Two standout performances shrewdly played along the scale from intimacy to the industrial sublime in the live art series organized by REDCAT’s Executive Director Mark Murphy as part of the Getty Foundation-led Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA. As with many of the over 70 exhibitions in LA and across Southern California in this second edition of PST, which focuses on Latino and Latin American Art in connection with LA, these performances were socially and politically acute.
Mexico City-based collective Teatro Línea de Sombra’s Durango 66, about student uprisings in Durango in 1966, took place in a cavernous space beneath the street grid near REDCAT, with the whirr of downtown traffic passing overhead. Overwhelming, inhuman in scale, this underground concrete architecture evoked the massive, implacable political and economic interests that controlled Durango from afar.
Beneath this industrial canopy, large packing boxes dotted the pavement. At the beginning of the show, monumental projections of workers in fields, presumably around Durango, were paired with text projections. The actors, all CalArts students, wore phosphorescent-green safety vests, as if on a construction site. Without speaking, they worked with the material substance at the heart of the 1966 Durango student uprisings: the iron ore-rich red dirt of the mountain, El Cerro de Mercado, in Durango. Students from Universidad Juárez occupied the mountain to protest the extraction of the ore because, they said, it failed to benefit the people.
The use of the dirt itself in the performance made it marvelously specific, real, and tactile. An actor strode in carrying a heavy sack of dirt and emptied it very precisely to create a long stripe in the center of the pavement. Later, a dump truck unloaded a substantially larger quantity in a heap, symbolizing the mountain and imitating the part of the 1966 protest in which students drove trucks into Durango and dumped the dirt in public areas. An actor climbed the small hill of red dirt and delivered an inaudible recreation of a student protest speech. In between, the actors assisted with loading a dirt-filled crate onto a forklift. A cherry picker held aloft a scrolling LED device. Among the texts it displayed was, “Can a political action be interpreted as an artistic performance?”
During this opening segment, the spectators stood corralled behind metal crowd-control barriers. The next phase of the performance brought the story back to human scale: at each of several mini-sets spread out across the pavement, one of the actors explained the references of the objects or dioramas on view.
This fractured storytelling allowed for teaching in close human interactions. A table set with toy plastic figurines and several dozen flame-shaped light bulbs highlighted the students’ occupation of the mountain, where they lit dozens of bonfires and tended them throughout the night to manifest their determination to be seen and reckoned with. As a reference to the fact that in 1966 many of the protesters were detained, beaten, kidnapped, tortured, or killed, another booth held remnants of a similar crime scene, a Durango apartment where in 2014 student activists were gunned down by police and government forces. The 1966 Durango protest and the authorities’ deadly response foreshadowed similar gruesome reprisals such as the merciless suppression of student protests during the 1968 Olympics hosted in Mexico City.
Some of the teaching stations conveyed coincidental occurrences or related facts about Durango. One tale of corruption concerned a primeval forest near Durango, protected for its ecological status and importance in the cultural practices of the indigenous people. While local authorities fought over how to cash in by opening the forest to commercial logging, they were outrun by central government officials who nationalized the forest and opened it to clear cutting, resulting in the total destruction of the natural habitat. A living room setting referred to the pop music culture of 1966 with a big vinyl collection from that year; later on a live band played some 1966 hits, such as Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking” and The Monkees’ theme song. A film by Thomas Edison from 1897 portrayed the “exotic” women of Durango washing clothes in the river.
Durango 66 exposed the superhuman forces of evil at work in that city and the human costs of cronyism and plutocracy. Apart from the student protests, violent government responses, and persistent corruption, Durango has suffered from thousands of violent deaths related to the drug trade. The populace lost trust in the police, widely understood to be on the payroll of the drug traffickers. In 2011, mass graves were discovered in Durango, and dumped or buried bodies continue to be found.
Despite these grim facts, Durango 66 inspired faith that political protest is necessary and can be effective. The citizens of Durango have lately taken steps to recover their city. Will Americans be brave enough to take back their country?
Taking quite the opposite approach to scale, the Mexican collective Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol’s Tijuana told one story in a humble, intimate stage set, consisting of an old-fashioned painted-cloth theater backdrop, a stationary screen for video projections, and a few everyday objects (bricks, beer bottles, folding chairs), in a well-calibrated production at the Skirball Cultural Center, a co-presenter of the show.
Gabino Rodríguez, co-founder with Luisa Pardo of Lagartijas, performs here solo to relate the daring and revelatory project in which he went underground in Tijuana, working six months in a factory for minimum wage under an assumed name. The low wages force on him endless economies. He can barely pay for food and housing. When he gets sick, he has no access to medical care and can’t afford medication. He and his fellow workers live in illegal, jerrybuilt structures in a part of town the government does not dare enter. Some of the people he meets are able to cobble together a life; he allows himself the cliché “poor but happy” to describe his landlord. As he settles into his new home, he finds himself attracted to the landlord’s daughter, and he flirts with a woman at the factory. Tentatively, he makes friends at a local bar. This precarious existence is blown apart when an outsider accused of raping a local girl is killed in a brutal act of gang violence. The locals whip out their cell phones and comment on the event as if it were a boxing match. This close-up view of vigilante justice, along with illness, persuades Rodríguez to abandon his plan after only five months.
Rodríguez tells his ugly story simply, occasionally imitating others, such as a Tijuanan interrogating him about his past. Mostly, he speaks directly to the audience. There is little realism in his portrayal. The reality lies in the integrity of his story and his personal investigation. He admits that his undercover playacting is protected by his real life success as an actor and his status in the middle class in which he grew up. Even so, what he brought back from his experience is enough to provide a serious look into the lives of millions of people around the globe who labor in unregulated factories, live in substandard illegal housing, face violence on a daily basis, and are manipulated and exploited by their employers.
As America entrenches its plutocracy and as income and wealth are shifted ever more to the very richest while labor laws and safety regulations are repealed or not enforced, the U.S. comes to resemble the sharply divided societies in Mexico and other Latin American countries in which the poor are treated as so much cannon fodder. Tijuana has some flaws: the long musical interludes tend to drain the dramatic energy. Still, I would gladly require the entirety of the American people and those in its government to watch this show.