An Interview with Mario Ballesteros
“We don’t think archives should be stored away in vaults and left only to specialists; instead, they should be accessible and open to all sorts of people.”
Mario Ballesteros is is a design curator, editor and critic. He is currently Director and Chief Curator at Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura, a space dedicated to collecting, exhibiting and rethinking design in Mexico.
All images courtesy Archivo Diseño y Architectura.
Sharing is a big part of Archivo’s mission, in terms of objects and the history of design in Mexico. What are new ways you have conceptualized sharing to activate your collection and your publics?
Archivo is more than just an exhibition space: we are trying to build culture and community around design. Sharing—openness, generosity, exchange—is a fundamental part of this this process. We believe in the power of collaborative efforts and open/public processes, and all our exhibitions and programs are built around shared talent and viewpoints. We want to push designers and architects—who are typically reluctant to share ideas, work, or even credit—to embrace the collective nature of these disciplines.
The photography of the objects in the Archivo collection are bold and saturated images. How important is good photography in the mission of Archivo?
Visual communication and culture is completely embedded into our research and curatorial processes. The way we register and portray our work and collection through photography, graphics, and video is a key part of our mission of making design more accessible: we see visual communication as a natural extension of our elemental quest of researching and thinking differently about design, and also what design means in super-saturated and chaotic visual and material context like Mexico.
How is Archivo’s digital presence through its website and Instagram related to and part of its curatorial strategy?
Our recently launched new digital platform archivo.design is the culmination of about two years of thinking about the role we play in the design landscape in Mexico, and what we can contribute to wider discussions regarding design and material culture abroad. We see our website and social media as a key component of our overall mission and a literal extension of our space and programming, especially in terms of generating an active design archive. We don’t think archives should be stored away in vaults and left only to specialists; instead, they should be accessible and open to all sorts of people. Digital access is a key factor in this sense of widening discussions.
Archivo began from a set of objects and funding provided by Fernando Romero and his wife Soumaya. Could you talk a bit about this relationship with Archivo’s founders and how they participate in this young institution? Part of your study about the history of Mexican architecture is its constant adjacency to power, and we’re wondering if that is still intact today, but perhaps in more veiled, neoliberal ways, rather than through state power.
Cultural institutions in Mexico are typically funded or subsidized by the government. Unlike the U.S., where private patronage is very common, in Mexico there are only a handful of privately funded cultural institutions. For some reason, design has fallen out of the scope of “culture,” particularly from the realm of publicly-funded culture, from where it is almost completely absent. I think Fernando and Soumaya realized that there was a need for some sort of institutional support for design, a space that could contribute to research and reflection around design through a publicly accessible design collection, and also a meeting place for young designers to showcase their work. That was the essential driving force behind Archivo.
Your space is adjacent to Casa Luis Barragán. Barragán is often the most visible modern Mexican architect to people unfamiliar with architectural history and design. Do you consider Barragán and his work a launching point for a discussion on architecture? How does Barragán influence the public’s image or understanding of Mexican Architecture?
In the past few decades Barragán has become synonymous with Mexican modernism. His house is a proper pilgrimage sight, and being next door neighbors has very much influenced and pushed us to think about our own role in building culture around architecture and design in Mexico. Obviously Barragán represents only a small—albeit immensely influential—part of the history of modern architecture and design and Mexico: he is a sort of gateway architect that lures people in allowing them to discover that there is a lot more to modern Mexican architecture, and that he represents a very peculiar, personal and idiosyncratic version of it.
How do the different activities (writing, editing, curating, designing, researching) that have comprised your career to date fuse together or remain distinct in your overall approach to your work at Archivo?
I’ve always been interested in working on the margins of different disciplines and formats, trying to push their respective limits. Because my academic background isn’t in architecture or design, I’ve always relied on a very personal intuitive, experiential, and pragmatic approach to my own work, and in how I read the work of others. I believe there are similarities between editing and curating: in the end it is about pushing diverse perspectives and weaving together common narratives by bringing together and reformulating the work of others.
As writers and editors ourselves, we love language… Is language and wall text something you use liberally or with restraint in exchange with gallery audience?
Since joining Archivo, one of the biggest challenges was figuring out a way to communicate what we do and what we’re about. We wanted to translate the accessible and informal spirit of the project as well as build “serious” knowledge around architecture and design culture in Mexico. Language has been a key component for this. We’ve opted for a pretty straightforward, clear, honest language that we hope will attract both serious scholars and professionals without excluding wider audiences. Finding this balance is not always easy. Arriving at the phrase that encapsulates what Archivo is about (“A space dedicated to collecting, exhibiting, and rethinking design and architecture”) took us at least a couple of years!
The history of Mexican design is a topic that you and your team at Archivo seek to make more broadly appreciated. You spoke about the lack of formalization and establishment of canon and archive in the discipline in Mexico. Is this a problem of scholarship and documentation in higher education and professional research? Or do you see it as a more of an issue related to culture? Are there issues at lower levels of education that could help with this issue?
We think research needs to go beyond the walls of academia. Particularly knowledge regarding design and architecture, being so embedded in everyday life, should be tied to more common, public or collective experiences. There is an enormous amount of work to be done in terms of building and understanding material culture in a place like Mexico. From our perspective as a small, independent space–not a big traditional institution–our contribution has to be opening up new questions, new perspectives, having a nonconformist stance and challenging the rigid preconceptions of canon and discipline.
Archivo makes visible hidden or underappreciated narratives within the history of Mexican architecture and design. Could you give an example of one story or exhibit in which you’ve shared in an effort to make new history? We’re thinking of your work with/on Pedro Ramirez Vazquez in particular.
I think every exhibition we’ve held at Archivo is a small step in building a new history of Mexican design and architecture. Specifically and explicitly, the Archivo(s) series has a mission of digging into lesser-known histories of Mexican Modernism, departing from archival sources and testimonies, but bringing a fresh perspective from the viewpoint of contemporary art. Instead of monographic or chronological explorations, these shows have become about challenging canonical readings of history, and even challenging the notion of historical significance, preservation and memory. The MXCD Mexico Design City series, which explored the present, past, and future of design in Mexico City also drew a sort of parallel history of design and the city, through these temporal and disciplinary overlaps.
How do you exhibit mood? This came up in your recreation of an environment from the Camino Real hotel. How do you preserve/share a quality as evanescent as mood?
Exhibitions are experiential and temporary vessels to communicate ideas and information. As such, they are very personal, ephemeral and subjective constructions. We like to push this even further in our exhibitions at Archivo, by creating immersive experiences, integrating display, visuals and graphics and really playing with our exhibition space, which is actually a mid-century modern house with a very specific architectural character, not a white cube. The exhibition itself becomes architecture: a spatial and temporary construction that can be navigated and experienced in different ways by the public. This can mean a very literal “reconstruction” of a style or mood (like the Archivo(s) Hotel Camino Real show, where we sourced original furniture from the hotel to create a sort of lobby, or the “cabinet of curiosities” display for MXCD02 Past) to more abstract spatial arrangements—for example, by flooding the gallery with five tons of shredded PET to create a sea of plastic trash and critique current consumer/waste cycles for MXCD01 Present, or stripping the floor to build displays with floorboards and play with street-market pink tarps as a nod to the Smithson’s Patio & Pavilion installation for This Is Tomorrow in our MXCD03 Future show.