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“El Otro Lado” (The Other Side): Border Art Histories of the MexiCali Biennial

Readymade Border

This section will explain concepts surrounding the way the modernist term Readymade served as inspiration for exhibitions and other programming addressing the U.S.-Mexico border. Click here for more information about this guide.

Mexi(co) + Cali (fornia)

Marcel DuchampFountain 1917. "photograph by Alfred Stieglitz at the 291 (Art Gallery) following the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibit, with entry tag visible. The backdrop is The Warriors by Marsden Hartley.

In 2006, artists and curators Ed Gomez, Luis G. Hernandez, and Pilar Tompkins Rivas organized the inaugural exhibition of the MexiCali Biennial in independent art spaces of Mexicali (Mexico) and Los Angeles (US). The curators conceptualized a binational exhibition model that would reflect the dynamism of the region and the interconnection of culture between California and Baja California. They were inspired by the site-specificity of the Imperial Valley and Mexicali valleys and bi-national relations between Mexico and the United States in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Patriot Act. Rather than seeing this border region as a site where hard differences between U.S. and Mexican cultures are reinforced, they conceived of it as a paradoxical space where a physical separation between neighbors gives way to cross-border flows of culture, migration, commerce, and identity.

The word Mexicali was used to form the overarching structure of the binational and regional exhibition platform. The term is a portmanteau, a blend of the words Mexico and California. The curators used the words Mexicali and biennial as readymades to structure the project under an established context and around the artistic and cultural exchanges that happen daily between neighboring countries. The readymade is a strategy of conceptual art in which an artist takes a prefabricated or mass-produced object, modifies its fixed-function with artistic intent, and re-introduces the work as art in a museum or gallery context. Originally coined by artist Marcel Duchamp, readymade artworks feature everyday, often utilitarian items, reassigned or relabeled as art objects. Serving as one of the foundational tenets of Conceptual Art, the readymade redefined what art could be by focusing on the idea over the object. This revolutionary concept would inspire a wide range of artists, including Man Ray, Robert Rauschenberg, and Joseph Beuys. Beuys, an early proponent of the readymade in contemporary art, featured objects found in hardware stores that he reworked as sculptures within the context of the art gallery. This artistic form is often termed “assemblage” and describes artworks made from gathering multiple unrelated objects together. Examples of Beuys’ works can be seen below in the Image Gallery accompanying this guide.

The curators used the concept of the readymade to interrogate traditional notions of art, utility, and institutional art practices. The constant flux of the U.S.-Mexico border and the cultural hybridity of Chicana/o/x, Latinx, and borderland cultures allowed the curators and artists to put forward two key contributions. First, it challenged viewers to recognize the limits of institutionalized art and how meaning is often created automatically within the context of a so-called “art biennial” to exhibit works. Artists created site-specific installations or performances for unconventional gallery spaces in Mexicali before traveling to Chavez Studios in East Los Angeles. Second, the curators and artists embraced a DIY mentality that served as a strategy of critiquing traditional art biennials by creating opportunities and inclusivity for artists that may not have otherwise been available. Utilizing humble materials, from balloons, boxes, string, tape, and other nontraditional media, as well as imagery from both Mexican and US culture, artists fully employed creative practices to “make the most from the least.” 1 This aesthetic was highly influenced by rasquachismo, a term coined by the Chicano theorist Tómas Ybarra-Frausto, which describes the repurposing of everyday objects, recycled materials, and discarded articles into a new Chicana/o aesthetic, serving as a culturally significant interpretation of readymades.

For further exploration

Mexicali as Readymade

MexiCali is a merger of the words Mexico and California. It is a reference to the geographical location, as well as the social and political space that is less of a territory than a de-territorialization. The border here is not a clear demarcation between two zones, but rather a liminal and porous space that colors a region defined by its hybridism -- part Mexico, part California, and neither entirely. 2

Mexicali, the capital of Baja California, possesses a culturally and ethnically diverse population and is an important economic hub located within an arid desert ecoregion, creating its unique position on the borderlands. This particular site has been a creative center for artists and has fostered the establishment of regional art museums and independent galleries. The landscape of the Mexicali-Calexico border cities has been shaped by a metal border fence that cuts through residential areas and commercial districts in both cities. The 2006 MexiCali Biennial invited artists to engage with the specific attributes of this border region. Artworks were installed or activated on either side of the US-Mexico border, simultaneously or at disparate times, and were featured in grassroots cultural centers, including La Casa de la Tia Tina. While many artists crossed the Mexicali-Calexico border with a fixed idea of their projects, they soon realized the need to accommodate their works in relation to the space and their experience of it. Some works also circulated across the border fence or brought attention to the dividing structure. Artists utilized conceptual art strategies to bypass Customs and Border Patrol agents, circumvent border politics, or ensure that their works would have staying power long after the event. Today, the history of MexiCali Biennial projects sheds valuable insight into the rapid increase of border militarization and surveillance since 2006 and traces the evolution of border policies on the local level.

MexiCali Biennial artworks created new circuits for the cross-border circulation of artworks and concepts. For the inaugural MexiCali Biennial, artists Ed Gomez, Skylar Haskard, and Mike Rogers made reference to the readymade tradition and conceptual art strategies for circulating ideas and objects to and from el otro lado.

Featured Artists

Ed Gomez AirMail: 100 Letters from Mexicali to Los Angeles. 2006. Photo credit: April Lillard-Gomez. Envelopes, paper, postage, helium balloons, documentation of the performance at Casa de la Tia Tina, Mexicali, MX.

Artist and educator Ed Gomez took on the concept of the border by highlighting the relationships between the neighboring countries and the fluid nature of the region. He began by re-examining childhood memories of lost remittances mailed to Mexico, and the role of mail as an object-based analog for covert communication. Remittances, or the act of sending funds to relatives, is practiced by millions of immigrants from all countries, including Mexican migrants to the United States. Gomez’s project consisted of 100 stamped, numbered, and addressed envelopes to be sent to the exhibition site La Casa de la Tia Tina. Each envelope contained a sliver of paper printed with a section of the border obtained from Google Earth that could be reassembled upon arrival to the art space. When the numbered envelopes were stacked, the words “SEND” and “AYUDA” (HELP) could be seen, revealing a message that could not be determined without the majority of the envelopes arriving. The premise was to create a situation in which the postal services of each country would contribute to the completion of the work. Gomez hypothesized that not all of the letters mailed to the exhibition site would arrive and would cause gaps or missing segments of the reassembled border wall map and distortions in the text inked onto the sides of the envelopes. When installed, the missing letters and the satellite map segments inside would paradoxically illustrate the breaking down of communication while opening pathways between neighbors.

None of the original 100 envelopes arrived at the art space, a reflection on the (un)reliability of the postal service in Mexico. Gomez then decided to mail 100 letters from La Casa de la Tia Tina to his studio in Los Angeles by “AirMail,” using helium balloons, string, and envelopes. Red, white, blue, and green helium balloons corresponding to the colors of the Mexican and U.S. flags were purchased in downtown Mexicali and used for the AirMail performance. The letters were released throughout the day and into the night of the opening night reception of the 2006 MexiCali Biennial. Respectively, none of the AirMail letters arrived in Los Angeles. This project is predicated on the global Mail Art Movement, a practice in which participants mail artworks, an extremely accessible and affordable system that emphasizes the exchange and collaboration of works and aestheticizes the mundane of not only the contents but also the envelope and stamp as a canvas.

Gomez’s project was deeply influenced by the Fluxus movement, under whose umbrella Mail Art falls, an avant-garde art movement that peaked in the 1960s and ’70s and which still influences many contemporary conceptual artists. Central themes of Fluxus are a “do it yourself” mentality, the appreciation of process over product, experimentality with media, and questioning the status quo. As a co-founder of the MexiCali Biennial, Gomez and his collaborators turn the notion of what an art “biennial” is on its head. By including his own artwork in his curatorial practice, he questions the roles of curators, biennials, and art fairs as gatekeepers to the art world. What if artists eliminated those intermediaries and created their own opportunities? Other notions Gomez acknowledges from the Fluxus movement and the inaugural MexiCali Biennial exhibition are art opportunities taking place within everyday encounters and the playfulness that can be had when exploring complex topics such as the border experience, failed communications between neighbors, and the creation of a community of artists who collectively question accepted systems in the art world and beyond.

Ed Gomez received his BFA from Arizona State University in 1999 and his MFA from the Otis College of Art and Design in 2003.  Mr. Gomez’s multi-disciplinary art practice revolves around the questioning of exhibition practices, institutional framework, and historical models of artistic production.

For further exploration on concepts related to the above project

Fluxus was a community of artists who experimented with different media and included artists such as Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, and Nam June Paik.

Skylar Haskard Untitled. 2006 (ongoing). FedEx boxes, tape, Castaway video, and participants. Photo credit: Ed Gomez.

Skylar Haskard is a multimedia artist based in Los Angeles. He graduated with a BFA from Glasgow School of Art in 2001 and an MFA from UCLA in 2003. He works in a variety of media, including sculpture, installation, and painting. Many of Haskard’s works are durational in practice, an act or performance which places emphasis on time as well as the object(s) created. Haskard has created multiple large-scale installations that examine the phenomenon of temporary dwellings as forms of marginalized architecture. He has exhibited his work at the 2008 California Biennial, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), and the National Museum of Norway, among other museums and galleries worldwide.

Haskard’s artwork for the 2006 Mexicali Biennial--Untitled, 2006-- was a temporary assemblage structure constructed with FedEx boxes and multi-colored duct tape. Throughout the installation process, which spanned several days, Haskard assembled and disassembled the work several times in different locations before settling on his final composition. Completing the installation just hours before the opening night reception, the boxes were used to fill in a missing segment of the front wall of the art space as well as an archway into the courtyard. The movie Cast Away (2000) was shown on a monitor with the VHS movie case placed on top during the opening night reception. Playing the video and showing the movie case functioned as a work/title label for his installation or a point of entry into the work. The work, constructed at La Casa de Tia Tina, an abandoned house-turned independent art gallery near the border in Mexicali, made a statement on the “castaway” architecture common along the border as well as in less wealthy areas of both Mexico and the Southwestern United States.

Haskard’s Untitled, 2006 makes both explicit and subtle use of the border as subject matter. His temporary structures echo the hasty creation of markers and walls along the U.S.-Mexico border, a built environment that changes frequently and is based on the two nations’ political climates. This construction functions as a makeshift border and allows the viewer to reflect on the ephemerality and futility of manufactured constructions. Untitled also references the fast-paced urban planning and housing development projects on both sides of the border, projects that often yield low-quality buildings. His project brings to mind art critic Rosalind Krauss’s seminal writing Sculpture in the Expanded Field in which she states, “in every case of the axiomatic [unquestionable] structures, there is some kind of intervention into the real space of architecture, sometimes through partial reconstruction.” 3 Haskard’s contribution to the long history of sculpture and architecture is humbly evident in the final act of his “building block Fed Ex boxes,” which were scavenged by the local art community and repurposed into a bar after the closing of the exhibition, complete with a poster of Emiliano Zapata.

For further exploration on concepts related to the above project

Mike Rogers. Telephone/Teléfono, 2006. Border intervention. Ladder, string, paper cup. Photo Credit: MexiCali Biennial and Ed Gomez.

Telephone/Teléfono (2006) was Mike Roger’s work for the 2006 MexiCali Biennial, consisting of a performance in which the artist constructed platforms on both the U.S. and Mexican sides of the border and placed a dixie cup on each side. The cups were attached with a string, imitating the popular children’s activity of communicating with a partner by speaking into the cups. Rogers's ladder-like platforms were made of a base supporting a thirteen-foot-tall pole with rungs attached. In the United States, the scaffold was painted red, white, and blue--an allusion to the colors of the U.S. flag--while the Mexican structure was painted green, white, and red in reference to the country’s tricolor. Artist and curator Luis G. Hernandez climbed the pole in Mexico and spoke into the cup, or “phone,” as Rogers has referred to it. Rogers stood atop the structure on the U.S. side and did the same speaking into the cup. The height of the platforms allowed the participants to see over the border fence as they communicated back and forth between the two political and cultural worlds on either side. The public waiting in line to exit Mexicali were also invited to climb upon the Telephone/Teléfono structure and make free long-distance calls to the US. The performance went on for several minutes and was interrupted by border patrol officers in Calexico before allowing the performance to continue for its duration.

Telephone/Teléfono explores the possibility of transmission--of goods, people, the concept of play and ideas--across the border. The work references the makeshift, improvised ways residents from both countries have subverted the physical and political construction of the border. The work’s interruption shines a spotlight on the high level of surveillance and policing around this area. Additionally, it raises questions about the levels of freedom we have when moving through and occupying particular spaces. Overall, Telephone/Teléfono, attempted to undermine an arbitrary political device and was made more effective by the absurd spectacle of border patrol officers stopping a children’s game-cum-art performance.

Mike Rogers’ artworks span disciplines as diverse as video, performance, drawing, and sculpture. Rogers is based in Los Angeles and shows his work primarily in Southern California. He is a co-founder of the experimental Outdoor Art Space at the California Institute of Technology. Rogers has exhibited his work throughout the world, including at the University of Michigan, the Sharjah Biennial, Kunsthalle Dusseldorf, and the Huntington Beach Art Center.

For further exploration on concepts related to the above project

Full List of Participating Artists / The MexiCali Biennial

Andrew Armstrong, Jesse Benson, Gomez Bueno, Cindy Santos Bravo, Heriberto Castro, Ismael Castro, Fernando Corona, Cristian Franco, Ed Gomez, Skylar Haskard, Gustavo Herrera, Luis G. Hernandez, Hugo Hopping, Kristi Lippire, Ruben Ochoa, Juan Quintero, Mike Rogers, Matt Wardell. Musical guests included Lysa Flores, Olin, DJ Santos, DJ Chips, and DJ Magallanes.

The 2006 MexiCali Biennial started in the border town of Mexicali, MX, at alternative art and music space La Casa de la Tia Tina before traveling to Chavez Studios in Los Angeles and was curated by Ed Gomez, Luis G. Hernandez, and Pilar Tompkins-Rivas.

Images of Calexico/Mexicali and the California/Mexico border:


Examples of Readymade Art by Joseph Beuys





  1. Mesa-Bains, Amalia. Domesticana: The Sensibility of Chicana rasquache. Aztlán: Journal of Chicano Studies Vol. 24 No.2: 157-167.
  2. Pederson-Converse, Amy. Mexicali as a Readymade. MexiCali Biennial 09/10 exhibition catalog. p. 5.
  3. Krauss, Rosalind. Sculpture in the Expanded Field. October, Vol. 8, p. 30-44.