BY: Eduardo Navas

Reflection on Centro + Media, Periferico, and LatinoAmedia, Mexico City: Fifth installment in a series of five

Media’s tendency is to overwhelm the senses. The exhibitions at Centro and Laboratorio Arte Alameda lived up to this particular expectation with great ease. And because of this, the aesthetics of the performances and installations could be dangerously universalized. Part of the reason lies in the fact that the tools used by the performers and artists are the products and vehicles of globalization, which strategically saturate the senses to create the necessary desire to keep production and consumption at its peak. Another reason is the fact that, thanks to the same tools, people, who can afford to use them, can communicate across continents not worrying too much about their geographical places, thus leading to an international activity that seemly transcends the usual cartographic codes through which cultures have in the not so distant past negotiated their ever-changing ways of living.

One could notice this by simply listing the actual equipment and software: Mac G5 powerbooks were the most common computers in use by many of the performers, and Sony Vaios were the standard for most installations; for development, Flash, Director and Max/Jitter were often the applications of choice. And then, once in front of a screen, whether this one was a projection or a computer monitor, the viewer could easily fall into a state of placelessness. Suspense of disbelief never had a better home. The screen/projection has become the Universal living space for the multifaceted narrative. I implicate myself and admit that I felt as though I was in my own virtual place whenever I viewed a screen, yet I knew I was far away from my usual environment. I looked around each of these events, and thought that I was not alone in this reflection.

But to claim universality because the aesthetics and tools at play in Mexico City at the end of the summer of 2004 are popular at least within the new media community would be erroneous. If anything the events proved how complex new media practice is when viewed within a thematic that may try to encapsulate works of art that, by default, cannot belong to a specific narrative.

The unity I felt throughout the events was extremely pronounced. Knowing that I was part of a set of international artists who identify themselves as Latin American in some form was very special for me. Yet, I also realized that while we embraced this narrative we also had many other aspects that made our roles as cultural producers extremely complex. Before I state what I mean by this, I should explain a difference between new media practice and other practices that do not rely on international communication networks to disseminate the work (at least as discourse).

It is one thing for a painter or sculptor to produce her work in the studio and show that work in a local gallery. This activity usually means being part of a specific culture that supports and informs the art that is produced. For an Uruguayan artist, for example, this would mean contributing to the local art scene and if that work made it out into the international art circuit, it would always be attached to its place of origin; meaning, it would be contextualized to have been made by an Urugayan artist. This identification could become somewhat incidental, and has been in the past, once the artist becomes internationally recognized; however, this can only happen after a decent number of international exhibitions.

The place of production of new media, especially net art, is not dependent on a specific physical place to be recognized. As long as the artists have a server that can provide the work or samples of the work (as documentation if the piece is not a net piece) the actual physical place (country) becomes incidental from the very beginning. This does not mean that the artist may not emphasize her nationality or country of origin; it just means that this often happens after the work is viewed.

Brian Mackern is a case in point. He is an Uruguayan artist. I have known his work for some time but was not aware that he was from Uruguay in the very beginning. I eventually found out because Mackern is quiet open about his nationality. But this was not the first thing that jumped at me. Further, he does not have a “stereotypical” Latin American name, so Brian has the agency to simply downplay his cultural codes if he so desired. Indeed, he actually has to work a bit to make sure online users realize what country he is making his art from. Online users could get a hint if they look at his website URL, which has ".uy" at the end as well as the fact that some of his work is presented in Spanish. But this does not automatically mean Mackern is from that country but simply that the server where his files are stored are attributed to Uruguay. Arcangel Constantini, who is Mexican, is another example.

Other new media artists, especially those who make net art, have similar situations; although their names may hint to being part of a "latino" group (as it would be stereotyped in the U.S. in particular), this, however, does not automatically explain what country they may be working from. In short the usual codes that are imposed on international artists to contextualize their work are still at play in new media but in a second order.

New media practice becomes more complex when the artists travel, and indeed, new media artists travel a lot, so their works are not only seen or understood online, but also in festivals across the world. The work, then, becomes part of a global aesthetic that cannot so easily be contextualized within the usual narratives of difference following post-colonial discourse.

The Latin American artists who participated in the three events in Mexico City are indeed part of a bigger group of international artists. Many have been in major exhibitions in Europe that do not deal with cultural narratives, but rather thematic exhibitions focusing on particular aspects of new media. So to curate an exhibition emphasizing some type of Latin American narrative comes up as a very specific choice by the curators, and this questions what the term itself may mean within new media practice.

The emphasis on a Latin American art (whatever this may mean at this point) inevitably exposes the diverse state of new media art practice that is at play throughout the continent, which could certainly be contextualized as specific to the region; this, however, would be deceiving because some of the work is not produced within the region. Also, much of the work does not deal with specificities of localities or politics that can be appended to particular places or nationalities. Instead the work, shares an aesthetic that is part of a global network, which is used by new media artists to promote individual interests that may be more open-ended or more politically specific. But this is becoming more of a choice now more than ever.

The term Latin American in the end exposes the fragmentation and plurality that Latin American discourse has experienced for a number of years. How the term "Latin American" is used now needs to become more specific. This is something that was not so clear in the series of events. Some of the artists that participated in the events are not functioning or were born in Latin American countries, but rather are related to the term based on family history. Cases in point: Santiago Ortiz, who is from Colombia, currently lives in Spain; Antonio Mendoza, who is Cuban-U.S. American, grew up in Spain and lives in the United States; and I was born in El Salvador, but have lived most of my life as an U.S. Citizen. Then there is Muserna who has a Mexican background but was raised in the United States identifying himself more with the many facets of North American culture rather than Latin American cultures.

What the events in Mexico City exposed, then, is the rich potential for Latin America, as a discourse, to redefine itself through emerging technologies. The diversity and richness of the work, and the complexity of the participants attests to the fact that those who decide to identify themselves as Latin Americans, for whatever reason, are in a great place to reevaluate their cultures. The term is becoming more and more complicated to use as new media artists, in particular, move around the world to live and exhibit their work.

What does it mean these days to call someone Latin American? What does that actually imply? These are some of the questions that the participating artists who relate to Latin America as an international discourse have to face and respond to in order to live up to the challenge of the global activity of emerging technologies.

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