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DENVER — The Mexican artist collective SANGREE has created an archeological dig site beneath the sidewalks of downtown, appropriating an abandoned Regional Transportation District (RTD) bus station. Presented by the nomadic art nonprofit Black Cube, the public installation plays with space and time as stages for artistic intervention, questioning the ruthless nature of urban development in Middle America.
Where before two trees stood dead and surrounded by sidewalk pavement, now two vitrines glowing with LED light strips offer a window into a subterranean space. The SANGREE world is a layered fantasy where past, present, and future are mashed into one. Each vitrine measures about two by two meters, which are further divided into compartments by a rough wall made from rock and concrete. If you didn’t know that the artist collective had built the walls into the illuminated pits as part of its project, Unclassified Site Museum, you might assume that they’re authentic relics of a forgotten past.
Within the vitrines, the artists also placed artifacts from their invented, pan-historic mash-up. Cell phone cases encrusted with imaginary deities made from mother of pearl and semi precious stones — a fake history bejeweling the present — are scattered in the faux dig sites like abandoned tools. Or maybe the dig sites are time capsules from the future? A stoneware bong and the cell phone cases certainly suggest present artifacts.
The outdoor installation is intended to make passersby question preconceived notions about the nature of time. The crude walls are part of a fantasy about what came before the bus station, which will in turn most likely be turned into a condominium complex in the future — as the artists hint at with a 3D-printed mockup of the past housing development that they imagine occupied the site and whose faux foundations they’ve uncovered. “One of the things we noticed was how quickly the city is growing,” SANGREE said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “The act of building the foundation of a fictitious condominium complex is an attempt to relate the future of this place to its historic past.”
The intervention at the RTD station, which takes up half a city block, calls attention to how quickly cities devour space and material. Denver is a relatively new hub; the artists point out that the bus station is on the newer side of modern, yet it seems like a ruin already. The intervention brings the unused space to life, slowing down our perception of the space and causing us to consider this chunk of the city in transition.
The Mexico City-based artists said that their actions on history are “in no way” academic. The artists focus on “undetermined” parts of time and space. It’s not just the future that is undetermined, but also whole city blocks of the past that have been paved over, torn up, or otherwise transformed. Turning the abandoned station into a transitory museum is a good start toward the reactivation of the space (which has been made obsolete by the remodeling and expansion of nearby Union Station, Denver’s major public transportation hub).
The project draws a comparison between two cities — Denver and Mexico City — that, on their surfaces, couldn’t appear more different. With more than 21 million people, the Mexican capital has more than 10 times the population of the Denver metro area. The population of the entire city of Denver proper is less than most of Mexico City’s over 2,000 colonias, or neighborhoods. Denver is a new city compared to the thousands of years of history that incessantly bubble to the surface in the Valley of Mexico. But SANGREE points out that there are layers of history everywhere, even in Denver — and even in its abandoned bus station. Although the space hasn’t yet been swept up in the explosion of condos downtown, there’s more to it than meets the eye. The artists show us that space is never static.
Time is convoluted and non-specific in SANGREE’s installation, but the work gets at the yet-to-be-determined part of reality, which can help fill out our often oversimplified and overly linear accounts of history. Our collective history is always being rewritten or re-determined by present and future perceptions of past events. Beyond official histories, written by the “winners” and pivoting around major world events, human history is driven and propelled by everyday stories, regular people, and vernacular objects.