of a pristine wall. The trick is changing the context and transforming it into something else. You don't change the natural state of the thing, but you change the context in which it's framed. ... This place,the Espacio Zapata, intervenes with the dominant order. As you go to other galleries, you come to see other forms, other possibilities to intervene in the street." — Ita, ASARO
Posing questions like these inside a gallery rather than outside on the streets creatively repurposes physical space. It "gets back up," thus transcending institutionalized versions of events again, this time from the inside out. Participating in such a reciprocal dialogue with Flores Magón looking on is significant. The image of Flores Magón, who was exiled from Mexico for illustrating the absurdity of authoritarian "order," connects 2007 with the past and employs its memory for direction in the future. This creative remix harks back to indigenous Mexican beliefs in incarnate connections between the living and the dead celebrated throughout Mexico on the first days of November, and venerated in the artistic persistence of calaveras (skeletons) in Mexican art. The very belief in bridges between life and death rejects single versions of reality by encouraging empathy and communication across time and space. It suggests a cyclical rather than linear perspective further enhanced in artistic works that transform through participatory processes. For ASARO it is not so much "getting up" through public art as it is raising the people back up within it.
"Workshops help young people believe in themselves. For a struggling community, these workshops are power to grow and be stronger in their resistance to the problems they face." — César, ASARO
Creativity is not just distributing images for visibility; it is connecting — through those images and their circulation — with the past. The diptych print Son Ellos o Somos Nosotros (They Are or We Are) brings multiple historical events together in two artistic pieces. These works portray a general strike in which working people hold the line against fascism. Some of the characters depicted in the crowd hold signs favoring the socialist revolution or newspapers advocating anarchism. Some wave flags with hammers and sickles while others raise their rakes. These pieces are historical and contemporary, suggesting continuity and solidarity across time and space. The crowd in this image seems to be a throwback to early twentieth-century strikers, but the boy holding their banner wears a contemporary baseball cap cocked to the side with APPO's five-pointed red star.
Labels across the bottom of this diptych form a timeline connecting historical and contemporary Mexican rebellions. Guerrero identifies a prominent leader of Mexican Independence and Oaxaca's neighboring state, which served as a major theatre of the Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1917. EZLN identifies the Zapatista National Liberation Army, which emerged as an internationally recognized rebellion in 1994. UNAM memorializes the student protestors who disappeared after a bloody conflict with police in Tlatelolco Square just days before Mexico hosted the Olympics in 1968. Atenco identifies a contemporary uprising against the displacement expected as a result of airport construction outside Mexico City in 2002. SME labels the Mexican electricians' union, past and present. Obreros recognizes workers everywhere at any time. ASARO adds APPO to this assembly of historic resistance, paying homage to the strides made throughout Mexico in collective organization and adding this contemporary network of social movements to the mix.
"During our struggles, our people have always used tools to make graphics reproducible. In Mexico we have a great tradition of graphic production used for utilitarian and social purposes. ASARO tries to further develop that tradition." — Mario, ASARO
Somos Pueblo (We Are the People) expresses this idea differently. It illustrates special interconnections in a stylized map of Oaxaca de Juárez. Against the black background, white lines form a cartographic depiction of Oaxaca's historic Zócalo. The words "Somos Pueblo" are superimposed in large letters on this rendering. They assert the central importance of a people united as one in this space, while rejecting the significance of its image as a tourist destination. Additional words placed on the "Periphery" highway that runs on the west side of the Zócalo read, "Don't forget that we are the people" as a means of underscoring who this map represents. Dotted lines on the bottom of the image form the Central and South American landmass below, extending the possibility for this network of streets and pueblos to reach into communities bordering Mexico's southern boundaries.
Todos Somos Palestina, Muertas de Ciudad Juárez (We Are All Palestine, Dead Women of Juárez) extends the same principal to other oppressed borderland peoples. This poster underscores a widely accepted notion that anyone could be identified as ethnically, politically, or socially different and therefore dangerous, then marked for death, especially within discriminatory and dehumanizing simulations of reality.
"When I think of both Palestine and Juárez, I think about colonized bodies. I think of Palestine as a broken body due to the occupation of a foreign entity. Juárez also brings to mind bodies in a different way. The history of Ciudad Juárez assigns a different value to them. In both cases a foreign power imposed upon another has resulted in the death and impoverishment." — Anonymous
The message rejects autocratic governance and commercial monopoly and expresses international frustration with the chasm between governing powers, commercial industries, and people everywhere. The poster recognizes that this divide is at times created by troops and bombs, but also suggests that other insidious manifestations are to blame. It alludes to boundaries — some physical, others mental — separating people from one another. At the same time, this poster attributes blame to disingenuous representations designed to overlay ugly realities with contrived images. The stencil Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) is a more direct challenge to blind compliance, integrated into the Espacio Zapata logo.
A more recent example challenges the idea that Mexican drug cartels are the culprits of violence in Mexico. The apostles in this La Última Cena Mexicana (The Mexican Last Supper) stand at the table not with Jesús, but a drug lord with a Texan hat grasping a semiautomatic rifle. The decapitated head of Benito Juárez lies on a plate in the center of the table surrounded by wine glasses, a plate of cocaine, and empty bottles. Some of the apostles at the table have identifiable faces, including the current president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto; the second-wealthiest man in the world, Mexican Carlos Slim, shown with the Tel Mex insignia on his garment; former corrupt president of Mexico and supporter of Peña Nieto's campaign, Carlos Salinas de Gortari; former president of Mexico Felipe Calderón; the governor of Banco de México, Agustín Carstens; formerly the most powerful union leader of Latin America, Elba Esther Gordillo; and Uncle Sam. Gordillo was arrested soon after Peña Nieto's election.
"I want to make images that have become universal and play with them to change what they say. For instance, the image of the 'Last Supper,' it's an image everyone can recognize and the discourse on it here has been changed to criticize the powerful elite in Mexico. You could see the image from afar and know it's the last supper and as you look and start asking 'Who's this and that?' you start to learn what is happening." — Yescka, ASARO
Other nonspecific faces partake in the consumption of the feast as well, including a U.S. police officer in uniform and a topless prostitute. An obvious challenge to the morality of state, church, and corporate forces, this print also points to a collective responsibility for Mexico's violence. The liberal, nineteenth-century indigenous president is transposed by all of these participants into the drug lord's final meal, with all manner of church and government dignitaries celebrating at his side. The majority of Oaxacans who ASARO defends against discriminatory and dehumanizing labels are absent from this print; they simply do not have a place at this table. The use of an iconic image as the primary reference of communication requires all viewers to question their own blind faith and take a closer look.CHAPTER 2
PERIPHERAL GETTING IN
"ASARO seeks to create images that summarize the critical force that comes from the periphery, from the districts and villages." — ASARO Manifesto
Outside of Oaxaca's picturesque Zócalo, the urban expanse climbs up mountains and down rivers along its edges. The word periferia in Mexico generally identifies shantytowns located at the edges of cities. In more academic vernacular, the word means what is outside of the metropolis, as well. These peripheries are numerous in Oaxaca de Juárez. Every day, thousands of tourists take buses and taxis to gawk at the remnants of the ancient indigenous city, Monte Albán, located on top of a hill overlooking the valleys below. At the same time, people living in these peripheries move in toward the center, so that they might scrape together a living. Many who do not find work in the city must beg, play music, or perform to feed their families at home. For many who do find employment, transportation between the city center and the periphery means displacement in both spaces.
"Televised allegories of humble Mexicans in the big city don't actually reflect on the intelligence of indigenous characters, who are always bilingual from the start. Imagine a city person going to the fields and doing what farmers do. Let's see how they succeed." — Ita, ASARO
People tend to see this reciprocal marginalization as a natural part of the urban landscape; no one is ever exactly where they might be otherwise. ASARO exhibits this peculiarity in some of their work, asking viewers to question where they are and why. These works also ask what is natural about a destitute man on the city sidewalk or a migrant whose work chains him to a dizzying reality in which he is strapped to the exhausting processes of going out and coming back in. ASARO uses these images in their work to keep peripheralized peoples in the big picture while encouraging viewers to take notice and think about their own place vis-à-vis these individuals.
ASARO also challenges misconceptions about movement between centers and peripheries by reaching out to youth in the shantytowns outside the capital city. The collective offers workshops to teach young people drawing, painting, stencil-making, and printing techniques. These workshops bring youth into the city space and invite these citizens to leave their marks — tell their stories — on the walls and sidewalks. ASARO teaches these youths to act as integral parts of the cityscape. Workshops held in San Juanito and Santa Rosa in 2013 included the making and use of stencils that reflected on Oaxacan indigenous dances, clothes, plants, and animals mixed with countercultural elements such as hip hop and punk rock.
"ASARO's intent is to turn the word art around; and it's something that's done from the ground up. Museums can be intimidating and people don't think they will understand or they see museums as churches where they are not permitted to touch anything. There is no option to interact with it. ASARO goes to the street, and puts something there. Sometimes it's something people don't want to see, but it's there, and not like other things in the street. It's an imprint. I've seen many graffiti stencils, which were really cool and complex, also communicate with people who didn't think they could understand art. I like that communication." — Ita, ASARO
That voice draws not only from the shantytowns at the edge of the city but from the surrounding countryside and rugged mountain passes where people live outside of the urban space. As result of their marginalization, their access to centralized power structures is tenuous. Beyond the outskirts of Oaxaca de Juárez, indigenous villagers and farmers work the land, generally for subsistence (though export to other parts of Mexico does occur). In this sense, agriculture is their lifeblood. The land may ultimately feed them, but unfulfilled, century-old promises of reform all too often result in landless farmers struggling to compete for sufficient yields. Even small landowners struggle to eke out an existence as outside markets set prices that are out of reach for most average Oaxacans. The introduction of toxic pesticides and GMO foods by exporters make it even more expensive for small farmers to grow and sell their supplies. It is little wonder that when Oaxacans spontaneously organized under APPO in 2006, rural state residents helped fill the capital with five hundred thousand mega-march participants. Much of ASARO's work brings these peripheral issues into the discussion as well.
"Oaxaca is a state that dedicates itself to agricultural growth. They use the image of the farm worker; and those who struggle most are farm workers and their children. In Oaxaca they are lots of 'megaprojects.' The state says they support development and job creation. But in our experience, the Mexican governing structure is corrupt. So, in this system, the organization that makes the decisions is the one that benefits from these projects." — Mario, ASARO
Economic prioritization of extractive industries such as oil further intensifies the plight of landless peoples and small landowners. Within the Wikiruta lands, a sacred pilgrimage site for the Huichol peoples since the beginning of time, destructive and constitutionally illegal mining continues while the Mexican government looks the other way. Other oil companies, such as state-owned Pemex (Petróleos Mexicanos), extract and refine oil in southern Mexico while delivering persistent ecological damage in return. Families whose homes are situated above underground pipes that funnel raw petroleum out of their communities find themselves at risk of dangerous accidents. Though the Mexican constitution reserves its natural resources for the national interests, its governance denies the majority of Mexico's citizens the economic benefits of this industry, sending them away instead.
"We did a series on petroleum. The rich and the powerful are the ones who ultimately suck up all the capital. The ones that hold the straw or the access keep the others wanting a piece." — César, ASARO