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Judi Werthein

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Dec 01, 2005
Location: Argentina
Topic: Interview with Judi Werthein
Interviewer: Marí­a Fernanda Cartagena

LatinArt:  Within the framework of the conference "Urban frontier art: two experiences in Latin America, Tijuana/San Diego and South of Quito", convened in October by the Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires (MALBA, acronym in Spanish), Judi Werthein presented Brinco, an intervention which represents her present participation in the principal curatorship of InSite 05. Both the equatorial and Mexico/USA border experiences demonstrated that if space and location had previously been relegated by perspectives interested in the temporary dimension of progress and development, today the local and everyday elements are going from strength to strength as a locus for the evaluation and revision of our globalized world.

In her presentation, Werthein explained that the thing that triggered her intervention was the migrant condition, and that her fieldwork epicenter was the border fence and the practices developing in its environs. Her proposal concentrated on the human drama of the migrants that, in spite of misery, unwholesomeness and illness, gird themselves to, at all costs, attempt to scale this wall of death. All of this added to the state of watchfulness and debilitating nocturnal flights on foot that must be undertaken if they are to make the brinco (a colloquial term for the activity which translates as leap) and follow the dangerous route with its snakes, tarantulas and escarpments, in order to be rescued. Taking this harsh reality as a starting point, Werthein developed and designed Brinco, a line of sneakers that she distributed free of charge to migrants about to embark on the crossing, and which were simultaneously placed on sale in a chic San Diego boutique specializing in limited edition sneakers, initiating a distribution and purchasing network for this merchandize.

By way of the introduction of this product into the public sphere, Werthein walks a line that speaks to the breach that separates the individuals who use it, in social, cultural and economic terms. On one hand, the migrants and, on the other, the consumers of fashion and art. Her intervention is radical in that it is destined to reveal opposing subjectivities, constituted spatially in relation to the border, that enter into conflict and configure desires, dreams, consumption and tasks. Thus, the differences manifest themselves in the planned and ordered San Diego, which maintains its distance, as though trying to turn its back on the advance of Tijuana’s precarious settlements. The tasks initiated by the artist are also divided along geopolitical lines. The Brinco company was based in San Diego, where the artist researched everything to do with the development of the product design, while Tijuana became the social laboratory and center for interaction with anthropologists and migrants.

This intervention intensifies, above all, ethical, political and economic discussions that flare up when market forces, the art world and the reality of the subalterns intermingle and, thus, indicate levels of complicity. Every stage of production, circulation, consumption and appropriation of the footwear highlighted the crudity in the monetary and migratory flows, the global manufacturing of merchandise, the consumption and the vogue, in face of the fragility, vulnerability and survival strategies related to the subordinate condition. Brinco, like many of the exclusive brands, was made by factory workers, in this case in China, and its design amalgamates, somewhat ironically, national, military, religious and sporting symbols and includes a survival kit (route maps for the crossing, flashlight, painkiller, secret money pocket).

There now follows an interview with Werthein, taking a look behind the scenes of her intervention.

* * *

Your intervention is polemic in that it may be taken, on the San Diego side, as helping people to break US migratory laws and, on the Tijuana side, as encouraging

Judi Werthein:  It’s not like that at all. My intervention is miniscule. A million and a half people attempt an illegal crossing each year, and this is totally outside of my control. It’s not something I engender or don’t engender. It’s just something that happens, and that has always happened, and the only thing I do with my intervention is call attention to a critical situation that merits a certain amount of reflection by both sides, and I expose it as a conflict. Then, as an artist, I try to produce an object that reveals everything that goes on in the background.

LatinArt:  How did you go about the research?

Judi Werthein:  I went several times to Tijuana, to lose myself in the streets, talk to people, weave myself into the social fabric a little, and I later did the same thing in San Diego. I tried to mix with the people and, from there, I became aware of a number of frictions arising among various groups on both sides of the border. Later, I began to come to a decision as to what would constitute the basis for my intervention and work. It seemed to me that the theme of the migrant was fundamental, not only on this particular border but globally.

LatinArt:  Did you have any help?

Judi Werthein:  Yes, I worked with both a curatorial team and a production team.

LatinArt:  Were there any hitches between the conception and realization of the project?

Judi Werthein:  Many. For example, in the design of the object itself. Many times they didn’t understand me due to language problems. I’d send the drawings in English and I’d get them back from China in the color that they had understood. There was a communication problem. They spoke very little English and, what with one translation and another, the message that arrived in the factory in China was like what you’d get over a bad phone line. Finally, I went to China and got a lot of things decided there personally.

LatinArt:  While you were working there, in risky situations, did you ever feel exposed? In what sense?

Judi Werthein:  At the outset I did. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I went around in some very seedy areas, where the people were in very desperate straits; emigrants who had been deported several times and who were marooned in a ditch, living in abominable conditions. Today, the same people call me by name, we chat, they’re very cool.

LatinArt:  Who have been, or are, the potential customers for the Brinco shoes in San Diego?

Judi Werthein:  Collectors, museums, and, in particular, many people who collect pretty and exotic, limited-edition sneakers. These individuals have collections amounting to five hundred pairs. So, because of that, the design was very important. It had to appeal to the upscale American consumer while, at the same time, being functional for the emigrant making the crossing. Those were the two objectives.

LatinArt:  How did Brinco deal with the commercialization of otherness that the fashion world usually promotes? Did you become part of that world?

Judi Werthein:  No, I didn’t join that world. I use certain elements of fashion in order to develop a work. It’s the exact opposite. I take things, like what’s involved in designing a shoe, and learn from that. It’s a reason in itself for making a work. I don’t use the fashion world at all. The fashion only absorbs it, the moment I try to make an object of desire; one that is associated with a certain status. In American culture sneakers represent many things.

LatinArt:  In the boutique, did the realities facing the emigrants carry much weight in making purchasing decisions, or were aesthetics more of a draw?

Judi Werthein:  The emigrants’ plight played a significant role. The customers were hesitant to make a purchase; questioning whether or not what I was doing was correct. There were many moral questions because they were exposed to the entire process that was explained to them. For people it was something exciting. They wanted them, they were very interested in them, they saw it as making a political statement. Others collect them as works of art, and still others because they use them and think they are cool, understanding many meanings at the same time, that is, many levels of their content.

LatinArt:  The intervention denounces several perverse mechanisms, such as the assembly plant, "the leap", bad working conditions, consumerism. Have you given any thought to a strategy for continuity or continuance?

Judi Werthein:  I’m making a video of the entire process. The distribution and everything that happens, and what is going on in the street. I’m producing a documentary, that will be completed in November, that explains the whole intervention. You see the progression and the emigrants telling lots of stories. I interviewed many emigrants before making the sneaker.

LatinArt:  What are your reflections on the difference between the representation and the intervention as ways of approaching the problem of the dispossessed?

Judi Werthein:  I made documentation of all of the emigrants to whom I gave shoes and also the collectors who made purchases, either for their collections or to wear. I’m working with the two extremes of the social pyramid, with the highest American and with the lowest Mexican. The documentation is complimentary to, and part of, the intervention, which is having all sorts of ramifications.

The representation is a construction of images that, as the saying goes, says something. That it says something doesn’t mean that it presents anything, more that it is a fiction based on reality. The intervention is to act directly upon reality, the contact is totally direct. At the moment I give the shoes to the emigrant, no observer is present, what is taking place is a fact, he puts on the shoes. The representation is the necessity of creating an image, for a market, while the intervention operates in reality. I don’t take it out of context and set it in a white gallery. It’s a real action, that exists.

LatinArt:  What is the condition of the project today and how will it progress?

Judi Werthein:  The shoes are still being distributed in the outlets. Today, there is a company in Los Angeles that wants them, another in New York, and one down in Buenos Aires also. I’m in the process of developing the Brinco web site that will list all the places where they are sold. I’ll be making the fourth distribution very soon.

LatinArt:  What was the most gratifying part?

Judi Werthein:  The best thing that I’ve taken away from this is the people I’ve met and with whom I could communicate. Those were the emigrants and the emigrant aid associations. Dialogues were also opened up with the academic world, with anthropologists and sociologists in Mexico. Many people approached me and were very generous. I was always very warmly welcomed.

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