Interview with Yoshua Okón
Suzy Halajian: What terms or phrases come to mind when you think of the 1990s art scene in Mexico, specifically Mexico City, where you were living and working at the time?
Yoshua Okón: Reinvention, agency, art and life, community, scene, exploration, changing paradigms, social engagement, empowerment, diversity, intergenerational dialogue, civil society, platform, exchange, conversation, organic process, creative process, initiative, critical thought, discourse, intuition.
SH: It was in 1994, when you and artist Miguel Calderón, cofounded La Panadería (the bakery) in Mexico City, in an old bakery on Amsterdam Street in the Hipódromo Condesa district in a building owned by your father. Working collaboratively, you conceived of the artist-run experimental exhibition space and, later, the informal residency program, while studying abroad. You soon invited different groups and individuals to participate, including a group of students from Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas (ENAP), as well as Taniel Morales, Pilar Villela, Andrea Ferreyra, Itala Schmelz, Javier Rodriguez, Jonathan Hernandez, Mariana Castillo Deball, among many others.
Collectively shaping the space's organizing structure for many years, your aim was to help connect the many local artists, musicians, and organizers who were working in isolation in the city with the international art scene. Also, you wanted to provide a platform for the kind of work that you wanted to see but were not seeing in Mexico. La Panadería was an effort to push against the existing, restrictive, and banal state and institutional structures, and to allow for more DIY formats to emerge, while creating a sense of community. As you've stated, "This phenomenon was not only limited to the field of visual arts — with projects such as La Quiñonera, LUCC, MOHO, and Temístocles — but was also felt in different spheres, as with the creation of NGOs for the defense of human rights or the EZLN uprising, among others."1 Can you speak about how La Panadería functioned within Mexico City and whether you sought collaborations with these or other projects?
YO: It is important to clarify that the isolation you refer to was not only with regards to the international scene. This isolation was also internal. It was difficult to come into contact with other artists, cultural agents, and activists within the city. So besides creating a bridge with other cities in the world, another of the primary goals of La Panadería was to provide a platform where different people within the city could interact, exchange ideas, information, knowledge, etc. It was only natural for us to build a network with other people and institutions. That was the whole point behind the project. We saw ourselves as part of a bigger thing, so constant communication and collaboration were at the core of our spirit. And the diversity and amount of the people that participated throughout the years is a testament to that spirit.
SH: It was also in 1994 when artist Vicente Razo organized La feria del rebelde (The rebel's fair) at La Panadería. The project presented a tattoo booth, a pirate radio, and a store comprised of objects of subversion, with works by many artists, including yourself, and Mariana Botey, Miguel Calderón, Andrea Ferreyra, Jerónimo López (Dr. Lakra), and Taniel Morales. The evening even included a controversial performance by street performer Mago Melchor, in which the artist inserted a bottle into his anus. Was this project emblematic of the space's punk, loud, and messy aesthetic? This brings to mind a statement by theorist Jacques Rancière: "Art compels us to revolt when it shows us revolting things, that it mobilizes when it itself is taken outside of the workshop or museum and that it incites us to oppose the system of domination by denouncing its own participation in that system."2
YO: I think that what you describe in your question was in many respects the spirit of the time. It is not particular to La feria del rebelde, although this exhibition reflected that spirit very well and it was definitely very powerful and influential. But I'm not sure if I would call it emblematic. There were other influential exhibitions in those early days that addressed the wider political scenario and connected art with social issues using a direct, in-your-face, aesthetic.
SH: La Panadería was often linked to both you and Calderon, and later primarily to you given that you took on the core organizing duties after attempting various collective models. However, the communal undertaking also expanded to engage numerous collaborators named above, as well as Eduardo Abaroa, Gabriel Acevedo, Artemio, and Alex Dorfsman, who selected and installed exhibitions. Until 2002, La Panadería filled a void in Mexico's cultural spaces and galleries, offering a place to produce new forms of exchanges. The exhibitions were proposed and produced with openness and ease. Also, from what I understand, the organizers did not want to echo the interests of the market, and were driven by setting up shows that fueled their own community's self-interests, although they were soon aware of the venue's influence on the Mexican contemporary art scene. In fact, some in the extended art community criticized the space for its lack of attention to the local art scene, and the desire for the space's programming to be translated abroad. This only increased as the space's organizers became more known over the years, both locally and abroad, through their individual artistic practices. Can you comment on how this criticism functioned to determine and shift La Panadería's focus? Were issues of class and access taken up in your conversations?
YO: When La Panadería began, we indeed attempted a fully collective model, which turned out to be very complicated. So, not long after, I decided to create a structure that lasted to the very end, in which the logistical and administrative aspects became separated from the content-related aspects. In other words, for administrative matters the space didn't operate collectively, but with regard to the programs and content it did operate collectively. This model worked really well; it is actually still being used in SOMA to this day, with an artist council that takes care of programming and defines the direction of the institution, and an executive director with a team that takes care of administration, implementation of the programs, and running the day-to-day.
La Panadería is the result of a huge collective effort and many, many people deserve the credit. To understand such a dynamic, I think it is important to understand how much things have changed, the radically different context of Mexico City in the early 1990s, as well as the spirit of the time. We are talking about a pre-internet and pre-globalization era, in which the scene was much, much smaller and when contemporary art was not even close to being fashionable. Most artists, unless you were one of the very few official artists of the regime, were marginal. There weren't many artists around and contemporary art was a marginal practice. There wasn't much glamour attached to it and it reached very few people. And there wasn't an art industry like there is today, so the art market wasn't on our radar. There really was an "underground" scene. In such a context, artist-run spaces played a very important role in creating a network among artists of all different fields (music, literature, visual arts, etc.), and in providing a space and an excuse to meet. Like I mentioned in my first response, we were all quite isolated due to the oppressive and repressive nature of the regime in Mexico City post-1968 (when the student massacre took place), and these spaces played an important role in bringing us together.
So, in such a context, one of our main goals at La Panadería was to provide a communal space where things could develop organically. That is why we didn't have curators, nor did we ask artists for projects. It was a time where things just needed to happen, to flow. Therefore, the idea was to not direct or mediate in any specific way, nor to favor any particular approach to art. Our only single, very wide, parameter was to support art that had no room within the very narrow official art paradigm (apolitical abstraction connected to the Ruptura movement of the 1950s, which, by the way, we now know was promoted by the same "Long Leash" CIA operative that was behind Clement Greenberg in the U.S. and with Cuban-born art critic José Gómez-Sicre operating in Latin America) that had been dominating the country for so long. We were interested in art that would not be accepted by the museums and galleries at the time, and we had a strong commitment to agency. Other than that, we would show anything. We were not interested in having any filters. We would literally hand the keys to the artists in turn, and they could take over the space and the responsibility and do whatever they wanted. Basically, the way it worked was very organic, through word of mouth, based on initiative. Artists knew that the space belonged to the community, to them, so artists who wanted to show just asked for an exhibition to anyone associated with the space. It was really open, so whoever wanted to show had a way of finding us. And it is important to mention that the scene from these early stages was incredibly diverse in terms of class, race, gender, generation, and sexual orientation. Artists came from all round the city. One only has to take a look at the long list of exhibitions and events, which can be found in La Panaderia’s book published in 2005, to understand such diversity. La Panadería was one of the few places in the city back then where you could see such diverse people interacting in a horizontal way.
So for the early years, let's say until 1999, this model worked very well. But soon enough, we had to increase the frequency of the exhibitions to every two weeks, because the scene was growing and the demand was increasing. By 2000, the context had already changed drastically. The art marked exploded, local museums opened up to contemporary art, many of the artists involved in the space started gaining recognition and invitations both abroad and locally, globalization came, art became fashionable, and therefore there were many more artists around. I think that is the period you are referring to in your question. Basically, La Panadería was not able to keep fulfilling its original role; there was simply no space and time to meet all of the demands from young artists. And that, of course, generated a crisis that, in part, eventually led to the decision to close after nine years of operation. The context changed so drastically that the space needed reinvention, but it all happened so quickly that we were overwhelmed and had no idea what direction to take. It was a time of confusion for me and, I think, for a lot of my colleagues as well.
Issues of class were definitely discussed, considered, and addressed from the very start. That was not the problem. The problem, and the criticism you refer to, was not that a specific class was being discriminated against—the list of participants throughout the years is testament to that. Nor was the problem that we were only exhibiting international artists. From the very start, only a certain percentage of exhibitions was devoted to international artists, and that was kept to the very end. The problem was that we simply couldn't cope with the demand of younger artists and the exponential way in which the art community grew. By the last few years, we were simply outgrown, our model no longer worked.
SH: The space presented numerous distinct projects. It valued process, unpredictability, autonomy, and, most importantly, community through unexpected interventions and confrontation. One show, entitled Fácil de digerir, displayed works by artists Nao Bustamante, Miguel Calderón, and Andrea Ferreyra. Bustamante performed Nao Bustamanteca, in which she wrapped parts of her body with adhesive tape and performed the U.S. national anthem by blowing into a beer bottle. It also included other kinds of experiments, such as a group show inspired by comic book images and organized by Eduardo Abaroa. Another exhibition, Dermis, by SEMEFO, an artist collective that emerged from UNAM in Mexico City during the 1990s, exhibited tattooed human skins and autopsy sheets. A poster art exhibition organized by John Wischmann presented psychedelic and nostalgic imagery, and ¡Qúe guapo!, an installation by the Viennese collective Gelatin, was developed during the collective’s road trip from Los Angeles to Mexico. Also, The Interpreter Project, a collaboration between American artist Sharon Hayes and German artist Andrea Geyer, considered the complicated role of tour guides of historic sites, and the ensuing repression that is forced on their narratives. Did the diverse nature of such projects reflect what was happening in Mexico's cultural scene in the 1990s, and, if so, in what ways?
YO: Yes, this diversity in the program reflected what was going on. It also reflected the nature of the space and its mission. Like I mentioned in my previous response, we did not want to predispose or predetermine what was going to happen. We deliberately had no curatorial line. We wanted to reflect what was going on in the city and to just let things flow—to allow artists to do their own thing in their own terms. There was so much contained energy that needed to be released, and that is what these kinds of spaces did. They provided a medium for a wide spectrum of artists to channel their energy and ideas. That’s what was really needed at the time.
SH: La Panaderia's international presence grew over the years, due in part to the participation of local and international artists who exhibited and held residencies in the space. While other spaces such as La Quiñonera, which has been around since the 1980s, and Temístocles 44, which opened in the 1990s and now closed, had paved the way for alternative endeavors, many other interventions, one-off events, and short-lived projects were dispersed throughout the city. La Panadería's more sustainable economic structure allowed it to be a recognized and lasting hub within the city’s arts structure. Its history is widely recognized for its influence on the Mexican art scene, and simultaneously, for the weight placed on the scene today. The project seemed to resist institutionalization despite the organizers' awareness that the programming ran parallel to those of leading institutions in Mexico, and that such projects function as part of a system that indubitably fuels the emerging art market, alongside the city's existing museums and galleries. How did questions around institutionalization come into play, and in what ways did those involved with the space relate to the idea of an alternative or to other alternative spaces during its run?
YO: Again, I think this question requires some context. When La Panadería opened in January 1994 there was no such thing as an art market, the market was not even in our radar, and we were not working alongside the existing museums and galleries. There were hardly any commercial art galleries around and we had no contact with them. That happened years later, towards 2000. So I think that your question only applies to after that big paradigm change took place, not before. And I have to say that we were not prepared at all. The space's role, during the last couple of years, in, as you say, "fueling the art market" and art industry system, is a dimension we honestly didn’t see coming at all. So we were definitely not prepared for it. It was a whole different game and the space had not being designed for it. And that was another of the major reasons why I decided to close in 2002. It was still very popular, but I think that by that time the space had lost a lot of its original sense and we just couldn’t figure out how to reinvent it.
Now, regarding your other question, I can only speak for myself. I don't really identify with the term "alternative," and I have never used it to describe La Panadería. I saw La Panadería as part of a bigger ecosystem, as part of a network and as a complement to other initiatives, rather than an alternative. I saw it as an institution in its own right.
SH: In 2009, you founded La Panadería's continuation, the nonprofit space SOMA, as an initiative with a group of artists, in order to organize various contemporary art programs in Mexico City. This includes an academic program structured like an MFA program, a summer residency that engages international participants, and a weekly discursive program. As a participant in SOMA Summer program in 2010, I quickly inferred the 1990s influence, the residues of which are felt, as they often are in many other scenes that are still digesting their own histories. Like La Panadería, SOMA attempts to set up an open physical and conceptual frame within which to invite artists and participants—those willing to participate—to develop their own work, and mainly to engage in discourses rather than solely to prioritize production, or, more specifically, the accepted kinds of artmaking. These extended projects, and others less remembered, intervene in the recognized systems and cultural fabric and offer a brazen form of social and political commentary to existing institutions and systems while they simultaneously function alongside them. By doing so, they grant the freedom for others to access space in order to expand state and institutional controls, as you've stated, and also to allow participants to create their own subjective engagements with contemporary art. Can you comment on how this dire need to grant artists and practitioners space has been important to you over the years as your projects have simultaneously evolved?
YO: Yes, SOMA in some ways is the reinvention that La Panadería needed when it closed. It maintains many of the core values and mission, but with a new design adapted for a radically different environment: one dominated by the art industry and by neoliberal consumer culture.
Regarding your question, I see my own personal practice as directly connected to this "dire need" you describe. This is because I see art as an intrinsically social practice that requires an adequate context in order to fully develop and to be complete. And we need institutions to provide such context. Museums and commercial galleries help, but we have seen that they don't cover every need. The art market, state-run institutions, and private foundations can have great benefits, but they also have some limitations. And this is where the tradition of artist-run spaces comes in. Historically, artists have been especially good at detecting the needs that are not met by other institutions. Usually these artist-run spaces have a strong emphasis in community-building, horizontality, agency, process, exchange, and discourse. I think that without the role of such artist initiatives we wouldn't have the rich and complex art tradition that we have worldwide.
SH: Projects like La Panadería and SOMA persistently propose untested systems and access points, by displaying works left outside of institutions, collectively creating art programs, and challenging the limits of social norms with an audience in mind. By doing so, you galvanize others to initiate self-directed projects. This charged, communal space offers, as Rancière states in regard to critical art, perhaps "an art that aims to produce a new perception of the world, and therefore to create a commitment to its transformation."3 As such, this shared space brings an otherness to center stage, in order to question what we accept as given and propose alternative narratives and structures to hierarchical, power, and class-based systems of art production in society, as well as those intrinsically mired in cultural, bureaucratic, and infrastructural networks alike. Can you respond to this comment, and I would also be curious to understand what you consider La Panadería’s role was within the creation of a larger communal space?
YO: I think that Rancière's description could not be more aligned with my own understanding of an essential role of art and how art should operate in society. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. In many instances, I would even say in most instances these days, this dimension of art is forgotten, and art ends up fueling the logic of financial capitalism and consumer culture, losing its critical dimension. So, as you very well explain in your question, both La Panadería and SOMA were designed to precisely strengthen this critical dimension in art.
Now, regarding your other question about the "larger communal space," I always think of art as connected to the bigger social context, to a bigger ecosystem; we are not in a bubble. The art world is not a self-contained independent system, and without a connection to everyday life it loses its relevance. That was exactly what the "Long Leash" operation I referred to earlier was about—taking away the social dimension of art in order to control it and depoliticize it. In that respect, at La Panadería the transformation that Rancière describes was always aimed at that bigger social picture, beyond the art world.