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Lost in Space, or Compressed Contemporaneity

Paper presented by Thomas Vann Altheimer on ‘distance.’
The second day of The Other Dialogues-symposium in the context of the Pastor Projects Dear Aliens-show at ICBC, Tecate – Co-hosted by Sheffield Hallam University and Universidad Iberoamericana

Lost in Space

When we attempt to read the contemporary situation from the liminal position of the Mexican border in 2021, we are sometimes received with impatient dismissal: “This has been done before”. Such responses do not take the form of carefully formulated arguments, but have more in common with jaded artworld tics that tirelessly seek to dismiss new efforts across the board.

The pathology has seeped into academe too, because theory and contemporary art have moved ever closer in an embrace of mutual flattery similar to the lethal dance of two black holes falling into each other. As a consequence, vanity and mutual flattery often gets in the way of deep thinking and proper attention, which ultimately denies artworks and ideas proper attention.

Not stars – Border-patrol SUVs lighting up the Mexican side of the Pacific beach at Playas de Tijuana.

The value of proposed art or ideas hinges today on the value of the individual, who brings them to market. Without context or continuity (accelerated by post-pandemic digital modality) we see hyper-individualised idea- and art-mongers, who seek little exchange, but instead look to deliver either pre-fab artwork or prepared statements to zoom cameras. This type of communication is not “contemporary” but has more in common with pre-enlightenment feudal systems of knowledge that are passed on without critical intervention, reception or improvement. This situation perverts the ontology of knowledge and threatens the institution of the university in human society.

There are two ways to engage with this situation—and this work is called for each time a framework for an exchange of ideas is organised: The first is to address the pathology that now casts a shadow from every human encounter. This is the trauma that must be acknowledged at the outset, because without some basic PTSD healing, tics and delusions quickly get the upper hand in our exchanges. The second task is to formulate and define the context, terminology, expectations and conditions for understanding specific exchanges of ideas.

To take the latter first: We could say that nothing has been done before, because in order to communicate today, we each time must establish answers to the most basic questions: Who speaks? for what? and to whom? This “meta-communication” should now be apportioned the main part of any exchange in order to enable understanding, comprehension and future-oriented knowledge (i.e., knowledge that benefits others).

As to the trauma, delusions and tics—this should be addressed mostly as a clinical condition—which calls for breathing exercises and the slowing-down of movement and speech. When we slow things down, we are able to give ideas and concepts more attention, and we see that there are potentially unique aspects to any human utterance, even when we think we have seen or heard something before.

Having addressed these preliminaries, we return to the opening proposal, which is to renew our commitment to the criticality of the liminal position of the borderlands. This might appear as a rather old-fashioned move, because it relies on a recommitment to the critical concept of the spatial, which was fundamental to the humanities in the 90s before it fell away to be replaced by notions of subjectivity and identity.

From Monica Arreola‘s photo-series Desinterés Social.

At the time, the turnover of trends and ideas had cranked up alongside hyper-velocity capitalism to a speed that left everyone gasping for air.

Let us then here do some deep breathing–


–and ask ourselves why the spatial disappeared as a determining factor in human understanding.

The main factors are those of globalisation, the digital, and the subjective turn in theory. Hyper-individualism and the digital do not need a spatial dimension in order to unfold. For these feudal agencies, space is something to be crossed out, cancelled. This in turn brings about a new blindness where phenomena, that previously featured prominently in spatial descriptions, completely fell from view with the rise of theories emphasising subjectivities.

As a consequence, Tijuana and the liminality of borderlands have languished theoretically for a decade or so, because its maquiladoras and geographic-spatial configuration do not lend themselves well to description by current modish theorisations. If it appears, it will appear due to theorisations of subjectivity, which gives us infinitesimal glimpses of the underlying vast fault-line via the subjectivities of immigrants, minorities and gender in contemporary discourse.

Compressed Contemporaneity

Given the crisisfication of the human condition, there seems to be a window opening again for a return of the spatial as a fundamental dimension with which to understand the configurations and patterns of human behaviour and society. Not only are paradigmatically spatial elements such as autarchic production models (the USA is moving production home, or closer to home (Mexico), from China) and nationalism is on the rise again. Alongside these resurgent old models, we see ultra-local variations in the responses to global crises.

To invest the borderlands with renewed critical purchase via the concept of the spatial, we can make out the spatial consequences of these new developments. The pressure on the border from immigration has never been higher, while the migration of hi-tech production to border cities like Tijuana is gaining new momentum.

Old School: Henri Lefebvre’s model of ‘trialectic space’

At the same time, nationalism and populism is putting an imaginary, fantasy-fuelled pressure on the border as an instrument to protect, define and exclude. Together these enormous forces–both real and imagined–exert an inordinate pressure on the human geography of cities like Tijuana, which results in what I propose to call a compressed contemporaneity.

In a condition of compressed contemporaneity, human expression, human organisation, human perception and human interfacing are different to what they are in places/spaces that are outside the compressed contemporaneity. To bring such conceptualisation into the domain of art, it is tempting to suggest that a place/space like Tijuana is “more contemporary” than other places. But that is of course too simplistic.

What I hope to propose with the notion of ‘compressed contemporaneity’ is a way to deepen our current conceptualisations of the contemporary. Taking up a liminal critical position in the space of compressed contemporaneity, we are given the opportunity to supply prevalent theories of subjectivities with a spatial dimension that helps us understand both the forces that are at play and the profound variation across local manifestations of the contemporary. This would then include a more nuanced understanding of the contemporary in contemporary art, which in turn carry its own inherent spatial dynamics.

Coda – added on 13 Nov, 2022:

The significance of the spatial dimension (Tijuana) is evident in many works by Alejandro Zacarias, Marisa Raygoza (early Jaime Ruiz Otis) who work in assemblages, sculpture, installations and textile (Raygoza), also in the photography of Mónica Arreola and Ingrid Hernández, even in the paintings of Enrique Ciapara. The point is brought home if one watches a few minutes of Alejandro Zacarias engaging with an (almost) empty lot (baldío) in the short documentary Tianguis Independencia in collaboration with the Mexicali audience and his academic side-kick, the architecture professor Alejandro J. Peimbert. Pastor Projects’s (site-specific) shows are distinctly spatial and is closer to a theatre set than the white cube, and so it makes sense when I speak of the curator as a producer rather than a curator. The documentation of the site-specific Baldío / Loitering exhibition should sufficiently convey the idea of a particular spatial determination of artists, art and human geography in Tijuana. Also relevant in this context are Mónica Arreola’s photos from her Desinterés social-series that were on show in our Artists from the Future-exhibit and her Loma Blanca-photo shown in Dear Aliens

Finally, at the risk of offering a rather glib point, but the fact that Zacarias, Peimbert and I were invited to contribute with a collaborative piece about the Tianquis-intervention to UABC Mexicali’s exhibition Hacer Espacio supports, this in as much as the show-title, to make space, is as close as you can get to a synonymous title for Henry Lefebvre’s eponymous The Production of Space (La Production de L’espace) – a bestseller on university campuses in the 90s. 

Mónica Arreola
Mónica Arreola
Collaborating at the ‘making space’
exhibit at UABC, Mexicali.

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