Consider disorder successfully preserved.
Class action lawsuit documents, a California Department of Corrections graph displaying the prodigious rise in the state prison population since 1987, excerpts from manuals, various quotes, and an essay related circuitously to state oppression, penal institutions, the legitimacy of violence and who is allowed to exercise its power and who is not.
This book is a somewhat bewildering crash course on these topics, given the grab-bag layout of a zine and the perilous specificity of the re-presented material. Artists Jesse Hlebo and Joaquin Segura published this brief on the occasion of their exhibition “To Preserve Disorder” at the Tijuana art space Otras Obras, the space’s inaugural exhibition in November 2012.
According to the gallery’s press release, “To Preserve Disorder questions the effectiveness of contemporary art as a crucial tool for critical engagement in this age of crisis, authoritarian control, and social dissolve.” With protests in Mexico City occurring a week prior to opening and a prison break of 130 inmates in Piedras Negras across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas the previous September, the artists’ stated subject seems like a timely one.
If the theme is on though, the intention seems slightly off. “Questioning” a topic or premise, usually with a backdrop of social conditions or aesthetic prevalence, in contemporary art is a fail-safe position that bespeaks a curatorial cowardice, draped as it may be over artworks that, with all good intentions considered, appear brave. Is contemporary art effective or not in critically engaging with political issues, and to what degree?
No one wants to come up with an answer for fear of being proven wrong, politically naïve, or cynically detached, afloat on a raft of aesthetic divestment from the world at large. Is it too much to ask for two artists to respond to these issues in a way that’s conclusive?
The other way involves exhibitions, such as in “To Preserve Disorder,” of appropriated, banal materials delivered from a loaded, encumbered position. A can of gasoline, a bag of cotton balls are not inherently sinister objects, treating them as readymades does not speak to any inherent truth of these materials. But perhaps seen in Tijuana, close to the U.S./Mexico border, this show did hew closer to a reality where explosive ingredients, barbed wire, and folding chairs mean something more in context, and I am privileged to not read fear into these materials.
Also, I was not aware of the aforementioned prison break prior to investigating the topic with a cursory search online, a move that replicates a spread in the Reader depicting a ‘Mexican prison break’ top search results browser window. Simple yes, but one of the most successful gestures the reader provides is its implicit observation that we continue to overestimate our ability to be aware and clued-in to events, international or local. We are still limited by whether we know how to ask the right questions. Some information is forced on us, and some is buried in the feed. Presentation is intentional. This information is online, it’s there, but what brings it here, what is the push needed to make us seek it out?
If A Reader was distributed by the gallery during the exhibition, then this instance of contemporary art was to a degree effective at engaging critically, particularly because the excerpted texts are from outside sources. Using your platform to give others a voice is certainly politically compelling, but the responsibility remains to organize those voices in a way that makes them heard in new spheres and contexts.
Jesse Hlebo and Joaquin Segura, To Preserve Disorder, A Reader, (Self-published, 2012)
Images: Cover and interior of To Preserve Disorder, A Reader.