I remember it well. Fire-Chair had a mysterious shape capturing the negative space of a body and looked uncomfortable. Yet, I was not certain what it was or how it was meant to function. In 2003, when I first arrived and encountered Abandoned II, 1992, of which the aforementioned sculpture was part, Playas de Tijuana was, like a lot of Mexico’s coastline, enmeshed in the terrible drama of unhinged urban “development” but with few if any building codes applied to stem the construction of self-made housing, giving the beachside neighborhood the appearance of a place born as a ruin.
This impression was all the more dramatic next to that beautiful Baja California coastline not sixty meters away, right at the most extreme corner of the Americas: an “exquisite corpse” of surfer waves hacked by the blunt knife-edge of the border wall. It is a landscape chopped and cut, erased, where erosion by the tides is constant and where another form of entropy is also at work: the willful forgetting of things, events, institutions, actions, people—a phenomenon that I have observed in many aspects of life at the border and believe comes hand in hand with Tijuana’s liminal and hybrid gestalt and the transience resulting from constant self-invention and migration.
It might have been this very tendency to forgetfulness and deletion that fueled Michael Schnorr and Ulf Rollof to collaborate on a work that they described as a “playground for abandoned children along the international boundary” made of heated pieces of outdoor furniture based on various adaptations of a brick oven, as well as other “demonstration” pieces such as the Habla/Head - Cabeza/Speakmeant to be used by poets and others to practice oration within a brick conch. I don’t know if such children meandered Playas, but apparently two poets did use the resonance chamber. However, years later and on the B-side of the California dream, the strange mounds of brick and cement that were part of Abandoned II always appeared as if in my peripheral vision, even when looking at them squarely. I did not realize, for example, that they were part of a larger installation taking up the entire plot. Originally, the landscaping that informed their location was made by removing the first layer of dirt of parts of the plot to create a large shape resembling the peninsula of Baja California that also included piled earth and water channels with plantings interspersed throughout. A little more than ten years after its making, everything had become camouflaged with the environment and what remained looked, as the installation’s title already foretold, abandoned, derelict. The brick pieces built clearly with affection and care seemed more like the reticent gesture of a hopeful but doomed new homeowner than the assured making of artists. It was even later that I found out the installation was part of the first 1992 edition of INSITE—the iconic binational art project—and that it was continued and improved by its creators in the second edition of INSITE in 1994. It turns out Schnorr and Rollof already had a long history together before they collaborated to produce this site-specific installation. As Rollof explained in Kunst & Museum Journaal in 1993, the Swedish artist had met Schnorr as a sixteen-year-old and had assisted him in painting the important mural The Death of a Farmworker (Tribute to Cesar Chávez) in 1978, located in San Diego’s Chicano Park. Indeed, Rollof has always referred to Schnorr as his mentor and teacher, which makes their installation in Playas de Tijuana even more resonant given the many unlikely coincidences and connections across space and time from which it resulted. Schnorr, born in Hawaii and bred in Chula Vista, just on the other side of the Mexican Border, was a rarity—an Anglo member of the Chicano movement in San Diego County, but also an important social activist for migrant, Chicano, and, by the time I met him in the 2000s, housing rights in the informal settlement of Maclovio Rojas on the southern outskirts of Tijuana, where he was a key if enigmatic community leader. A true cultural amphibian, he also converted to Islam and maintained a full-time teaching position for thirty-nine years at Southwestern College. Importantly, in 1984 he had founded the Border Art Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo with David Avalos.
One can only imagine the young Rollof as an eager Swedish kid having his mind blown by the mere existence of the border and by the intensity of its politics, which appear to acquire actual physical form to this day, like transubstantiated geopolitical golems. Schnorr taught him that art must be of its time and respond to social and political urgencies, rather than simply explore formal invention. By 1992, Rollof had grown into himself as an international artist just at the time when the global art world was emerging and the international biennial circuit forming. It was then that Schnorr extended to his young and charismatic pupil the invitation made to him to participate in IN/SITE92.
In Abandoned II we encounter two artists that in uncanny ways represent the tensions not only of the whole era of biennials and parachuting artists that the 1990s and global capitalism made possible, but also of INSITE itself as a project always poised at the edge of a contradiction: to reflect on the local while addressing the global. Schnorr was the deeply embedded artist who grew in and through local practice to make sense and in a way create that very place—community—brick by brick. Rollof, on the other hand, flew in from elsewhere and responded authentically, mining certain histories, making this installation and a second in Tijuana, titled 23 September 1994, and also commissioned by INSITE. Rollof then returned to where he came from, followed by a condensation trail that connected that small plot in Playas de Tijuana with concerns elsewhere.
The scope of a project spanning two countries and thereby “bridging the divide” was right for the times as the Free Trade Agreement was already being negotiated, and the era of global trade and softening borders rising. inSITE92 was firmly located in two cities—San Diego and Tijuana—but by the time inSITE94 took place, San Diego and Tijuana emerged as a single bifurcated reality. Today that world is no more. The age of national divides and protectionist policies is again upon us. And so, we might do well to ask: what shall be forgotten or erased this time?
Twenty-seven years later everything has changed around Abandoned II, which now exists only in the photographic record and in the memories of those of us who witnessed its various stages towards erasure. The border is no longer a single territory, although many of the same hybrid and porous activities and transactions still take place. Even more, the violence of the war on drugs, and the abandonment of this territory to Narco control, make it very hard to think of artists working there in the same freewheeling spirit. The traces of Schnorr and Rollof’s work are gone, but perhaps this is as it should be. Might we consider forgetting itself as a form of survival and a natural part of Tijuana/San Diego’s contradictory resilience? While resilience in cities is often tied to conscious (or unconscious) adaptation of positive traits to improve conditions, it may be that forgetting plays an important role in this process in sites of extreme trauma or violence. Forgetting allows for radical reinvention, and that may be the only possible way forward in a site that has been at the edges for so long, and so vulnerable to the ravages of global capitalism and geopolitical manipulation. Maybe it's time to start anew. To forget a little and move onto new memories.