Marvelous Survival: 20 Years of SITAC
by Kimberlee Córdova · October 09, 2021

The Art Writing Workshop is a partnership between The Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and AICA-USA. This program pairs ten emerging art writers with eminent voices in the field, facilitating deep critical engagement with art in regions across the US. 2020 Art Writing Workshop participants were invited to contribute a piece of writing that emerged from their work in the program for publication with AICA-USA's online magazine. What follows is one such contribution.

“Ten years ago I produced a SITAC and still I have not recovered.” tweeted Eduardo Abaroa, artist and director of SITAC 9, The Theory and Practice of Catastrophe. As it turns out, he is far from alone in that sentiment.

In that amorphous collectively-agreed-upon fiction that is referred to colloquially, if imprecisely, as the Mexican contemporary art world, the Simposio Internacional de Teoría sobre Arte Contemporáneo, (SITAC) conference, is an undeniably important fixture. The occasion of 2020 marking the 20th anniversary of SITAC, and this anniversary coinciding with a world-wide pause in in-person art events due to the Covid-19 pandemic, offered a unique opportunity to reflect on the conference’s legacy as an agent of internationalization and institutionalization of contemporary art in Mexico. By swapping out the usual theme-driven theory focus for a dynamic more akin to a reunion—or what I’d venture panelists might liken to group therapy—this year’s conference was in effect an exercise in collective remembrance. With roughly 8 total hours of Zoom, YouTube, and Facebook sessions divided over three days largely dedicated to the rearward gaze, the conference highlighted the utility of institutional memory amid a zeitgeist of perpetual catastrophe.

Situated in a context in which the lion’s share of arts programming is managed by either government-affiliated bodies or market-oriented enterprise, SITAC is singular as a signature program of the non-profit organization Patronato de Arte Contemporaneo (PAC). A project of a consortium of private donors, SITAC is afforded independence from the precarity of profit-driven models and the volatility of government-backed ones making it one of the longer-lasting contemporary art initiatives in Mexico. As such, its publicly available archive of past conferences serves as a rare longitudinal register of the evolution of artistic and theoretical thought and language in the country. Contrasted with most local organizations’ publicly-available archives, which are regularly impacted by shifting political winds or—more banally—simply under-maintained due to lack of resources, SITAC’s archive offers a privileged perspective by virtue of its continuity.

While the conference counted participants Zooming in from New York, São Paulo, Delhi and Mexico City, there is a distinct mexicanidad implicit in SITAC as a project, most evinced in the way the project historicizes itself. This was expressed via a handful of through-lines that emerged over the course of three days of panels: an examination of what it means to internationalize local space, pedagogy as artistic practice, a fumbling awareness of the privileged position of art in so-called “developing countries,” and the level of violence that seems endemic to academia and the accordant need to self-organize. Though the evolution of SITAC over the years is certainly attributable to the way it addresses the warp and weft of forces that shape the local arts community, these themes have relevant take-aways for artists, thinkers, and institutions the world over as the global art community faces what feels like a particularly uncertain future.

The road to internationalization

SITAC was born of a moment when Mexico was known as the exception to the 90s and early 00s de rigueur sentiment that no city or culture is complete without a biennial. Reflecting on the conference’s founding, panelists repeatedly emphasized the uniqueness of Mexico’s answer to the pressure to join the international biennial circuit by eschewing presentations of objects and instead opting for a discursive event. While the founding motivation—to enrich the local cultural landscape by setting it conversation with the international—may seem anachronistic to audiences today, SITAC was of a time when the hyper-linked world as we know it was still in relative infancy. These were the days of dialup; before web-platforms and listservs broke us out of geographic silos of information and influence; when people traveling abroad would traffic artbooks in their suitcases for friends as acts of affection and intellectual solidarity.

Less than interpret the PACs recognition of the need to invite the outside world in as some kind of academic malenchismo, it’s worth considering how inviting thinkers to Mexico to dialogue with local actors distributed influence both ways. These outside perspectives without a doubt gave context to local artists’ work, but as SITAC consolidated itself it asserted an active role in shaping the conversation and scholarship around Mexican contemporary art for scholars both at home and abroad. Thus, invited presenters on their return home became, in effect, de-facto emissaries of the development of the Mexican scene.

It’s easy to forget that concepts and language that are now commonplace were at the time only being intuited in artists’ studios much less canonized by institutions. Now most leading museums have Latin American art departments, but at the time this wasn’t so. Furthermore, Mexico’s lack of official participation in key international events like the Venice Biennial from the 1950’s until 2007, or befuddling government-backed presentations like the Two Fridas (1939) by Frida Kahlo at the 2003 contemporary art fair ARCA in Madrid left the discourse around Mexican contemporary art from the 1990s and early 2000s essentially up for grabs. For curator and director of the SITACs 1 and 2, Ery Camara, SITAC’s discursive, rather than exhibition-based, methodology was no less than “a way to resist stereotypes”, honing in on how the early 2000’s grounded the globalization of art in notions of geographic discovery articulated in ways the market could take advantage of.

Pedagogy as practice

Occurring almost every year, and unimpeded by an itinerant, staccato approach to scheduling, the SITAC conference evolved into a tentpole cultural event. Over the years, the initially intimate community of audience and participants grew beyond what the founders ever dreamed. As Cuauhtémoc Medina, director of SITAC 7 Sur Sur Sur laughed, “at first we were 40 idiots, later we were 600 idiots!” By which he meant that over the last 20 years the contemporary art community in Mexico, much like the world over, has grown exponentially larger and more diverse.

Though ample attention was paid to the fact that Mexico’s answer to other cities’ biennial offerings was a conference, there was effectively no explanation around why Mexico’s cultural leaders chose a discursive path rather than an object-oriented one. Was it due to the precedent of failed attempts to hold fairs and biennials in Mexico? Or was there something specific about Mexico’s social, cultural, and economic forces that made a conference the best fit?

Looking back at the artists and collectives whose practices in the 1990’s and the 2000’s are now some of the most emblematic of the era—Francis Alÿs, Gabriel Orozco, Minerva Cuevas, Eduardo Abaroa, Guillermo Santamarina, and Melanie Smith, to name a few—none of them had gallery representation in those years, certainly not the blue-chip representation they have today. While the market has proven itself more than capable of coopting and commercializing even the most abstract gestures, is it possible that the artistic practices of the 90’s set the stage for SITAC because a discursive format simply was most aligned with the kinds of artistic thinking and production happening at the time? Returning to Medina’s comments, “sometimes historical situations that seem limited, with time reveal themselves to be very fortunate.” Such was the case with the conditions under which SITAC came to fruition. But perhaps, more than fortune per se, the art of the 2000’s invoked the apparatus necessary to build scholarship around itself, paving the way for both its institutionalization and commercialization.

Read together with its 1990s antecedent conferences CURARE and artist Guillermo Santamarina’s brainchild conference FITAC, SITAC emerges as emblematic of the pedagogically based artistic practices in Mexico that are still very much alive and shaping emerging artists 20 years on. Certainly, a line can be drawn from informal gatherings like Orozco’s Taller de Los Viernes, to SITAC to the international residency and artist-run post-graduate art school SOMA (of which I am a graduate), and the array of self-directed study groups like critic Sandra Sanchez’s Zona de Desgaste, and art library reading space Aeromoto, among others.

Exclusion then and now

One of the main challenges the SITAC faces is the exclusion it generates by focusing on internationalized contemporary art and theory. The divisions the conference creates between who or what is “in” vs “out” run along many different fronts. Realizing the need to expand the conversation vis a vis physical location to include communities located outside of Mexico City, SITAC launched their Clinicas and Nodos programs in 2018 as a gesture of inclusivity to artists and thinkers from all over the country—not only in Mexico City. But this geographic olive branch only addresses one of the ways SITAC draws lines in the sand.

As day 3 panel moderator and SITAC 12 co-director Lucía Sanromán pointed out, the internationalist tendency underpinning the conference creates an implication that those whose work falls outside the purview of SITAC are outside of contemporary art production. Her point is prescient, touching as it does on how the modality of “internationalized contemporary art” is as divisive today as in 2000, albeit for different reasons.

In the 90s and early 2000s, the artists, curators, and gallerists who made up the establishment in Mexico’s art world were generally speaking aligned with the Neo-Mexicanismo movement. These largely figurative, often treacly works are marked by a rearward-longing for a nostalgic imaginary of “old Mexico.” This stood in stark contrast to the work by then-emerging artists who were making work that engaged with present-day realities of life in the city and country as they were experiencing it. It is important to remember that Mexico had been essentially isolated from international trade from the 1940’s until the passage of NAFTA in 1994. The sudden opening of the country to global trade had the level of profound social consequence that cleaves time into before and after leaving ripples through local urban fabrics which artists of the era were responding to. SITAC meanwhile, created something of an institutional umbrella in its mission to forward the thinking that underpinned these new practices through theory and discussion.

Mexico is a country marked by start income inequality. In looking at how the conversation around how SITAC has evolved, it is relevant that much of the work that is now referred to simply as “las noventas” was made by artists who were educated abroad or had means to travel and thus were influenced by the theoretical discussion happening in other locations. This connection to international discourse is important because it establishes that as opposed to the inward-looking romanticism of Neo-Mexicanism artists who were operating in a very local circuit of influence, the 90’s generation artists were making work that was informed by its local context in Mexico but in dialogue with contemporary work being produced in global art centers. So, in focusing on the theoretical frameworks that informed the artistic production of these internationally attuned 1990's generation of artists, SITAC leaves out artistic practices operating in other registers such as Neo-Mexicanism. But the access these artists had, by virtue of their means to travel also had the consequence of leaving them vulnerable to criticism as being art of the elite.

As Sanroman alluded, today, tensions around what is considered contemporary art in Mexico are again causing friction. The current Secretary of Culture, Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, in president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s Morena cabinet is working to fundamentally redefine what the Mexican government considers art and culture, reframing international contemporary art as an industry of privilege. While the argument, “what is a government’s responsibility to art in a country where over 40% of the people live in poverty?” does hold water, the Morena government’s framing of the question as, “why should the government support art that only the upper classes engage with?” is a political sleight of hand that swaps populism and the logic of the masses for inclusivity and equity.

The fact remains that with political winds changing, given a small collector base and an even smaller philanthropic system, without government funding for contemporary art museums and scholarship programs for artists it’s hard to know what the future holds for contemporary art in Mexico. When Sanromán illuminated how SITAC’s internationalist orientation draws important distinctions between who is in and who is out, she raised a critical question for the future of SITAC going forward. While on one hand, SITAC’s status as a project of the PAC affords it the luxury of possibility to continue uphold the banner of internationally-focused contemporary art in Mexico, what does it mean to do so today? Has the evolution of today’s hyper-connected international art industry and evolution of the local social and economic forces in Mexico so changed the two contexts that SITAC originally responded to that the conference needs a rethinking? As Abaroa, noted, “what we see is that we are lacking a connection with Mexico, or with that which we call Mexico…This
is the main problem.”

Certainly, in the wake of the social reckoning that the pandemic has triggered, the need to rethink the role of centralized institutions and how we expect them to serve society has become more urgent. This in turn raises a fundamental question of the line between aesthetics, politics, and institutions. As Gabriela Rangel, director of SITAC 8 Blind Spots {Film, Feminism & Performance}, asked, “What role do we expect institutions to play in society today? What do institutions represent as abstract entities that were consolidated in the 1950s?”

Solidarity and self-organizing as response to systemic violence

Many of the SITAC panelists, all former conference directors, referred to their experience of organizing the conference as “violent.” Some even described the physiological effects of trauma they experienced as organizers including how the trauma affected their ability to form memories. It begged the question, how does an art theory conference gain a reputation for, of all things, aggression?

On one hand, it’s as though this violence is the result of SITAC’s ambition to hold up an antenna to catch the signals of the present in order to make sense of it in real time. What it detected was incredibly cruel. There’s the generally violent context of the way the world has shifted in the last twenty years: the rise of neoliberalism, digitization facilitating the dawn of gig and attention economies, and the tried-and-true violence of misogynistic, patriarchal, and racist systems. But the conversations also alluded to a level of abstract brutality that seems inherent in the trade of ideas, which is to say, academia. As Rangel said in reference to the SITAC on feminism, “there are some topics that need to be introduced with trojan horse tactics because if not, they simply don’t get in.” Perhaps Pilar Villela, co-director of the ill-fated SITAC that had to be cancelled, said in reference to the impossible planning process, “some ideas are simply impossible to explore.” Shouldn’t this violence itself be challenged?

Though the bulk of the conversations during the 2020/2021 conference focused on the past, occasionally they shifted toward the future. In these moments two realizations came to mind: the first was a general struggle by the panelists to offer ideas that would address a path forward, much less a clear articulation of the problems facing the art community today. There were the obvious acknowledgements of lack of funding, lamentations regarding the dwindling stock of arts and art criticism publications relative to 20 years ago, acknowledgements of the catastrophe of social media devouring budgets and erasing nuance from conversation. But there was no call to action.

This lack of diagnostic vision was surprising given that each panelist is an undisputed leader in Mexican and or international contemporary art. Panelists have created and led schools, artist collectives, museums, etc. But maybe this is precisely the problem. Are the people who earned their stripes by responding to the art world of the past the best positioned to think about how the art world should adapt moving forward? As Camara offered, “we have to acknowledge that we are not just complicit but at the service of the powers that these conversations look to subvert.”

The second realization was the degree to which the ranks of arts leadership and the avenues by which it is reached remain closed to the next generations. While the PAC partially funds projects by emerging artists and curators through open calls, as critic Edgar Hernandez highlighted in two separate articles—one reviewing the Otrxs Mundxs
exhibition at Museo Tamayo and the other reviewing the Normal Exceptions[2]
exhibition at the Museo Jumex—millennials and gen Z artists are struggling to develop careers in a context that provides much less support from collectors and institutions than their 1990’s predecessors. This in turn alludes to the violence of the structural problems in Mexico’s art industry: exceptionally low wages, lack of leadership development, and lack of recourse for new and emerging artists. Taken in this broader context, Medina’s comment, “perhaps that is the explanation for why in Mexico we are such such fighters, we are not children of the SITAC but poorly treated adopted children of the SITAC!” gains more dimension.

The precarity that permeates life in Mexico makes it a place where the social-pact of solidarity is particularly strong. This was most clearly evidenced by the gestures of spontaneous mutual-aid self-organizing that emerged in the wake of the 1985 and 2017 earthquakes. Seen at its worst, this solidarity is amigismo or nepotism. At best, it is kin and community. The problem is that the line separating between the two can become vanishingly thin. In any case, and by any name, solidarity is essential to surviving the tenuous and exploitative nature of working in the expanded contemporary art field, much less in Mexico. So whichever generation is finally able to address these structural problems, it is unlikely that change will come from within preexisting institutions. More likely it will come from self-organizing and creating new kinds of institutions that draw inspiration from other fields and strategies of organizing.

Given the toll that the pandemic and the accordant recession have wrought on Mexico’s already weakened economy, and AMLO’s austerity measures gutting local institutions, the stakes at present feel particularly high. So as SITAC and those who work in contemporary art in Mexico face an ‘is this the end?’ moment, it’s cold comfort to remember how many times art has been declared dead. The very fact that we can say we’ve been here before means it’s not over. If anything, catastrophe is the constant we can count on.

“Emergency is twinned by emergence,” Shuddahbrata Sengupta, director of SITAC 10, declared on the final day of talks. Invoking the late internationalist Cuernavaca based thinker Ivan Illich’s studies on Mexico City, he continued, “It is marvelous that the city survives at all.” The same can be said for those of us who work in art, in Mexico, and elsewhere. It’s marvelous that we survive at all.

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