Last month, while at the New York Art Book Fair, Los Angeles-native Michael Ray-Von was asked to help build and curate a modest, contemporary gallery in Tijuana, Mexico. Without a second thought, he told Todd Patrick (who offered him the position), he would do it and within a week had dropped everything to move across the border. The first exhibit was set to premiere during two of Tijuana’s most interesting musical festivals Norte Sorono and All My Friends Festival. Patrick and Ray-Von had a month to rebuild an old hair salon into a gallery and get an exhibit happening.
Ray-Von and Patrick called upon the work of New York-artist Jesse Hlebo to team up with Mexican City artist Joaquín Segura to create a collaborative exhibit. Hlebo runs his own record and print label, Swill Children, and his work has been displayed at MoMA Library, MoMA PS1, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Museum of Arts and Design, Printed Matter, Inc., Clocktower Gallery, and The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts in NYC, the Khyber Center for Contemporary Art and NSCAD in Halifax, Nova Scotia, among others. Hlebo was recently named one of “The Best of Young Brooklyn” by L Magazine. Needless to say, the guy is around.
I went down for the opening of Hlebo and Segura’s exhibit, To Preserve Disorder. It was cold, interesting, perceptive and the after-party was super fun.
I decided to follow-up up with my two friends about their gallery in Tijuana, and why they crossed the border in the first place.
VICE: You've been living in Tijuana for a while now. Can you talk about your adjustment?
Michael Ray-Von: Tijuana is a density of ideas. And they're all pronouncing themselves at once. Because this is a very busy border town, you have a complex of translations and exchanges occurring everywhere, all the time — totally dynamic. Translation and exchange, representation and value systems, are areas that interest me very much, so I'm really turned on by this place. Plus, the space is located in Centro (downtown), where a substantial part of the economy is focused on bars and nightclubs (facilitating wildness). So I'm occasionally confronted by a new version of "the craziest shit I've ever seen".
Are you bilingual or was language an issue?
I spoke very little Spanish prior to coming here, so that’s been a substantial hurdle for me initially. Fortunately 60 percent of Tijuanenses speak English. Everyone has been very generous and patient in the language area. There is also a good deal of customs or cultural paradigms that were completely unexpected and will occasionally turn my world upside down. I would tell you about it, but I wouldn't want to spoil the fun for foreigners who might visit.
How did you manage to re-make an entire gallery in less than a month?
We've been really lucky to have the support of a number of artists and musicians in the area early on. I'm also super stoked to have had three talented people join our team in the last few weeks, You Schaffner (who plays music as Dani Shivers), Luisito Noctámbulo (who studies art at ESAV), and Andrea Noel, (who posts photos at Vinyl Revolver), all living in TJ. They've been instrumental to facilitating this endeavor.
Why set up in Tijuana?
Tijuana is in segue, socioeconomically speaking. Through a concerted effort stemming from the youth and the universities (as far as I can tell), the hegemonies of Tijuana, which have consisted since its inception are beginning to splinter. These being the things you've likely heard about the place. It's actually a surprisingly unique and exciting time to be here!
For some time now, the latest generation of artists here have been engaged in a critical reconsideration of the aesthetics and strategies of Mexican art and music. And I think Tijuana is now participating in certain discourses of contemporary art that may have been missing in the past. I say this apprehensively, for fear of my own naiveté, but from what I can gather these are the circumstances.
What’s the goal?
We are bringing artists from many countries, working in a variety of mediums to use the space in a variety of ways; as a popup shop, a venue for a film festival, a bar, a bookstore, etc. We have an outdoor patio, shared with our neighbor Moustache Bar. There we've been hosting musicians and DJs, Mexican and international, which has been a huge success. We want to complicate notions of foreign and local, in the work, and in our thought. Which, of course, is something that already happens in Tijuana. We want to question the geopolitical conditions of this place in an abstract and novel way.
VICE: What was your intention with the exhibit?
Jesse Hlebo: When Joaquín and I were talking about the show beforehand, the themes of anti-state, anti-authoritarian, and pro-terrorist leanings and possibilities were of the most interest. We wanted to create a space that presents both the effects of these oppressive institutions, and the accessibility of subversion and dismantlement.
Where does your interest in politics and the judicial system stem from?
I have always had rebellious leanings which, when combined with certain events and relationships in my past involving Anarchism and family involvement in the Criminal "Justice" complex, have pushed me further into an ideological contention with draconian systems of oppression.
I'm really interested in the idea that people impose seemingly total methods of control—physical and psychological—onto other human beings. And for what? This strain of specific dominance and punishment is not only futile but uniquely human (and in effect NATURAL) in the context of civilization. Hyper capitalism and neo-liberalism/conservatism only raise the stakes even further in their attempts to control large groups of people economically, educationally, civically, medically, culturally, psychologically etc. etc….
What does violence mean to you?
In the particular context of To Preserve Disorder, I see violence as a means of control but also liberation. It is a tool that can be used to overthrow oppressive structures while concurrently instituting those very same structures. I think violence becomes necessary as a result, but, as with all ideology, who is 'right' and who is 'wrong' can only really be defined from ones own point of view. I once saw a woman forcibly thrown to the ground and arrested, for no other reason than the exertion of a large, white, male, NYPD officer's own aggression. I got in his face and yelled, "What the fuck are you fighting for?" "Freedom." He answered, with a smile on his face.
What about the blown up fertilizer in the exhibit? What was that about?
All of the materials in the space (fertilizer with high ammonium nitrate levels, diesel gasoline, cotton, cheap paper) are the components needed to create fertilizer bombs. They are most commonly associated with 'terrorist' actions and are frequently used as car bombs. The most well known use in the U.S. was the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 by Timothy McVeigh.
Joaquín and I wanted to create a psycho-physical space that is in fact incredibly dangerous given the direct accessibility to these elements. We also wanted to demonstrate these "democratic" objects (specifically their ease of acquirement) as potential tools for insurrection.
Do you feel as though your work came across in Mexico?
I hope so! Hard to fully say. If it creates a dialogue that's what matters most at the end of the day.
Photos by Suzanna Zak