On the evening of November 20, 2014, as tens of thousands of men, women and children marched down the leafy, Parisian-inspired avenue Paseo de la Reforma and packed into the narrow, recently refurbished streets of Mexico City’s Centro Histórico, few noticed a subtle yet forceful design intervention that traced their route. Instead of being graced by the usual names of heroes and milestones, the street signs had been altered to point to the pain and anger that had driven them all out onto the streets: Desaparecidos (“missing”), Estudiantes (“students”), Represión (“repression”), Impunidad (“impunity”), Narcogobierno (“narco-government”), #FueElEstado (“it was the State”). On the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, protesters expressed their outrage at the savage forced disappearance of 43 rural students from the southern town of Ayotzinapa at the hands of local police with ties to drug cartels.
Only a few days earlier, Mexico City’s design festival, the Abierto Mexicano de Diseño, had celebrated its second edition, with hundreds of independent design installations and exhibitions occupying some of the very same streets and spaces as the protests. It was a different world: colourful textile interventions and breathtaking venues, exquisite crafts and tasteful furniture, the seemingly compulsory video-mapping projects and even an electrical parade by Moritz Waldemeyer. The entire affair had very little to do with any sort of politics, and instead emphasised preciousness, detachment, abstraction and sometimes dated concerns – expressing “Mexicanness”, for one, through gimmicky and obvious formal referential gestures – that characterises much contemporary Mexican design.
Somewhere between the visceral character of anonymous design gestures linked to political activism (another example is the Mexican flag with the green and red blotted out into deep black, which has become a powerful and fitting symbol for dark times) and the watered-down distancing of the work displayed in festivals, cultural corridors and pop-up boutiques, there is a new breed of design in Mexico that uses creative dissent to push forward in far more interesting directions. A design that is not just critical of conditions and circumstances, but also self-critical.
Apropiación del Espacio (APRDELESP)
A collaborative architecture and design office that turns its research and obsessions on socio-spatial dynamics into crowdfunded pocket projects that merrily blend public and private. In a refreshing display of pragmatism, APRDELESP has managed to build a practice without waiting for clients, accolades or big budgets. Its projects have included a communal-table eatery and internet café, a frozen paleta (“ice lolly”) shop meets public-furniture co-op meets open-mic karaoke bar, and a stall in a tianguis (“makeshift street market”) selling smiley-faced bean quesadillas and empalmes.
A sort of renegade approach to design features in their work of NAAFI, a millennial mix of underground-record-producing, club-night-promoting, DIY-clothing-line-pushing, digital-fantasy-rendering designers and artists. Partying is at the epicentre of NAAFI, but design pervades every aspect of its work, from flyers to T-shirts to photo shoots. In fact, it has produced some of the most interesting visual and graphic experimentation the city has seen in recent years: a hot mix of power aesthetics, pirata rawness and everyday techno-dystopianism. NAAFI has managed to extend itself well beyond the local underground scene by cultivating strong creative ties to a collaborative network reaching from Southern California to Santiago de Chile, taking cues from Mexico City tribes and subcultures (Santa Muerte, tepichulos, narcowar motifs) but also borrowing from Tropicália, LA goth, barriobajerismo and cholo aesthetics.
The unsung heroes of Yellow Capitalism, an artistic research project focused on the ties between capitalism and informal economy in Mexico, showcase the creative juices and local design subcultures that are a product of uneven development and precariousness. It is difficult to underestimate the impact informality has on local design culture, even though many established designers reject or do their best to ignore it as a creative force. Informality and piracy have opened up a flourishing market of desirable yet accessible products for large chunks of the population with limited purchasing power and created pockets of super-contemporary, democratised production techniques and technologies. Izquierdo looks at the makeshift hair salons and scrap computer builders and ersatz merchandise graphic artists and custom boombox backpack masters: anonymous, everyday designers who prove the unique richness of informal design and demonstrate what a “creative industry” actually looks like.Gilberto Esparza
Another way boundaries in design are being pushed in the city is through the appropriation of strategies and resources that involve informality and reuse, levelling popular culture, everyday tinkering and highbrow design. Experimental artist and technologist Gilberto Esparza creates urban parasite robots built from scrap materials that, much like people in the city’s informal economy, hack into urban infrastructure and feed off of it. His work merges sophisticated technology with the frugal intelligence of making use of whatever limited resources are at hand. Esparza’s works are variously inspired by the city’s ambulantes (“street vendors”), who hijack electricity for their stands from nearby electrical posts. His robots, made of junk, pick their way through the detritus of the city, fuelling themselves from polluted water. For his Auto-Photosynthetic Plants, Esparza uses the energy of microbial fuel cells in polluted water to create a sonic interpretation of the released energy, allowing us to visualise its activity. Nomadic Plants, meanwhile, are robots that search for polluted water to feed and maintain the small ecosystem they carry on their back. §
Watch an interview with Gilberto Esparza