A cartographic portrait of the Mexico-California borderland and the Torovestimenta Project by Raúl Cárdenas Osuna

Raúl Cárdenas Osuna spoke Thursday October 28 in a conference hosted by DRCLAS, Cultural Agents, Cátedra Cultura de México and Conaculta Fonca. Cárdenas Osuna is an artist, activist and the founder of Torolab, a collective in Tijuana, Mexico that organizes urban and community interventions.

Define: “Molecular urbanism,” “Emergency architecture,” “Contested territory,” “Diagnostic portrait,” “Trans-border trousers,” “Farmlab,” “Artist interventionist.” For Raúl Cárdenas Osuna, who spoke Thursday evening to a filled room in CGIS, many of these concepts are his brainchildren and a natural part of his vocabulary. Cárdenas Osuna is the founder of Torolab and the creator of myriad projects in Mexico and abroad involving art, science, community, gastronomy, social activism, agriculture and identity.

Keeping up with Cárdenas Osuna requires you to postpone your awe and simply be swept up by the inertia and compass of his artistic concepts and projects. Practically vibrating with energy in his Ginsberg glasses and blue-laced sneakers, Cárdenas Osuna is in his early forties and designs some of the most exciting, innovative projects in the growing field of art intervention in Mexico. His presentation Thursday follows his award earlier this year handed out by the Harvard initiative Cultural Agents, Catédra Cultura de México and Conaculta Fonca (Fondo Nacional para la Cultural y las Artes) for the best Cultural and Artistic Intervention with a Community Impact.

“I think we’re seeing the formation of a new field that will bring us to new horizons in the twenty-first century,” Doris Sommer, professor in Romance Languages and Literatures and founder of Cultural Agents, said in her introduction.

The field, which comes with a new vocabulary and revolutionized interdisciplinary concepts, looks at the application and process of art in society.

“There is a history in Tijuana to be said about protest art and which is super important…. But it comes up to a point when it is maybe enough,” explained Cárdenas Osuna. “So what do you do with that information [art] that you’re portraying for everybody else? So I guess in our generation we started to do something with all this wonderful, incredible history of protest art. We started to do something with the things we were portraying that were our diagnostics.”

Cárdenas Osuna, who studied art and architecture, sees artistic expression as being only the first step. Art is a diagnostic, a portrait of a community and a problem that leads to designing “products” and interventions addressing these issues.

Torolab began in 1995. As a small collective headed by Cárdenas Osuna, one of Torolab’s first projects was Torovestimenta, a line of “trans-border trousers” designed for border crossing. The jeans had hidden pockets for visas, passports, cell phones and other necessities. The project was inspired by Tijuana and its status as a “contested territory,” a borderland whose migrant identity influences ideas of design and utility.

As Cárdenas Osuna said, “There is certain activity that allows you to understand that the boundaries, geopolitical boundaries, are not the only boundaries that there are: the economical, the linguistic. And the opportunities that arise from something you don’t see as a limit and then it becomes a point for something to arise.”

These jeans eventually served as models and provided research data for other projects. GPS trackers were installed with five pairs and tracked the migration patterns and expenditures (gas, calories) of the participants. These subsequent “portraits” revealed needs and wants of the participants and certain communities, which in turn allows Torolab to design artistic interventions.

Torolab works “to empower and impulse people who are agents of change,” said Cárdenas Osuna. In his work, Cárdenas Osuna recognizes artists as some of the greatest interventionists. As Professor Sommer pointed out, artists appeal to the aesthetic and the sensory and are thereby able to design effective political, economic, urban and spatial interventions.

Cárdenas Osuna’s interventions have included establishing organic farms for previously nomadic immigrants from the Chinese steppes whose oral traditions have cast them to the margins California society, addressing the overwhelming garbage waste problem in Mexico City, creating recycled, “auto-constructed,” transformable furniture, designing food and nutrition interventions in Tijuana and Mexico and measuring the impact of urban and environmental changes on individuals and communities.

The specific program for which he received the award is called “Transborder Farmlab Program” in Tijuana.

“We started to work in a way that was not only grassroots but it became a project of mediation and negotiation with the government,” Cárdenas Osuna elaborated. “And the project basically became what we call the Transborder Farmlab Program. And basically comes from two initiatives that we have now… one is the initiative of creative economics and the society of agents of change.”

The project works with issues of border identity, nutrition and creating sustainable communities in the growing city of Tijuana. Through farming, cookbooks, storytelling, movies, television shows and community products, Cárdenas Osuna and the Famlab Program seek impact some of the greatest problems facing Tijuana and border communities.

“When we’re dealing with the issue of border, we’re not only dealing with the geopolitical” says Cárdenas Osunas. “But we’re dealing with disciplines, and the trans-disciplinary things we can do. And when we’re dealing with farms, we’re not dealing with the issue of farming only food, which we will, but farming ideas and projects.”

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