[ The following was written for Communication Arts magazine.]
Three years ago I was doing a speaking gig in San Diego and a young woman asked would I care to speak at the first design conference ever held in Tijuana: Esquina Norte. Sure, why not?
Esquina Norte is named for the point of land it occupies, the far northwest corner of Mexico. When one visits that actual point, they will find the massive wall that separates Mexico from the U.S. It reaches well out into the Pacific, where it’s end is met by cold, dangerous waters, rocks, and sharks. On the U.S. side of the wall is a stretch of no-man’s land guarded by armed troops and watchtowers. On the Mexican side one can find natives from the farthest reaches of Mexico - and further south - that risk their proverbial life and limb to enter the U.S. To call it an interesting place would be an understatement.
The same could be said for the Esquina Norte conference, which likewise draws natives, both professional and student from all over Mexico. Not to mention attendees from the U.S. and Central American countries.
By the time I'd left Tijuana two years ago, I'd had an opportunity to see work presented by Australian Ken Cato, chairman of Cato Design Inc. an international firm with offices on six continents. Of course I also had an opportunity to crane my neck around his tall body, only to be blocked by the head of the much shorter Lance Wyman, the New York City-based environmental graphic designer, who has worked on programs that have included signage programs for the 1968 Summer Olympic games in Mexico, metro maps in Washington, D.C., and the Marco Museum in Monterrey, Mexico. The interesting point is not the height of fellow designers, but the fact that our focus was on one of Tijuana's famed "floor shows". How did i get her, and with these icons? Tijuana offers both the expected and the unexpected, and that is the draw to this conference.
That first conference featured lectures and workshops over a 3-day period. Aside from Cato and Wyman, highlights included the work of Mexico City's Reyes Santana who has designed breathtaking currency for Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela and Turkey, a web-based, architectural cross-border trip through the good, bad, and ugly of indigenous dwellings to the sound of Nortec, the trip-hop music which combines house/techno styles with native motifs. Heady stuff. And on the lighter side, a 3-part workshop lead by Ensenada's Omar Chivara had about twenty people designing, painting and ultimately wearing the wrestling masks of the Lucha Libre. Aiiiii!
This year started on a shaky note with a lecture by Cuban Antonio Perez Niko, the theme of which was "Metaphor and Humor" which generated silence till almost the very end. Deadly dull stuff presented by an austere designer who spent the first 20 minutes in a seated discourse on his metaphoric musings, accompanied by an on-screen image of himself. Zzzzzz translates equally well en Espanol.
Yet day one also saw inspirational typography from Gabriel Martinez Meave of Mexico City's
studio/foundry Kimera, with his well-researched and historic-based fonts. Truly a gifted young man, he could be found at breakfast re-working letterforms in his sketchbook, studded with drawings of exactitude and sensuality.
Caustic New Yorker James Victore (I had to explain to locals that all New Yorkers are not like James) wrapped up day one with his brash act. Best part of his often-crude, but always-smart talk? Seeing opening speaker Niko walk out not long after the presentation of the controversial "Shit or Shinola" campaign for the Portfolio Center. For Victore's work garned laughs without him saying word one. Pues, asi lo es.
Friday's highlights included the presentation by the Guadalajara-based Colectivo Hematoma, who's 17-member group create series of theme-based posters which they snipe across the beautiful city of Guadalajara. Issues like social injustice, violence against women, the attacks against the U.S. on 9-11 and it's repercussions, were tempered with a series on double-entendres both comic and suggestive, which garnered the most laughter of the conference, and a series based on use of hand-craft, as opposed to technology.
The young designers, three of whom were on hand, were engaging in their lack of pomp. Though they tackled serious stuff, their use of rousing Mexican pop hits underscored certain points. Just back in Mexico from an exhibit at Columbia, in Chicago, the collective makes a point of anonymity of authorship on each poster, but for the Colectivo logo. And get this: their underwriters and supporters are NOT listed on the posters. Muy buen.
The upstarts moved the crowd more than Los Angeles legend April Grieman, who in spite of her groundbreaking work made little impression on the 20-something crowd weaned on the technology and its influences on media which she pioneered. Still, her California/Pacific Rim color palette could not be rivaled over the course of events.
Another kind of color was added by a mariachi clad in the tight black and silver-bedecked outfit of the charro, who swiveled a hip to applause and calls, before leaping from the stage only to climb upon a table and preach a few salient philosophical points accompanied by guitar.
And speaking of stages, the conference, an intimate 100 or so strong, was held at Tangaloo, an equally-intimate nightclub setting with crazy vines climbing the walls. Comfortable, cozy, and one could order a cocktail.
To close the conference, short of the workshops on Saturday, Italian designer Bruno Monguzzi's thoughtful, invigorating and timeless work provided a nuanced encapsulation of the best of communication design as well as the social art aspects seen in the photography of Kyoto's cowboy, Yoshiyasu Suzuka who had shown his work the day before. Monguzzi, understanding his place in the line-up did not overwhelm the image-saturated crowd, but instead used pointed storytelling and exact pacing to bat clean-up. Something many speakers could learn from.
That evening was capped by a Hematoma exhibit at the Instituto de Cultura de Baja California, where a bit of controversy was kicked up when Victore, who had missed the earlier presentation, found himself confronted with 9-11 posters, that one could argue were lost in translation. He and Monguzzi huddled while media interviewed the Colectivo boys and the rest snapped up posters which were for sale.
Saturday's workshop-filled day was balanced out by late-night entertainment at the party on the beach, with the luminescent green electric-static of natural causes lighting up the whitecaps of the heavy surf. Magical stuff. Bonfires lit the night sky as compadres from Mexicali to Nueva York watched the day break (after a particularly amorous, multi-position coupling by non-conference attendees just yards away - muy caliente).
There's a scene in the new Robert Rodriguez film Once Upon A Time in Mexico where a gringo says to a local "Are you a Mexi-can or a Mexi-can't?" Of course the answer is in the affirmative, which is exactly what one would say about 27-year-old Jhoana Mora Hernandez, who almost single-handedly pulls off this conference. It is her money on the line (no trust funds - she works for a living), and if she comes up short, it is her loss, not that of a sponsor or non-profit group. About a week or so before the event she rounds up a handful of volunteers and makes this conference happen. Emcee Max Lizarraga doubled as tech-support - only after his Invisible Projects studio designed all conference materials.
Esquina Norte is a bargain, no matter how you slice it. Maximum conference fees are $210 for professionals, $150 for students and academics. Translation services, which work like a charm (though they don't guarantee understanding inside jokes) are $15. Add to that the sixty-five bucks a night at the Hotel Palacio Azteca (neither palatial, nor Aztec, but when one finds plenty of travel-savvy pilots and flight attendants in proximity, coupled with outstanding food, then you know you're all set). Which leaves mas dinero for late-night tacos adobado, posole, chile rellenos, and the local speciality, fish tacos. Muy rico!
Or to pay a day-time visit to the Avenida Revolucion for photo-ops with burros painted as zebras, along with their colorful carts (NOT tacky, but local color to the extreme), to pick up leather goods, or any number of tourista goods. A night-time visit has other sights to offer. If you knowhadimean, and I think you do.
Add a trip to the mercado, tucked behind the maze of clubs known as Playa de Zapatos, a great place to try aquas fresca, paletas, or find sugar skulls for dia de los muertos or myriad handy-dandy kitchen and household goods, not to mention all varieties of herbs, spices, peppers. Or plaster lamps with Bob Esponge - Spongebob Squarepants to you and me. While at the Playa in the evening sing loud and long with local mariachis or thump and throb in packed dance clubs. Smoke a Cuban.
Last year David "No-show" Carson emailed his "regrets" the night before he was to show up (what a surprise - though thankfully Modern Dog picked up the U.S. slack from our resident slacker). For next year there have already been some agreeable sounds from the likes of Istvan Orosz, Javier Mariscal, Neville Brody, Joel Nakamura, Charles Anderson, Stefan Sagmeister, Rogelio Agrasanchez, Nando Costa, Deanne Cheuk, House Industries, with even Chip Kidd threatening to trade in his New York snap-brim cap for a large felt sombrero. That I gotta see.
7 Oct 2003