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Dos millones casas para Mexico

2 March, 2010

I saw the Mexican American photographer Livia Corona give a wonderful talk yesterday at the Massachusetts College of Art. Abelardo Morell introduced her, saying ‘she is Mexican, she speaks English, and she’s legal.’ I can only vouch for one of the three. Livia’s work is exceptional, and she speaks with such intelligence and charm it is impossible not to be swept up in her excitement. The centerpiece of the presentation was her project ‘Two Million Homes for Mexico,’ for which she was just awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. It examines the explosion in new housing construction former President Vicente Fox spearheaded during his time in office – he pledged that his government would create 2 million new low-income homes, and they succeeded. The next question, of course, is at what cost?

Leaving aside questions of environmental impact and corruption, Livia explains that there are huge problems with the social system the houses represent. Though they are affordable, they are often as small as 100 sq ft or so (for a family!), and the architecture is numbingly repetitive, with microscopic front and back yards, and little or no provision made for community needs like supermarkets, restaurants, and basic social services. Part of Livia’s project is recording the spectacle of the dehumanizing grids of buildings that were created. Another is showing how people adapt creatively to such complicated circumstances, what Livia calls their ‘instincts of resilience.’ For example, some of the residents have bought extra homes where they set up makeshift restaurants and even a party center/banquet hall. They also illegally build extra floors into their buildings, or staircases up to the roof to create more space (also illegal). Livia spoke about the lack of cultural stimuli in the developments that have been created – one small boy sat perched in a window like a cat she said, for over two hours. His house is not quite as wide as two cars.

I only knew Livia as a still photographer, but she showed some fantastic new video work. Her new piece ‘El Pan’ (bread) tops out at around 20 minutes, condensed from around 8 hours she spent riding around in an old VW Jetta with a breadseller in one of the ‘two million home’ developments. The vendor drives around with the trunk open, playing synthy renditions of pop songs like ‘New York, New York,’ ‘the Theme from Love Story,’ and mariachi music, all the while calling out ‘Pan!, Pan!’ in an animated patois to attract the attention of customers. Livia explained that the Casiotone quality of the music he plays is a clever way of making himself seem recognizable and familiar in the neighborhoods he serves. The driver pauses now and then, but you never actually see him sell bread. He just goes down street after street of new houses, and countless speed bumps – the bumps make for some interesting visuals, as she shoots simultaneously out of the front and back of the car. It’s quirky and surreal, sweet and poignant – wonderfully haunting work.

The video can be seen here on Vimeo.

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