In Lote Bravo (2005), What Else Could We Talk About? Cleaning (2009), and Irrigation (2010), contemporary Mexican artist Teresa Margolles exposes and denounces the política de negación, or politics of denial, that conceals or disregards the violence and the precarious conditions that define life along the US border in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico. Here, neoliberal rationality has empowered a corrupt political and economic class to sanction behavior that favors profit over life and creates a culture of fear and death. To investigate Margolles’s confrontational approach and her recurring engagement with this border city, or “cyclical border encounters,” I adopt the concept of neoliberarchivos, defined as contemporary artworks that act as anti-neoliberalist counterarchives, rendering visible the exercise of violence upon bodies as seen in the feminicidios, masculinicidios, and juvenicidios that have occurred for the last three decades on the border. In the form of installation, sculpture, video art, site-specific artworks, and performance, the neoliberarchivos document and display marginalized knowledge and contest official rhetoric. The neoliberarchivos of Teresa Margolles exemplify a significant trend in global contemporary art that seeks to destabilize hegemonic economic and power structures dominant at the border through a counterarchival impulse.
En Lote Bravo (2005), What Else Could We Talk About? Cleaning (2009) e Irrigation (2010), la artista mexicana Teresa Margolles (nacida en 1963) revela y denuncia la política de negación que oculta o ignora la violencia y las precarias condiciones que definen la vida en Ciudad Juárez (Chihuahua, México), en la frontera con Estados Unidos. En esta ciudad, la racionalidad neoliberal ha facultado a una clase política y económica corrupta para amparar un comportamiento que favorece el lucro sobre la vida humana y crea una cultura de miedo y muerte. Para investigar el enfoque de confrontación de Margolles y su compromiso recurrente con esta ciudad fronteriza, o sus “cíclicos encuentros fronterizos”, recurro al concepto de neoliberarchivos, que son obras de arte contemporáneo que actúan como contraarchivos antineoliberales, haciendo visible el ejercicio de la violencia sobre los cuerpos, como se ha visto en los feminicidios, masculinicidios y juvenicidios que se han producido en la frontera durante las últimas tres décadas. En forma de instalaciones, esculturas, videoarte, performance u obras de arte site-specific, los neoliberarchivos documentan y exhiben conocimientos marginales e impugnan la retórica oficial. Los neoliberarchivos de Teresa Margolles son ejemplos de una importante tendencia en el arte contemporáneo global, que, mediante un impulso contraarchivístico, pretende desestabilizar las estructuras económicas y de poder hegemónicas que dominan en la frontera.
Em Lote Bravo (2005), What Else Could We Talk About? Cleaning (2009), and Irrigation (2010), a artista contemporânea mexicana Teresa Margolles expõe e denuncia a política de negación, ou política de negação, que oculta e desconsidera a violência e as condições precárias que definem a vida ao longo da fronteira estadunidense na Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, México. Aqui, a racionalidade neoliberal empoderou uma classe política e econômica corrupta para sancionar comportamentos que favorecem o lucro sobre a vida e criam uma cultura de medo e morte. Para investigar a abordagem confrontacional de Margolles e seu engajamento recorrente com essa cidade fronteiriça, ou “encontros cíclicos fronteiriços”, adoto o conceito de neoliberarchivos, definido como obras de arte contemporâneas que atuam como contra-arquivos antineoliberais, tornando visível o exercício da violência sobre os corpos vistos nos feminicídios, masculinicídios e juvenicídios ocorridos nas últimas três décadas na fronteira. Na forma de instalação, escultura, videoarte, obras de arte site-specific e performance, os neoliberarchivos documentam e exibem conhecimentos marginalizados e contestam a retórica oficial. Os neoliberarchivos de Teresa Margolles exemplificam uma tendência significativa na arte contemporânea global que busca desestabilizar as estruturas de economia e poder hegemônicas dominantes na fronteira, por meio de um impulso contra-arquival.
Irrigación (Irrigation, 2010), a single-channel video by contemporary Mexican artist Teresa Margolles, follows an irrigation water truck as it drives along the US side of the border in Texas, discarding five thousand gallons of water that had originally been mixed with cloths used to wipe down crime scenes across the border in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico (fig. 1). Margolles’s practice has centered on recovering mortuary and crime scene evidence to expose and document violence in Mexico. Born in 1963 in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Margolles worked in Mexico City as a forensic pathologist at the city’s morgue, the Servicio Médico Forense (SEMEFO) during the 1990s. As a member of the artist collective of the same name, SEMEFO, and in her subsequent solo practice, Margolles has simultaneously displayed and denounced violence in artworks I describe as neoliberarchivos. The term combines neoliberal (neoliberal) and archivo (archive, file). While neoliberalism is a global phenomenon, I use neoliberarchivo to address the specific manifestation of neoliberalism as violence in Mexico and in contemporary art made at the US border. Margolles’s neoliberarchivos confront a repressive regime and a culture of fear and censorship to challenge official rhetoric that criminalizes victims and their families, underplays the spectacle of death, and disregards the exploitation, disappearance, and disposal of bodies. Under this violent regime, the artist’s exhibition of violence strategically circumvents the censorship and silencing to which activists, journalists, and families of the disappeared and dead in Mexico are subjected. As contemporary artworks, the neoliberarchivos act as counterarchives that denounce the state’s efforts to conceal the murder of more than 120,000 people and the disappearance of more than 75,000 since 2006.1 I argue that the neoliberarchivos seek to bring visibility to these issues and encourage collective memory, accountability, and the pursuit of justice. Paradoxically, while performing this labor, the neoliberarchivos display violence and participate in a gore narrative that profits from death and a global art market.2 I claim that this mobility and unveiling of violence make the neoliberarchivos a crucial tool in the struggle against state repression, censorship, impunity, and misinformation, as seen in Margolles’s Irrigation and other artworks.
Margolles turns her attention not to the Tijuana and San Diego border area but to Ciudad Juárez–El Paso, a metropolis identified with global commerce and the two-way influx of people, weapons, and drugs. These factors and complex reality make this border area a crucial site for Margolles’s commitment to studying violence, archiving it, and rendering it visible. In her works, the Ciudad Juárez–El Paso border becomes a site not only marked by the devaluation of life and different forms of violence but also a strategic location for artistic experimentation, innovation, and resistance.
While Margolles’s oeuvre has been the focal point of numerous studies, I foreground the artist’s move from the morgue in Mexico City to the streets at the Mexico-US border area to highlight the artist’s contribution to activist efforts seeking to disrupt hegemonic discourses that negate or dismiss violence. I also explore the artist’s own role in the system she intends to confront and highlight. My discussion centers on Margolles’s surveying of streets in search of death and the subsequent cleanups of crime scenes to gather the evidence necessary to subvert the political and economic systems that have created and maintained violent conditions. First, I discuss the neoliberarchivos and their relationship to and distancing from other archival practices that include the archive of feelings, the counter-archive, and the melancholic archive. Then, I provide a brief introduction to the complexity of life in the northern border area of Ciudad Juárez to which many of Margolles’s artworks respond, based on the artist’s recurring visits to this city. I define these ongoing engagements with Ciudad Juárez as “cyclical border encounters” that provide inspiration and resources to the artist, energizing and motivating her artistic practice and activism. I then discuss several of Margolles’s neoliberarchivos and contextualize her practice within a broader art historical narrative.
Los neoliberarchivos: At the Intersection of Artwork and Archive
In a society that values profits over lives, the neoliberarchivos are of utmost importance because they reveal the tragic consequences of dehumanization and devaluation of life. They remind viewers of the cost (in human lives) of aggressive economic and political practices. By exposing such realities, the artists who create neoliberarchivos force viewers to encounter pain, murder, and the politics of life and death. By exhibiting the tragic consequences experienced by many in our contemporary society, artists aim to hold governments, business leaders, and communities at large accountable and demand that viewers imagine different ways of living in which lives are not unequally valued and differentially grieved.
I define the neoliberarchivos as acting as both archives and artworks simultaneously. They subvert canonical definitions of the archive as a collection of texts and take on a variety of contemporary art forms that include installation, performance, video art, sculptures, and site-specific artworks. As artworks, neoliberarchivos evidence the negative consequences of the collusion between markets and states as seen in the contempt for life and the disposal of bodies. As archives, they document discrimination, disappearances, and the loss of lives that a network of governments, enterprises, and a criminal class aim to hide, ignore, or underestimate. As contemporary artworks and archives, neoliberarchivos constitute a form of protest that condemns neoliberalism by embracing and exposing its harsh brutalities. They contradict political leaders and businessmen’s discourses, practices, and policies in which realities and facts are manipulated to maintain a “good business climate” that seeks to advance state and corporate agendas. Subjected to the forces of neoliberalism, the neoliberarchivos take advantage of the “freedom” advocated by this rationale and participate in a crossing of borders that eludes international barriers and the US security apparatus. They enjoy considerable exposure as they participate in and espouse a global art market and international exhibitions. In other words, the neoliberarchivos, like many corporations and commodities, travel freely and participate in global commerce, becoming even more powerful as portable archives, showing their criticism and condemnation in multiple venues around the world. This mobility lets the neoliberarchivos target different audiences and challenge notions of stability, permanence, and authoritarianism. Neoliberarchivos contest political rhetoric and provide visibility to victims in environments that neglect them and encourage violence.3 They challenge the absence of memory (and the cover-ups) as it relates to those targeted due to gender, class, political affiliation, immigration status, or race and to the victims of the narco-wars. In doing so, neoliberarchivos support activists’ efforts to account for victims. In this sense, they are grassroots archives that, similar to archives created by activists, are (more) horizontal. Created by contemporary artists with a desire to present an alternative reality to that offered by state officials and entrepreneurs, neoliberarchivos do not originate with the state and are not directed by it. Instead, they challenge la política de negación (politics of denial) as promoted by the hegemonic neoliberal state, and they criticize the dismissal of violence by presenting its devastating consequences.4 In contrast to the manipulation of information as presented by the state, the neoliberarchivos represent a plurality of voices and are in constant flux.
Contemporary artists Enrique Ježik (b. 1961, Córdoba, Argentina) and Adriana Corral (b. 1983, El Paso, Texas) similarly participate in the creation of neoliberarchivos in Ciudad Juárez–El Paso to protest against the brutality of systems and actors that discriminate against bodies and appropriate and discard lives.5 As in Margolles’s artistic practice, Ježik’s and Corral’s neoliberarchivos disclose and denounce a spectacle of death and the (mis)use of bodies as it occurs at the Mexico-US border. Ježik and Corral join forces with Margolles to take advantage of their global mobility, the cultural apparatus, economic systems, and the media platforms that support them, to expose the failures of the neoliberal model and the distinct regimes that have sought political, economic, and social power at the expense of others.
The neoliberarchivos are aligned with the archive of feelings as defined by Ann Cvetkovich, as they too address trauma and cultural amnesia. As with the archive of feelings, the neoliberarchivos recognize the difficulty of communicating on violence. As Cvetkovich explains, “trauma challenges common understandings of what constitutes an archive. Because trauma can be unspeakable and unrepresentable and because it is marked by forgetting and dissociation, it often seems to leave behind no records at all.”6 While the archive of feelings foregrounds testimony or individual narratives, the neoliberarchivos focus on the substantial number of people who have been subjected to state terror and whose whereabouts remain unknown, their bodies unaccounted for, or whose deaths have not been solved. The neoliberarchivos contribute to a social discourse exercised by the families and the communities of people who are left behind without answers, searching relentlessly for the disappeared. Unlike the archive of feelings, the neoliberarchivos address contemporary conditions to which artists respond, including economic, criminal, political, and societal violence as seen in geographies of exclusion, precarious jobs, and the feminicidios, juvenicidios, and masculinicidios (murders of women, children, and men solely for their gender or youth).
As counterarchives, the neoliberarchivos share many characteristics with the melancholic archive as defined by Claudette Lauzon.7 First, they also take place in contested territories where dictators or wars create instability, chaos, and repressive environments. Second, they also communicate on the complexity of loss, mourning, and death while they challenge notions of memory, (mis)representation, and (in)visibility. Third, they are also fragmented, mobile, and unofficial as they contest hegemonic notions of the archive and its authoritative claims. Yet unlike the melancholic archive and other counterarchives, the neoliberarchivos account for specific circumstances in which neoliberalism, as a governing rationality, has altered ways of living, thinking, and being throughout the world. Within this context, the neoliberarchivos respond to an extreme form of neoliberalism, or gore capitalism, and its collusion with diverse forces that include the state and a global criminal class.
Ciudad Juárez: From Contact Zone to Conflict Zone
As early as 1965, the Mexican government designed the Border Industrialization Program (BIP) and expanded the free-trade zones that had been established in 1858.8 The launching of maquiladoras, or export-processing factories, throughout the border and the benefits granted to these large corporations ratified an ever-growing neoliberal regime in the region long before it was institutionalized in the rest of the country with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.9 Benefits provided to corporations allowed foreign-owned companies 100 percent control over their businesses, land use, fiscal incentives, and the availability of labor and a good business climate, in exchange for their incorporation into the Mexican landscape and economy.10 Due to the BIP favoring corporations to the detriment of workers, maquiladora laborers were making approximately three dollars per eight hours of work in 1968, while in the United States workers made six times that amount.11 As of 2016, more than three hundred maquiladoras were fully established in the region, comprising a workforce of about 250,577 people.12 Yet in 2020, workers continued to make dismal wages in the amount of MXN$123.22 or US$5.90 per day. The hegemonic rationale in this border area has been one that focuses on transnational commerce and activities that are free of barriers to support the increase and permanence of enterprises and the expansion of a neoliberal agenda.13
In addition to the economic and political violence endured by juarenses, the city and its inhabitants have also experienced immense criminal and institutional violence against women. Beginning in the 1990s, Ciudad Juárez gained national and international attention when several women were found dead throughout the city. The crimes, conceptualized as feminicidios or feminicides, include the murder and disappearance of women.14 Victims are women of different ages whose bodies, both clothed and unclothed, appear discarded in parks, municipal dumpsters, near high schools, and on empty lots.15 In 1993, feminist groups such as Grupo Ocho de Marzo began to record and document these cases.16 While the reported disappearances and murders were isolated accounts, burial sites where multiple bodies were disposed of were found in 1995. The largest illegal burial site has been identified in an area to the east in the Valley of Juárez, about fifty miles south of the border, known as Arroyo El Navajo. Twenty-four women were found here between 2008 and 2013.17 In 2020 women continued to disappear, were murdered, or their bodies were discarded throughout the city.18
While the indiscriminate disposal of tortured female bodies has been open and hypervisible since the 1990s, the disposal of male bodies was, originally, more secretive and hidden from public view. Men were not discarded upon the landscape, but were buried en masse in clandestine sites known as narcofosas. It was not until 1999 that the first four narcofosas were discovered and unearthed in the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez. Since then, they have multiplied throughout the country. A more open disposal of male bodies upon the landscape has also become more prevalent. Starting in 2006, President Felipe Calderón (2006–12) waged a “war on drugs” against drug traffickers throughout Mexico. From 2008 to 2011 in Ciudad Juárez alone, the deaths of more than ten thousand people were registered.19 According to Salvador Cruz Sierra, 95 percent of the fatalities were men living in poverty.20 Silenced by narcos, gangs, the police, and the military, Ciudad Juárez transformed from contact zone to conflict zone, a city surveilled and terrorized.21 It soon became known as “the most dangerous city in the world,” and in 2022 it was still ranked in the top five within this category.22
Yet concerned with economic growth, capital enhancement, and the conceptualization of the border as having a good business climate for investors and foreigners, a variety of leaders continue to ignore or neglect economic, political, or criminal activities that have diminished lifestyles, exiled people, and taken people’s lives, opportunities, and property. According to Héctor Padilla, la política de negación (politics of denial) means that businessmen and politicians alike belittle or altogether reject the violence taking place in areas such as Ciudad Juárez. Within this contested terrain, the political and economic elite are similarly inclined to condemn activists and human rights organizations for portraying a negative view of the city and participating in what they consider sensationalism. As Padilla explains, “The politics of denial aims, above all, to underestimate the gravity or intensity of the violent social conditions in an attempt to convince juarenses as well as the national and international public that it is a temporary and transitory state, a matter of public image, bias, or perception.”23
In 2004, Ciudad Juárez Mayor Héctor Murguía Lardizábal (2004–7 and 2010–13) dismissed violence in the region by proclaiming that crime there was secondary to that of other Mexican cities such as Monterrey or Guadalajara.24 In 2007, then Governor of Chihuahua José Reyes Baeza Terrazas (2004–10) similarly claimed crime was not unique there and argued that other cities in the country had comparable or even worst statistics. He asked people “not to stigmatize Juárez” and called on businessmen to assist in changing Ciudad Juárez’s public image.25 As Padilla explains, political rhetoric not only disdains events but contradicts reality, thereby creating confusion among the populace. It discredits efforts by journalists, activists, and artists who demand change and justice, and it misleads society by arguing conditions are either nonexistent or temporary.
Margolles at the Frontera: Cyclical Border Encounters
Margolles began her artistic career in the 1990s in Mexico City, where she obtained a degree at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in political and social sciences. She later earned a certificate in the city’s morgue, the Servicio Médico Forense (SEMEFO). According to Margolles, she completed the certificate “to speak about people who have been murdered, the voiceless bodies, those forgotten by impunity, of absence and fear, but especially to speak of the pain of the families.”26 SEMEFO would become the name of an art collective in which Margolles, Arturo Angulo Gallardo, Juan Luis García Zavaleta, and Carlos López Orozco participated. By the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, when the group disbanded, they had already exhibited broadly and had gained a reputation for their interest in and exhibition of death and violence.27 As a member of SEMEFO, Margolles contributed to the creation of neoliberarchivos, and this artistic production has continued throughout her career.28
As early as 2005, Margolles responded creatively to events taking place in Ciudad Juárez and its política de negación when she was invited by curator Gilbert Vicario to participate in the exhibit Indelible Images (trafficking between life and death) at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH). Encouraged by Vicario, the artist enacted a conceptual, artistic, and physical shift from Mexico City to Ciudad Juárez. As he states, “Margolles's interest in the U.S.-Mexico border region is an extension of the shadow economies that shape the lives of many individuals in Mexico City.”29 Margolles’s first border encounter resulted in the creation of the neoliberarchivo Lote Bravo (2005) (fig. 2). Since then, she has continually returned to Ciudad Juárez–El Paso to examine its complex reality and to respond to the detrimental political and economic conditions that affect life on the border.30
Margolles’s continued visits to the border, which I call “cyclical border encounters,” have not only continued to define her themes and artistic trajectory but also turned viewers’ attention from the political and artistic capital of Mexico City to Ciudad Juárez. During her first border encounter, the artist collected sand from illegal burial sites where the victims of feminicidios had been discarded, in order to create blocks of cement. Arranged as a wall, the blocks in Lote Bravo form a small barricade within the museum’s gallery. Displayed at MFAH, this neoliberarchivo can be easily ignored by viewers or deemed minimalist art due to its geometric character, monochromatic style, and simplicity. Yet the museum’s label informs viewers that the four hundred blocks that constitute Lote Bravo are made from sand that touched the bodies of women who, prior to being killed, were “sexually abused …[and] although the numbers of bricks cannot be correlated to the numbers of missing women, they nonetheless stand as silent witnesses.”31 Lote Bravo is in fact the name of a site where victims of feminicidios were found as early as 1995 when they were illegally dumped there in the border area.
As Alice Driver explains, Lote Bravo exemplifies geographies of exclusion in which urban areas that are isolated, unlit, unpaved, and poorly surveilled in Ciudad Juárez become threats to women, workers, and other marginalized groups who must walk long distances to take a bus or go to work, school, hospitals, or grocery stores. The geographies of exclusion “represent physical and economic displacement, bodies pushed to the peripheries and excluded from the machinery of citizenship.”32 Margolles’s cyclical border encounters have allowed her to examine the borderland geographies of exclusion and get involved with various community members and organizations. As Vicario writes,
The sculpture Lote Bravo (2005) and the video Lote Bravo, Lomas de Poleo, Anapra y Cerro del Cristo Negro (2005), were the result of a grass-roots approach taken by the artist, by way of a homegrown approach to forensic analysis, that sought to piece together possible answers to the mystery of the missing women. She enlisted the aid of many individuals and activists in Juárez who had formed task forces and community watch groups. Through these activist organizers she began to understand the defining characteristics of the females that have gone missing.…Through the help of these individuals she also began to discover locations in the surrounding Chihuahuan desert, Lote Bravo, Lomas de Poleo, Anapra and Cerro del Cristo Negro, which are most commonly used to discard human remains. In fact, these areas continue to be dumping grounds for female victims with the most recent newspaper account of a discovery in Cerro del Cristo Negro dated March 28, 2017.33
The sculpture Lote Bravo, which has been described as a “silent witness,” acts as a neoliberarchivo as it accounts for brutal events that the Mexican government and its business elite would rather ignore and conceal to keep a good business climate in the city.
As mentioned above, to avoid the investigations and bad press that could lead to lack of profits (and also due to the underfunding of local police), feminicidios are often neglected and go uninvestigated. Yet due to activists’ and artists’ efforts, these issues have not fallen into oblivion but continue to be part of a narrative and society that refuses to live in impunity, corruption, and misinformation. As such, Lote Bravo informs and subverts official rhetoric as well as canonical notions of the archive. Margolles’s artwork activates memory and discourses that those in power would prefer go unspoken. Yet because a pile of blocks with no names and no portraits, located at the end of a museum gallery, is rather a harsh way to remember, this neoliberarchivo remains in tension between contradictory forces. It attempts to activate collective memory and redirect the discourse on violence against the body, but does so in an aggressive way, reminding viewers of the violent policies of the neoliberal and state apparatus. While the reality alluded to in Margolles’s Lote Bravo is crude, her artwork does alert viewers about the gravity of the situation in this border city.
The Neoliberarchivo at the Venice Biennial
In 2008, Margolles was invited by curator Cuauhtémoc Medina to represent Mexico at the 53rd Biennale di Venezia. Concerned about the hypervisibility of violence in Mexico, Margolles conceptualized ¿De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? Limpieza (What Else Could We Talk About? Cleaning, fig. 3). What Else Could We Talk About? consisted of several artworks on display in and outside the Palazzo Rota Ivancich, which Mexico rented as its official pavilion, from June 7 to November 22, 2009. The overarching themes of the exhibition were Mexico’s politics of life and death and la política de negación sanctioned by the state apparatus.34 The preparation for this neoliberarchivo consisted of scrubbing sites in Ciudad Juárez where people had been killed or where their bodies had been disposed of to collect traces of violence and of the body.35 As Margolles explains,
The idea emerged from the question of who cleans up the blood left by someone who's murdered on the streets. When it's one person, it might be the family or a neighbor, but when it's thousands of people, who cleans up the entire city's blood? The piece consists of using a damp rag to clean the area where someone's body fell after he was killed [in Ciudad Juárez]. The rag dries out and then gets taken to Venice where it's wetted again with water to subsequently be used to mop the floor there. The piece is the build-up that will form as a result of continuous everyday mopping since by cleaning the floor for the Biennial's six-month duration, residue will be left behind.36
In Ciudad Juárez, crime scenes are not properly sealed, documented, or investigated, and many streets are left uncleaned. It has been reported that commercial cleaning companies have been hired to clean crime scenes, making a profit from death.37 In What Else Could We Talk About? Cleaning, Margolles and her team clean the streets to create the neoliberarchivo. Citlali Cruz, formerly an art student in sculpture at the local university Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez and a member of Margolles’s team, explained her role in cleaning the streets. According to Cruz, “I collaborated with the artworks taken to the Venice Biennial. [My role was] to search for the blood [and] to soak the blankets in the streets, to go with her [Margolles] to the sites of massacres, and to label dried blankets so that they could be embroidered with the narco-messages.…”38 In What Else Could We Talk About? Cleaning, several people participated in a second cleaning or countercleaning, this time inside the gallery space, by mopping the floors of the Palazzo Rota Ivancich and distributing the traces of bodies throughout the room. According to official statements, those performing these actions were families of the victims of violence.39
What Else Could We Talk About? Cleaning has been interpreted by scholars who have proposed feminist readings and who have also focused on memory studies.40 Under a neoliberal framework, the artwork shows the hostility of a complicit global system that inflicts pain, dehumanization, and death upon the social body in favor of financial organizations, class power, and the concentration of wealth. By using blood to mop the floors, Margolles reflects on battles executed by multiple actors with social, political, and economic agendas.
The global audience provided by the Biennale allowed this critique to reach a network of participants including businesspeople, political leaders, consumers, and members of the art world who, confronted with the installation and its references, could no longer deny the consequences of the neoliberal juggernaut and the marketization of bodies and drugs as seen in gore capitalism. As Sayak Valencia explains, the global economy is so interconnected with organized crime that dependence ensures its continued support. “Capital derived from organized crime—about fifteen percent of worldwide GDP—is so entirely fused with capital from transnational corporations and global capital that it is practically unthinkable to imagine the contemporary economy without the financial contributions of organized crime.”41 As such, Margolles’s What Else Could We Talk About? Cleaning asks viewers to consider who can claim to have peace of mind. Because the artwork appears on a global platform and addresses a variety of actors whose lives and complicity are interconnected by the global economy, which in turn is linked to crime and violence, it communicates our shared ethical responsibility.42
At the Biennale, Margolles paradoxically protests violence but also benefits from its display in a global art market that supports and distributes it.43 What does it mean to mop the floor with the traces of people? Is this not one more way to discriminate against bodies? Is this not another way to abuse the dead? María Campiglia asserts that by mopping the floor with the blood of murdered people, Margolles continues to exercise violence and to support the violent regime.44 As Campiglia writes, “Margolles works with the remains of the deceased who belong to marginalized sectors of society, the poorest, those who, as a matter of fact, do not have any rights. There is no attempt to dignify them, to reaffirm their humanity, but on the contrary, she reduces them to objecthood and introduces them without a problem to the logic of the art market.”45 Campiglia accurately explains Margolles’s (mis)use of bodies, her objectification of people, and her practice of presenting the matter of now absent bodies within the gallery space for consumption. By adopting such an offensive strategy, Margolles replicates the neoliberal modus operandi where bodies of workers, migrants, women, and the poor are considered worthless, expendable, and ungrievable.
Margolles’s (mis)use of bodies and distribution of its traces through the mopping of the gallery floors makes visible how feminicidios, masculinicidios, and juvenicidios are the result of political, cultural, and social practices that endorse classism, discrimination, sexism, and racism. As Judith Butler explains, “grievability is differentially allocated such that some do not rise to the level of the grievable, cannot be grasped as lives worth mourning. In the same way that we talk about the unequal distribution of goods or resources, I believe that we can also speak about the radically unequal distribution of grievability.”46 Neoliberalism challenges and restricts individual rights, hence devaluing lives, disrespecting bodies, and labeling many unworthy of protection. In Butler’s terms, practices such as neoliberalism conceptualize many lives as ungrievable. Margolles’s What Else Could We Talk About? Cleaning constitutes a neoliberarchivo because it not only critiques the conception of lives as ungrievable but also renders them unequal by mopping floors with their traces.
Despite its inherent violence, this neoliberarchivo also acts as a protest because it is a site of knowledge, archiving information to hold others accountable. The blood collected by Margolles and her team is evidence of what is considered unstoppable violence that has expanded not only throughout the border but to the rest of the country, and one that many would rather conceal or deem unpronounceable. As Medina explains, the exhibition’s title,
“What Else Could We Talk About?” is, of course, the retort to a reprimand. The sentence encloses a visceral reaction to the expectation of the Mexican elites that for the sake of the national image, or to safeguard the illusions of tourism, we should maintain a contrite silence about the indiscretion of a society bent on slaughter in such a noisy, immoderate and public fashion. They wish. In reality, the only thing liable to silence the obligation to do and to speak about the present catastrophe, will be the next one. The worst of experiencing history as a serial compulsion to disaster is that all too soon, there will be something else to talk about: the next massacre, the future failed revolution, a fresh cycle of economic collapse, the renewed disappointment of democracy, environmental cataclysms galore, another looming pandemic.47
Margolles’s representation of violence threatens a view of Mexico, or its border, as a stable region for foreign investments or tourism. In contrast, Margolles allies with activists that fight for the visibility of violence and the remembrance of lost lives. Her neoliberarchivo also undermines the canonical definition of the archive as a document or institution and sets in tension the archives’ long history of repression and authoritarianism in favor of the repressed, whose violent deaths are not being acknowledged. While scholars such as Ariella Aïsha Azoulay have emphasized the violence exercised by imperial regimes and the archive against non-Western populations and the Indigenous, Margolles’s neoliberarchivo serves both to call attention to the dead and missing and to reinforce the voices of other activists who fight for justice.48 It thus challenges Azoulay’s description of the archive as a regime that “facilitates uprooting, deportation, coercion, and enslavement, as well as the looting of wealth, resources, and labor.”49
Margolles’s neoliberarchivo is then in line with Diana Taylor’s definition of the archive, which argues against it as a form of written text to be preserved and consulted. As Taylor explains, “The concept of performance, as an embodied praxis and episteme, for example, would prove vital in redefining Latin American studies because it decenters the historic role of writing introduced by the Conquest.”50 Taylor’s notion of the repertoire proposes a system of knowing and transmitting knowledge that expands the archive’s traditionally written form to include rituals, dance, theater, witnessing, healing practices, and performance. For both its critique of violence and its simultaneous representation, the neoliberarchivo stands as a site that produces knowledge and reflects upon diverse violent regimes and discourses to destabilize them.
Irrigating the Frontera
Margolles’s use of traces of bodies and crime scenes to emphasize an aggressive state apparatus and a devouring neoliberal global machine is exemplified not only in What Else Could We Talk About? Cleaning, but in Irrigation. It was exhibited in In Lieu of Unity = En lugar de la unidad, a group exhibition curated by Alicia Ritson that was presented at Ballroom Marfa from March 26 to August 15, 2010.51 While Marfa, Texas, has less than two thousand residents, its numerous art galleries have gained international attention, making it an exemplary Visual Arts Exhibitionary Complex.52 In 2011 Marfa received an estimated eleven thousand visitors.53 With such a large audience, Margolles ensured that her critique of the Mexican state and the global neoliberal apparatus, through her neoliberarchivo, reached a diverse and large international art audience.
A total of ten artists from Mexico participated in In Lieu of Unity = En lugar de la unidad to examine border issues and notions of identity.54 Artworks on view included Máximo González’s Inflation (2010), which consists of one thousand mylar silver balloons with the design of the Mexican ten centavos coin and speaks to the constant devaluation of the Mexican peso. Margarita Cabrera’s Space in Between (2010) is composed of handmade sculptures of cacti made with recycled border patrol uniforms. The economy, the transnational mobility of goods and bodies, and immigration were prominent themes in this exhibition. As Stephan Pascher explained, in In Lieu of Unity “the artists all engaged borderland concerns not with the didacticism of much ‘political art’ but through a heightened attention to the poetics of materials, formal invention, and avoidance of ethnographic cliché.”55 Similarly, paying attention to the economy, the border, and media, Margolles used this platform to underscore social fragmentation and violence in a space where she could reach a large art world audience.
Irrigation, a thirty-four-minute single-channel video, shows an irrigation truck spraying water as it drives east on Highway 90 in Presidio County, Texas. Traversing the deserted landscape, the road runs parallel to a large section of the Mexico-US border, eventually intersecting with Interstate 10 and connecting El Paso in the west to San Antonio in the east. Departing from Marfa, the truck arrives in Alpine, Texas, after driving through the largely desolate scenery where familiar signs eventually emerge such as a Dairy Queen, an Exxon, and a Holiday Inn. Throughout the journey, the focus in Irrigation is on the truck’s back. The truck’s driver is ignored, rendering the worker invisible to call attention to transnational corporations and to the water the truck spreads across the paved road.56 The five thousand gallons of water dispersed were mixed with collected blood and debris from cleaning crime scenes in Ciudad Juárez.57 By presenting an artwork made from the sites of massacres, Margolles archives the crime scene, refuses to keep silent, and rejects acting in complicity with economic and political leaders. Leaving behind traces of crime scenes through the disposal of the mixed water, the artist imitates the disposal of bodies sanctioned under the current regime to remind viewers of a conspicuous violence that is firmly established yet remains unaddressed. Through this work, Margolles objects to the ongoing violent regime while evading the tactics that force activists to go into hiding from a criminal class that threats, silences, or kills them.
Irrigation is an extension of Margolles’s commitment to using imagery of the body to discredit a state apparatus responsible, directly and indirectly, for violence against bodies and to expose a global neoliberal machine that abuses and disposes of them. She challenges la política de negación that continues to permeate both national and regional discourses. Through the neoliberarchivos, she “spreads” this message and the traces of bodies within the gallery space, across Highway 90 and beyond, through a Visual Arts Exhibitionary Complex, to address an international art audience. Margolles’s distribution of polluted water in the United States and on a road that is parallel to the border with Mexico asserts to viewers that violence is real and alarming despite efforts by other sectors of society to hide it. It demonstrates violence is not localized but its causes and consequences are multiple, dispersed, and global. In this sense, she not only challenges notions of border violence but incriminates a variety of governments, institutions, and individual actors. As Margolles states, “In this artwork what I wanted to express is the mutual responsibility for the violence at the border.”58
In her neoliberarchivo, Margolles paradoxically participates and engages with the violence she denounces. Similar to What Else Could We Talk About? Cleaning, in Irrigation Margolles discards tainted forensic evidence on the road near Marfa, Texas. By cleaning and collecting evidence from a crime scene, she intervenes in the process of investigation to examine the system’s flaws. Margolles’s neoliberarchivo both investigates and disregards crucial information in the pursuit of human rights and the grievability of bodies. Yet, as Medina explains, “the most disturbing element in Teresa Margolles’s forensic art is …the institutional conditions which make them possible. For an artist like Margolles to scavenge through the morgue, taking photographs, collecting samples, making imprints or plaster casts of corpses, there needs to be an extremely permissive administration. Her art owes its existence to Mexico’s laxity. Her works are both a candid exposure of the corrupt Mexican state and a product of her complicity with that same system.”59 While Margolles here is not working inside the morgue, her practice at the border, as seen in Irrigation, still reflects and participates in a decadent system overwhelmed by violence.
Margolles’s political activism with her neoliberarchivo is limited. Irrigation neither exemplifies “dialogical art” nor “socially engaged art.” In dialogical aesthetics, unlike the neoliberarchivo, the art object completely disappears to favor an emancipatory and collaborative encounter among diverse members of society.60 The neoliberarchivo does not encourage conversations or exchanges to take place over time between artists and members of a community, eventually displacing the art object in favor of community building projects.61 Nor can it be defined as “social practice art” or “socially engaged art,” which much like dialogical art moves away from the art object to encourage participation and community-led projects through discussions, exchanges, or actions. In Gregory Sholette’s words, “works of socially engaged art seem to be filling an unfulfilled social need by enacting community participation and horizontal collaboration, and by seeking to create micro-collectives and intentional communities.”62 While Margolles’s Irrigation may not directly focus on displacing the art object to favor activism on the streets or organizing groups of people around common interests or goals, it can still be regarded as a means for “bringing about actual social change.”63
Margolles’s neoliberarchivo calls attention to a maquinaria del terror (machinery of terror), and deplores neglect, denial, impunity, and corruption. This maquinaria administers a politics of life and death as exercised by the military, the police, gangs, drug dealers, the government, and businesses.64 According to Padilla, la maquinaria del terror creates an urban landscape characterized by impunity and threats from criminal groups in the form of narcomensajes (narco-messages) and narcomantas (narco-banners), as well as terror through military presence throughout the streets, illegal detentions, curfews, destruction of businesses, and dead bodies that appear randomly in the city.65 In the same way that fear is exercised throughout the streets with bodies, messages, and armed personnel, Margolles’s irrigation truck marks the landscape with violence. Margolles’s Irrigation thus imitates la maquinaria del terror. The irrigation truck represents a network of forces exercising violence as it waters Highway 90 with the traces of the deceased. Aligned with neoliberalism, national states, and a criminal class, these forces deem profitable and expendable the lives of workers, women, criminals, and society at large.66 The truck itself is a maquinaria del terror, a protagonist of terror, an apparatus of power, that represents several political, social, and economic forces working collaboratively, locally, and globally, in destroying and discarding lives. Yet within the border context and la política de negación, Margolles’s work does not reproduce violence mindlessly. Rather, Irrigation reproduces violence to condemn it. It discards lives to announce and denounce their loss.
Margolles’s dispersal of the traces of bodies using water in her neoliberarchivos Irrigation and What Else Could We Talk About? Cleaning alludes to other actions and artworks that refer to washing the body to protest repression, censorship, and genocide. In 1995, Mexican Silvia Gruner (b. 1959, Mexico City) created El nacimiento de Venus (The Birth of Venus), a mixed media installation that consists of pink-soap bars, an industrial weight machine, and a soap-making machine (fig. 4). The latter, found in Mexico, was marked with a swastika; Gruner, whose mother and grandmother were rescued from concentration camps in Germany before they emigrated to Mexico, considered this a unique opportunity to talk not only about mass murder but personal history.67 The combined weight of the soap bars located on the weight scale is equivalent to Gruner’s own weight. With references to her grandmother, mother, and herself, Gruner appropriated the machine and created the soap bars to allude to the absent body and to condemn life under la maquinaria del terror of the Nazi regime. As Miki García explains, The Birth of Venus “evoke[s] the issue of ethnic cleansing and the horrific stories of Jews being made into soaps by the Nazis.”68 The soap bars are in the shape of pre-Columbian figural sculptures to refer to the mass murder of Indigenous cultures by Spaniards in what is today known as Mexico. The focus is on the upper body with the figures lacking legs but showing a navel, small arms, and breasts. Eyes, nose, and mouth are clearly marked in the style of the Huasteca figures found near the Gulf of Mexico, with eyes either elongated or deeply embedded, and large earholes. Yet unlike the pre-Columbian figurines made of hard stone defying temporal and spatial conditions, the soap sculptures in Gruner’s The Birth of Venus speak about presence and absence, survival and disappearance, life and death. The soap bars’ ephemerality, tied to their materiality, allude to social and political cleansings that have led to disappearances, often with few traces left behind. At the same time, and paradoxically, the artwork speaks to the opportunities of life in exile due to mobility and immigration practices.69 Like Gruner’s, Margolles’s materials and actions reflect on the presence and absence of bodies and the conditions in which life is unequally protected and grievability is differentially allocated.
Irrigation, as a neoliberarchivo, offers a strong voice against the apparatus that devalues life and negates rights to confront the economic and political elite. In the form of the neoliberarchivo, the work forces viewers to speak of the unspeakable and the unacknowledged. For how else can we create change if we do not first recognize the need for it? As Susan Sontag explained, the least we can do is not to show sympathy but to engage in a reflection regarding the pain of others and how our privilege, and well-being, is linked to other's suffering.70
In her neoliberarchivos, Margolles both archives and displays the increasingly gruesome and cruel spectacle of death in the border area of Ciudad Juárez to contest la política de negación. Occupied by military personnel, the police, gangs, and a narco-class that operate parallel to and in collaboration with a strong corporate class and the state apparatus, the city has been marked by an ongoing struggle between an economic agenda and the well-being of its inhabitants. In defense of their economy, the elite have supported official rhetoric that disregards lives. Through her cyclical border encounters, Margolles responds to this politics of denial to denounce crime that goes uninvestigated or is concealed and unaddressed, in artworks such as Irrigation, Lote Bravo, and What Else Could We Talk About? Cleaning. Through the neoliberarchivos, Margolles joins forces with activists, journalists, and the families of the disappeared and missing to circumvent censorship and demand an end to the current context of violence and la maquinaria del terror. As contemporary artworks, the neoliberarchivos allow the artist to safely engage in a critique of different forms of violence represented by the feminicidios, masculinicidios, and juvenicidios, and to alert viewers globally about ongoing trauma, the dangers of indifference, and the problems with dismissing bodies. Margolles’s neoliberarchivos operate at the intersection of archives and contemporary art to render visible a conspicuous violent regime to undermine its normalization, condemn it, and counter a culture of silence, fear, and collective amnesia.
I thank Jennifer Josten, Terry Smith, Barbara McCloskey, and Caitlin Bruce for their feedback on previous drafts of this paper. I am also grateful to the two peer reviewers for their generous comments, questions, and invaluable suggestions. I am thankful to the artists, museums, and galleries that made possible the publication of images in this article. And I am grateful to Katie Loney, Jason Dawbin, and the editors of LALVC for providing additional assistance and support.
“México: eventos de 2020,” Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/es/world-report/2021/country-chapters/377395#. According to the Comisión Nacional de Búsqueda in Mexico, from March 15, 1964, to November 3, 2021, there have been 93,925 missing people in the country. “Contexto general,” Versión Pública Registro Nacional de Personas Desaparecidas y No Localizadas (RNPDNL), Government of Mexico, https://versionpublicarnpdno.segob.gob.mx/Dashboard/ContextoGeneral.
According to Sayak Valencia, economic crisis, hyperconsumption, and increased poverty are factors that have made violence an acceptable form of labor. Gore capitalism is thus defined by Valencia as an extreme form of neoliberalism, where many achieve upward mobility through kidnapping, trafficking, and torture. Sayak Valencia, Gore Capitalism, trans. John Pluecker (South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2018).
For a detailed account of violence in Latin America, see Jean Franco, Cruel Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).
Héctor Padilla introduced the term la política de negación to describe official rhetoric that downplays ongoing violence in Ciudad Juárez. Héctor Padilla, “Ciudad Juárez: militarización, discursos y paisajes,” in Vida, muerte y resistencia en Ciudad Juárez: una aproximación desde la violencia, el género y la cultura, ed. Salvador Cruz Sierra (Tijuana, BC: El Colegio de la Frontera Norte; Mexico City: Juan Pablos Editor, 2013).
Ježik examines state-sponsored violence as it occurs in contemporary society in artworks such as Six Cubic Meters of Organic Material (2009). In this neoliberarchivo, Ježik used a dump truck to discard organic material into a vacant lot in Ciudad Juárez. This disposal of guts evokes the discarding of bodies seen in feminicidios and narcofosas (narco-burials). Ježik’s neoliberarchivo highlights violence to expose a culture of death, corruption, impunity, and misinformation. See Kate Bonansinga, Curating at the Edge: Artists Respond to the U.S.-Mexico Border (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010) and Cuauhtémoc Medina, ed., Enrique Ježik: Obstruir, destruir, ocultar (Mexico City: Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo [MUAC], Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México [UNAM], 2011). Corral has similarly created neoliberarchivos to protest and denounce feminicidios and juvenicidios (murders of young people). In The Numbers Grow (2013) she exhibited clay body bag tags inscribed with some of the names of the victims of Campo Algodonero of Ciudad Juárez, which, like Lote Bravo, was used as a dumping site for the bodies of victims of gender violence. The artwork was later covered by grass. See Tatiana Reinoza and Luis Vargas-Santiago, eds., Counter-archives to the Narco City = Contra-archivos de la ciudad del narco, trans. Raúl Ariza-Barile (University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana: Copilot Press, 2015); Andrea Lepage, “Memory and Counter-Memorials: Adriana Corral’s Unearthed: Desenterrado on the United States–Mexico Border,” The Latin Americanist 65, no. 1 (2021): 84–104, doi:10.1353/tla.2021.0005.
Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 7.
Claudette Lauzon defines the melancholic archive as an open wound and an archive or witness to loss. Like the counterarchive, the melancholic archive fails to provide answers. Claudette Lauzon, “A home for loss: Doris Salcedo’s melancholic archives,” Memory Studies 8, no. 2 (2015): 207. Natalia Taccetta uses the term “counter-archive” to examine artworks by Voluspa Jarpa. Jarpa has worked extensively with the declassified archives from Latin America’s dictatorships and the CIA. In Jarpa’s counterarchives, the declassified documents are not there to be researched, but to provide feelings of alienation, unease, and incompleteness. Natalia Taccetta, “En nuestra pequeña región de por acá: de la desclasificación del documento al contra-archivo en la obra de Voluspa Jarpa,” Revista heterotopías del área de estudios de discurso de FFyH 1, no. 2 (December 2018): 1–27.
According to Oscar J. Martínez, Chihuahua first had a free-trade zone on October 23, 1858. The zone would be a contentious topic, and its boundaries changed again and again over time. Oscar J. Martínez, Ciudad Juárez: Saga of a Legendary Border City (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018), 15.
Geraldo Luján Cadava traces cross-border exchanges and the establishment of US businesses in Mexico’s borderland as early as the 1940s. Luján Cadava, “Open Border: The National Press and the Promotion of Transnational Commerce, 1940–1965,” in Border Spaces: Visualizing the U.S.-Mexico Frontera, ed. Katherine G. Morrisey and John-Michael Warner (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018). With the implementation of NAFTA under the Carlos Salinas de Gortari administration (1988–94), the neoliberal regime and the assembly line became widespread throughout Mexico.
“In 1965 there were only 12 maquilas on the border employing about 3,000 people.…in 1988 there were 1400 factories with 330,579 workers.” Martha A. Ojeda and Rosemary Hennessy, NAFTA from Below: Maquiladora Workers, Farmers, and Indigenous Communities Speak Out on the Impact of Free Trade in Mexico (San Antonio, TX: Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, 2006), 4.
María Patricia Fernández-Kelly, For We Are Sold, I and My People: Women and Industry in Mexico’s Frontier (Albany: SUNY Press, 1983), 27–28.
Martín Coronado, “Tiene Juárez las mayores maquilas,” El Diario de Juárez, June 5, 2016, https://diario.mx/Economia/2016-06-05_4d492080/tiene-juarez-las-mayores-maquilas/.
Wendy Brown calls the expansion of neoliberalism to all sectors of society neoliberal rationality. Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015), 176.
Julia Estela Monárrez Fragoso classifies feminicides into categories to include intimate feminicide, feminicide related to stigmatized professions, systemic sexual feminicide, and disorganized systemic sexual feminicide. Julia Estela Monárrez Fragoso, “An Inventory of Feminicide in Ciudad Juárez,” in Women's Health Journal 1 (2009): 23–37.
Kathleen Staudt, Violence and Activism at the Border: Gender, Fear, and Everyday Life in Ciudad Juárez (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008), 15, 81, 85; Kathleen Staudt, “Culpa patricio a barrio por muertas,” Reforma, July 5, 2004, available on ProQuest.
Due to the government’s disregard of feminicidios, feminist groups such as Grupo Ocho de Marzo first began to create an archive of the crimes. Grupo Ocho de Marzo de Ciudad Juárez, “Estudio hemerográfico (fuente El Diario de Juárez).” Also in Staudt, Violence and Activism at the Border, 82.
“Suman 2 mil 50 mujeres asesinadas en la frontera,” El Diario de Juárez, January 22, 2020, https://diario.mx/juarez/suman-2-mil-50-mujeres-asesinadas-en-la-frontera-20200121-1618062.html; Bianca Carmona and Araly Castañón, “El cementerio clandestino más grande de México, ¿justicia fabricada?” El Universal, January 2, 2020, https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/estados/ciudad-juarez-el-cementerio-de-mujeres-mas-grande-de-mexico-justicia-fabricada.
In July 2020 another victim of feminicidio was found. “Tiran cuerpo de mujer en baldío,” El Diario de Juárez, July 31, 2020, https://diario.mx/juarez/tiran-cuerpo-de-mujer-en-baldio-20200730-1691049.html.
Salvador Cruz Sierra, “Memorias de dolor: violencia social y homicida en Ciudad Juárez,” in Topografías de las violencias: alteridades e impasses sociales, ed. Susana H. Bercovich and Salvador Cruz Sierra (Tijuana, BC: El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2015), 89.
Cruz Sierra, “Memorias de dolor,” 89. As explained by Padilla, the factors that cause violence are varied. Padilla, “Ciudad Juárez,” 131.
Mary Louise Pratt defines the “contact zone” as “Social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination.…It invokes the space and time where subjects previously separated by geography and history are co-present, the point at which their trajectories now intersect.” Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2008), 7–8.
Daniel Borunda, “Special Report: ‘Juárez Deserves the Title of the Most Dangerous City in the World,’” El Paso Times, June 7, 2010, http://www.elpasotimes.com/juarez/ci_15241689. In 2011 Ciudad Juárez was considered one of the most dangerous cities. See Damien Cave, “Bridging a Gap between Fear and Peace,” New York Times, February 14, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/world/americas/15juarez.html. A recent report by Statista names Ciudad Juárez, along with other cities in Mexico, as the most dangerous in the world. “Ranking of the most dangerous cities in the world in 2022, by murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants,” Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/243797/ranking-of-the-most-dangerous-cities-in-the-world-by-murder-rate-per-capita/.
Original: “La política de negación busca, sobre todo, atenuar la gravedad o profundidad de la problemática social subyacente en la violencia, tratando de convencer a los juarenses y la opinión pública nacional e internacional de que se trata de una situación temporal o transitoria, una cuestión de ‘imagen’ o sesgo en la percepción.” Padilla, “Ciudad Juárez,” 121. All translations by the author unless otherwise noted.
Horacio Nájera, “Niegan violencia SLP y Juárez: desestima alcalde fronterizo datos de sedesol,” Reforma, December 19, 2004, available on ProQuest.
Ernesto Montero, “Pide gobernador de Chihuahua no estigmatizar a Ciudad Juárez,” Notimex, October 11, 2007, available on ProQuest.
“[…] para hablar de las personas asesinadas, del cuerpo sin voz, de los olvidados en la impunidad, de la ausencia, y el miedo, pero sobre todo del dolor de las familias.” Teresa Margolles, “Global Feminisms: Teresa Margolles,” March 23–25, 2007, at Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art Forum, Brooklyn Museum, trans. Brooklyn Museum, accessed September 15, 2020, video, 21:10 min, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEO_iyYcFJ4.
Cuauhtémoc Medina, “SEMEFO,” The Mexico City Reader, ed. Rubén Gallo (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 309–26.
Margolles’s Dermis (1995) constitutes an early neoliberarchivo. In this artwork, SEMEFO created an imprint of a dead body found at the morgue with used sheets from Mexico City’s hospitals and ambulances. Rubén Gallo, New Tendencies in Mexican Art: The 1990s (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), 116–26.
Gilbert Vicario, “Memoria = Memory,” in Ya basta hijos de puta: Teresa Margolles (Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2018), 122.
According to Margolles, she arrived in Ciudad Juárez in 2006–7. “Entrevista a Teresa Margolles: artista visual,” Terricoles – betevé, December 12, 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PG0MI_mVlH0&t=249s. Literature on Margolles’s practice at the border includes Frontera: Teresa Margolles, ed. Rein Wolfs and Letizia Ragaglia (Cologne: Walther Konig, 2011); Teresa Margolles, La promesa: Teresa Margolles (Mexico City: MUAC, UNAM, 2012); Teresa Margolles, El testigo (Madrid: CA2 M Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo, 2014); Jamie Ratliff, “‘Where’ Else Could We Talk About? The Border as Nomadic Site,” Journal of Curatorial Studies 3, nos. 2 & 3 (2014): 346–69; and Jamie Ratliff, “A War on Women: Teresa Margolles’ Ciudad Juárez,” N. Paradoxa: The Only International Feminist Art Journal 35 (January 2015): 56–65.
“Teresa Margolles: Lote Bravo,” Museum of Fine Arts Houston, https://emuseum.mfah.org/objects/76286/lote-bravo.
Alice Driver, “Monuments, Memorials, Graffiti and Street Art: Memory Creation in an Apocalyptic Landscape,” in More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2015): 38–39.
Vicario, “Memoria = Memory,” 122–23.
Cuauhtémoc Medina, Abuso mutuo: ensayos e intervenciones sobre arte postmexicano (1992–2013) (Mexico City: Cubo Blanco, 2017).
Citlali Cruz, interview by the author, August 3, 2011.
Teresa Margolles, “Conversación,” in Teresa Margolles: What Else Could We Talk About? ed. Medina (Mexico City: Editorial RM, 2009), 90, https://issuu.com/cuauhtemocmedina/docs/what_else__catalogue.
In 2010 an article revealed an absence of forensic professionals in Ciudad Juárez and the cleaning procedures of crime scenes by commercial companies. “La limpieza de escenas del crimen, nuevo negocio en la violenta Ciudad Juárez,” EFE News Service, Madrid, August 13, 2010, https://www.elmundo.es/america/2010/08/13/mexico/1281711626.html.
“A mí me toco trabajar para lo de la bienal de Venecia. [Mi rol fue] buscar la sangre, en las calles empapar las mantas que se fueron al pabellón, ir con ella [Margolles] a los lugares de las masacres por tierra y rotular las mantas secas para que fueran bordadas con los narcomensajes […]” Cruz, interview, August 3, 2011.
“National Pavilion of Mexico,” Universes in Universe, https://universes.art/en/venice-biennale/2009/tour/mexico/03-margolles.
Ratliff has discussed What Else Could We Talk About? Cleaning as “maintenance art” (a concept developed by Mierle Laderman Ukeles) and examined it through a feminist framework. Jamie Ratliff, “Visualizing Female Agency: Space and Gender in Contemporary Women’s Art in Mexico”” (PhD diss., University of Louisville, 2012). Iván A. Ramos argues that by presenting nameless victims in massive numbers, Margolles extends her critique beyond borders, thus inviting collective mourning and caring for the body beyond subjecthood. Iván A. Ramos, “The Viscosity of Grief: Teresa Margolles at the Scene of the Crime,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 25, no. 3 (2015): 298–314.
Valencia, Gore Capitalism, 251.
In line with Valencia, Brown speaks not of a neoliberal state but a governing rationality. In this context, desired outcomes of any activity (family life, relationships, academia, markets, and politics) include productivity, profitability, and success, not the well-being of humans. People become human capital and “insofar as we are human capital for firms or states concerned with their own competitive positioning, we have no guarantee of security, protection, or even survival.…” Brown, Undoing the Demos, 37.
For more on the market and gore capitalism, see Valencia, Gore Capitalism, 237–48.
María Campiglia, “Teresa Margolles: reiterar la violencia,” Barcelona, Research, Art, Creation 2, no. 1 (2013): 119.
“Margolles trabaja con restos de gente que proviene de los sectores más desprotegidos de nuestra sociedad, de los más pobres, aquellos que de facto no cuentan con ninguna clase de derechos. Pero no pareciera haber ningún indicio de un intento por dignificarlos, por reafirmar su humanidad; por lo contrario, logra reducirlos a su condición objetual e introducirlos sin mayor dificultad a la lógica de arte-mercado.” Campiglia, “Teresa Margolles,” 121.
Judith Butler, The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind (New York: Verso, 2020), 75.
Medina, ed., Teresa Margolles, 29.
In 2015 juarense activist Ivonne Ramírez Ramírez created the archive “Ellas Tienen Nombre” to trace feminicidios (https://www.ellastienennombre.org/). Another archive, “Los Feminicidios en Mexico,” was created in 2016 by activist María Salguero to render visible the feminicidios (https://feminicidiosmx.crowdmap.com/). For more on Salguero, read Helena Chávez MacGregor, Sol Henaro, and Alejandra Labastida, “#NoMeCansaré: estética y política en México, 2012–2018,” in 68 + 50 (Mexico City: MUAC, UNAM / RM, 2018). For another account of the role of the archive in Latin America, read Andrea Giunta and George F. Flaherty, “Latin American Art History: An Historiographic Turn,” Art in Translation 9, no. 1 (2017): 121–42, https://doi.org/10.1080/17561310.2016.1246293.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (New York: Verso, 2019), 169–70. Azoulay distinguishes among the archive as institution, as a practice for archival purposes, and as a regime. According to Azoulay, the archival regime categorizes people and appropriates objects for display in museums.
Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 17.
“In Lieu of Unity: At Ballroom Marfa,” Glasstire, June 5, 2010, https://glasstire.com/2010/06/05/in-lieu-of-unity-at-ballroom-marfa/. Irrigation was later exhibited in Chalk the Block at El Paso, Texas (October 14–16, 2011); in BASTA! Art and Violence in Latin American Art at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (May 5–July 15, 2016); and in Mundos at Le Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Québec (February 16–May 14, 2017). For more on Irrigation, see Ya basta hijos de puta, 81–82 and “Chalk the Block,” Ballroom Marfa, October 2011, https://www.ballroommarfa.org/program/chalk-the-block/.
Terry Smith defines a Visual Arts Exhibitionary Complex (VAEC) as “a constellation of venues, contexts, and events …for the showing of works of art in public, quasi-public, and private settings.” Terry Smith, “Mapping the Contexts of Contemporary Curating: The Visual Arts Exhibitionary Complex,” in Journal of Curatorial Studies 6, no. 2 (October 2017): 170–80, https://doi-org.pitt.idm.oclc.org/10.1386/jcs.6.2.170_1 and Terry Smith, “The Australian Visual Arts Exhibitionary Complex,” in Australian Art Fields: Practices, Policies, Markets, ed. Tony Bennet, Deborah Stevenson, Fred Myers and Tamara Winikoff (London: Informa UK, 2020). The Marfa VAEC includes the Chinati Foundation, Judd Foundation, and Ballroom Marfa. Additional venues were listed in “The Arts in Marfa: A Cultural Hotspot with International Influence,” Marfa, accessed July 10, 2020, https://www.visitmarfa.com/art-in-marfa/.
Erin Hogan calls Marfa “the contemporary art pilgrim’s mecca.” Hogan, Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip through the Land Art of the American West (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 144–70. Neda Ulaby, “Marfa, Texas: An Unlikely Art Oasis in a Desert Town,” Morning Edition, National Public Radio, August 2, 2012, https://wamu.org/story/12/08/02/marfa_texas_an_unlikely_art_oasis_in_a_desert_town/.
Artists in the exhibit were Margarita Cabrera, Teresa Margolles, Pedro Reyes, Eduardo Abaroa, Livia Corona, Minerva Cuevas, Mario García Torres, Paulina Lasa, Tercerunquinto, and Máximo González.
Stephan Pascher, “In Lieu of Unity/En lugar de la unidad,” Art in America, November 16, 2020, https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/aia-reviews/in-lieu-of-unity-en-lugar-de-la-unidad-60714/.
In 2020, Mexico’s Undersecretary of State Alejandro Encinas declared that Mexican authorities underreport disappearances. Antonio Baranda, “Señala Encinas que estados ocultan las desapariciones,” El Diario de Juárez, June 10, 2020, https://diario.mx/nacional/senala-encinas-que-estados-ocultan-las-desapariciones-20200610-1672149.html.
In Irrigation, Margolles is complicit in the exploitation of resources, as is seen in the artist’s disposal of this large quantity of water to create an artwork of polluted water along the border on Highway 90. Concerning the environmental implications and contradictions of art exhibitions, see T. J. Demos, “The Politics of Sustainability: Art and Ecology,” in Radical Nature: Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969–2009 (London: Barbican Art Gallery, 2009), quoted in Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, ed. Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung, 2nd ed. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 466–85.
“Lo que me interesaba en esta pieza era hablar de la responsabilidad mutua de la violencia en la frontera.” Teresa Margolles email message to author, June 18, 2020.
Medina, “SEMEFO,” 322.
Grant Krester, “Conversation Pieces: The Role of Dialogue in Socially-Engaged Art,” Variant 9 (Winter 1999–2000), reproduced in Kocur and Leung, eds., Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, 153–65.
Margolles has, however, created artworks that encourage conversation. In Póker de Damas (Ladies’ Poker, 2016) she invited a group of trans women from Ciudad Juárez to speak about their experiences in this border city. Natalie Alvarez and Keren Zaiontz, “Feminist Performance Forensics,” Contemporary Theatre Review 28, no. 3 (July 3, 2018): 285–98; Alejandra Labastida, “Sala 10: Teresa Margolles,” MUAC, https://muac.unam.mx/exposicion/sala10-teresa-margolles.
Gregory Sholette, Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism, ed. Kim Charnley (London: Pluto Press, 2017), 220.
Sholette, Delirium and Resistance, 223.
Padilla, “Ciudad Juárez,” 107–8. According to Sandra Rodríguez Nieto, in 2004 there were about three hundred gangs active in the city. Rodríguez Nieto, The Story of Vicente, Who Murdered His Mother, His Father, and His Sister: Life and Death in Juárez, trans. Daniela María Ugaz and John Washington, 2nd ed. (New York: Verso, 2017), 124.
According to Padilla, la maquinaria del terror caused the death of some 9,500 victims in Ciudad Juárez between 2008 and 2010. Padilla, “Ciudad Juárez,” 108.
Ježik also employs machines to comment on the collusion of powers, defining them as representative of the forces of the national state. As Ježik states, “Machines are protagonists. It’s a bit like thinking that a mechanical apparatus is an apparatus of power.” Cited in Néstor García Canclini, “What Ježik Fails to Mention,” in Medina, Enrique Ježik, 163.
Miki García, “Silvia Gruner,” in TRANSactions: Contemporary Latin American and Latino Art (San Diego, CA: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 2006), 68–69.
García, TRANSactions, 68.
Karen Cordero Reiman has written about Gruner’s The Birth of Venus as a work of art that destabilizes notions of Mexican nationality and identity. Karen Cordero Reiman, “Corporeal Identities in Mexican Art: Modern and Postmodern Strategies,” in The Effects of the Nation: Mexican Art in an Age of Globalization, ed. Carl Good (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), 53–72.
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2003), 102–3.