by Stella Hsu and Rhys Edwards
Satellite’s bloggers Stella Hsu and Rhys Edwards interview the curator of our current exhibition Broken Borders
Stella Hsu (SH): Describe the narrative of how Broken Borders came to be.
Adriana Estrada-Cantelles (AEC): During the first year of my masters in Critical and Curatorial Studies at the University of British Columbia, many of the readings and discussions were focused on the war on terrorism and the relationship between war, violence and contemporary art. Art history and contemporary art theory have developed ways of thinking about the resulting violence as well as the various forms of its representation in contemporary art. This war on terrorism, between the United States and Middle East, has left aside other urgent conversations on war and violence, such as the drug war in Mexico. I was interested in foregrounding, in terms of curatorial practice, a contemporary war on a much more complex, global scale that has changed the artistic production of many Mexico-based artists.
SH: How has this exhibition evolved during your research and why did the themes of this show capture your interest as a curatorial project?
AEC:I wanted to connect Vancouver’s drug trafficking and consumption problem with the exhibition. Locating the show near Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside was the most effective way to expose the problem. Making the audience move from one gallery to another was meant to invite the visiting public to experience the Downtown Eastside’s drug and violence problem.
During the development of Broken Borders, many unexpected and challenging issues came up, such as implicit policies about the drug war’s forms of representation differing from the mass media, or the official reports, as well as the concepts of bodies, life and blood both in Mexico and in Canada. One of the artists in the show was black-listed by the Mexican government because of her critique of Mexico’s war against organized crime. The Mexican government has focused its international policy on “cleaning up” Mexico’s image by not supporting any art project related to the drug war in foreign countries, unveiling Mexico’s weakened and outdated cultural policy.
In the case of Canada, health policies towards the body and blood are understood differently in an art institution than public spaces in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Having a live performance in an art gallery that involved blood, such as Red Carpet by Rosa Maria Robles, exposed some stereotypes about the “other,” sometimes confused as contaminated. Having a certified nurse draw the artist’s blood in front of the attendees became a public health concern inside a clean, white art gallery.
SH: In the context of this exhibition, can you explain what is Necropolitics, a concept that seems particularly key to your research?
AEC: Necropolitics operates through models of late-modern colonial occupation that transforms nations into war machines stimulating global militia economies. These models, in contemporary wars, occupy regions by dividing them into internal borders and isolated cells that makes it difficult to distinguish the internal enemy from the external. Any person can be taken as the enemy. This division leads gradually to the militarization of everyday life, such as the current situation in Mexico. Local institutions are also affected and systematically weakened, leaving the population without resources or sources of income.
Teresa Margolles, Rosa María Robles, Marcos Ramírez Erre and Jorge Malacón, the artists in this show, have depicted through their work some of the mechanisms of this war that refer to a more complex and global political structure. They unveil the drug war as a war machine and a new power structure of necropolitics.
Rhys Edwards (RE): With the concept of the necropolitical state, you imply that institutionalized criminality in Mexico is normative. Arguably, the same cannot be said of Canada. Given the difference in context, would it be correct to suggest that the title Broken Borders refers not only to the constitution of hegemonic norms within the Mexican state, but also to the potential for a trans-national shift in perceptions of normativity?
AEC: Broken Borders refers to the violent elimination of boundaries or limits on many levels: in the legal and political system, the global economy, and the social sphere. It refers to an unwinnable war infiltrating different countries all around the world located at the moment when biopolitics faces necropolitics, shifting legal and political systems and social relations.
A necropolitical state is in tension with biopolitics: in Mexico where violence and criminality are still punished by the legal system and considered a threat to Mexico’s democratic state. There are some places where criminality has taken control of local governments. Criminality in Mexico hasn’t been institutionalized yet, but in many places it has become a way of life or means of survival. When violence or criminality is being institutionalized, new regulations and rules appear from the legal system: organized crime and the State are fighting each other over a monopoly on violence. Exercising violence at this point is considered a crime, so it is not possible to think of it as something institutionalized. But when a country asks the congress for a state of exception, what actually the State claims is the legalization of violence and criminality for national security purposes.
Mexico was denied the state of exception and should not be understood as having the same drug trafficking characteristics across the country. In sites such as Mexico City, social and private lives are still regulated and protected by laws, while the northern cities are sites of lawlessness strengthening the necropolitical order. Drug trafficking’s complex and well-organized structure of illegal activities within global networks, point to sites of violence and lawlessness in countries, such as Canada.
SH: Many of the works in the exhibition, such as Rosa Maria Roble’s Red Carpet, utilize viewer participation where we become contributors to the artwork. Because the work can function as a utilitarian carpet, it reminds viewers that they are, in a sense, “home.” How did you address the narratives of the work in context to Vancouver?
AEC: I don’t think Red Carpet has been transformed into a utilitarian artwork or reminds the viewer they are at home. It is a specific type of blanket easily found in many markets in Mexico. Though originally produced to cover and warm up people, they were transformed into a form of communication between the drug cartels and the government in Mexico. Those who have been tortured, mutilated and killed are later wrapped up in these blankets and transported to public spaces changing its utilitarian purpose and ascribing new meanings to the blankets. Red Carpet has created meanings that confront the viewer with a very cruel reality. This reality has also been brought into Canada, but many people don’t want to see it. Vancouver is facing a shocking problem with organized crime with transnational networks, which the government and mass media want to keep under the radar.
Red Carpet has become an important piece for the exhibition creating a visual continuity while contrasting with the idea of the white cube gallery space, a Western legacy, with a more baroque Latin-American aesthetic. The walls are clean and white, but following Robles’s performance the artist’s blood was spread by attendees’ steps all over the white floor. The work welcomes the visiting public to a reality based on violence, murder, discrimination, and injustice that affects everyone’s daily lives.
RE: Is Broken Borders intended to inspire direct political activism on the part of the viewer? Alternately, do these works situate the viewer as inherently political agents, regardless of their perceived involvement in the conflict?
AEC: The works of Marcos Ramirez Erre and Rosa Maria Robles do not implicate the public within the conflict itself but seek to raise awareness among viewers about their (in)direct participation. While witnessing Robles’ performance this participation might be confrontational, but may be subtle through Erre’s video-installation. Through this participation, the viewer could play an important role as a political agent towards a conflict that involves many countries, economies, and political ideologies; nonetheless promoting political activism is not the main objective. Hopefully, the show will stimulate reactions among viewers other than simply political activism. These reactions can only be gauged in the future.
SH: The notion of transformation is evident in Teresa Margolles’ work not only through subject matter but also through the use of liquid substances, such as water or blood. How does her work move between intimacy and revulsion, and what kinds of impacts are possible through this juxtaposition?
AEC: With Teresa’s work I think the viewer is shocked and sometimes threatened by the remains of dead people. This is due to a long history of health and body regulations in the West. Anything regarded as illegal or unregulated is often considered “contaminated.” Teresa’s work makes visible the anonymity of the victim. This status classifies people whose bodies haven’t been claimed after being killed. Returning this anonymity to public spaces such as museums and galleries destabilizes the basic foundations of art and creation. It is more shocking to realize that the morgue, as a container of unclaimed victims, has been displaced to public spaces, not only in Mexico but also in North America. Consider victims who have been killed in Vancouver and whose bodies and suffering mean nothing to rest of the population. It is easy to know the growing number of murdered just by watching, reading or listening to the news.
SH: By the end of your curatorial essay you describe the artworks as “at risk of being absorbed by the war machine.” If the role of these works is to remind individuals of the socio-political impacts of illegal trafficking, how should one respond to these issues which seem so far removed from “our” everyday lives?
AEC: I don’t think the role of these works is only reminding individuals about socio-political impacts of illegal trafficking. In Broken Borders I was more concerned about the conditions in which these artists produced and unveiled complex structures related to a new political life and economy around the world. The political life and the economy of any country determine its socio-cultural development. Our everyday lives are shaped by any political and economical decisions or impositions of developed countries and local governments. For instance, Canada and the United States are the main drug consumers, so drug trafficking is not that removed from everyday life. Just think about all the people you know who use drugs in Vancouver. The numbers are shocking. By this, I don’t mean it’s good or bad consuming drugs but that in a more global scale you can see the consequences, such as wars going on in other countries. Broken Borders wasn’t meant to give an answer to a global problem, rather to make people aware of this situation from the perspective of four Mexican artists. The more we know about a common conflict, the more accurate decisions we can make. It is time to raise questions about the role of these types of artistic productions, not only in terms of art theory but also of sociological perspective.
RE: At the end of your essay, you note that there is a risk the artists’ work will be absorbed by the necropolitical war machine. What forms would this absorption take, and how will you avoid it?
AEC: Rather than forms of absorption I think it is more relevant to talk about the mechanism of reproduction or the socio-political conditions that allows or disables critical thinking and meaning making in art practice. Art practice in necropolitics can be easily integrated by the system with no significant results. If this happens, it will be necessary to expose once again the changing mechanisms of the apparatus. It requires constant awareness and self-reflection in order to create new symbolic spaces and modes of representation that cannot only resist the apparatus, but also use it for artistic production.
To read more about Rosa Maria Robles’s performance at Access Gallery go to