Beyond the Symbolic

May 29th, 2014

The first time that I heard about Torolab Collaborative was in 2004. Arquine, architecture magazine based in Mexico City was featuring Torolab’s work on the cover of their issue #28, under the title Territories. I remember it clearly – it was a simple and powerful cover, a bright red graphic composition with some kind of inhabitable structure highlighted in the horizon. It was intriguing and fascinating. The work featured in this issue was very unconventional for this magazine’s usual content at that time; there were not many traditional architectural drawings only, but multiple illustrations that combined graphic techniques with design responses to social situations – very unique of the border condition.  A portable personal shelter, a movable pedestrian bridge, signature clothing for migrants, were some of the ideas and design provocations that Raúl and his team shared with the national audience of designers.


Torolab has been constantly in my radar since then, and I’ve followed their work until we met in Cambridge (US) in the Fall of 2010. We invited Torolab to the Harvard Graduate School of Design to share their most recent work- or urban experiments. The experience was intense. We started with the idea of one single lecture and we ended up with a 3-day event series – the repertory of the conversations and activities with Torolab ranged from personal traveling patterns in Tijuana-San Diego to the role of food in engaging cultural dynamics, translations, and public health. Torolab transformed the cafeteria at the GSD into an US-MX crossing for an evening while providing a healthy meal based on creative recipes to all attendants; this performance is part of a project that aims to fight both nutritional poverty and diabetes (Mexico is #2 in the highest rates of diabetes; US is #1).



A few years later of that collaboration, I finally decided that I had to go to ground zero, to Tijuana and see their work personally. Besides the global artistic and academic practice of Raúl, their work is enthusiastically committed to Tijuana and giving genuine results. The Transborder Farm project in the Camino Verde neighborhood is a story of commitment, resilience, but also of optimistic and decisive attitude to address the most difficult challenges that a city such as Tijuana has developed from what I call “urban negligence”. The Urban Farm project is the melting pot where all the expertise of Torolab’s practice integrates private and public goals and resources to improve a community from its very core.

 BLW: What is the focus of Torolab’s work?

Ana Martínez: At Torolab we work with the ideas of people on how to live better in a defined territory.

Raúl Cárdenas: We always begin in a multidisciplinary way and the outcomes always end up being transdisciplinary.

BLW: What are the main challenges of working in border cities such as Tijuana?

 RC: One of the main challenges is that projects transcend beyond the symbolic and have a real impact. To develop any project that we are involved with, always should exist a real communication link with the people with whom these ideas of living better are being generated. This should always happen in every project in similar ways; every project should have very clear its advocacy process as part of its creative process. If it does not have that, and is not linked to certain responsibility, accountability and monitoring process there is no chance that this kind of projects can work and have a real impact.

 AM: In participatory projects, the way in which the community gets involved, engages and claims ownership of the project in a collaborative form is very important. If they don’t embrace the project, if they don’t know the project from start to end the results are not going to be real.

BLW: What is the potential of artistic collaborative practices to rethink the future of border cities?

RC: I think that the opportunities that artistic practices offer within the social sphere, within the public realm, in the way in which a real participation gets integrated, relies on both how people develops a relationship with them and identifies with them. From ownership and engagement sensations people develop a critical thinking process. When you generate and promote this critical thinking, you also develop aesthetics of knowledge – within this dynamic, if you integrate multidisciplinary processes where the speed (of the project) is not defined by any institutional agenda or schedule, this engagement process has more opportunity to address the reality with the speed of necessity

When this is achieved, it has the malleability, the opportunity and the tools to evolve faster than public policy, and institutional advocacy and academic research. With this process as an excuse and using these territories that are on the edge of these places we aim to rethink other limits, other border and frontier ideas through the very own intervention of the artist with the community in a new way of thinking on how to observe and reinvent the territory.

AM: I believe this approach also provides different tools for dialogue other than the conventional ones – therefore this process opens the possibility to receive a new kind of responses.

RC: One of the many advantages of living the border is that there exists reconceptualization of everything. There are economic borders, but there are also linguistic borders. The way in which we use Spanish and English languages has the possibility that we can find words, such as the idea of “gestión” (gestation) that is very important for us. If we don’t use it within our creative process, we don’t understand how to develop our work. In fact, when you translate “gestión” to English must be combined with other terms because is not only about management, is about gestating, giving birth and light, is taking a project, a life, anything from beginning to end; this concept is very broad in Spanish – is a very beautiful word that embeds ideas of process in any given work.  On the other hand, these processes are not understandable without a word in English that we like very much such as “accountability”. To have processes that involve “accountability”, in Spanish we also have to combine words – this not only relates to “delivery of results”, but implies a greater level of responsibility and measurement. Indeed, when you use this term in English you understand the connotation perfectly. If we don’t have the idea of “accountability” on the one end related to processes of gestion that enrich participatory processes, these projects don’t get nourished or realized.

BLW: How does your work inform today decision making processes, has influence or contributes to reimagine the future of border cities such as Tijuana?

RC: They way in which our work helps us to rethink our own territory – Tijuana, the border, the metropolis of Tecate-Tijuana-Rosarito- our relationship with San Diego, with Ensenada, is precisely influenced by two main aspects: by the opportunities that territories like Tijuana have had, how it has grown and evolve despite adverse circumstances, despite violence, despite economic conditions that are outcome of centralized decisions and have nothing to do with our own living conditions.

Our work then helps to rethink our own territory from the simple approach of acknowledging that our own territory provides very special information. Because Tijuana’s history is very recent, not only provides the opportunity, but the responsibility to create new ways of thinking, of cooking, of living the city – even more, about aspects related to those in which everyone converges, in the benefits of public policy.

If we can achieve all this, and we understand that this kind of work, like Antoni Muntadas says, “requires certain endeavor”, you have to be engaged in order to rethink and observe oneself from within this kind of work. If we are clearly addressing ideas of quality of life, ideas of living better – there are very clear links that go beyond the symbolic aspects and immediately go the practical ones.

In regard to projects or work such as the Transborder Farm in Camino Verde (“Green Path”), with the conditions of this neighborhood, with the work conditions of the Society of Agents for Change and the empowerment of the Special Unit of Technologies and Civic Improvement of the CICS that we are developing, if a platforms like this does not exist (that is usually the case) for this type of practices that not only have funding but also a legal framework to extend the life of this practices, is very complicated to move forward.

There is a document in this region from the Institute for Planning (formerly municipal, now metropolitan) that defines the metropolitan area including the cities of Tecate-Rosarito-Tijuana, the border area with San Diego, the relationship with Ensenada (in the near future the possible integration of Ensenada to this metropolitan area), and offers the possibility to envision our territory for the next 25 years. In that sense, if there is something that Tijuana is doing right is the idea of civic organizations. That is another story, but civic organizations are addressing many issues from the own society and not leaving these issues only to the will of politics. We probably had to touch rock bottom to achieve this high level of participation, and now is the area that has more civic organizations per capita than any city in Mexico. Some are more functional than others, but that tells a lot. And many of these organizations, many of these individuals, many academic institutions participated in this Strategic Metropolitan Plan, including us, Tijuana Innovadora (Innovative Tijuana), Static Discos, among others.

For example, we contributed with the idea of creating a public policy, a complete strategic theme besides urban development, economy, institutional, environmental, social, mobility (this last one especially is very relevant given the many problems with the traffic in the City), border-specific themes, and so on, about creative practices. This strategic area not only will generate different economies that we will support our work, but also research and development of science and technology. In a way, we are not only catalyzing our work, but hopefully the work of anyone who is watching this video and would like to come and develop projects not necessarily related to our practice in Tijuana, but that would like to consider Tijuana and the border region as a laboratory for globality. This basically defined aspects of glocalities even way before the term was started to being used. I think that is how we have a very practical way to create a link that changes the way in which we relate to our territory through aspects that are quite functional.

AM: In the case of Camino Verde, at a very small scale, our role in the creation of a participatory platform helped to create the bonds of trust within the community for other people to come and collaborate with a larger project that already earned the trust of the community.

RC: Basically, it is not about the existence of the Farm at Camino Verde, is about the transformation of this former drug dealing hub in this neighborhood into a place where boys and girls can play; it’s about 30 playfields that use to have 30 degrees of slope (oh well, kids could play against Real Madrid and they would have a hard time winning). Moreover, now the community has the most important female soccer team in the State of Baja California; it’s about the most used digital library that is part of Tijuana Innovadora’s projects. And so, all these features stop being urban acupuncture and they become –like many of our friends like to say- “a complete open heart surgery” in the middle of the city.

BLW: What is your vision for the border region for 2050? For 2100?

RC: I think that clearly we could have a more realistic approach to equality conditions. An approach where we no longer reflect each other in regard to what we are lacking of, but in regard of what we can be able to exchange. For me, that would be the most basic and important goal; but if additionally, we could replicate what we are doing here, for instance at the Farm, not only in Mexico, but in Africa, in Latin America, those circumstances through aesthetics of knowledge could fight violence and help to end conditions such as nutritional poverty. It may sound ridiculous, but we truly believe that is possible, at least here in Baja California.

AM: I imagine a society that participates thoroughly to solve the problems of the city.

Tijuana, BC, Mexico.

January 2014

More about the Transborder Farm Project: San Diego Red

video cover


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