Art, jokes, and social engagement in Mexico

original article on PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions blog:

This March, I was able to attend a three-week residency at the Guapamacátaro Center for Art and Ecology in Mexico with a travel grant from the Institute for Sustainable Solutions. The Guapamacátaro residency is centered in an old hacienda, a few kilometers away from the town of Maravatío, Michoacán. It is organized by Mexican artist and curator Alicia Marván.

The participants of the session were primarily artists who had interests and experience in other disciplines (such as agriculture and education), and who had specific concerns with the intersection of art, the environment, and the local community. Days at Guapamacátaro were structured organically, allowing for work to develop within the confines of the hacienda, or to interface with the surrounding community.

“Se vende chistes/Se compra chistes” Dillon de Give explored the culture of Michoacán, Mexico by asking locals to tell him a joke.

Agricultural production forms the basis of the local economy. Surrounding land is rich in natural resources, and is famous for producing avocados. Because of this, issues of land ownership, land usage/management, water rights, and the legacy of the power relationships left over from the hacienda system are ever-present. However, the larger political system in place is not often responsive to the subtleties of these issues.

Such systematic problems were discussed at length among the group. However, the focus of my work occurred on a smaller, more intimate scale. It began with a recognition of my incomplete knowledge of Spanish and a desire to understand more. I considered the idea that humor is perhaps the subtlest expression of a language. With this, I decided to go on a series of long walking trips. Along the way, I simply asked people if they would tell me a chiste,  a joke. Though I rarely “got it” these interactions served as a way to get a sense of the local temperament and to share in a moment I might not have otherwise participated in. I filmed people telling their jokes, and will use the footage as the basis of a new work.

Michoacán school children participating in an after school program with artists from Guapamacátaro.

In addition to this project, I was able to contribute to several collaborative projects that emerged from the cohort, including an after school activity group with students from a local elementary school, and the establishment of a vegetable garden, complete with a fence made from tulé (a locally invasive water plant). At the end of the residency, the community was invited to an opening in which the results of our work were displayed and discussed. About 25 people from the surrounding area came, some of who brought their children.

The residency allowed me to make professional contacts with people who share my concerns regarding art, the environment, and social engagement. I was also able to use the experience as a case study to examine how art can function in a context radically different from my own, and to develop the seeds for investigation into an artistic theme I will continue to explore.

P. Dillon de Give is a New York City based artist. He will soon hold an MFA in Art and Social Practice from Portland State University. You can see some of the jokes that Dillon collected at