Encouraging Encounters: Dignicraft in conversation with Ionit Behar

Encouraging Encounters: Dignicraft in Conversation with Ionit Behar

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Dignicraft is a hybrid between an art collective, a media production company, and a distributor of cultural goods, inspired by human dignity and justice, the artisanal process of creation, and the potential of collaboration to spark change. The essence of the collective’s art practice is to encourage encounters normally not seen between people of different backgrounds. The group accomplishes this by producing documentaries, distributing cultural goods such as films, or creating collaborative workshops as part of a contemporary art project. The most important outcome for Dignicraft is the quality of the relationships they establish and their consequences. Dignicraft has been active since 2013 mainly in Tijuana, Mexico, and also transnationally in California, USA. The group was born of the evolution of the collective work that was started in 2000 under the name Bulbo and Galatea audio/visual. Currently, Dignicraft includes Paola Rodríguez, José Luis Figueroa, Omar Foglio, Blanca O. España †, David Figueroa, and Araceli Blancarte.

Ionit Behar: Often, your projects begin from a specific place and problem. Take, for instance, one of your early projects, Tijuaneados Anónimos (2009), a feature-length film about Tijuana and a group of citizens who participated in a workshop you designed. The documentary includes the testimonies of workshop participants, who share their experiences of the unprecedented wave of violence that erupted in Tijuana and throughout Mexico in 2006. I’m interested in the way your projects are local but also convey larger ideas and raise global questions. Perhaps what I’m trying to say is that your work demands sincerity and, above all, empathy.  The idea of empathy” in socially engaged art has become central to its criticism, both in positive and negative ways. Grant Kester writes that it’s necessary to begin again to understand the nature of the political through a practical return to the most basic relationships and questions; of self to other, of individual to collective, of autonomy and solidarity, and conflict and consensus, against the grain of a now dominant neo-liberal capitalism and in the absence of the reassuring teleologies of past revolutionary movements.”[1] Is this something you think about when planning a project or getting involved with a new situation? Would you say your projects are as much about the people you meet as they are about yourself?

José Luis Figueroa: Our work takes place in daily life via personal interactions. We believe macro-level problems are experienced in the day-to-day. You might approach a situation theoretically to better understand it, but on the ground level, you live through it. The essence of our artistic or cultural practice is to encourage encounters normally not seen between people of different backgrounds. These encounters are fostered by collaboration, as a means to create a common ground where communication, understanding, exchange, and learning can be possible. We try to co-create possibilities for interaction between individuals or groups that can evolve into close collaborative relationships based on mutual recognition of value and respect, which are key ingredients for empathy. So instead of planning to achieve empathy, we try to avoid any preconceptions and approach other people, places, or situations to learn about them, paying attention along the way to see if there is any way we can be of help. The best way to do this is to let actions speak for themselves. Speak less in favor of doing things together.

IB: As a collective living in Tijuana, what is it like to live and work there. A lot of your work is site-specific––based on research, fieldwork, and relationships that you developed in different places where your projects take place. I wonder, how do your experiences in Tijuana inform your projects in different locations?

Omar Foglio: We are currently developing a space for residencies and knowledge exchange named “Basalto” just outside of Mexico City, in the town of Santa Catarina Ayotzingo, State of Mexico. At first, we thought the place had little to do with our hometown of Tijuana. However, the more time we spend down there working with people from the community, the more we realize that the Valley of Mexico has a dynamic with a strong resemblance to that of the region between Tijuana and Southern California, where life is marked by the border situation. But in this case, the division is between the State of Mexico and the City of Mexico, where there is also unequal access to resources and opportunities, three to four hour-long commutes, and this sensation of an immense periphery subordinated to a political, economic, and cultural center. In this sense, our experience on the border between Mexico and the US has been useful in engaging and understanding a place located almost two thousand miles from our home.

JLF: In our case, life in Tijuana has been binational and bicultural. This forces us to constantly change perspectives between different value systems, ways of thinking, and even working rhythms. This ability to move between cultures has been like a training that has prepared us for all the projects we do outside the city. Especially with the collaborative work we have done with families from the Purepecha communities in Mexico and the United States.

OF: Looking back, our practice has also changed in response to what the city has gone through. When we started Bulbo [2] in the early 2000s as a television program, we knew that we weren’t represented in broadcast media. The majority of the content that was sent to us was either from the United States or from Mexico City, so there was no place to see ourselves, our city, our generation, and the people around us. Consider that this is long before social media platforms evolved into what they are today, so it was even harder to create something and intervene in traditional broadcast media. So, first, the kind of issues we talked about had to do with our daily lives and people who were doing artistic, creative, and independent projects. At the moment, all of this coincided with what we were seeing in the city––there were lots of things happening, it was an exciting time.[3] But around 2006, and especially 2008, things in Tijuana started to change––violence having to do with the drug cartels started to get out of control, so there were a lot of kidnappings and everything went downhill. It felt like the city went into an extended period of depression, and it didn’t feel right to keep celebrating things or pretending that nothing was happening. So we knew we had to do something with our own means to address the situation, and that’s when we started working on projects like Participación [4] and Tijuaneados Anónimos.[5]

IB: Certain aspects of your work remind me of the art in Argentina in the 1960s and 1970s, during the dictatorship. I’m especially thinking about Arte de los medios de comunicación de masas (art of the mass media), which was an experimental arts group formed by Eduardo Costa, Roberto Jacoby, and Raúl Escari in 1966. They used mass media as their art form in order to question issues around truth and the power of media in society. Another important example is Tucumán Arde (Tucumán is Burning). Tucumán, a province in the northwest of Argentina, was extremely affected by the dictatorship; people were driven into poverty and starvation after the closing of several sugar mills and farms. Artists from Rosario and Buenos Aires created a counter-information movement, intervening in mass communication to reveal the regime’s lies about the situation in Tucumán. Artists were seeking to show the truth. I think that your documentary, Tijuaneados Anónimos, has to do in part with uncovering the truth. Can you please tell me a bit about how this project came about? The main component of the project is the documentary, but there are other elements that also form part of Tijuaneados Anónimos, right? Please tell me about those as well. 

JLF: The city changed. We were seeing a lot of violent events, finding dead bodies hanging from a bridge and terrible things that were impacting the lives of everyone. But not only that.  Tijuana, because of its geographical location, is a point of enormous flux; people, goods, and culture come and go through the border, but also drugs, arms, money, anything that comes to mind. We felt the city was a chaotic place and thought it would be nice to have some type of self-help program where people could deal with the situation happening in Tijuana at the time. Then building on the Alcoholics Anonymous “AA” logo, we created a graphic for an imaginary fellowship named “Tijuaneados Anónimos.” The plan was to make “TA” stickers, posters, pins, and distribute them throughout the city as the ironic gesture of an art project. The idea evolved into having an actual space open to the public, where a group of people would hold therapeutic sessions under the name of “Tijuaneados Anónimos.”

OF:  It was hard for us to deal with the situation in the city and know how to talk about it. The actual space for Tijuaneados Anónimos was located in downtown Tijuana and was open to anyone who walked in and wanted to take part in the conversations. That lasted for about a year.  Along the way, we recreated the “TA” space as part of the “Inside the Wave: Six San Diego / Tijuana Artists Construct Social Art” exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art, and created an installation at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica for “The Future of Nations – Part III: Citizen Artists Making Emphatic Arguments” exhibit, incorporating video clips of the sessions and the logo sign. But after a few months the group took on a life of its own; we listened to the stories that were going on inside, and we felt the need to take this conversation further. That’s when we started to work on a documentary film [6] focusing on some of the people that were part of the “12-step program.”

JLF: The documentary opened the opportunity for us to travel throughout Mexico as part of the Ambulante Film Festival, stopping by the country’s major cities. The film inspired people to reflect upon the problems they were facing in their own cities. We then realized that the situation in Tijuana, in terms of violence, was a few steps ahead of what was starting to happen all over Mexico. A strong sign of this was the need of audience members to talk during the Q&A sessions, to the point of resembling the dynamics of the “TA” group meetings.

OF: However, we knew that the chances of people watching the “TA” documentary were really not that big, despite the packed theaters and the success of the festival.  So we did a do-it-yourself guerilla marketing campaign to spread the message of the project.[7] We created a small arsenal of promotional assets like the song “El Corrido del Ciudadano” [8], which subverts the “narcocorrido” genre with lyrics taken from the film dialogues and interviews, to be played on the radio or on a rental car with a loudspeaker that rode around the city or outside of the cinema. We also sent out press releases, held interviews with different media outlets, and spent hours on the street handing out postcards as a way to jumpstart conversations with people about the issues related with violence that were affecting their cities. In a way, we were replicating the 12-step program sessions, but right there on the street. We were promoting a film screening, but below the surface we were having conversations as part of a broader art project addressing an issue that was starting to become out of control all over Mexico.

IB: What does “Tijuaneados” mean?

OF: The word “tijuaneado” is very common in relationship to the sale of used cars. In Tijuana, there’s a huge market for used cars that come from the US, and when people try to sell these vehicles they tell you “this car is not tijuaneado,” meaning it hasn’t been used in Tijuana—because once you drive the car in Tijuana most likely it will get damaged and will soon become ugly, dirty, and will lose value. But at some point, you might also hear the same word used in other contexts for things that are also affected or deteriorated. So, we appropriated the term for the “TA” 12-step program. A word that originally referred to cars was appropriated to talk about us––the people from Tijuana––and how the city affects us as human beings and vice versa.

Detail of Tijuana from the Tijuaneados Anónimos: Una lagrima, una sonrisa; documentary film. Image courtesy of Dignicraft

IB: Something else that came up in the documentary is that people felt extreme fear and believed that if nothing was happening to them directly then nothing was really happening. It is a very common reaction in a society living with fear. During the dictatorship in Latin America, people would withdraw into their private lives or self-censor”; some would leave the country and go into exile, others would become activists. Of course, there are many positions in between these two. But it was interesting to hear in the documentary that the people going to TA” were there to change their attitude and the city.

JLF: The attitude of the people who attended the “TA” sessions in the face of violence in Tijuana was what motivated us, in part, to make the documentary. What we did was echo the conversations beyond the four walls of the space where they met, in the context of a city where fear and evasion prevailed. On the other hand, there was documented migration of hundreds of affluent families who moved to San Diego, California, leaving behind closed businesses and abandoned houses. But there were also citizens’ demonstrations against violence and activists, many of whom were directly affected by the turmoil, organizing search parties for the disappeared. During this period, we explored what drives us to take action against a situation of ungovernability and suffering, and the role pain and empathy play in motivating a person to seek an internal change. We did this through two projects: Participación and Tijuaneados Anónimos.

IB: What is Participación about and how does it relate (or not) to Tijuaneados Anónimos?

OF: In July of 2008, we were finishing details for the opening of the Tijuaneados Anónimos space in downtown Tijuana and we received an invitation to take part in Proyecto Cívico: Diálogos e Interrogantes [9], organized by Bill Kelley Jr. Our project was titled Participación, which revolved around one question: “How can we construct civic participation to confront the problem of violence?” The goal was to explore the role of citizenry in creating a public policy against violence in Tijuana. Participación began as a series of conversations between two local journalists, writer Daniel Salinas, photojournalist Omar Martínez, and members of our collective (then named Bulbo). Throughout the process, we kept a record of the discussions and shared relevant images and video clips on a Tumblr site.[10] By September of 2008, the city had gone through the worst period of violent homicides at the time, causing widespread indignation. Deeply shaken by the situation, the conversations turned towards issues that weren’t originally in our minds, like the effects of anger, pain, suffering, and having been the victim of violence to foster civic participation.

The final result of Participación was a video we made in collaboration with both journalists and a panel open to the public, which was held at the Centro Cultural Tijuana. The development of the project occurred in parallel with Tijuaneados Anónimos, and at some point, the conversations were in sync with what was being expressed at the “TA” meetings. The experience of doing Participación informed the story of our feature-length documentary about Tijuaneados Anónimos and helped to articulate the cinematic discourse.  Also, the two journalists and activists involved in Participación were also film characters in the documentary. Looking back, Participación and Tijuaneados Anónimos were our responses to what we went through between 2005 and 2010. Our efforts to make sense of the violence and the deterioration of our city and our country. A way of taking action and working towards internal change. All this had a profound effect in our artistic practice.

Members of the “Tijuaneados Anónimos” 12-step program during a session. Image courtesy of Dignicraft

IB: The way you work as a collective is unusual. As you say in your statement, you are a hybrid between an art collective, media production company and distributor of cultural goods.” How do you navigate the space between activism, art, audiovisual creation, and also community engagement? Your project La Piñata Colaborativa, for instance, is about living with the Purepecha families in Rosarito, Baja California.

OF: The city of Rosarito, Baja California, has a community of about 250 Purepecha families, most of whom migrated from their ancestral homeland on the island of Janitzio, located in the State of Michoacan. Most of these families make piñatas for a living and work for one single distributor who then exports their work to the U.S. Over the years, they have developed a high level of craftsmanship which is quite remarkable because they learned the trade after resettling in their new environment. La Piñata Colaborativa [11] started in 2015 as a collaboration between Dignicraft and four families of Purepecha master artisans to design and create a series of piñatas as tools to talk about their identities as indigenous peoples and their history as a migrant community. We then made a documentary about the experience, started showing it together with the new series of piñatas, and whenever possible arranged for a few of the artisans to give talks or piñata making workshops. The following year, the project evolved into a series of conversations and collaborations between these master artisan families and cultural agents based in Los Angeles to explore issues related to fair trade, an alternative market for the commercial distribution of piñatas, and the community organizing made by other migrant indigenous peoples in Southern California, to name a few. La Piñata Colaborativa continues to evolve in unexpected ways, in part thanks to the respect and friendship that we have developed over the years with the master artisan families. The way we navigate the space between activism, art, community engagement, and audiovisual production is by focusing on the excitement of doing something together along with people you deeply respect. If there’s a point in the whole process where it feels like the project has taken on a life of its own and things start coming together by themselves, beyond the individual efforts of each collaborator, it means we are on the right track.

IB: With such a special way of working collaboratively, do you feel like you are part of the art world? How involved are you with other artists and collectives in Mexico? Are there other people in the art world with whom you feel connected or can collaborate?

JLF: Due to the nature of our work, we are constantly collaborating with people who are linked to the art world, whether academics, artists, or groups. But the core of our work occurs in the place where we are carrying out a project, and oftentimes the people we collaborate with are involved in a series of actions that might not be relevant to the art world; they are simply doing things. For example, in 2018 we held the Transcommunal Cornfield (Milpa Transcomunal) [14] in Basalto, a space for the exchange of knowledge and culture that we opened in the community of Santa Catarina Ayotzingo, State of Mexico. The purpose of this collaboration was to exchange knowledge about traditional sowing methods and to appreciate all of the work involved in this ancient practice. Vidal Campos, a Purepecha farmer, was our guest resident, and he brought purple corn seeds from his hometown in Michoacan to trade with local farmers Emiliano Leal and Juan Peña. We prepared about 2,000 square meters of land for them to sow and exchange know-how while we documented the process. Over the following months, we continued working the cornfield together with the locals. But the process of connecting with the farmers, preparing the land, and sowing the field felt far away from what we might consider to be within the realm of the art world. This is a common feeling in our practice. However, we understand this particular collaboration as an art project, and we might come across an opportunity to showcase it as part of an art exhibition. Also, half of our resources for Transcommunal Cornfield came from the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, a government fund for the arts in Mexico.

Milpa Transcomunal, Jose Figueroa, Emiliano Leal and Juan Peña at the Transcommunal Cornfield in Santa Catarina Ayotzingo, State of Mexico. Image courtesy of Dignicraft

IB: Do you think your work is experienced differently in Mexico than it is abroad? I think one of the roles you take is the one of mediators.  You spend a lot of time in a place working and researching, having conversations with certain groups, building relationships, and then you communicate something out of this process to different audiences, maybe broader audiences. What gets produced from those relationships fascinates me. While I was reviewing all of your different projects, the word empathy” kept coming back to me. I haven’t been to Tijuana or most of Mexico, but I felt you were able to transmit this sense of empathy that I think is very important. What obstacles do you encounter with this type of methodology?

JLF: I would say that rather than encountering obstacles we encounter challenges. Oftentimes, we embark on projects that seem impossible to achieve because they depend on things beyond our control. So, we just focus on creating circumstances and building relationships, in hope that the outcome can take the shape of an artistic experience or a cultural product. I think of it as if preparing a dish using only the available ingredients, but always trying to do something good and nourishing.  Empathy is one of those ingredients. It’s important to create a space of mutual respect with your collaborators. Then there’s always the need for resources to get things moving. In our case, we save money from commissioned film jobs, apply for a grant, or find ways of making a project self-sufficient. Another element is collaboration, which has been our core medium of communication between different people that we connect with, because we really believe that working together is a viable way to communicate with another person. If we work together, some of the differences start collapsing. Actions connect us on a deeper level and create a unique space for exchange. Being exposed to life in a border region also plays an important role because we get used to switching perspectives by going back and forth between Los Angeles and Tijuana. The border really forces you to switch perspectives all the time. And being involved in documentary filmmaking pushes us to confront different life perspectives or realities, so that’s another key component for us. By switching perspectives, we can bridge ideas between people.

OF: I would just add that we use the word “projects” when speaking of our undertakings, but I think they aren’t really projects in the sense of doing a job, shelving it, and moving onto the next one. Our art practice is our life, it’s what we do, and we do it whether we have a job or not. This gives our work a different level of commitment and responsibility. It changes the ball game, drastically.

MilpaTranscomunal, The Transcommunal Cornfield a month after the collaboration between Emiliano Leal, Juan Peña and Vidal Campos in Santa Catarina Ayotzingo, State of Mexico. Image courtesy of Dignicraft

IB: Like other socially engaged artworks, Dignicraft’s projects seem to be structured through processes of exchange and dialogue, unfolding over time. How do you maintain the relationships and infrastructures that you develop for each project?

JL: Each project generates a small network of relationships. This network is enriched whenever we begin a new project. Some of these relationships demand time and energy, while others are nourished by friendship or common interests. What we do is like having a map of this network based on our previous collaborations, and each time we are about to start a project we look for different ways to make connections and reincorporate those relationships in this new chapter of our practice. The relationships with collaborators transform along with life and can be constantly reactivated if both parties are willing to continue to work together, as if you were going through an endless journey.

OM: Our documentary films tend to be results of these processes of reconnecting with people who are part of an organically built network. So, a project does not end because human relationships do not end. And we need to assume responsibility for the connections that we jumpstart with our collaborators. The joy has been to see how life seems to connect us with others, continually leading us from one project to another and so on. It’s been that way since we started working together 20 years ago under the name “Bulbo” and “Galatea audio/visual” and it continues today with Dignicraft. So we’re hoping we can ride this wave as far as we can, as far as life will let us.

MilpaTranscomunal, Jose Figueroa of Dignicraft at the Transcommunal Cornfield in Santa Catarina Ayotzingo, State of Mexico. Image courtesy of Dignicraft

Dignicraft is a hybrid between an art collective, media production company, and distributor of cultural goods, inspired by human dignity and justice, the artisanal process of creation, and the potential of collaboration to spark change. The essence of the collective’s art practice is to encourage encounters normally not seen between people of different backgrounds. The group accomplishes this by producing documentaries, distributing cultural goods such as films, or imparting a collaborative workshop as part of a contemporary art project. The most important outcome for Dignicraft is the quality of the relationships they establish and their consequences. Dignicraft has been active since 2013 mainly in Tijuana, Mexico, and also transnationally in California, USA. The group was born of the evolution of the collective work that was started in 2000 under the name Bulbo and Galatea audio/visual. Currently, Dignicraft includes Paola Rodríguez, José Luis Figueroa, Omar Foglio, Blanca O. España †, David Figueroa, and Araceli Blancarte.

Ionit Behar is an art historian, curator and writer. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago and her dissertation is titled Intimate Space and the Public Sphere: Margarita Paksa in Argentina’s Military Dictatorship. Her interests are focused on 20th century Latin American and North American art, art under censorship, socially engaged art practice, the history of exhibitions, and theories of space and place. She holds a Master’s degree in Art History, Theory and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a Bachelor of Art Theory from Tel Aviv University, and a degree in Art Administration from the Bank Boston Foundation in Montevideo. She is the Director of Curatorial Affairs for Fieldwork Collaborative Projects NFP (FIELDWORK). She has served as the Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, as a Research Assistant for the exhibition “Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium” at the Art Institute of Chicago, and as a curatorial assistant at Gallery 400, UIC.

Notes

[1] Grant Kester, “Editorial: Spring 2015” in FIELD: A Journal of Socially Engaged Art Criticism) <http://field-journal.com/issue-1/kester>

[2] https://www.dignicraft.org/2002

[3] https://www.newsweek.com/worlds-new-culture-meccas-144621

[4] https://www.dignicraft.org/2008-a

[5] https://www.dignicraft.org/2008b

[6] https://www.filminlatino.mx/pelicula/tijuaneados-anonimos-una-lagrima-una-sonrisa

[7] https://youtu.be/RJYg7fJMDtg

[8] https://youtu.be/nlmrBetwfik

[9] http://proyectocivico.blogspot.com/

[10] https://participacion.tumblr.com/

[11] https://sites.saic.edu/talkingtoaction/artist/dignicraft/

[12] https://www.otis.edu/ben-maltz-gallery/talking-to-action-art-pedagogy-activism-americas

[13] https://sites.saic.edu/talkingtoaction/

[14] https://vimeo.com/348937228