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The Community Art of Taller de Investigación Plástica

Posted on 6 March, 2017

Guillermina Guadarrama Peña
The Taller de Investigación Plástica (TIP) was a multidisciplinary artistic collective born in the upheavals of the 1970’s, a time of major social movements. It was the first group to produce community art in Mexico, a kind of public art that emerged when “individualism and art for art’s sake began to be replaced by collaboration, social relevance, process and context” [1]
It was an avant-garde proposal, misunderstood at the time, arguing that the meaning of art should be found at its physical or social site, not in a museum, and it should involve its target audience, in order to turn it into a tool for social change.
TIP was already doing community art long before theory had put it down to paper. It aimed its artistic practices towards socio-political activism because of the social and political situation at that time. How did this process came about? Right from its inception in 1974, TIP used collective work in its artistic productions; this was a pioneering line in Mexico and the rest of the world. Several groups were founded then, using that same working method. Some of them decided to show their work in museums. In contrast, TIP, Tepito Arte Acá, SUMA, COLECTIVO and Germinal, took their artistic productions out in the streets, in public spaces, and they painted exterior walls. The slogan was Group together or die!, [2]
but there was no talk of the spectator, nor did they include the community for whom the work was intended. It was still about the artists carrying out their projects and presenting them as public art.
In contrast with those groups which only worked in large cities, TIP worked outside Mexico City, in urban and rural communities in Nayarit, Guanajuato and Michoacán. Their goal was not to “bring” art to the people, as was argued in the early post-revolution years, but to get the people involved with their artistic productions and get themselves involved with the people. Community art implies audience collaboration, from the conception of the work to its realization, in a dialogue between artist and audience, always looking for potential means of participation. This is how their concept of community art, or sociological art as it was called, came about. They were the pioneering group of this artistic practice in Mexico.
To this end, they used interlocution and interaction. In the Purepecha region of Michoacán they also used the assembly, the traditional Indian instrument for decisión-making. That is why they worked in direct collaboration with Unión Campesina Emiliano Zapata (UCEZ) and its lawyer, Efrén Capiz. In those years, there was an ethnic-peasant rebellion in Mexico, alongside other agrarian and proletarian movements. As a vanguard group, TIP actively worked with the Purepechas, so that they could appropriate aesthetic devices foreign to their culture and use them in their struggle to defend their lands and woods. The political orientation indicated the paradigm they would follow.
They employed artistic manifestations derived from conceptual art: installations, happenings, the most contemporary and fashionable in the mercantile circuit of art; they took these to public spaces in Morelia and Uruapan, as well as to Purepecha communities —but not only there. Their installations were not complacent, but they were aesthetic indeed. WithEl fardo, El campesino incrustado or El Cristo campesino, the defy the status quo of that time, because they showed the rampant repression in the country and they were not inside a museum but in the street.

The most emblematic installation was placed in front of the Government Palace in Morelia, after mestizos from Quiroga had assaulted and robbed the Purepecha community of Santa Fe de la Laguna, a violent and racist act of aggression perpetrated in connivance with the State apparatus. There were several Purepecha dead, injured and jailed; this triggered the installation, which could be entitled The Dead, clearly alluding to the murders. Its goal was to make visible a social set of problems that was centuries-old and was escalating. This community action became a means to pressure the government to free the Purepechas who were jailed and compensate the widows. Thus was born TIP’s community art, aiming at engaging itself with the problems faced by the communities, in order to find solutions. In this process, erudite art [3] as a political artistic practice and a liberating idea vis-à-vis the oppressive State, became a constant companion.
The success of this transverse artistic practice, which traversed several fields of knowledge, made the members of the communities realize they should follow this line and use cultural devices that empowered them as an ethnic group, to stop the constant violence they faced. The Purepecha communities linked in this way their political and social actions with artistic practices together with TIP, in an effort to improve their social conditions through art.
Arts produced in the communities was not limited to the kind that is exhibited in galleries. They included performance and stage practices, such as pantomime, integrated to the aesthetic production derived from their own ethnic tradition, such as pirekuas —Purepecha chants— and traditional dances. But the aesthetic device which was more in demand was the mural, an art which has been considered part of the national identity since the 1920’s and whose original goal was to bring art closer to the people; a romantic ideal that TIP realized by bringing the mural to the places where it was needed. The concept was displaced from its original site, i.e. government buildings in the city, and transported to rural communities, ridding this art (seen as patrimony by the officialdom) of its sacred aura.
TIP called it a community mural, which was by itself a manifesto of denunciation, since this was an artistic practice linked to the needs of the people by representing the problems faced by each township. In this way, they provided it with a political use. There also was a festive side, since the openings became a popular celebration with music and dance. Today, these actions are called situated art , [4] which according to contemporary theories is a kind of art produced at a specific site, not just a physical but a human and social space, integrating the arts with that particular community’s resources and arts.
The first of these murals was conceived in Santa Fe de la Laguna, as a commemorative monument after those acts of racism and injustice. Because creating memory so as not to forget an outrage is also the goal of this artistic genre. It’s been said that white walls bespeak a mute people. This work was made in collaboration with women, men and children of that community, who called it a community mural. They painted on it their battle cry: Juchari Uinapikua, meaning “our strength”.
From this moment on, the mural, which was disregarded with scorn at the time by the Mexican cultural elite, was retrieved by TIP, with a shift towards the social, as a resistance mechanism and a means to denounce local and regional events, rehabilitating memory and history as a vital element of ethnic identity, which is also a way of resisting political power. This was not about building the present by liquidating the past, but about using and re-signifying the past. In this sense, we can say with Marshall Berman that the mural takes up the best of the modernist tradition through mixture, diversity, contact with the other, difference. [5]
Artistic practices heavily involved with community art fulfilled their aesthetic function, since they enveloped feelings as collective experiences with a series of signs, but also with adaptations and new creations which broke with what was already instituted, in order to make prototypes of a patently hybrid nature, which were added to the mural. TIP’s integrating vision highlighted the artists’ interest in a cultural Other, as examined by Hal Foster in El artista como etnógrafo. However, in those years, these artistic manifestations, carried out at a time of extreme social tension, were dismissed by the critics as sociological practices, not art. They did not understand that contexts change, and artistic practices change too. Social movements demanded new theoretical elaborations to derogate “all restrictive definitions of art and artists, of community and identity, thus enabling art to move into the broadened field of culture, of anthropology”. [6]
Most collectives at that time took those artistic manifestations out of galleries and museums, placing them on the streets, a more everyday environment, in order to liquidate elitism, but they also appeared in exhibition spaces such as Museo Universitario de Ciencias y Artes (UNAM), the Galería del Auditorio (INBA) —which has since disappeared— with the Salón de Experimentación, and the Museo de Arte Moderno, with the exhibition called ¿La calle a dónde llega? In this way they entered the market circuit and became elitist again, in spite of their original intention.

TIP was part of Frente Mexicano de Grupos Trabajadores de la Cultura (FMGTC), which grouped together the most combative collectives at that time. Its members ceased to consider themselves artists, identifying themselves instead as workers of culture; a similar stance to that adopted by leftist creators in the 1930’s. TIP maintained a critical attitude towards their position as artists; they distanced themselves from the mercantile circuit, from the institutional art system and its cultural policies, focusing instead on educational issues, socio-political activism and social welfare.
The collective was an instance of that “cancelling of auratic distance, which promotes the coming together of art and life and opens up access to the privileges of artistic friction for the majority of the population”,
[8] because they renounced cultural elitism, kept their commitment to collective work, and associated their work to the social context, as they expressed it in their first manifesto, “Towards a New Collective Art”, drawn from communal agreements, thus blurring the dividing lines between art and social action.
In this way, audiences began to be created without mediators, for aesthetic productions generated by the problems they themselves faced. It was a search after democracy in culture. They established links with the French group Oullins Populart, which worked in certain Parisian quartiers and had goals in common. They stated the need for a New Mesoamerican Art through manifestoes, artistic and ethnic forums, to give the originary groups a signifier of inclusion within so called high culture. They also collaborated in the creation of the Purepecha flag, with members of the community of Santa Fe de la Laguna and other regions.
TIP’s original members were José Luis Soto González, its founder and constant guide; Isabel Estela Campos, José Luis Gutiérrez Peña (LUGUPE), Crescencio Méndez and Camilo Aguilar, as well as other members of the Soto Campos family, which provided the group with cohesion and strength at the time. At other sages, José Meza Velázquez, Miguel Ángel Mendoza, Leopoldo Mosqueda, Rini Templeton, Gustavo Aceves, Raúl Delgado and Gustavo Lira, among others, joined in.
TIP worked intensely during the decade it stayed together (1978-1988); afterwards, only José Luis Soto and Isa Campos continued; currently, only Soto remains. It was a sui generis collective that dispensed with theory but held on to the utopia of integrating the people to artistic practices, thus setting the ground for the integration of art and life in Mexico.
[1] David J. Harding, Viviendo el drama: comunidad, conflicto y cultura entre Inner-City Boys, Universidad de Chicago, 1995.

[2] Alberto Híjar’s phrase.

[3] Name given by Ticio Escobar to artworks exhibited at museums.

[4] A concept used by Chilean musician Mario Arenas.

[5] In his work on the development of modernity in the 20th century, quoted in Alfredo Palacios Garrido, “El arte comunitario: origen y evolución”, Arteterapia, papeles de arteterapia y educación artística para la inclusión social, vol. 4/, 2009 pp. 197-211.
[6] Hall Foster, El artista como etnógrafo, p. 189.

[7] Idem.

[8] Ticio Escobar, El mito del arte y el mito del pueblo.

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