Place as Social Practice

by alum Peter Svarzbein, from the 2015 issue of "All the Best, Alice."

Home is a concept filled with memory. The big third-grade classroom seems much smaller when we visit years later. Similarly, nostalgia can inflate history and give exaggerated power to our past. With this in mind I began a project about my hometown, El Paso, by looking at and celebrating those symbols of the past.

I never thought I would go back home and establish roots there again in any meaningful way. Being home has allowed me to view it differently: not as something static, but as something pliable and, in a sense, infinite.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

The El Paso Transnational Trolley Project began as my graduate thesis project at SVA. It was a yearlong ad campaign that focused on imagining a streetcar running between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, based on a streetcar line that operated there from 1902 to 1974. The project is a love letter to El Paso, the city that raised me, and a city that was experiencing enormous stress and hardship due to frayed relations with its sister city Ciudad Juarez. The objectives of the project were two-fold:

  1. To imagine a better future. Without this goal, it’s almost impossible to have a better future, and I felt it vitally important to begin a conversation about those values that make this border region distinctive and special. And in so doing to demonstrate the necessity of continued advocacy for border crossing.
  2. To represent the unique environments of border cities, and specifically the El Paso del Norte Borderplex. The reality of living on the border, regardless of socio-economic circumstances, is that at some point those who live there have the desire and need to cross the border. I felt this story of the border had not been told, that people were accepting simple-minded and stereotyped views of this territory between two countries.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

This trolley project took on a life of its own. The evening I returned to El Paso I started taking portraits. In the first two months, working with friends, I began to photograph simple portraits in Juarez and El Paso as well as Las Cruces, New Mexico. They were black and white images that I transformed into a mosaic of a vintage El Paso PCC streetcar. The mosaic included more than 2,000 portraits, a time capsule of the region in 2011—a year during which almost 3,000 people were killed in Ciudad Juarez. The mosaic was created as a symbol of hope. Its faces were our faces, here on the border, and I wanted our real selves to be represented, rather than leave this narrative to others, outsiders, who feel competent to tell my community what we look like and how we conduct ourselves.

Photographer Peter Svarzbein at the trolley depot in the desert near the airport of El Paso, Texas. Peter ha s great project going to revive the old trolley line from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Check out his The El Paso Transnational Trolley Project at http://elpasotransnationaltrolley.tumblr.com/LA FRONTERA: Artists along the US Mexican Border© Stefan Falkehttp://www.stefanfalke.com/

The final border breached with the El Paso Transnational Trolley Project was the wall between politics and art: In February 2012, the project turned into a real-world grassroots campaign when we started collecting not portraits but signatures in an attempt to save the vintage streetcars eroding in the desert. We secured almost 2,000 signatures from citizens and that support resulted in El Paso city representatives supporting a project for an intra-city rail. A sketch in 2010 transformed into a shovel-ready plan in 2013, which was funded by the Texas Department of Transportation in the summer of 2014.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Social practice in the arts can be defined as work that exists outside of galleries and that focuses on initiating change in ways that are more than merely aesthetic. El Paso and its border region is a space constantly in negotiation with itself and the governments of Mexico and the United States, as well as the Municipality of Chihuahua and State of Texas. For me, going home was a chance to see my work and my life evolve and coalesce, where my concerns of dialogue, understanding and development stopped becoming a project and became my life’s ambition. This has led me to run for the El Paso City Council. As lines continue to blur among artistic genres and mediums one thing has become clear: We need fewer politicians and more artists in politics.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug