Interviewed by Alberto Cuadros
Alberto Cuadros: Here we are, May 25th, Mount Washington, California, Los Angeles. Michael Ray-Von is here to talk about his project Otras Obras. So let’s just talk about where you’re at, yourself right now. You’re in the process of moving to Mexico City. What sort of prompted that decision?
Michael Ray-Von: Well, going into Otras Obras, the project in Tijuana, we had always expected in one way that it would be a temporary space and we’ve termed it as such publicly. We set this kind of possible deadline for the project there, which was six months, and so I don’t know, it kind of was a feeling that I felt like I wanted to keep with that schedule for me. I feel like I’m just at a point where I want to transition back into my studio practice rather than carrying on in this curatorial practice that I’ve been playing with. So it was kind of like the six-month deadline was creeping up, and just personally, I feel like the space has gotten to a place where I can open it up to other possibilities than I can facilitate individually.
Maybe we can come back to that. Can you talk a little bit about how the project got started. What led up to opening the doors in Tijuana.
It’s like a simple thing. Todd Patrick, publicly known as Todd P., he’s a long-standing DIY show promoter and venue operator based out of Brooklyn. Before that he was working in Portland, but has been working in Brooklyn for a decade or so, I’m not certain. He’s been working on the curatorial committee for this print publication in Brooklyn for the past five years called SHOWPAPER. Its a listing of every all-ages show in that area on one side and an artist print on the other. So he’s been working on that and over the last three or four, or even five years, he’s been collaborating with promoters and bookers and organizers in Monterrey, Mexico, to organize these medium-scale DIY music and art festivals in Monterrey. He was working with an organization of young artists called Nrmal to put on a festival of the same name. And so after the growing success of that endeavor he looked toward Baja, thinking there was this burgeoning young art scene there, that’s been teetering on sort of I don’t know, it’s been slowly teetering toward its realization, as a matter of speaking. He noticed what was happening there, and had some contacts in the area, and was looking towards organizing a festival there, and so he had been working with Nrmal and a local organization in Tijuana called All My Friends who do a music festival in that city. And they had this retail space in Centro, in Tijuana, which is kind of the center of activity, the historical center of downtown Tijuana. They have this retail space that they were kind of using as a meeting and planning room, but it was a storefront with a great window facing a pretty busy avenue, and so one or two things happened, and the festival they were planning had been postponed, but he still had this great retail space at a pretty good price, and I was affiliated with Todd because I had worked with him through Jesse Hlebo for a couple years at the music festival, kind of volunteering and exhibiting art at different moments. He asked me, not really knowing my qualifications, and not having worked with me on a really steady kind of level. He had run into me at the New York Art Book Fair a little less than a year ago, eight or nine months ago, and had just confronted me with the idea of co-directing the space, to be on the ground there, and collaborating with him to direct this art space, build it from the ground up essentially. So that’s what we went to do. That’s a long winded way of telling a very simple story. He asked me to start the space and then I had this—like a really short window to move in and start working, so I had a week or two to drop everything in LA, which wasn’t much, I was a recent undergrad.
You had been going to Cal Arts the previous four years or something like that?
That’s right. And I’d been out of school for just a few months, and I’d been working curatorially with Albert Samreth in some ways, so I kind of had my head in that space, so it just seemed serendipitous, and I was interested in Mexico, and had been working down there, sort of volunteering. So yeah, I just kind of moved out, moved down there, built the space, built new walls, and we did the electricity, lights, floors, etc., converted it from what was a storefront hair salon into a physical approximation of a contemporary art gallery.
Was there a general program or itinerary that you were working with or had thought of prior to opening? What was the focus?
Todd, going into it, his focus with doing Nrmal, or collaborating on those music festivals with Nrmal, for all of them it’s trying to exceed the limitations that governmental borders present to artists in a really basic way. It’s like not all bands in the US have an opportunity to tour Mexico even though they have a good amount of fans, and the same vice versa, for bands in Mexico that don’t have an opportunity to tour the US. Also, to have an opportunity to meet each other, which is really beautiful when you have these artists who are separated by nationality, who don’t have an opportunity to meet, or the potential to work together or to collaborate. For him, I mean, something that’s really important to him is bringing those two communities together. It might seem kind of a cliché or something, but it’s important and it feels really good. So he wanted to translate that into a gallery situation. So going into it, that was his emphasis.
Has there been primarily Mexican and American artists who have been exhibited? Where have a lot of the artists that have participated in the shows come from?
We’ve tried to even exceed that dualism between Mexican and American. So the first show we mounted was a collaboration between an artist who is based in Mexico City and an artist based in New York. So straight out of the gate we were going with that format. But from there we ended up collaborating with other young artists, Temra Pavlovic, and Clay Gibson, on curating exhibitions. So we opened it up to being as international as possible, and bringing together young artists, groups of young artists from as many countries as we could include. That wasn’t the operating principle, but it just ended up that way and it felt good.
Kind of an international community.
Yeah, yeah, which is kind of preexisting, like with internet communities, but yeah, introducing artists from different international communities together. Tijuana is so specifically appropriate for that kind of engagement, as a border city, it already has this idea of international engagement in that place, and it’s often something that’s addressed in art in the area, but we wanted to see if we could expand upon that in a different way.
From my experiences, having gone to a few shows down there, it seems like there’s always a music component, a performer or dance that follows after the exhibition end or when the gallery doors close. There’s an in between outdoor space behind the gallery that sort of connects to a bar next door that also has DJs play. Can you elaborate on that a little bit, if there’s an emphasis on music—the Todd P. effect?
Yeah, so of course, one thing that’s really important for Todd is that people have a good time. Flat out, he wants people to have fun. So we’ll go to great lengths to make sure it’s a good time aside from exhibiting critical artwork and putting together excellent exhibitions. We want people to have a good time and celebrate. Additionally, on top of that, we also want to have these engagements between musicians so we do an after-party after every opening or event that we have and we bring in musicians or DJs from Tijuana, or other areas in Baja, or musicians and DJs from LA or New York. We’ve done this a couple different ways.
I wanted to ask about El Muerto. I thought it was unique that you included this mysterious person from Tijuana to play music after one of the exhibitions.
El Muerto is a performer and musician who is kind of like a local legend, like a living local legend in Tijuana that I heard about from a friend in maybe my first couple weeks living there. He just told me there’s this guy you can see perform at the swap meet on Sundays. He’ll be dressed in all black with death makeup on and singing about deathly things. And I said well, that sounds kind of like my bag; I want to find this guy. It ended up taking me months to actually encounter this guy, and it happened on accident. I just saw him at the park, and I later found out he would perform at the park every day of the week at noon for the elderly and children, and like drunks in the park.
But his music is pretty dark. The topics are basically all about death and sort of like self-loathing, self deprecation.
It’s unique because it’s super radical, and he even puts some radical homosexual politics into his performances too. He’s an older guy who wears death face makeup, and just a long black leather trench coat, and spiked jewelry. He’s a Mexican guy with bleached white hair; it’s kind of like toxic white, so you can see that it’s gone through many cycles of bleach because it is the color of bleach, not in the sense of bleach blond, but toxic green/yellow, which is really beautiful. He’s a sweet guy, and even though it took me a number of meetings with him in the park to book him for the show, he never gave me his name, he’ll only go for El Muerto. So essentially he’s this musician who plays keyboard, and I just thought it would be interesting because I was trying to put together an industrial punk lineup. So he plays these deathly keyboard organ songs on a Casio tone or something like that in the park. Without even hearing his music I asked him straight away to play this show after one of our openings.
How was he received?
Really well. I kind of positioned him as the headlining act, which I think struck the
community as kind of unique. We had a poster with his face up on the door for a week leading up to the performance and I would see people walk by and stop, and kind of get shocked and say, “Look – it’s El Muerto. What is he doing on this show flier?” So for the kids in town, they have a lot of respect for him just because he’s a weird shadowy performer from the streets and then also people who are coming in from LA and out of town, were just surprised and excited to see him there.
So the gallery is in the process of transitioning, you are physically moving to Mexico City, but the gallery will continue in Tijuana. In what capacity will it continue?
So as we’re rubbing up against this six-month cap, it’s not a cap, it was kind of a milestone we projected since the beginning, me, along with the people in Tijuana who work on the space and those who are curating the space with me and Todd are transitioning the space into a kind of curatorial micro-residency. So we’ll be inviting young artists or young curators who are hungry for a venue to experiment, to come there, live in the loft space that I’ve been occupying above the gallery if they choose, and mount an exhibition kind of away from the contemporary art scene of Los Angeles or whatever.
So is it going to be an open call, like other residencies. Will there be a place to apply or word of mouth?
It’s word of mouth. We have this weird relationship to documentation. It’s a little bit like, I don’t know, this poetic documentation we have on our website, it doesn’t give you all the facts, but leads you through the story. This residency will probably take the same form, it’s definitely an experiment. I think for now, just as we’re getting moving, I think it will act as an invitational, we’ll curate curators into the space. I’ll be living in Mexico City working on another project that’s kind of a sister project to the gallery there, but not as focused specifically on exhibition, with Temra Pavlovic and Clay Gibson. From there I’ll be kind of administrating and trying to keep this thing operating remotely, and relying on artists in Tijuana and artists probably from Los Angeles to mount some exhibitions there.
I was just curious, what’s the biggest change or insight personally, artistically that’s been levied upon you entering this, not only a curatorial practice, but also having to consider some immediate politics about Mexico and the US on a much more micro level. Tangible level and experiential. And also, just to add onto this, have you found yourself taking any kind of position?
I have to admit that I was going to a fucking private art school, north of LA for the past four years leading up to this, and it’s such a kind of private island and you can reflect on international politics and economics and have your own individual issues with that, but I feel like I haven’t had to grapple with politics in the way that I have here ever before. So it’s been really eye-opening because there’s so many situations to consider with this. It leads to a lot of anxiety about trying to keep your ethical position intact, and not hurt people, but also stay critical, and like, don’t shy away from action just because it might be politically incorrect or whatever that term is, or offensive, or something like this. And try to expand politically on the local circumstances without engaging in clichés, which is—I mean, I think you can encounter some political clichés in Tijuana pretty quickly. So I mean I think it’s just been a matter of dealing with the anxiety of balancing all those different concerns. I think that’s been how I’ve grown most, and learn to manage these things and discipline, to deal with that reality and try to I don’t know, have a flexibility with how I attach myself to issues. In relationship to the role of curating, and the relationship to my approach to public relations with the space. It’s really just how I’m communicating with communities. Because we have to create this public figure in a small way for the space.
This might be a good time to bring up the one-off event that you had a month or two ago. It was called Todo Negro? Was it called that?
We were calling it Sabado, just because it was held on a Saturday.
And it was like a stick and poke tattoo event, or was it more than stick and poke? Is that wrong?
It was a pop-up tattoo shop, we were having a small benefit for the space because we wanted to mount this more ambitious exhibition, and we wanted to try to afford to pay for shipping to bring artist books from a lot of different countries, Poland, Brazil, and Mexico, and it ends up getting pretty expensive pretty quickly. So we had this small tattoo event at the space where we had two tattoo artists from Tijuana and three tattoo artists that came down from LA, all friends of ours, and they were doing small, all-black, proper tattoos with guns for anyone who came in off the street for 10 dollars or 120 pesos each. It was hugely popular. The room was packed for eight hours straight, like no moving room at all. But it was quite stressful and we offended some local veteran tattoo artists by offering a service at such a cut rate. We kind of got some threats. Because I mean, tattoo is very territorial and occasionally linked in with gang politics. So we had to shy away from that. It was a wake-up call that there’s a lot to consider when you’re acting as an artist-run space and you think you can just be the artist-as-anything. That kind of cliché, the artist-as-curator, the artist-as-tattoo-artist, and in a way you’re going to bump up against people’s realities if you start dealing with their bread and butter.
But there were no broken arms or broken windows?
No, there weren’t any repercussions. People always asked me what’s the most scared you’ve ever been in Tijuana, or what’s the worst thing that’s happened to you down there, and it’s like nothing. Nothing bad has happened to me there.
Santana is from Tijuana?
Santana is from Tijuana. Andrea Noel, who works with us at the space, tells me she’s met his teacher, the guy who taught him how to play guitar. The Caesar salad is also from Tijuana.
Oh yeah, we should also talk about the audience the gallery has attracted. There’s definitely a lot of Los Angeles people coming down, people in the LA art scene, which is probably the nearest large art scene. It’s was not uncommon to go down to any one of the openings at Otras Obras over the last six months and see a lot of the same faces you would see at LA art openings and events, and so that sort of also creates a unique experience for groups experiencing Tijuana via the gallery. Maybe you wanted to talk about how that might differ from just straight-up tourism, or maybe it is tourism.
That’s the most important part to me, and I haven’t decided, I have some conflicted feelings about the notion of tourism. I feel like to me tourism is something very negative, and it’s something that takes a culture and exploits the people of that culture in order to actualize an image that they have of the culture. So it makes a spectacle of someone’s real life, which feels weird to me. I’m not totally certain about what that is yet, but I do have a sense that the people who have been coming down to the openings are a qualitatively different type of visitor. And I think it’s a move towards a kind of positive thing. Tijuana was founded around the idea of it being a border town. Tijuana didn’t exist before the border; Tijuana existed because of the border. The city is only like 120-130 years old, and it’s always been occupied in part by people from the US, or people living on two sides of the border. People born in Chula Vista and then moving to Tijuana or working there. People born in Tijuana and working in Chula Vista.
It’s kind of a brackish territory as major border cities can be.
So it’s going to always support that type of engagement, but it’s like, what type of people do you want involved, and so how you build a city that involves the type of people that you want to involve. People who are going to be respectful and there to respect what’s happening, and not just take advantage of it and exploit it so that they can take advantage of legal circumstances or something, which has been the case for some time.
It seems like generally, I don’t want to speak for everybody, but I’ve seen pockets of people going down for openings or for the weekend when something is going on, or even just to visit you or something, and it seems a little bit more immersive than just a college weekend, getting drunk, buying prescription pills and going back over the border at 4 AM or something.
Well, yeah, because the people who come down are treating it as my home, which is one thing. So it isn’t just this exotic Mexican city, this is actually this place that I live in and that my peers are involved in so they can treat it as such. So you have this—what happens is the locals become your peer group and not just something to be exoticized. So the thing that I know that’s confirming some of these feelings for me is that I’ve heard it from people there that they’ve never—it feels clean, it feels better to have a type of person whose coming down to be involved in art rather than someone whose coming down merely to be involved in a party. I don’t know, I’ve heard it from some individuals that this is the case. That there’s a different type of visitor that’s coming through, and some of it is due to this gallery.
Maybe the spirit of that has extended its way into the idea for this curatorial residency project, essentially inviting groups to experience the city in an immersive way, to stay there for a period of time and experience the city as a respectful inhabitant.
And to treat it as something that needs to be tended and like, I don’t know, respected in a way, because you’re going to put a lot of time and effort into this space and expose your artwork in this space. You have a different type of engagement than if you were just coming down for whatever, for vacation, you know. So it opens up a new venue for engagement with different qualities.
So is there a lifespan for this second leg of the Otras Obras Tijuana project?
I don’t have one in mind. If things go well things will carry on indefinitely. I could see a circumstance where new people would become involved who are committed to administrating the space there, whereas I can’t be consistently committed. And depending on where this sister project goes in Mexico City, I can’t really see a definite future.
Any “only in Tijuana” stuff we should know about? People, places, goings-on, shout outs?
San Pedro El Cortez (harsh psych hardcore), Zacas (420 friendly underground bar), Don’t Stay At Home (Mel Rico nu club party in Zona Rio), toñayan cón monster (blind rage recipe), MOM store (chill vintage store), giant flags, parque Guerrero (El Muerto every weekday at noon), Daniel Rosas, Bar Chip’s (extensive heavy metal jukebox), Mi Pueblito (punk as fuck bar on Revolución), Lic. Tony Cruz, and very unusual architecture.
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