Liminal Device. An aesthetic resistance strategy for managing and disseminating contemporary art in times of extreme existential uncertainty
An indispensible introduction
Espacio Liminal (Liminal Space) was founded in August 2019 in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico, as an independent space focused on analyzing the evolution of the various facets of contemporary art, managing current art and artistic-educational projects, and the dissemination of unpublished editorial proposals that would further enrich the study and production of these practices.
At the time, the cultural sector in Morelos in general, and the artistic-visual sector in particular, was going through a period of functional readjustment as a result of the practical implementation of the administrative policies of the then incoming state government. After a six-year term of intense cultural florescence (2012-2018) characterized by the establishment of multiple specialized dissemination spaces, the provision of constant support for producing local proposals, and a willingness to generate joint strategies directed at consolidating the sector, we came face to face with a public administration project whose work strategies differed considerably from preceding ones and whose sectoral objectives still appear questionable and uncertain.
In this context, Pilar Campos (a documentary photographer), José Valtierra (a curator and independent arts manager), and I (a cultural analyst and manager specialized in creating audiences for the consumption of current and contemporary art) decided to join forces to allow for the existence of an essentially critical niche to contribute to the important dissemination work carried out on our home ground by some collectives, galleries, training centers, and independent spaces whose activities were focused—generally—on holding exhibitions of emerging and/or established local artists. We considered stimulating collective critical reflection regarding different theoretical and contextual processes that directly influenced and influence the development of our trade as vitally important, and also generating a space for disseminating work created by critics, curators, and local arts educators and theorists whose work was profoundly linked to the visual arts but few spaces can adequately disseminate it, given its characteristics.
The first semester of operations comprised the First Critical Cycle (August-November 2019), held in the physical space we had at the time, and two collaborations. The first of these was with Fabiola Valdez de la Campa, a cultural manager who at the time was developing an audiences’ service and training project in the ‘Adolfo López Mateos’ Municipal Market Library (Biblioteca del Mercado Municipal “Adolfo López Mateos”). Together we gave two workshops focused on community empowerment through the processes of documenting and generating collective memory. The second collaboration was with Antonio Outón, a teacher at the Visual Arts Faculty of the Autonomous University of the State of Morelos (Facultad de Artes Visuales de la Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Morelos) and the Morelos Center for the Arts (Centro Morelense de las Artes), who invited us to talk with their students at the leading university in our state in order to learn about the various critical proposals they were generating. As a result of this invitation, we agreed upon a new collaboration with Antonio set for during the Second Critical Cycle (February-May 2020). The main objective was, in fact, to generate a specific niche for disseminating those valuable agents-in-training’s work. Due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we held just one of the five scheduled sessions, the only event of the whole Second Critical Cycle that actually took place.
For various reasons and at different times between April 2020 and March 2021, Pilar and José decided to retire from the project, and I decided to continue on. I would like to thank each of them for the time we shared, the seeds sown, and the personal and practical companionship they both provided me at different times during this project as we navigated the processes of our trade in practice.
As with everyone, the pandemic took us by surprise and, also like everyone else, it left us—all at once—in a multi-level state of uncertainty. And now what? This was and has been the constant question from March 2020 to date. Naturally, until answers arose about how to give continuity to the collaborations scheduled for the second cycle of activities, remaining in existence was essential. At the time, in order to do so, it was unquestionable that we had to keep paying rent and utilities, maintain contact with the collaborators, and establish efficient online strategies to connect with niche and potential audiences. At the same time, each of us on the Curatorial Board at the time needed to stay afloat in our day-to-day lives. At some point fairly early on in the process, it became clear it would be impossible to keep up with the rhythm and the work strategies that had so far enabled us to get through, in a rather interesting way, our first semester in existence as an emerging independent space. The three of us became two, and given the financial reality of those two, we decided to terminate the lease for the space which, until April 2020, was the physical home of Espacio Liminal.
Of course, the personal implications of what it meant to be living though a pandemic on such a scale focused the pair’s attention on what each considered needed solving urgently. Against this backdrop, I entered into a deep process of critical reflection regarding an independent space’s actual and future possibilities of existing in such a context, one still current today.
Geolocalization as a principle of existence
Over the last ten years, in Mexico, independent spaces have been understood as specialized critical initiatives of a mostly collective nature, whose reality has been defined by four paradigmatic characteristics: (1) geolocalization as a principle of existence, (2) precariousness as a discursive economic subsistence argument, (3) media visibility as a strategy for public and trade legitimization, and (4) critical certification by specialized agents or institutional organizations of at least one of the members of the collective linked to a given Independent Space as a way of validating the existence of said Independent Space (IS). The study of the first of these is one of the guiding principles of this project.
Ordinarily, work agendas set by ISes are concocted and solidified within a leased or subleased geographically locatable place (a house, an apartment, or a designated physical location). The location should preferably be in a gentrified area, a residential area withstanding as such despite the onslaughts of real estate development, or in officially marginalized areas. This grants the IS and its associated collective with the imaginary impact these geographical opportunities / social realities hold in the minds of some trade circles, even though the members of the collective or the official critical profile of each space might not necessarily have a personal and/or professional relationship with the varied realities of its surrounding environment.
Regardless of the space’s neighborhood profile and the sociological implications this sparks within the guiding collective of each IS and the networks and circuits it is a part of, the abovementioned fact reveals a reality that, as a cultural manager, I consider needs addressing: the semantic narrowing of the term ‘Space’ to the notion of ‘place.’ This narrowing has lead to the latter becoming an indisputable condition of existence for the former (there can be no Space without a geographically locatable place).
Said interpretation, besides radically narrowing the existential possibilities of ISes, substantially limits their operational potential and, therefore, their ability to critically, aesthetically, and politically influence the pre-established or circumstantial determinants for use or access to a given place in their immediate (captive and potential audiences) and broader environments (specialized networks of a disciplinary, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary nature that are open to dialogue).
Regarding the Zoomization of reality and its range of implications for artistic-visual management, promotion, and dissemination processes
In the face of an emergency: urgency. The urgency of existing, of not fading away, of continuing in operation, of continuing to work, of not stopping, of resolving to act, and of resolving the situation. But what exactly does this all mean at a time such as that sponsored by COVID-19 during 2020, or in the current moment, in which setting a definitive date for fully reinhabiting in-person event settings is still impossible?
In the general aftermath of the mandatory lockdown, around the end of April / beginning of May, the phenomenon of the zoomization of reality began to flourish. We were all forced—consciously or unconsciously, voluntarily or involuntarily—to accept that for a long while it would only be possible to keep existing, being, operating, working, and resolving to act and resolving our day-to-day using previously unknown alternate means and, for many reasons, almost everyone opted to exploit the multiple opportunities for dissemination and promotion offered by the many existing electronic platforms. In the blink of an eye, all visual arts contributions, including of course those proposed by ISes, relocated to the virtual realm, and in two more blinks of an eye, problems began to surface inherent to zooming, posting, going live, streaming, and Youtubing everything that previously used to happen in in-person settings for specialized critical and artistic creation, consumption, and exchange. As well as the technical issues, technological ones also arose, and solving these was often out of the involved agents and/or spaces’ hands (network saturation, temporary platform failures, or poor signal in the area an invitee was connecting from). Right away, the effects of a phenomenon worth studying.
Despite the enthusiasm with which some streamed and others connected, in spite of the efforts invested in editing an intro or promotional video, and for all the immense eagerness with which the majority of specialized and non-specialized agents were willing to consume and be part of anything proposed, after a few months, maintaining an existence and opting for constant interaction by virtual means lead to the opportunities for strategic exploitation inherent to each platform being exhausted, and more importantly, to the physical, mental, and even emotional exhaustion of everyone involved. The constant transitioning between in-person (human) and virtual (humanized) time/space—indispensible for managing the multiple aspects of daily life (public, personal, and private life)—violated individual and collective habitation space-time frameworks, therefore affecting the processes for constructing reality we all were familiar with.
Digitalization was embraced with greater or lesser degrees of enthusiasm by practically all sectors as a strategy for solving and inhabiting reality. In that sense, the transfer of cultural content to the virtual realm is not—given the contextual characteristics of the moment—an atypical phenomenon; however, the selection and exploitation parameters that favored and still favor their use are highly questionable.
A necessary pause
Of course, when the ‘new normal’ began, at Espacio Liminal we discussed the possibility of joining the virtual wave, because it seemed to be the most viable emergency exit solution. However, that path profoundly contradicted both my principles for practicing the trade and Espacio Liminal’s critical profile. To this day I still maintain that getting swept away by zoomization would have implied missing out on an invaluable opportunity to observe our trade’s ability to approach reality (‘and now what do we do?’); for critical conservation (‘why are we doing this, and what for?’); for formal resolution / creative ability (‘how do we do it?’); and for aesthetic / political and policy congruence (‘…and therefore, art can be defined as such,’ or ‘given art is such, it influences the collective reality construction processes in x, y, and z ways’). It was also an opportunity to consider the conceptual limits and opportunities for existence held in the notion of an ‘Independent Space,’ both within contexts such as the pandemic and the present, but also in general. Therefore: silence.
Once again, ‘Independent Space’? What do you mean?
There is no need to define the term ‘Independent Space’ in Mexican artistic-visual circuits as there is a tendency—courtesy of the trade’s historical memory—to assume its meaning as a given (‘And what do you do?’ ‘I have an Independent Space,’ ‘wow, cool…’ And that is it, as simple as that. The questioner knows what the questioned agent means, and the latter knows they do not have to give a more detailed explanation).
In fact, reconsidering, nothing is assumed as a given. The possible meanings conferred on the sign ‘Independent Space’ have been established, as with any sign, arbitrarily and consensually; their existential possibilities were defined by the meanings deposited in them, or by those created through it by the creative bastion of the visual arts. In this context, taking into consideration the operational features and the functions attributed tacitly or implicitly to ISes by artists (the principal agents involved in creating and managing ISes in Mexico), these can be defined as places in whose interior a series of activities take place / happen. These activities are aimed at: (1) Generating knowledge through critical exchanges between a set group of specialized agents and colleagues and specialized and non-specialized audiences who are convened mainly by means of digital audience management strategies; (2) Disseminating and promoting critical and/or creative processes of an aesthetic nature and in differing formats (essentially dialectical, editorial, artistic-visual, artistic-educational or gastronomic) by authors close to, or members of the collective that runs the IS, and; (3) Promoting cultural content managed by the agents who run or make up the collective allowing to it exist by means of mixed financial support models where, normally, a large part of the capital used for carrying out the cultural agenda comes from a public or private funding entity, external to the collective or the IS.
But, what happens when this concept is approached in a practical manner from the perspective of cultural management, curating, or any other discipline related to the visual arts? Does an IS stop being an IS and become something else? To think it does would be as unusual as thinking that McDonald’s is, in effect, the sole owner of the phrase ‘I’m lovin’ it!’
For the purposes of this exercise in cultural management and specialized dissemination, the term ‘space’ is understood as the plane where a social phenomenon occurs. Said phenomenon implies a habitational process based on and happening—that is to say, existing—by way of the establishment of a series of dialogues addressing a set, shared present moment (in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic), and the varying repercussions the defining historical situation has on its many layers. In that sense, Liminal Device focuses attention both on the impacts of the quarantine arising from the health impasse on the personal, private, and public spheres of the human condition, and on the methods we have adopted and implemented as individuals and as a trade to resolve our problems during the current contingency.
However, given that said dialogues occur through a specific critical nucleus (Espacio Liminal), the term is also understood as a geographically de-localized experimental node locatable in the space-time matrix through the pieces and texts the Device contains (that function as documentary evidence of said node’s very existence) and through the possible records of interactions created and shared by each of the recipients of the boxes. The boxes constitute a ludic instrument sparking dialogue between the members of this project and the recipients regarding the abovementioned themes.
A clear allusion to…
In the 1970s and 1980s, Latin American contemporary art found in Mail Art an aesthetic mainstay with which to sustain itself through dialogue, play, and cultural management. Based on exploiting the public postal service as a means for dissemination and diffusion, the artists and cultural agents involved triggered a vast collaborative network that strove to create real channels for political denunciation and for the practical establishment of trade channels for dialogue and creative dissemination. This, among other things, lead to the emergence of a critical and pragmatic means by which to enunciate, address, deconstruct, and counter-produce the local, regional, and worldwide reality generated by the official bastion during one of the most heart-wrenching periods of Latin America’s recent history.
When zoomization took the throne as the main technical and technological strategy for solving the cultural agenda in general and the artistic-visual agenda in particular, the only thought I had was ‘really?’ and that ‘really’ had many meanings. I found it very hard—and I still do—to observe how, in a country where cultural management is at an absolute moment of professional development, the majority of my colleagues were opting for that means as a way to bring about the huge quantity of projects that had been left half-finished or were in the initial phases of development at the start of the pandemic, or they were simply waiting for the grant oasis to appear. At the same time, it seemed complex to me (but not inexplicable) that the public and private institutional bastions also got behind this channel as THE option to carry out their talks, seminars, round tables, and other practical formats for formally grounding dialogue. My attention, of course, was greatly drawn to the silence and subsequent quasi-massive adhesion to this tendency by Independent Spaces (pause — subsidiary oasis — resurgence) to intermittently ease the electronic monsoon of audiovisual gatherings, without this reducing the impact of the tsunami of reality virtualization in creative, production, management, and specialized dissemination terms.
Neither stopping, nor letting oneself be carried away
I am profoundly shocked to note the flippancy and speed with which, as a species, we have succumbed to spectacularization as a habitation strategy. I understand the civic administration processes compelling its wide-scale adoption and integration; however and in spite of this, I find it extremely worrying that the trade’s response in the face of a phenomenon that for the first time in a long time has placed us all under deeply empathetic living circumstances and mental and emotional states, has imbued nonresistance in the presence of the imposition—at times veiled and almost always open—of the electronic toolkit as the sole way to resolve one’s existence.
All things considered, and with a clear understanding of the differences between the social monitoring and political administration of reality tools and strategies existing in the Latin American context that harbored the blossoming of Mail Art and in the current moment, it still seems appropriate to me to observe and examine the critical characteristics of the widespread strategies that, as a trade, we have adopted, adapted, and implemented in order to inhabit and construct reality in present and future times, bearing in mind the sociological implications of the proliferation of the indiscriminate use of different digital tools combined with the biopolitical characteristics of the macro frameworks that delimit and drive their integration / normalization as a hegemonic channel for meeting with others within a context such as the present moment. I would never dare to appeal for a complete abandoning of the riches and joys found in the vast menu of the virtual multiverse, but I will always insist on its calculated exploitation.
A minimal declaration of contextual relevance
Liminal Device constitutes a cultural management project that points to defending in-person space-time as a standard for inhabiting, relating to, and building the present. At the same time, it constitutes an exercise in specialized dissemination based on the critical recovery and practical revision of trade collaboration strategies of a resistant nature in the face of the aesthetic onslaughts of zoomization and the enforced inclining of reality toward virtual space/time. In that sense, its main objective is to spark a dialogue that, I believe, concerns us all as specialized cultural agents: to acknowledge, analyze, and question the motives that have lead us (or obliged us?) to embrace digitalized contemporary art production, promotion, and dissemination strategies with such naturalness, from an independent bastion, but also from an institutional one.
The three questions accompanying me constantly throughout the whole project were: How much are we willing to give in and what are we willing to give up for the sake of art, the art industry, and the public administration of this sector? How does this trade-in-practice virtual normalization process define us as political and social agents, with regards to and within our communities? And, which present and future historical implications does / will the trade’s conduct have in terms of the creation of and attention to audiences and, therefore, social impact? The answers, of course, are still unknown, and I know that generating them will be a collective effort.
We, the agents that comprise Liminal Device, believe it is essential to allow for the existence of other ways of relating to others with and through art. The texts and works included in the device address the whole host of daily impacts derived from the ‘COVID-19 pandemic’ bombshell; propose strategies to rehumanize the process of inhabiting the space-time plane; analyze the varying aspects of the phenomenon’s onslaught; offer strategies with which to rebuild community structural frameworks; reflect on the evolution of the trade; and appeal to revaluing the body as a means of producing reality and creating memory.
Aware of the perceptual disturbances infringed upon us by the pandemic and the aesthetic and relational repercussions of the quarantine, we departed from having respect for the time that ‘life time’ and ‘work time’ deserve. Each piece, each text, and all the production processes these implied have been carried out in their own time, that is to say, in the time the pandemic life-rhythm of each author, invitee agent, and collaborator has allowed them to allocate to this proposal.
Liminal Device is an exercise of a procedural nature and is an open invitation to altogether think of, configure, and propose aesthetic and collaborative channels for approaching and constructing reality that truly attend, respond, and correspond to the criticality of the shared social and community contexts, always appealing to the defense of fairer and more respectful contemporary art creation, production, management, dissemination, and consumption processes. In the face of an emergency: prudence, critical and ethical congruence, and much creativity. Let us play.
Mayarí Hernández Tamayo,
Arts manager and cultural analyst.
Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. 20 June 2021.
(1) These characteristics do not correspond to all of the ISes examined, but do constitute a prevailing operational tendency within the examined panorama. For argument relevance reasons I will not delve into the remaining characteristics in this document; however, analysis of these has proved essential in understanding both the ISes’ internal operational processes and the type of relationship established between these and the communities that house them, and the perceptual effect sparked in the non-specialized potential audiences of said communities regarding art and the possible social functions of art.
(2) ‘Pre-established determinants for use’ are the set of physical characteristics of a particular place, as well as the set of usage limitations pre-established contractually by whomever leases, subleases, or provides a place to be used as an IS to the agent(s) bringing it into existence. The ‘circumstantial determinants for use or access to the place’ refer to the combination of human or natural contingencies that may impact on determining the work agenda of the IS housed there.
(3) The increased use and implementation of digital strategies has ocurred in correlation to the normalization of using social networks as a form of socialization. This fact, of course, implies a clear increase in the actual, real opportunities for ISes to create and consolidate specialized and non-specialized audiences who have voluntary access to technology. However, this reality also sparks exclusion mechanisms regarding other potential audiences whose technology access and usage patterns do not align with those established by the normalization of the use of said networks. #CriticalRevisionsRequired.
(4) Funding can be direct (establishing tacit monetary and in-kind support agreements), or through competing for and being awarded grants or financial backing to carry out projects, programs, or specific events.
(5) I define play as the sparking/creation of creative strategies for a symbolic approach to reality by way of practical processes for relating to others that may or may not involve a third person, around a specific object/theme, through relationship frameworks and established or pre-established codes for communication. These imply dynamizing the individual and collective critical baggage carried by the participants, and upon doing so, they deeply influence the aesthetic frameworks through which the shared and individually inhabited reality is addressed, built, and configured in a practical manner. This even allows for the co-creation of a new opportunity for reality that did not exist before the play.
Considering that the two nodal exercises of Mail Art are the creation of postcards and their circulation via the public postal service, and that both actions are inevitably contextually linked to avoiding being caught by the local censure, repression, and enforced disappearance police agency and with creating textual and visual denunciation codes that are indecipherable for said organisations, the process of concreting said proposal involved three vital elements of play (as described by the terms of the previous paragraph), namely: applied creativity; strategic ability; and most importantly, exercizing the individual will to play.
(6) By using this term I am alluding to the extraordinary capital injection periods created by public and private institutions to encourage the subsistence of the independent cultural sector. Varying calls and competitions offer the means to carry out specific projects related to attending to audiences through the different government programs of a virtual nature created expressly by the Secretariat for Culture and concomitant local organizations, or the opportunity to concrete artistic proposals either related or unrelated to the pandemic situation, but whose production proved impossible at the time given the financial uncertainty of the authors as a result of the health emergency.
(7) Evidently, despite the shared general circumstances, the financial abysses that exist within our societies allowed for an infinite range of possibilities regarding the ways and means of resolving and dealing with the day-to-day within the macro pandemic framework of life. Omiting this reality would be as absurd as denying those abysses are precisely what promote the type, level, and strategy for surmounting or assimilating the social aftermath we are now, we would like to think, beginning to face.
(8) I am aware younger generations have grown up in a highly digitalized world and that this fact directly influences their preference for using these kinds of tools to solve the issues addressed here, and collectives whose members belong to these ranks run most of the ISes. Notwithstanding the above, their indiscriminate integration sends up red flags for me, revealing critical deficiencies of a trade practice nature that are closely related to the pedagogical and curricular characteristics of the training processes that back them as cultural agents. At least in the case of Mexico, I believe, the Study Courses and Programs in force in the majority of Art Schools and Faculties do not meet the training requirements of the students, nor do they correspond to their learning characteristics. #CriticalRevisionsRequired
MAYARÍ HERNÁNDEZ TAMAYO
Cultural analyst and artistic-educational manager specialized in creating audiences for the consumption of current and contemporary art within school, museum, and community contexts. Her main lines of investigation are the comparative study of Latin American critical pedagogies, and the historical and historiographical analysis of the varied biopolitical strategies for civic administration implemented by the Mexican state from 1878 to the present through the artistic, educational, and artistic-educational sectors.
She has taught art history, art theory, and esthetics at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. She has professional experience in the management and public administration of introduction to the arts programs and, has collaborated in strategic curriculum planning processes for visual arts and introduction to the arts undergraduate programs. She has curated and managed various programs for serving and creating audiences in museum spaces and has collaborated with various training spaces and projects for the updating of specialized pedagogies at all levels of the teaching system in Morelos state.
Hernández currently teaches visual arts in the Technical Secondary School No. 45 in the state of Morelos, Mexico, and works as an independent manager and consultant. She directs and curate Espacio Liminal and collaborate with Contexturas. Plataforma de Investigación y Gestión Cultural (Contextures. Research and Cultural Management Platform).
Hernández holds bachelor’s degrees in Cultural Sciences (UCSJ), Art History (the Spanish Ministry of Education, Cultural, and Sports), and a master’s degree in Art Analysis and Management (University of Barcelona). She was awarded a grant by the National Endowment for Culture and Arts through the Study Abroad Program (2009), and grants for academic excellence (University of Barcelona, 2009 and 2010).