Panama City, Panama
March 20 -- April 20, 2003

The residents of the Barraza housing project were standing in their dark courtyard. Joining them was a handful of nervous art supporters. The air was tense, and the potential for violence was high: unseen but watching from the windows above, members of two rival youth gangs waited silently. Below, Panamanian artist Brooke Alfaro worked frantically in the darkness, making last minute adjustments to two large video projectors, a crucial part of his new piece, Nueve. Suddenly, a pair of images -- one on either side of the courtyard -- lit up in the night.

In twin video projections, each gang -- filmed by Alfaro on different days -- sang the same song, a recent hit by local rapper El Rookie. The camera zoomed in for a close-up on each young man's face. And the crowd let out a roar. For perhaps the first time, these people were seeing in their sons and daughters a hope for the future. For a brief moment, up on the wall and larger than life, they were heroes. Once the song finished, the two gangs turned toward one another. A youth on one side tossed a soccer ball, which, through the magic of video editing, was caught by a rival gang member on the other. And as the residents of one of Panama's poorest urban areas cheered wildly, art achieved a seemingly impossible feat, uniting for a moment two groups of sworn enemies on their own battleground.

For most of his life Brooke Alfaro was a painter. His recent conversion to video reflects a shift in the Panamanian art scene, which for many decades had been hung up at a stage of undistinguished quasi-modernism. For the first time in many years, art has begun to find its purpose in this small country -- a purpose beyond mere decoration on the city's luxury goods market. And MultipleCity was a catalyst.

Timed to coincide with the nation's centennial, MultipleCity presented a radical new vision of art as social praxis. The exhibition featured fourteen local and international artists, all of whom tailored new works to the physical and cultural realities of Panama City. And while the local responses were sometimes perplexed, they were for the most part overwhelmingly positive.

At this point, as artist Gustavo Artigas put it, "maybe it's easier for some people not to think of this as art." Araujo, a Panamanian, took over a pervasive symbol of the region's sagging economy -- empty commercial billboards -- to interrogate a local idiom, "La cosa ésta dura." A common response to mundane questions on the order of "żComo ésta?", "La cosa ésta dura" ("Things are tough") sums up the hard-headed perseverance with which Panamanians have weathered many crises.

This economic slump represents just one repercussions of the departure of the U.S. military, who until recently maintained control of the Canal Zone, a large swath of jungle bordering the waterway and hemming the city's growth for almost a century. As Panama celebrates the anniversary of its independence from Colombia, the nation faces a future full of new possibilities and new opportunities to break with its past. Panamanian Gustavo Artigas illustrated this break at the city's Museum of History. With the help of the local fire department, Artigas set a thoroughly convincing but simulated fire at this repository of cultural memory, drawing hundreds of shocked onlookers.

Local artists and intellectuals have struggled for years against a lack of forward-looking institutions in Panama. The inspiration of MultipleCity curators Adrienne Samos and Gerardo Mosquera was to treat this lack not as an obstacle but as an advantage. Their de-centralized curatorial method made use of the local scene's open-endedness: instead of being directed from above, international artists worked alongside local artists, capitalizing on this pool of specialized knowledge to tailor their work to the city's unique micro-politics. In return, many locals -- engineers, architects, bus painters -- received a first-hand course in groundbreaking art.

Belgian artist (via Mexico) Francis Al˙s and his collaborator, Brazilian artist Rafael Ortega, enlisted a group of local collaborators, as well as a large group of visiting Nicaraguan artists, to help with the execution of One Minute of Silence. With Ortega recording the action, Al˙s and his "agents of silence" descended on several of the city's most chaotic sites -- a crowded restaurant, a busy street market, the national lottery hall -- to elicit a precisely measured period of silence from the passing throng.

Panamanian artist Humberto Vélez's La Banda De Mi Hogar favored the opposite extreme. Over the course of the exhibition, Vélez deployed one of the nation's popular marching bands in a series of impromptu celebrations throughout the city. Typically a fixture of the country's colorful independence parades, the band's presence in these contexts -- amid the glass high-rises of the city's wealthiest enclaves -- transversed the city's rigid social boundaries with both humor and style.

While Al˙s, Ortega and Vélez's works all demonstrated the dematerialization of the art object, no one in MultipleCity did so with such elegance as Cuban artist Juan Andrés Milanés. His sculpture, Abstraction in March, consisted of hundreds of blocks of ice placed in a flat grid. The life of this ad hoc ice rink was brief under the tropical heat, but it still managed to bring boundless excitement to the city's children, most of whom had seen so much ice only in movies and books. To watch them skating and sliding across the sculpture was to witness a rare victory for public art: an artwork enjoyed by art supporters and the general public in equal measure.

Sculptor Yoan Capote, also from Cuba, logged a similar success with Analysis of Beauty. A series of heavy, wheeled trash receptacles took on a new significance after Capote covered them with fine fabric upholstery and placed them in a downtrodden neighborhood in the center of the city. So popular were the sculptures, in fact, that despite continued heavy use they remained virtually spotless for weeks. Actually locating them, however, became a problem, as proud residents kept wheeling the sculptures down their own alleys as symbols of local pride.

While most of MultipleCity's artists produced work with a positive message -- Italian collective Artway of Thinking, for instance, staged a beach-side ceremony designed to heal the city's often antagonistic relationship with the sea -- others harnessed the power of art to provoke and stir up public debate. Egyptian-American artist Ghada Amer courted controversy with a series of signs, painted by local vernacular painters, which illustrated selected proverbs. With the help of local artists Miki Fŕbrega and Ramón Zafrani, Amer installed these signs at locations throughout the city -- the state controller's office, the Canal Zone administration building, a street corner between a McDonald's and a Wendy's -- where they would comment on the slippery dynamics of power and control. By the end of the exhibition, two of the six signs had disappeared without a trace, while a third had been removed by the exhibition's organizers on orders from the mayor's office.

Though not originally conceived with controversy in mind, Spanish sculptor Jesús Palomino's fragile sculptures managed to generate a similarly harsh response. In this case the criticism came from property owners, many of whom felt that the structures too perfectly evoked the impromptu shelters that grow up overnight on the sides and backs of existing buildings in Panama. In Palomino's case, the sculptures -- which he titled Vendors and Squatters in homage to the two groups most often responsible for these architectural parasites -- were merely a extension of his oeuvre. But removed from their gallery context, these delicate structures of paper, plastic sheeting and other ephemeral materials hit upon one of the unique features of Panama City: the sharp divide between property owners -- the main beneficiaries of the nation's trade-based open market economy -- and the disenfranchised families who struggle to scrape together a living in virtually the same physical space.

This disparity illustrates one way in which the Canal, both a blessing and a curse, has proven essential part of both Panama's economy and its national identity. The Canal's administrators, after giving an initial go-ahead, ultimately rejected Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles' proposal to pilot a miniature, remote-control model cargo ship on an eight-hour journey through the canal. Apparently concerned about the risk of terrorist attack, though perhaps more worried about how the gesture might reflect on their own professionalism, these administrators have tentatively rescheduled the performance for later in the summer.

Construction on the Canal -- originally started by the French, who brought in Chinese laborers in the mid-19th century, and finished later by the Americans, who imported Jamaicans and other West Indians -- contributed to Panama's astonishingly diverse cultural mosaic. These immigrants' multivalent identity is the subject of Chinese-Canadian artist Gu Xiong's I Am Who I Am. Xiong interviewed members of the local Chinese community, some of whose families have resided in Panama for over a century, and ultimately hung photos of these interviewees, overlaid with their quotes, to flap on brightly colored banners above a main thoroughfare running through the city's Chinatown. It was a potent reminder of the multiplicity that gave MultipleCity its inspiration, a reminder that nothing is simple in the city of the twenty-first century.

by Craig Garrett

[originally published in Art Nexus no. 82 (Summer 2003)]

copyright 2003

at left (top): Gustavo Artigas, Fire, 2003.

at left (middle)t: Gu Xiong, I Am Who I Am, 2003. Photo by Miguel Lombardo / Francisco Barsallo .

at left (bottom): Brooke Alfaro, Nueve, 2003. Photo by Fernando Bocanegra.

All images courtesy of Fundación Arpa.

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