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I get regular updates on Jennifer Lopez in my email because I’ve been writing about her as an actor and star/celebrity. What is very clear from the daily coverage is the level of scrutiny and speculation she, her partner, and family lives with which she navigates through carefully curated media appearances and regular updates on Instagram. In my forthcoming book I discuss Bordertown (Gregory Nava, 2006) starring Lopez as the investigative journalist, Lauren. It is a film that addresses the disappearance, assaults and murders of women in Juarez. Part of my discussion is focused on how the film tries to explore how women’s bodies have been considered disposable and consumable. Woven into this is Lopez’s star text and the ways her body is fashioned in the film. This is informed by an understanding of her star persona.
Much is made in the popular press and fashion magazines about Lopez’s curvaceous figure. There is considerable emphasis, in particular, on the roundness of her buttocks. Great work has been carried out by Molina Guzmán and Valdivia (2004) and Mendible (2007) on the history and meaning of such treatment of the Latina body. Specifically, Lopez’s physique has had an appeal for the largely white press who have praised her body for characteristics most usually associated with the black body. The focus on her buttocks was a predecessor to what is written about Kim Kardashian and the ways her white black body is read (Sastre 2014). Therefore, Lopez, like Kardashian, has considerable agency in the performances of her self, but is also imbricated in a long history of the othering of non-white bodies.
From the early days of her fame, Jennifer Lopez has asserted considerable power over her star persona. She plays up to the attention given to her curves. For example, the clothing she wears at many events knowingly not only emphasized these, but so too have her poses. Her clothing at these events is about asserting a glamorous persona as well as providing a brief shorthand of her cultural capital and identity.
Film star texts often map on to their public persona. Where constant attention is given to women’s bodies in gossip magazines, tabloid newspapers, and online spaces, Lopez and her publicity team use these means of communication in deliberate ways Her regular posts on Instagram attest to this. As well as her carefully curated social media accounts, to get a full understanding of the star text of Lopez, there are a multitude of images to consider including, the photographs that are taken at official events (album launches, film screenings) in which the star and their publicist are complicit and have a great deal of power, as well as the photograph taken while the celebrity (I’m using this term in its broadest definition here) is papped, that is photographed unawares whilst on holidays, at private events, or going about their daily lives in public spaces (streets, restaurants, beaches, etc). For example, the fashion magazine, Grazia, under the caption declaring: “It’s the Return of J-Lo! Jennifer Lopez Brings Her Best Asset Back to the Red Carpet”, the article asks: “So is La Lopez on a raunchy red carpet rampage to prove her ex-husband(s) that she’s still got what it takes? Is this her way of proving to the world that she’s just as bootilicious as ever” (Dijkstra 2013). There is an obvious allusion to her buttocks in using the words, ‘asset’ and ‘bootilicious’, and through the accompanying image of her now infamous over the shoulder pose. Whilst, she still poses looking over her shoulder to emphasise her rear (MTV awards 2019), there have been changes in the focus from her bottom to her carefully sculpted physique as she enters her fifth decade.
As a way into understanding the evolution of her star text, a look at a recent Vogue magazine compilation of 22 photographs spanning from her 1997 appearance as Selena up to the 2017 Macy’s fourth of July fireworks show reveals that only three emphasise her buttocks. Two are shot from the rear: a red-carpet outfit that is both figure hugging and designed to emphasise her waist and buttocks, and the other is a concert costume that includes a short silver top and miniskirt. The third is shot from the side. She is wearing a skin-tight dress with revealing transparent material and ornate embroidery. The rest of the outfits emphasise different parts of her body: high slits at the front to show off her thighs, low cut or peephole elements to draw attention to her breasts, or belly tops to draw the focus to her abdomen. The repeated press emphasis on her buttocks are, clearly, a question of race. Her physiognomy is often read as an integral feature of her Latinness, which is very much part of her star text as a singer, while in her acting career she has often mixed acting as Latina and Anglo characters.
Vogue is a high status fashion and beauty magazine that acts as an arbiter of taste. The specific selection they have made in this series of photographs is an indicator of value ascribed by the magazine to Lopez’s clothing and style. It is an instance of fashion as translation, as described by Patrizia Calefato, where “fashion is a system that goes beyond the mere dimension of an individual’s dressing habits: it is ‘costume’, in other words a social institution that regulates and reproduces the clothed body” (2010, 345). She proposes the term “cultural translation” to describe when “a subordinate culture [is] being forcedly transferred into a dominant culture and in the sense of a space of interaction” (2010, 345). Within this system, Vogue is a powerful actor in that their approval of her translation is significant to star status, and so too is Lopez in choosing clothing that simultaneously communicates her alterity and attains that approval. In Bordertown fashion is used to indicate shifts and changes in Lauren from Anglo to Latina as a form of gradual assimilation and translation for the Anglo viewer. The display and concealment of her body is integral to her character’s development.
Calefato, Patrizia (2010) “Fashion as Cultural Translation: Knowledge, Constrictions and Transgressions on/of the Female Body”, Social Semiotics 20.4: 343-355.
Dijkstra, Maaike (2013) “It’s the Return of J-Lo: Jennifer Lopez Brings her Best Assest Back to the Red Carpet”, Grazia, 25 January. http://www.graziadaily.co.uk/fashion/news/its-the-return-of-j-lo-jennifer-lopez-brings-her-best-asset-back-to-the-red-carpet
Mendible, Myra (2007) From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture Austin: University of Texas Press.
Molina Guzmán, Isabel and Angharad Valdivia (2004) “Brain, Brow, and Booty: Latina Iconicity in U.S. Popular Culture”, The Communication Review, 7: 205-221.
Sastre, Alexandra (2014) “Hottentot in the Age of Reality TV: Sexuality, Race, and Kim Kardashian’s Visible Body”, Celebrity Studies, 5:1-2, 123-137, DOI:10.1080/19392397.2013.810838
Whilst writing my chapter on institutions and tastemakers I carried out research into Film Festivals. This has been invaluable in helping me describe and analyse film cycles and commemorations in Mexico, which I explore in-depth in my forthcoming book. I want to share some material that touches on what I have been researching, but will not be included in the monograph.
Film Festival studies has grown considerably since the early 2000s. The European-based Film Festival Research network founded by Marijke de Valck and Skadi Loist in 2008 with its comprehensive website has helped nurture and promulgate much of this work (see, filmfestivalresearch.org). It is a model of how to share research and provide a helpful guide for others. The research being carried out varies from the attention given to film festivals to following the influence and effect of A-list film festivals on global arthouse cinema to more niche festivals and their functions for local audiences and cities. The A-list festivals are a distinct category of festivals which have established reputations and can guarantee high profile boosts for films given premieres or awards. These include Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, and Venice and the most well-known festivals. The paradigms used for their analysis are helpful in understanding small sequences and curatorial practices, but there are two strands of research that provide more insight into the Mexican context: the Latin American festival film and the festival as curator of national, regional, or continental spaces. The particular supports given to Latin American film and filmmakers at festivals such as Rotterdam, Sundance, and San Sebastian have gotten particular attention from academics such as Miriam Ross (2011), Tamara L Falicov (2013), Stephanie Dennison (2013), Deborah Shaw (2013), and Nuria Triana Toribio (2013). Informed by the shift towards transnational film studies these scholars have examined film funding, supports for script development, distribution deals, and other practical backing given through film festivals and the inter-relationship between arthouse audiences and narrative focus.* For example, Ross (2011) traces the emergence of particular styles of issue-driven films and Shaw (2013) considers the growth of the Latin American Queer film as direct results of European film festival financing. Paul Julian Smith’s journalistic, social media, and academic accounts of film festivals in Mexico and Spain are a great way of keeping in touch with recent patterns and developments in Mexican film, even as his work moves towards TV.
Curiously, for my chapter the non-Latin American focused analysis have proven more useful. In general, I cite my Latin Americanist colleagues. But, because they are looking at specific festivals and funding flows, they are not relevant to my current chapter (with the exception of Falicov). However, I use their work extensively for teaching and in other outputs.
*References for all of these can be found on the Film Festival Research web page.
I have been writing about violence and subjectivity for my forthcoming monograph. This led me to reflect on the value placed on a life and how significant a fully realised representation is. It may seem obvious to say, but individual lives can become invisible when the numbers of victims grow. Therefore, acknowledging the subjectivity of victims of assault and murder is fundamental to comprehending violence and apprehending lives (see, Butler 2009). Providing salient features about individuals that reveal something about their characters and the known details about their deaths humanises them. An example of this can be found in Elena Poniatowska’s (2014) speech at a protest demanding the return of the missing 43 students from Ayotzinapa. Consistent with her attention to those often glossed over in historiography, she provides details about the students’ ambitions, interests, and interpersonal relations in order to challenge the logic of forgetting and elision that renders victims invisible (Poniatowska 2014 and 2018). Even where details are shown, other factors can mitigate against apprehending lives. Nonetheless, Poniatowska demonstrates one of the ways loss can be articulated especially when the numbers of dead are large.
Butler, Judith (2009) Frames of War: When is Life Grievable London & New York: Seagull Books.
Poniatowska, Elena (2014) “Ayotzinapa”, 13 November, translated by Juana Adcock, Words Without Borders https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/dispatches/article/ayotzinapa
—. (2018) “Poniatowska compara los 43 de Ayotzinapa con matanza del 68”, 6 September, Agencia EFE, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0J87E21DPA
I have been thinking a lot about performance – of the self, gender, on screen, online – in recent years. Most recently, this led me write about performance and authenticity in Amat Escalante’s films, Los bastardos (2008) and Heli (2013), as a way into thinking about his work as prestige productions. To situate this discussion and to give a sense of typical/atypical careers for actors in Mexico, I looked at Diego Luna and Yalitza Aparicio. He is a well-established actor, whilst she falls under what is called a non-professional actor.
Although particularly successful in that his trajectory is representative of other, perhaps less well-known actors, Luna crosses over between commercial and arthouse cinema. He began with small parts in Mexican television telenovelas (soap operas), such as, Ángeles sin paraíso (1992), El abuelo y yo (1993), and La vida en el espejo (1999), alongside occasional small parts in low-budget Mexican films. Mexican telenovelas tend to be of fixed duration and are produced quickly with an emphasis on exaggerated gestures and close-ups on the characters’ emotional responses. With Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel, 2000) Luna took his first English-language role and shortly thereafter took a lead role alongside his long-time friend and collaborator, Gael García Bernal, in Y tú mama también (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001). Subsequently, this has led to numerous film and television roles in Mexico and abroad including arthouse films such as, Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008), high-profile roles in the Star Wars franchise film Rogue One (Gareth Edwards, 2016), and a lead role in the Netflix TV series Narcos: Mexico (2018-). Luna’s performances cross-genres, media, and platforms. He is a highly mobile translational star acting in Spanish and English and has worked as a director and producer. Across his multiple roles, his acting style conveys a “realistic portrayal of characters through in-depth psychological analysis and bodily transformation” that demonstrates he has acquired the cultural capital to conform to Hollywood and arthouse acting styles (Leung 2009, 20). However, his tendency to be stereotyped in English-language roles that require him to act Latino encourage excessive movement “focused on the surface such as facial expressions that look[ed] good in close-up” typical of television acting (Leung 2009, 21). An example of this can be seen in the excellent If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, 2018). Luna’s move between styles of acting and across genres is a particularly successful iteration of what it means to be a Mexican transnational film star. He demonstrates range and a capacity to adapt his style as required with a primarily realist approach.
Luna’s professional career trajectory contrasts with that of the non-professional actor, Yalitza Aparicio. In February 2019 Luna interviewed Aparicio, the protagonist of Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018). She is someone whose foundational narrative resembles that of many of the actors in Escalante’s films. She is a non-professional who expresses a desire to return to Central Mexico to fulfil her previous ambition to become a teacher (Luna 2019). Although, she often mentions it in interviews, it is seldom commented that she comes from a family of performers and has had experience on stage. This gives her invaluable experience and understanding of performance. Her responses in the interview are the insightsof someone with this awareness. Aparicio explains that Alfonso Cuarón’s did not show her the screenplay, a decision which was intended to provoke instinctive responses to other (non-)actors (Luna 2019). A similar approach was taken by Escalante.
In interviews, Escalante has discussed this process with the non-professional actors in Los Bastardos and Heli. Considering how this method changed in the making of the horror film La región salvaje (Amat Escalante, 2016) reveals much about his previous approach and his different attitude to professional actors. Escalante states that La región salvaje “was the first time I gave my actors a screenplay. In previous projects, since the cast were not interested in being actors, we would work in the moment and they wouldn’t read the screenplay because I didn’t want to confuse them with a lot of information” (Aguilar 2017). For him, this directorial style results in spontaneous performances born of minimal knowledge of the narrative arc and is integral to working with non-professional actors. It will take a longer piece to unpick the variations in acting style and the mix of professional non-professional performers in his film. What is clear is that in Los bastardos and Heli Escalante elicited subtle low-key realist performances that, combined with an audio-visual style using long wide shots and close-ups conform to the aesthetics of arthouse cinema aiming to convey authenticity.
In my book, I will be looking at Escalante and how his work is read in terms of taste and consider the idea of the authentic and natural in relation to the non-professional actor. For me, the non-professional actor as a concept is under-explored, in particular in relation to recent thinking around authenticity. What’s here is a working through of something I have needed to think through before getting to the substantive issues I do tackle in the book. Further updates on the book to be announced soon.
Aguilar, Carlos (2017) “Pleasure and Pain in Guanajuato: Amat Escalante’s The Untamed is an Unusual Sort of Creature Feature” Movie Maker, 1 August, https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/interviews/tentacle-love-amat-escalante-on-creating-the-creature-in-the-untamed-and-filming-in-his-native-guanajuato/
Luna, Diego (2019) “Diego Luna Interviews ‘Roma’ Oscar Nominee Yalitza Aparicio — Exclusive”, Indiwire Feb 13, https://www.indiewire.com/2019/02/diego-luna-roma-interview-yalitza-aparicio-1202043684/
Leung, Wing-Fai W. (2009) “From Wah Dee to CEO: Andy Lau and Performing the Authentic Hong Kong Star”, Film International, 7 (40): 19-28.
Los cárteles no existen: narcotráfico y cultura en México [Cartels don’t exist: drug trafficking and culture in Mexico]* (Barcelona: Malpaso, 2018) by Oswaldo Zavala is a deliberately provocative book with a clear central thesis: cartels exist discursively and have been rhetorically constructed thanks to powerful interests, but do not exist as they are popularly understood and repeatedly reproduced in literature, film and television. In Zavala’s words, “lo que con frecuencia denominamos ‘narco’ es la invención discursiva de una política estatal que responde a intereses geopolíticos específicos” [what we refer to as ‘narcos’ is the discursive invention of state policy responding to specific geopolitical interests] (loc 3658). Zavala asserts that these interests are a complex combination of post-Cold War US foreign policy in Mexico and Central America and the consequence of the shifts in power between the PRI and the PAN in Mexico. He summarises these clearly and convincingly. He argues that the aim of the so-called “War on Drugs” and the attendant discourse is to displace inhabitants from areas rich in energy resources (such as Northern Mexico) by the Mexican and US governments for the benefit of private interests.
Zavala makes a strong case in a book that is a fascinating mix of journalism and academic analysis. This is not unusual in academic work about the recent violence (see, for example, Watt and Zepeda 2012). These are complementary skills rather than in tension with one another. His background as a journalist is clearly asserted from the introductory pages and determines his style of argumentation. It is a book making a bold case challenging those writing about texts representing (or purporting to represent) ‘cartels’ and narco-violence’ to re-think the language they employ and is a call to those in the creative industries (literature, film, and TV) to produce work nuanced by a more rigorous ethical and political approach.
For Zavala, there are many significant markers that reveal how the current discursive and creative fields have emerged. One of these I will be addressing in my upcoming monograph is his periodisation of novels before and after Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s La reina del sur (2002). Reading it as focused on “un personaje tan atractivo y fantasioso” [an attractive and fantastical character] (loc 404), he dismisses the novel as apolitical and facile. This is a discussion I will get into elsewhere. I’m most interested in its adaptation to telenovela (soap opera). He is critical of subsequent novels that copy La reina del sur‘s formula for commercial ends and praises those that he deems are politically astute because, “La literatura puede revelar el verdadero rostro simbólico del poder y la posibilidad igualmente real de confrontarlo”[Literature can reveal the symbolic face of power and show the equally real possibility of how to address it] (loc 2628). His is a large requirement of literature and one that is part of a long and ongoing debate amongst writers and critics. I would have welcomed more engagement with this debate, but this is one of the points where the central thesis and the forward momentum of the argument was given primacy over deeper discussion. In plae of this discussion he argues the case for good examples of novels that write about the violence in ways that situate it within a broader discursive, historical and political field. These do serve to illustrate his assertion that writers (and other creators) need to be responsible and nuanced when setting works against this violence. This is a point he has made, more recently, when critiquing the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico (a piece that chimes with my own on the earlier Narcos).
Zavala ably traces the mythology of the most notorious and infamous of the so-called drug kingpins, Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán (currently, subject of a show trial in the US). Challenging many of the salient myths, Zavala asserts that El Chapo is but a placeholder for much of the violence committed by others (mostly the Mexican state, sometimes in collusion with the CIA). At others Zavala suggests that El Chapo, his escapes, and the stories that abound related to him have been useful distractions from more significant events and political decisions.
Some of the assertions I disagree with and will address elsewhere. For example, I am not convinced by his discussion of feminicide/femicide nor with his wholescale dismissal of the telenovela, La reina del sur (2011-19).** However, this is an important book that should be heeded. The language used around the violence ascribed to cartels often enacted by government forces really matters. There is an urgency to this book. One of the ways he reminds the reader of this is through the repetition of the numbers of dead between 2008 and 2012, a peak period of violence: 120,000 dead and 30,000 disappeared. Facts that cannot be ignored. These serve more than rhetorical effect, they also ground the discussion in actualité (to borrow a term commonly used in documentary studies). He reminds us that the significance of his assertions are not a mere question of language abstracted from reality, this book is centred on lives lost, absented through brutal means.
*All translations mine. I have gone for literal translations to convey meaning. There may be loss of nuance.
**Literally, Queen of the South. There has been a less-successful English language re-make of that name.
This is the presentation I gave at UNAM, UK Centre for Mexican Studies in advance of the screening of Memorial del 68 by Nicolás Echevarria, 16 October 2018.
I’m sure that many of you here are familiar with the events leading up to the massacre on the 2nd of October 1968. So, you will not need me to rehearse the frequent marches, the long history of workers protests, the student dissatisfaction with failed government promises, the international context which empowered young people to stand up and demand civil rights and a fairer future. From Derry to Prague, Paris to Chicago, London to Mexico City, young people, often supported by a wider movement stood up and marched for a better life.
The Mexican armed forces acting against those students were not uniquely violent, but their response was under scrutiny as a consequence of being on a world stage because of the Olympics held that October in Mexico City. The subsequent vilification by the government of the protestors is also not unique, but the continued silence over the exact events is now an outlier. There are still only guestimates (anywhere from 44 to 400) about how many were killed and how many disappeared. This is where the visual archive matters. The image of shoes left behind at the scene and the bloodstained Tlatelolco Square of the following morning retains its poignancy and emotional weight because they evoke absence and loss.
There is an extensive audio-visual archive that runs to 8 hours of film and has been reproduced repeatedly. The first and most famous use of the footage was El grito (1968) directed by Leobardo López Aretche. Collectively made by the students who were given lightweight cameras from the recently founded Film school, they shot what they witnessed. This audio-visual material has helped recall the events. They are a testament to the gaps in history.
Some of the archive has appeared in fiction films, such as the docudrama Canoa (1976) by Felipe Cazals and El bulto (1992) by Gabriel Retes. Footage has been picked over and used time and again in what has become the life work of the documentarian, Óscar Menéndez in his successive films: Dos de octubre, aquí México (1968), Historia de un documento (1971) and México, 68 (1992). Another who has used this material over and again is Carlos Mendoza in films such as Operación Galeana (2000) and Tlatelolco, las claves de la massacre (2002).
The series organised by UNAM, UK focuses on non-fiction film and I want to draw attention to the fiction films, which are worth seeking out to get a deeper understanding of this moment and reveal ever-evolving attempts to understand 1968. As well as the famous first fiction film, Rojo amanecer (1989) by Jorge Fons there are two other notable fiction films: ¿Y si platicamos de agosto? (1981), a 35minute film directed by Maryse Sistach made while she was a student in London, and the Mexican-German-Spanish co-production, Francisca, ¿De qué lado estás? (2002) by Eva López Sánchez. All notable attempts to understand the past from the perspective of those with little power.
My work has considered these films (Thornton, 2013), but I am also interested in those films ostensibly about the Mexican Revolution, but where 1968 emerges as a means of working through this moment in films as varied as Reed, México Insurgente (1970) by Paul Leduc, the big budget Emiliano Zapata (1970) by Felipe Cazals, De todos modos Juan te llamas by Marcela Fernández Violante (1975), and the 1976 adaptation of Los de abajo by Servando González. Leduc, Cazals and Fernández Violante all merit analysis (Thornton, 2017) and have received varying degrees of attention, but I want to briefly consider the unusual case of the last of these, Servando González. His career was marked by 1968 because he was employed by the army to shoot film on their behalf. This was material he claimed to have fully handed over to them and to be innocent of its later use. His reputation never recovered and his later career was spent justifying and exploring this legacy.
To turn to Memorial del 68 by Nicolás Echevarría. Echevarría is a filmmaker with foothold in the recent and distant past. Memorial del 68 was a film he made as a result of an invitation by the Museo Memorial del 68 in the Centro Cultural Universitario de Tlatelolco de la UNAM on the occasion of the 40 year anniversary. So, it is very fitting to look at it again in the light of the 50th anniversary. It has been played on a loop in the museum for visitors to pause and listen to the testimonies of those who were witnesses to the events. It has been distributed via festivals and shown on television. The Mexican academic, Diego Zavala Scherer, praised the film for this capacity to move across different spaces because its intention is to tell the story of what happened to the widest possible audience and to give an accurate historic account of the events.
The film makes strong use of testimonials through straight to camera interviews. There are 57 testimonials in all. Testimonials are key to events where the historical truth has yet to be acknowledged by the authorities. By speaking to notable figures and witnesses to the events, including activists Raúl Alvarez Garín, Luis Tomás Cervantes Cabeza de Vaca, Pablo Gómez, and writers José Agustín, David Huerta, Carlos Monsiváis, Andrea Revueltas, Nacha Rodríguez, and Elena Poniatowska, Echevarría is building a full picture and loading up evidence where justice is still absent.
“un trabajo que tiende a extenderse, cuyo sentido principal es crear una memoria audiovisual que nos permita acercarnos al 68 como fenómeno central en la historia contemporánea de México,”
[a film that pushes beyond its limits, whose primary aim is to create an audio-visual memorial that lets us get closer to 68, which was a central event in contemporary Mexican history”]
What is clear is that it is a respectful memorial that is constructed out of multiple perspectives that merit our attention.
This memorial is a radical act of remembrance and bearing witness. The late intellectual and essayist, Carlos Monsiváis, who wrote about 1968, stated that “The massacre is so monstrous that there is no way to approach it”. Echevarría’s attempt is one of pushing back and broaching an overwhelming need to tell the impossible. Memorial del 68 is born of an urgent need to gather stories before the protagonists are gone and to help uncover the truth behind a terrible event.
Thanks to Axel Elías for organising this event and to Adrián Guillermo Aguilar and Ana Elena González of the UNAM, UK Centre for Mexican Studies for inviting me.
Thornton, Niamh. “Re-Framing Mexican Women’s Filmmaking: the case of Marcela Fernandez Violante” in Debbie Martin and Deborah Shaw eds., Latin American Women Filmmakers: Production, Politics, Poetics, London: I.B. Tauris, 2017.
—. Revolution and Rebellion in Mexican Cinema, New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Zavala Scherer, Diego (nd) “El memorial del 68, (Nicolás Echevarría, 2008): Recuerdo vivo, forma expandida”, El ojo que piensa, http://www.elojoquepiensa.cucsh.udg.mx/assets/ojo01/4Elmemorial.pdf
The following are a selection of podcasts that help understand migrant issues, asylum seeking and border crossing. Some look at the macro and others consider individual stories.
Immigration and Asylum
Bureaucratic war cracking down on immigration and asylum seekers to the US “Let Me Count the Ways”, This American Life, 14 September 2018, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/656/let-me-count-the-ways
A case study of a poultry town, precarious employment, and migration: “Our Town the Economists Report”, This American Life, 8December 2017, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/extras/our-town-the-economists-report
How it is complex to expel individuals: “Send in the Gowns”,This American Life, 19 January 2018, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/636/i-thought-it-would-be-easier/act-one-2
How an image of Spanish-African border in Melilla was used by Trump: “Melilla, Mexico and Trump”, This American Life, 21 March 2018, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/extras/melilla-mexico-and-trump
*The high price of PTSD: “A la distancia”, Radio Ambulante, 28 November 2011, http://radioambulante.org/audio/a-la-distancia
Crossing the Guatemalan-Mexican border and the awareness of the nature of privileged border-crossing: “El vacío”, Radio Ambulante, 10 January 2017, http://radioambulante.org/audio/el-vacio
The challenge of border crossing: “The Port of Entry”, Latino USA, 31 July 2018, https://latinousa.org/2018/07/31/theportofentry/
Child migration and separation of children from their parents
Valeria Luiselli “The Questionnaire”, This American Life, 6 October 2017, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/627/suitable-for-children/act-three
*Numbers of child migrants in detention and their consequences: “Tolerancia cero”, Radio Ambulante, 22 June 2018 http://radioambulante.org/audio/tolerancia-cero
Family separation: “Torn Apart I: Sign Here”, Latino USA, 14 August 2018, https://latinousa.org/2018/08/14/tornapart1signhere/
Parents trying to stay as close as possible to their children: “We Keep the Walls Between Us as We Go”, This American Life, 16 March 2018, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/641/the-walls/act-two-10
*Why young people are leaving Honduras: “No es país para jovenes”, Radio Ambulante, 27 February 2018, http://radioambulante.org/audio/no-es-pais-para-jovenes
Parents trying to find out the truth of their children’s disappearance in Long Island. It considers the way young people get caught up in violence committed by the MS13 gang and the consequence if “under- and over-policing Latinos” : “The Runaways”, This American Life, 21 September 2018, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/657/the-runaways
*The dangers of being a journalist in Mexico: “Fue el estado”, Radio Ambulante, 23 January 2018, http://radioambulante.org/audio/fue-el-estado
*Poppy farming and its consequences on those who live among it: “Flor del diablo”, Radio Ambulante, 7 March 2017, http://radioambulante.org/audio/la-flor-del-diablo
*Programmes by Radio Ambulante have transcripts in Spanish, some also have transcripts in English.
There are two artists who moved from Europe to Mexico exhibiting their work as part of the Liverpool Biennial 2018: Francis Alÿs at the VG&M and Melanie Smith at the Bluecoat. Alÿs from Belgium and Smith from the UK. As a country more associated with departures than arrivals, especially with the current US President, Donald Trump’s, emphasis on wall-building and keeping out migrants, this is a good moment to consider Mexico as a place which has a long tradition of being open to receiving outsiders. There have been key periods for growth in immigration to Mexico: the 1930s, when Spain was in the throes of its Civil War, there was an open invitation to those wanting to flee the conflict; welcomes were extended to those fleeing World War II in the 1930s and 1940s; in the 1950s others escaped McCarthyism and the US fear of the ‘red peril’; and so it has continued throughout the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries. Amongst these numbers were a large number of artists, filmmakers, and writers including individuals as varied as the Spanish director Luis Buñuel, US novelist and screenwriter John Steinbeck, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, the US author and activist Audre Lorde, and the Chorley-born artist and writer Leonora Carrington. Added to this distinguished list are Alÿs and Smith. Both of whom are purported to have found in Mexico a space to find themselves as artists and leave behind the politics of home.
I am not yet familiar with Alÿs’ work, but I had the opportunity to see Smith’s work whilst in the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) [Modern Art Museum of Barcelona]. There she had a larger retrospective and it included the recent work being exhibited at the Bluecoat. She uses a variety of different media in her art. Her work portrays humanity set against the backdrop of large scale natural or manmade spaces. It is often dramatic, yet also affecting. Much of her work has been carried out in Mexico, although she has also work in Peru, Brazil and, most recently, Chile. Examples of these are her audio-visual recordings of the British collector and artists Edward James’ jungle space in Mexico in Xilitla: Dismantled 1 (2010) and Henry Ford’s failed experiment in the Brazilian forest in Fordlandia (2014) are expressions of the folly of individuals attempting to control and contain nature as well as subtle commentaries on colonialism.
Her work being shown at the Bluecoat is a video installation, María Elena (2018), named after the town and salt mine owned by the Guggenheim family. María Elena is set in the Atacama Desert in Chile resonant for many reasons and has elements of the significant recurrent themes in her work: labour, nature, and the effects of late capitalist economics on the landscape and people. To understand the significance of the Atacama Desert and as a useful companion piece, it is worth watching Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia de la luz (Nostalgia for the Light, 2010) in which he juxtaposes the grandeur of the space and its significance for international astronomers with the terrible legacy of Augusto Pinochet, who imprisoned, tortured, and disappeared political prisoners during his dictatorship. The Atacama Desert is also rich in copper and nitrates, a significant source of income for Chile in the Nineteenth and Twentieth century and a space of much human exploitation. Previously, at the Bluecoat the Catalan artist, Xavier Ribas’s show Nitrate, explored the significance nitrate mining by British firms in the Atacama Desert. For these and other reasons, this work is highly evocative, captures the scale and drama of this landscape, and suggests at the particularities of its history. In her move from the UK to Mexico, it is clear that Smith has immersed herself in Mexican and Latin American culture, focused on the encounters between outsiders and established communities, and, as a consequence, creates highly nuanced and allusive work.
Having seen the work in Barcelona, in an open gallery space with beanbags as seating and other visitors moving through the space to see other parts of the exhibit, all of which was distracting. Therefore, getting to see it at the Bluecoat has distinct advantages. It is shown in an enclosed gallery space, albeit with some sound leaking from neighbouring installations. The seating is on a plush rug at a curious (and uncomfortable) slant, that vibrates when you see and hear the explosions in quadrophonic sound. The space gives it an immersive feel and makes it easier to spend time with the video. It is non-narrative and multi-layered in its referencing of different times, themes, and concepts. I would recommend going to see it, reading more about the locale and its history to get a deeper understanding, and then, returning to see it again. Or, just enter into Smith’s evocative dreamscape that is both affirmative and chilling and see what that brings.
On Friday 13th July, I had the privilege of seeing Agnès Varda being interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist (HUO). The interview is now available online. They are both seasoned interviewer/interviewees and this was evident in the interaction. She is delightful, highly articulate, and gave fascinating responses to the questions. He was warm, careful, and attentive in his questions. In advance, I was curious as to how HUO, a big name in curatorship, would be with Varda, an artist and filmmaker of considerable reputation and skill. My concern was that he would be egotistical, whereas he was a generous interviewer, who facilitated Varda throughout. Later the same evening, I heard her interviewed on BBC4’s Front Row, where she proved herself a more difficult interviewee. In that case, the presenter, John Wilson, is soliciting more news-ish questions, such as Varda’s attitude to the MeToo campaign. Through no fault of Wilson’s, because of the format and the need for brevity, it was a choppier piece. At FACT, HUO was soliciting a more wide-ranging conversation and could allow her space to respond, prompting her for clarification and following up, where needed. Watch the video for Varda, but also to get a sense of HUO’s skilled interviewing techniques.
I am finalising a book proposal, which means that I am avidly synthesising and summarising my ideas so that I can pitch it succinctly and clearly to a future publisher. The book is on tastemakers and tastemaking and will draw on some ideas around curation. For this, I have been reading Curationism (2015) by David Balzer, amongst other works. In this, he makes much of the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist (often referred to as HUO), whose career up the point of writing, he summarises and critiques “[a]s the world’s most famous contemporary-art curator” who “sets a remarkable precedent, acting as the archetype for the professionalization and domination of his field” (Balzer 2015, 11). Prior to reading this book, I was not aware of HUO, so it came as a pleasant surprise to happen upon the announcement that HUO will be interviewing Agnès Varda at an opening event as part of the Liverpool Biennial on Friday 13th of July and I have managed to get tickets. She was the primary draw for me, but to see HUO will be an added attraction having read Balzer’s book.
In Curationism, Balzer dedicates a prologue to HUO seeming to both admire and decry his presence in the art world. He describes his busyness and industry, his connections to key players in the art world and celebrity (Kanye West, amongst others), and as “the typification of the curationist moment” as well as “its natural harbinger” (Balzer 2015, 21). HUO, for Balzer, is exemplary of a phenomenon that came out of three significant shifts in the art world: performance art, de-professionalization (or de-skilling) of artists, and decreased government funding which has made museums and galleries dependant on visitor numbers. Curation has become both highly specialist, idiosyncratic, and professionalized in the figure of HUO, and distributed, generalized, and amateur, as experienced by all of us in our everyday from online selves to real, lived experiences. We are, in Balzer’s words, living in a “curationist moment” (2015, 2). So, it is a fascinating moment to see one of the most (in)famous curators, HUO, speak to an invited curator-artist-director (celebrity curator, in Balzer’s terms), Varda, at a moment when public, gallery, and ad hoc pop-up spaces throughout the city of Liverpool will be carefully and artfully curated for the Biennial.
Balzer, David (2015) Curationism: How Curating Took Over the World, the Art World and Everything Else (London: Pluto Press).