Interview with local author and photographer in Condesa, Mexico City.
Tell us where you grew up and why you moved to Mexico City.
I grew up in downtown Manhattan in the 1970s, when it was still a 'dangerous' city and a great producer of culture (hip hop, salsa, punk). By the 1990s I was sick of the city and how it had become gentrified, Americanized and sanitized. A summer trip to Mexico City opened up a whole new world for me.
What was so appealing about the city that has made you stay here for so long?
When I first got to Mexico City in 1989 it was, like New York City before, a producer of culture, especially street culture, it still had neighborhood's with their own culture, and I felt very much at home. I met lots of artists from all over the world who arrived around the same time and who appreciated the particular culture Mexico had to offer. I quickly learned a new language and a whole new culture, history, and geography.
How does the city help you stay relevant as an artist? Does it inspire you to make certain things or take certain photographs?
I am interested in popular culture, which is to say working class culture, which here in Mexico City is the link to earlier, indigenous culture (the Aztec empire), and that is an unending source for photographs and writing.
What are some things that scare you about the city?
Well, nowadays, just like in NYC, I am scared of the masses of young urban professionals from the USA and Europe who have taken over my old neighborhood and turned it into a global playground.
How does architecture play a role in your photography?
How does architecture play a role in your photography?
Architecture is a great connection to the past, to many pasts, to times when Mexico City created its own culture or at least perverted imported cultures to create wonderfully weird buildings and living spaces. Urban architecture, especially in working class areas, not only helps preserve earlier cultures it also helps working class communities defend against the spread of globalism.
Are there certain aspects of urbanism or everyday life that you try to focus on in you photo-sessions?
I’ve done a series on graffiti, not so much an artistic graffiti but rather on the way in which graffiti artists choose the urban spaces in which to do their work. That is, I use the text (the tags) as a pretext to focus on the urban context. I did another series of all the public bathrooms I used all over the city as a way to focus on this strange and wonderful world of officially invisible architecture and plumbing.
As a writer you have published your own magazines as well, what were some of these projects like?
In New York City I created and edited the Portable Lower East Side, a literary and art magazine focusing on the work by immigrant and outsider groups in the city as a way to defend against gentrification. In Mexico City I created and edited Poliester, a contemporary art magazine of the Americas, which focused on up-and-coming urban artists who were using non-conventional media and were breaking with folkloric, nationalistic and reactionary art genres and styles.
In your latest book Several Ways to Die in Mexico City you focus on the cultural part of death in the city, in what ways do you present this theme that is different from what we know and see on TV about Mexico?
Well, first of all there is nothing in my book about narcos, as there are no real narcos in Mexico City (the drug business, like all other areas of crime, is organized by the government). Secondly, not only does the book focus on how people actually die in the city (which is, from unhealthy substances in the air, water, food and alcohol), but also how global capitalism is killing off working class culture within the city.
Have you traveled to other countries and tried to capture the spirit of those locations as well?
For the last two decades I’ve traveled all over the Americas, writing about and taking photographs of urban culture in dozens of different cities. There is an endless variety of street and urban culture in all the main cities throughout the continent, each with its own history and flavor.What are some new projects that you are working on now?
For the past couple of years I’ve been working on a project called the architecture of sex in Colombia, which is an ambitious study of all the places where people have sex outside of their homes.
Based on you experience what kind of person does one need to be in order to survive in Mexico City?
Nowadays, like all the other global cities around the world that have been domesticated and transformed into giant shopping malls, a person only needs to have money to survive in Mexico City. Before, a person needed to know how to walk and talk and be a human being.
Do you ever regret coming here?
I hate what's happened to Mexico City, especially in my neighborhood and others surrounding it, over the last ten years. But it was for me a great city for many years and helped me grow and expand my horizons and produce much more than I would have in NYC.
If given the chance what location would you like to capture the most in a photographic session?
I’d be a happy photographer if someone paid me to shoot toilets, massage parlors, love hotels, or cheap bars all around the world.Do you think a photograph can really capture the spirit of a place?
I don't know about spirits, but for me photography is the best medium to capture particular places at particular times from a particular (conceptual) angle. It helps if you have a real reason to be shooting that place at that time. Most photographers' only reason to shoot something is that they're being paid to do so, which is no real reason at all. I only pull my camera out when I’ve worked out an idea or concept that justifies the effort.
What advice would you give to young artists and photographers who want to use this type of medium to express themselves?
Go to amazingly cheap places, drink local alcohol, make friends with people who aren't your own age, have some respect for the great ghettos of the world.