Keeping an Archive Alive and Thriving Through Publications, Performance, and Transnational Collaborations
An introduction to contemporary art via the production of public art. INSITE was the first project that introduced me to contemporary art when I lived in Tijuana, B.C. back in the 1990s. Ever since, I have been fascinated not only by this model of a flexible institution where curators, writers, and artists come together to think about the public domain in specific contexts, but also by who leads the project, namely Carmen Cuenca and Michael Krichman, who have been willing to take on risks and new challenges as the art world has evolved over the past thirty years. I had worked with Carmen in the past as curator at the Museo Tamayo, and ever since we became very good friends and colleagues. In 2018, when they both invited me, I had just been fired from my position as director of a museum that was snatched (to say the least) by the local government, and my role was offered to a friend of the local governor’s head of office. As it is often he case, the many signatures, letters, and petitions didn’t revoke this political decision and the whole staff was capriciously discharged.
From art courier to art curator. When I was 18 years old, I got my first job as a draftsman, and then as Collection Manager at the Museo de las Californias, a historical museum in Tijuana developed by Mario Vázquez, a leading museologist in Mexico at the time. His overwhelming knowledge and experience introduced me to museums and history and led the path for what came during the following twenty years. I was invited several years later to be the associate curator for the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art and—among many other activities—to serve as courier for Frida Kahlo works traveling to the Walker Art Center, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and SFMOMA. After this incredible journey, where I had the chance to delve into these museums’ storage rooms and collections, and see the behind the scenes of exhibitions, I decided to pursue a career in curatorial practice and I applied to CCS Bard College in New York, where I attended from 2008 through 2010. Upon my return and after several other activities including teaching, I began to work with Carmen at the Tamayo, which I believe grounded my practice more seriously.
Aligned interests. INSITE was a major opportunity in my career to work for the first time outside a governmental structure, and to think outside of the frame of a building and a collection. But most of all, it excited me to work on a project that had at its core the notion of the public. INSITE was founded as a binational initiative in 1992, to produce artworks in the public sphere through collaborations among artists, cultural agents, institutions, and communities.And for me, public meant many different things that ranged from the civic, the social and the common, to conversations, oral history, and speech. I have long been interested in archives and history, and this fit with INSITE’s interest in making its large archive of material public, using it as the basis for as new model of presenting work that is largely based on process and dialog.
A publication for the Archive. My first commission was to prepare the public launch of the INSITE Archive, which spans almost 30 years of projects, public programs, and publications. My thinking was that we needed a critical platform that could bring a fresh perspective to the material, especially after reading a lecture by Marxist anthropologist and geographer David Harvey from the 2005 edition of INSITE, which consisted of public exhibitions in Tijuana, talks, and performances, where he posed timely questions. I proposed to develop and edit a new triannual publication that could be a curatorial framework for the archive, but also a writing platform where many themes and disciplines—from sociology, philosophy and politics to art and curatorial practices, could merge. The result, the INSITE Journal, has been the source of other forums, of which one of the most recent is a project that is very special to me: Speech Acts.
Performing the Archive. Upon an invitation by Jumex chief curator, Kit Hammonds, I proposed a performative presentation of the Archive and the Journal, something that could be more persuasive and straightforward for an audience. I started working on a play crafted from fragments of texts published in the first four issues of the Journal, trying to imagine them as a somewhat cohesive narrative that could be relevant to the conditions we are living in today. I was inspired again by David Harvey’s lectures—all the questions were there: What does it mean to be human right now? What kind of world do we want to live in? How do we want to intervene? So, after a few months I had a play in three acts prompted by these questions and answered, if you will, by quotes from theorists and artists who responded throughout the years, up until now, to various political and social conditions. I found it amazing to see how much of what was said at the end of the nineties resembles what was said last year during confinement and protests.
Speech Acts. The title comes from John L. Austin’s term “Speech Acts”, that I discovered while looking at social research at the intersection between text, language and body. It is a complex philosophical term, related to language theory and communication, but it seemed ideal to reflect on the notion of how words are transformed or might be transformed into action. Once the play was ready, we invited two collaborators: Productora architects, who conceived the stage inspired by the idea of a playground and several works of INSITE that used public space as a forum; and Amplio Espectro, a group of very talented performers led by choreographer Arturo Lugo, who interpreted the play through references that were important to me such as Bob Wilson’s Einstein in the Beach or Akram Khan’s Zero Degrees dance, and prompts that could embody the idea of confinement, protest, intolerance, or speech. The result is an experience that can be seen as a play, a performance, or a dance, it doesn’t really matter; but it represents, I think, the potential of archival material and text, both spoken and written to be reshaped through time, and brought forward, I hope, to open other questions.
COMMONPLACES. It began as a conversation about what the future of INSITE should be, and I had the challenging task to propose a model that could continue INSITE’s long trajectory. From 1992 to 2005, INSITE had six editions on the Tijuana-San Diego border before shifting to a house in Mexico City for another 5 years, where it operated on workshops and gatherings around a kitchen and a urban garden. All versions of INSITE involved residences by local and international artists, who developed a project in context and in dialogue with INSITE curators. My initial approach was to think that another edition may not be necessary, and that we could work through the Archive and the Journal. My second thought was to attempt to reverse the model. Usually artists are invited to respond to the site where the institution is based—a pattern we see in most biennials—but why not think about the relationship between artists and their own place of origin? How could we begin a transcontinental conversation without traveling? Could we invite others to reflect on their own history from their own place? Could this prompt a different engagement and dialogue in each region? These are some of the ideas that evolved into COMMONPLACES, which resulted in inviting curators to edit one special issue of the INSITE Journal and develop a project with an artist in their places of residence. Almost immediately I thought of Gabi Ngcobo, whom I respect very much and with whom I collaborated on my thesis at Bard. After our degrees, we had many plans to develop south to south dialogues and she prompted me to visit South Africa. But these plans were abandoned after I had my daughter and returned to Mexico. It is lucky that we can reimagine that thread again for this project. Another curator we all thought about was Miguel López, who had just returned to his native Peru, after being in Costa Rica for many years. He is also very bright in thinking new ways to approach local history. Both were very powerful minds to begin COMMONPLACES. Additionally, I will be working from the Baja California/California, where I’m based. Each of us will put together a Journal that can have crossovers between different thinkers and artists from the different regions. I think that COMMONPLACES has not responded yet to a specific need or question, but the idea is that conversations and projects emerge as it unfolds.
I don’t work from a particular place but do need early mornings and strong coffee every day to write. I have recently moved to Ensenada, a coastal city in Baja California, so I’m fascinated with the ocean and normally take afternoon walks with my family on the beach.
I don’t have a very good memory of what people have said in terms of advice, but I do learn from other people’s thinking about art. One of them is a very close friend of mine, writer and philosopher Fernando Delmar with whom I have an endless evolving project that involves spiritualism, shamanism, pataphysics and the speaking of tongues, and who teaches me to imagine and enjoy curatorial work again every time.
Between spontaneity and premeditation … My mind works both ways: I’m very spontaneous and not afraid of taking risks in terms of ideas, but I do need to write down most of what I think and plan, and that takes a lot of my time.
I never curate without…delving into an archive.
Confinement has taught me to take one day at a time, and not to compare to other experiences but rather deal with what I have. As everyone else, I miss being around people without feeling anxious. I think that what has affected me the most is seeing my daughter (11 years old) getting used to screens, social distancing, masks, and isolation.
The book that still haunts me is The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt. It doesn’t matter which page you read; you will always find a statement that makes you understand your reality and act in the world.
Dance, repeat. I haven’t seen many exhibitions in person lately but have been revisiting different dance pieces online by choreographers Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Yvonne Rainer and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Even though the experience of online-watching will never match that of a live presentation, I really enjoy pausing, rewinding and repeating movements over and over again.
Changes in the curatorial field in the last ten years? Contrary to what one would expect during a pandemic, I think curatorial practice is being outpaced by the amount of content that is produced daily, all over the world. This is very positive for the cultural ecology to subsist, but the downside is that we are losing attention of what is being said and shown.
When my husband, who is also a curator, is not working on a project, he is trying new recipes at home, so I’m very lucky.
If I wasn’t curating I would be a full time writer.
Director of Curatorial Projects at INSITE
Ensenada, B.C. Mexico
Andrea Torreblanca is a curator and writer from Mexico. She earned an MA in curatorial practices at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, in New York (2010). Between 2016 and 2018 she served as General Director and Chief Curator at the Museum MMAC, and as Consultant of Cultural Programs at the BBVA Foundation. From 2012 through 2015 she was Associate Curator at the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City, where she curated the exhibitions including The Theater of the World, First Act, Cyclorama, Double Negative, and GRAV: Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel. She was Coordinator of the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros – La Tallera from 2010 to 2012, where she also curated After Eden, Art in Cuernavaca: 1974–2014; she served as Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs and Chief Registrar for the Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art of Jacques and Natasha Gelman (2004–2008). She has been a professor in theory, criticism, and art history at several art schools and universities in Mexico. In 2018, Torreblanca was appointed Director of Curatorial Projects at INSITE, where, among other initiatives, she founded and is the editor-in-chief of the INSITE Journal, and for which she recently conceived Commonplaces, a curatorial platform to be developed simultaneously in different regions around the world.