INSITE Journal
Silvia Gruner
The Middle of the Road
, 1994
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Yes, I came first. I saw some of the places in San Diego where we could work and do art pieces, and then we crossed the border and came to Tijuana. We saw a lot of different sites. We went to see these abandoned places near the sea, close to the La Casa de la Cultura in Tijuana, where kids have workshops. But then I wasn't very happy with all the sites.

I felt that I wanted to work in a place where something very specific to Tijuana and to the border happens. What I mean with this is that I started looking for a place that could be near the fence. The fence that the Americans put as a border between the U.S. and Mexico. It interested me that the fence was this piece of metal—this long piece of metal—but that went all through the landscape and also did not let you see from one side to the other.

When I came up to this specific place where we're sitting at, I saw that there was a gap in this fence and that actually you could see the other side, and also that this was a place where people do cross to the other side, mostly to go to work; where things were happening: for example, the policemen who take or bring back or push back the people who try to cross; but then I also felt that at this specific point there was some sort of permission to cross because the fence was open. I wanted to do a piece that would have to do with the situation. Also, with the idea that sometimes one does something in life, crosses a point or goes to another place that one cannot come back from. That is a decision that you make—like jumping over a river. That's why I decided to work on this place.

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The neighborhood I am working in is called Colonia Libertad, which is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Tijuana. There are people here like Doña Tere, who lives next door, that have been living in this exact neighborhood, in this exact kind of hill for forty years. People know one another. Most of the people of the neighborhood come from all different parts of Mexico. They either came to Tijuana to look for better lives or they crossed to the other side to work to the U.S. at some point during all these years and came back and settled here. Or they never crossed. They stayed in this neighborhood.

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I am involving this community to the extent that I like the people around here. When I have been coming to work here, a lot of people have been talking to me about the project; some children come up here to play. Most of the children are from the neighborhood. Also, some people are coming to sell things for the people who cross at night. I started developing this piece thinking that I wanted to make it with the people in the neighborhood. The people in the neighborhood that I worked with were first of all, Doña Tere, because she’s been telling me all the stories and all the gossip about the neighborhood.

I decided to make a mold of a figure that I brought from Mexico City of the Aztec goddess Tlazoltéotl (I will tell you later about the story of the figure). I went to a mold maker in this neighborhood to make a mold of the figure, to then have this other figure made for the piece. We made 111 figures like the one I brought. The second thing I had made here were the little stools, where the figure has to sit on. I worked with a welder in Colonia Libertad and I found out that most of the people who work in the neighborhood are craftsmen that come from other parts of Mexico, and that many of them have settled in and also do most of the plaster figures that are sold at the border.

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The place that I chose is hard to get to. But it's also an adventure, I think, to get to it. I also think it's a good sign in the sense that you can decide if you want to get to it or not. The idea for making the piece here was really to make the piece for the people who live in this neighborhood, for this community, and especially for the people who cross to the other side. This is really for them. In a way I want this piece to be the last image they take with them to the other side when they cross.

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People cross to the United States mostly to work. Most of the people are what's called migrant workers. Most of the people work in agriculture, and most of the people in the U.S. employ Mexican workers because it's much cheaper to pay the wages of the Mexican workers. Some people that I have met here: one person was picking bell peppers, another person was picking tomatoes, and other people were picking grapes. And they go for seasons, like for different times of the year, and then they come back. They go to work, they work a lot, and then they come back to Mexico. Some of them stay and look for a better life somewhere else.

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I think that drawing attention to this specific place or to the places where the fence exists is something that one has to do, but it's also something that is there. I'm not drawing attention to something that is not there. I think that a piece on the fence just makes the fence more visible to the people, and, yes, I think you cannot avoid the fence when you think about Tijuana and San Diego, or the cities on the other side of the border.

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I think what I like about doing this piece here is that in a way it's not going to be protected. It's just going to be like the people who cross here or the people who hang out here. Or anyone in the world where nothing is really protected unless it's locked into a museum, or locked into a bank, or locked into a place where people have to have special access or an entrance to go to these places. I think what I like about this project is that I hope that the piece will become important to the people who cross or to the people who live here. And then maybe would live in this space with all the other things. Maybe it won't. Maybe kids will just throw stones at them or maybe people will get upset about the piece. I like thinking about what an object does in a place where you place it. I think I exactly wanted to look for a space that was not safe like a museum. In a museum everybody tells you "don't touch". And here, obviously people are going to touch and are going to ask questions. Maybe they'll deface it, maybe they'll write graffiti, maybe they'll put flowers on these figures, I don't know…

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So, the piece I want to make on the fence is based on this figure that I have in my hand that was given to me. This is a replica. That means it's not the original figure that the Aztecs carved. It's a small replica, a commercial copy, exactly like the plaster figures that you can buy at the border. One of the Aztecs goddesses, her name is Tlazoltéotl.

Maybe you cannot pronounce it, but Tlazoltéotl was one of the goddesses that would protect the women who were having children, who were giving birth. She was the one of the protectors of childbirth. The other thing, she was a very important goddess and she was a goddess whose other name was “the one who would eat filth”. It was the goddess who was eating the filth and the garbage of the world and was recycling it and making it again into living matter into, a living thing. So, I chose this figure and it just seemed very appropriate to this exact point in Tijuana, which is the border. I also liked the idea that when you make a strong decision in your life, sometimes, you are just really changing the course of your life.

This is what I’m going to do: I made 111 copies that look like this. I made them with a guy who makes the molds downstairs for the plaster figures that are sold at the border. These figures are each going to be placed on one stool like these metal stools here, and they're going to sit comfortably to give birth in their little stool like this. I am going to place the 111 figures at the fence basically welded, weld the metal stool directly to the fence, probably they're going to be like one…, one…, in one line just going down until the end of the fence. Basically just sitting there, probably asking a question, the same one that you will ask, which is “What I am doing here?”. But I think this is the question this piece is asking, in a way.

Well, I cannot of course talk about the reaction most of the people will have to the work because the work is still not up. I have been playing around with one figure that I brought to do some tests to see how it looked up here and people's reaction was one of curiosity. People were very curious about the piece and asking questions and thinking, imagining, even how the piece is going to look. Some people have told me, “¡Oh, it's great! you're going to make something at least beautiful on this fence”, which is really not very beautiful; it's quite ugly and quite aggressive, I think. And yesterday, talking to this woman, I said, “Well, maybe I will bring the feminine aspect to the fence because this fence looks like it's tough, kind of a male place,” and she said to me, “Yes ¡great!, after all this is reality, like having kids is a reality”. It's like part of generating life in the world. So, I've been having a lot of good reactions. Every time the kids see me, they come and ask and want to be in the movie, they want to know what's happening. I think that when I install the piece I am going to come here for ten days. Probably live downstairs, probably work downstairs, paint the figures, work on the figures, and weld them to the fence. Probably people will be part of it, the people who live here, the people who cross, the people who sell, the people who look for garbage here, just anybody…

I wanted to have a lot of figures so I wanted a number that would be a lot. Then when I saw them yesterday I felt that maybe they're not enough… I just wanted a number that would be a lot of figures and I also felt like I didn't want it to be too spread out. At one point, I thought of the idea of putting one here, and one there, and one there, and one there, and people discovering this thing, but then at the end I decided that I wanted to put them all together as one repeated image that would be just on the last, last, last, last part of the road to the other side. So probably they're going to start where the road goes down, and just be there like little soldier women.

I have the original figure and from the original figure, I worked with the guy downstairs. He made a mold. The mold is made with something called latex. Latex is some kind of rubber and that rubber is rubbed with a brush and put over the figure. Usually it's made in parts because then the mold has to peel off and re-create the negative of this figure. So the mold was made —usually you do it upside down like this— in three parts. I believe one like this here, another one like that, and then another part here that enters from the center. So that's how you make these molds. The outside of the mold is fiberglass, which is another plastic. What you do is a negative so you can then pour inside the mold. You pour plaster, and then the plaster dries up and then you get the figure. That's how this is done. So the figures you see in the border are made exactly the same way. They're all made with molds and by the mold makers in this neighborhood and that make —I don't know— the figures like Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Porky. Whatever you see at the border, the guy with the cactus and everything, is done like this.

When I come back in September to do the piece I will come over to the neighborhood. Probably we will rent a small room to use as a studio and in this room we'll bring these figures and we will paint them. We're not going to paint them too much, but just more or less to look more like this figure, where you have these areas where the color is stronger so all the highlights can be seen. Maybe we'll paint the hair darker like this figure; also they should look a little older than they are. But that will be a decision after we come here in September that I will make. I will take one of these now back to Mexico, and I will do some color tests over the figure to see how I want it. Then as you see, I have ones that are light and ones that are dark and probably I will play with that. Maybe they will not all be the same, the way that steel doesn't rust the same way. The way the fence has different things on it, the rust, the rust in different places in the fence. So that's the plan, we're going to come and paint them and then leave them on the stools. Probably they're going to be screwed from the bottom and also glued so people won't be able to take them. But, as I said before, maybe they'll break them or maybe they'll do anything to them. But then you know, the stools will stay on the fence as a place to put things, in case they break them. So that's the plan. We're going to be here for ten days. We are also going to make a videotape of the process of making the piece in those ten days because we also want to see what will happen. Maybe the piece will change in time and maybe it will exist for a long time, but maybe not. So obviously with time, maybe rain will rain on the figures. We want to see the reactions of people, we want to record all of that and that tape will be shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, which is a place that is more accessible, where people can go to easier than come all the way to Colonia Libertad. But of course, I would hope for people to come visit these figures, to visit this place.

I will decide when I'm back here. I have been thinking about this for a long time. But the way I work is that I think things over very carefully and then I just let go and pretend I've never thought about it. I come back with some sort of a fresher mind to the piece again and I like seeing the piece new every time. So every time I've come here, I do something else and I try something new. So probably today, when I place some of the figures that I have already made, I will see more than I saw the last time I was here.