November 21, 2008

Tijuana’s “El Cubo”

By Michael Klam

In September, the Tijuana Cultural Center (CECUT) expanded at a cost of more than 90 million pesos, about $9 million U.S. dollars.

CECUT’s “El Cubo” — named for its right angles standing in contrast to the center’s existing oval Imax Theater called “La Bola” — puts Tijuana on the map as a destination city for museum-quality arts and culture.

The new facility has 16,500 square feet of state-of-the-art exhibition space on three levels, and includes office space, a bookshop, a store, a cafeteria and a bar.

Carmen Cuenca (left), deputy director for exhibitions in the visual arts.

The construction also supports artists and curators with 8,800 square feet of storage and 5,500 square feet of space to register work and prepare installations.

El Cubo’s modernized facility — climate control, lighting, vaults — was a necessary upgrade to make possible large-scale touring and in-house exhibits, said Carmen Cuenca, deputy director for exhibitions in the visual arts.

Cuenca explained that CECUT, established in 1982, previously did not have the room or the technology to house major traveling shows like El Cubo’s inaugural “Buddha Guanyin: Treasures of Compassion,” Buddhist sculptures from China, or its new “Civic Project,” works by 18 contemporary artists.

In 1985, the organization built a 1,100-seat theater, but there has been no other noteworthy redevelopment until recently. Construction of El Cubo is historically significant as the first space of its size and capability in Tijuana, and it has already given the organization some international clout.

An agreement with the Chinese government and Mexico’s National Council for Culture and the Arts resulted in the Buddhist sculptures exhibit, Cuenca said.

However, El Cubo is not solely interested in large-scale, international projects.

“We also wanted to give modern, contemporary artists a place to organize, develop and curate exhibitions,” Cuenca said.

The Civic Project includes some regional and local artists, who were hired to address the changing definition of what it means to be a citizen.

Cuenca gave artist Nina Waisman, an MFA student at the University of California, San Diego, the opportunity to use El Cubo’s new main entrance to make interactive sound installations.

Waisman filled the entrance — a 65-foot long, 13-foot wide space, that funnels visitors down into the museum from bright daylight to lower light — with the sounds of Tijuana.

Cuenca introduced Waisman to local artists who helped her travel the city and record the sounds of everyday life.

“Hammering, building, filing, shoe polishing, some guy who’s raising roosters for cock fights, a wide range of sounds you hear,” Waisman said.

“Kids playing soccer on the street, jump rope, people trying to get your attention, bull horns, bells, music and finally sounds of control, sirens, helicopters,” she added.

Waisman said she was free to make the piece she wanted to make and that the curators didn’t interfere or try to direct at all.

“Proyecto Cívico is interested in questions about what is it like to be a citizen in a place like Tijuana: global surveillance, corruption in government, questions about the strength of the civic fabric, increased alienation in Tijuana as opposed to smaller towns,” she said.

Waisman discovered an incredible sense of community, “people creating community in their own ways,” in spite of all the crime, the recent violence, she said.

José Luis Morales, director of ECOSOL, Ecological Art and Culture, and long-time Tijuana resident, is also most interested in these local stories. He would like to see more exhibits specifically about urban border culture.

“It is a shame that the media tends to only talk about death, narcotics, injustices,” he said.

While Morales appreciates the new Civic Project, he expressed some concern about the amount of federal money spent on one facility. “With that kind of money they could have made another theater in a more accessible part of the city,” he said.

“It’s important to have cultural spaces in other parts of the city,” Morales explained. And he would like to see more of a public voice in the decisions made about exhibits at the cultural center.

CECUT’s director, Teresa Vicencio, has a vision for the region, and sees El Cubo as another way to bring San Diego and Tijuana together.

Vicencio plans to maintain ongoing relationships with museums across the border, including the San Diego Museum of Art, the San Diego Contemporary Art Museum, and national and international institutions.

El Cubo already began organizing a show on the art of the missions of Mexican northwest and the American southwest with the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Gene Autry National Center for the American West in Los Angeles and the San Antonio Museum of Art.

Vicencio and Cuenca, looking ahead to the future of Tijuana arts and culture, invite participants and visitors from all over.

“(El Cubo) is an inviting space, a good reason for people to cross the border and see exhibitions that they have never seen before,” she said.

“They are sure to have una experiencia muy agradable,” Vicencio said.

Attendance is certain to go up from last year’s 1.4 million visitors. CECUT hosts almost a half million students yearly.

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