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Pre-order our book YOU ARE AN ARTIST (which includes new assignments!) here: On this international art trip, we travel to Tijuana to meet with Ghana Think Tank and Torolab, explore the city, and visit artist Hugo Crosthwaite's studio.

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Hugo Crosthwaite:

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Sarah: Tijuana is a complicated city, and a city of many stories. Our story there is quick and rather narrow, stemming from an invitation from Christopher Robbins, who issued our very first art assignment to meet up with Ghana ThinkTank, the collective he works with who are doing a project there.

Tijuana is an 18-mile drive south from San Diego, poised just beyond the busiest border crossing between the US and Mexico. There are many different ways to experience this place. This is not a summary of all that is good and great to see and eat in Tijuana, but rather a summary of all that is good and great that we saw and ate, and a quick document of our time in this intricate, vital, and ever-changing city. Oh, and there's going to be a surprise art assignment if you hang on till the end.

After crossing the San Ysidro border, we drove straight to Rosarito Beach to the studio of Hugo Crossway, whom I'd invited to create an assignment.

He was excited to do it. But as you'll notice, he wasn't actually there. He was in Chicago doing a residency while we were visiting. And so his delightful studio manager, Pierrette Van Cleave, met us and showed us around. I reveled in the masterful draftsmanship and virtuosity on display. Hugo's large-scale drawings speak plenty without him there. But you will soon have a chance to hear from him yourself.

We then returned to Tijuana proper and walked around the city's main tourist zone, Avenida Revolución, a strip of curio shops, discount pharmacies, restaurants, and bars, whose fate has risen and fallen with the booms and busts of the city. We soon turned off the main drag onto Pasaje Rodriguez, where you're greeted by this mural by Manuel Verona, depicting a number of Tijuana artists past and present.

The arcade is full of independent cafes, galleries, shops, and a craft brewery. Tijuana suffered a huge downturn in tourism in the 2000s, when drug violence escalated. And it has never really gotten back to where it used to be. But the narrative I kept hearing is that the downturn made room for the rise of the creatives, keen to make things for each other instead of tourists.

You get a sense of that here. And also just down the road at Pasaje Gomez, this place was chock-full of souvenir vendors in the '60s and '70s, and is now mostly empty. Like Rodriguez, this arcade is under development by a dead space reactivation nonprofit, and is used for events like an annual art walk and concerts. But it's here that you feel the precariousness of these efforts.

Much of the creative population is transient. Many galleries have unposted hours. And it's not super easy for outsiders to figure it out. But just as it is, the light was amazing. And our walk was a welcome respite from the main avenida, and a fertile site to begin to consider Tijuana's past and potential futures.

We then bypassed Hotel Caesar's, home of the original Caesar salad, and made our way to Le Caza Club, which was highly recommended to me by Jace Clayton, the artist who offered our assignment Quietest Place. We had an incredible meal whose highlight was wood-grilled octopus, and the service was amazing. And the whole thing was surprisingly reasonably priced.

We began the next day at Caffe Sospeso, a third wave coffee spot where we enjoyed some lovely and super smooth lattes and freshly delivered baked goods while plotting out our day. Should we have gotten a chemex or pour over or some such? Probably. But I shall not bow to hipster coffee pressure. I shall order whatever I like.

I've yet to broach the topic of driving in Tijuana, because well, for me, it was mostly terrifying. We don't have a lot of documentation of these terrifying moments, because we were all too terrified to be documenting them. But I will share with you the experience of driving through one of the city's many roundabouts.

A number of them have monuments in the middle. And here you can see the Monumento A Cuahuatamac, the last Aztec emperor during the Spanish conquest. And not too far away is Glorietta de Monumento a la Independencia-- AKA la tijeras, or scissors, for obvious reasons-- created in honor of those who fought for Mexican independence.

It's right in front of Centro Cultural Tijuana, the city's federally funded cultural center, designed by architects Manuel Rosen and Pedro Ramirez Vasquez, which I suddenly remembered was the site of a project by Krzysztof Wodiczko in 2000, where he projected onto the dome the faces and voices of female workers in the local maquiladora industry.

We stopped in to see the 15th Northwestern Visual Arts Biennial. The exhibition's aim is to quote-- "recognize, strengthen, stimulate, and disseminate artistic creation in Northwest Mexico." And for me, it accomplished that well, presenting a swath of works that use a rich variety of materials and approaches, telling the story of an art scene that is healthy, rigorous, contemplative, and representative of many different ways of living and making in the region.

We also checked out Museo de las Californias inside the cultural center, which gives an overview of the history of Baja, California and Tijuana. This history is presented through text in Spanish in English, along with a mix of artifacts, replicas, miniatures, and quite a few fake cacti.

I learned a lot about the indigenous life in the region. The horrors of the Spanish conquest, how awful the Jesuits were, and the rocky history of this border region. But I mostly spent my time there contemplating how we represent history in a compelling way. What's the best way to tell these stories? How do we see them when there are few photographs? Or when we have the objects, but need to know how they were actually used? What is the right mix of real artifact and replica when trying to evoke the past?

We then headed to the Camino Verde neighborhood to meet up with Christopher and the other members of Ghana ThinkTank, John Ewing and Carmen Montoya. You'll meet them in an assignment video soon. But they're working on the US-Mexico border to collect the immigration problems and solutions of people who live there. They're doing this with the help of Torolab, a Tijuana-based collective of artists and designers who research and explore ways to improve urban environments and the quality of life.

They were meeting at Torolab's La Granja space, a trans-border farm lab and community center, where they had previously held sessions to workshop ideas for improving the experience of crossing the border on foot. It can take hours to do this, and the workshops yielded all sorts of amazing ideas and prototypes for carts. Ghana ThinkTank synthesized these ideas into a new prototype cart that they were now assembling and getting ready to test at the border the next day.

It provides shade from the sun, operates with a hand crank that would allow its riders to wheel along at the same pace as those on foot, and also features iPads and holders that allow those who identify themselves as quote, "Americans or immigrants" to either record an immigration problem, or offer a solution to a problem previously registered. A few of the neighborhood kids who had participated in the workshop came by to say hello and test it out.

Cart building in the sun works up an appetite, so we headed over to Tacos Salceados for a late lunch. Considered one of the first taco joints to embody the Baja Med innovative spirit, the tacos here are fresh, inventive, and include a huge variety of salsas and cremas. They also made an incredibly delicious and indulgent quesa taco, which involves no shortage of griddled cheese.

It gave us the energy we needed to return to La Granja and conduct our interview with Ghana ThinkTank, who've worked together for a decade and clearly enjoy each other. It was great to reflect on the activities of the day and think through how their current project fits in with their past work, and the complexity of the dynamics at play along the border. We capped off the evening with yet another delectable meal, this time at Verde y Crema, and called it a night.

The next day we followed Christopher, Carmen, and John to the San Ysidro border crossing, where they unloaded their cart and navigated the hectic scene with an uncommon calm and composure. I immediately understood the decision to paint the cart with bright happy colors, as it did an excellent job of standing out, attracting the attention and curiosity of those who encountered it.

It wasn't supposed to be a practical object. It was a conversation starter and a way for the group to enter into meaningful conversations with those in line about real and deeply complicated issues. The beauty of what Ghana ThinkTank does is not to impose their own agenda, but to listen, not just to people's problems, but also to the solutions those people suggest. And here in a line that many people from all over the world wait in every day and for myriad reasons-- to go to work, to go to school, to see friends, family, the doctor-- here was Ghana ThinkTank, kindling discussions about the enormously charged topic of immigration, right at the crux of where it all goes down.

It was just one day in a process that will unfold over time. But I was glad to witness this moment of sincere interaction between the group's members and those whose ideas they are eager to hear and interpret into real, actionable items. Then it was back to La Granja, where we had the chance to talk with Torolab's founder, Raul Cardenas Osuna, and Ana Martinez Ortega about what they do. You've heard enough from me. So let's let them do the talking.

Raul: We're an art collective that we've been together for 21 years. And the core of our projects are ideas, weird constructions that people make of ideas of how to live better. With this thing that go from luxury to necessity at the level of your skin. We do projects. So at some point, Tijuana sadly became the most dangerous city in this country. And for some institutions that are international, city in the world. At that time, this became the most dangerous neighborhood and perimeter in the world. Or at least in this country. Tijuana in itself as a city, like all

Mexican cities are-- I don't know. They don't have enough power. Right? So a lot of people have to do stuff in order for things to work out, and think and not fall only into the hands of the usual suspects, of government and stuff. So this is part of a larger effort that we started with some universities, some old people from the neighborhood and of the city. And I don't know. Yeah. That's how we worked out.

Ana: [In Spanish] So, we work in four areas, we work in public spaces with urban gardens. We work in education through training residents so that they have access to better jobs. We work on a productive project that allows for the farm to have income. We have an industrial kitchen in which we process what we sow in order to be able to market it and for that in turn to bring income to the farm. And the most important thing that distinguishes us from other projects is that we are a research center, we work with artists and scientists so that they can develop projects with us and they implement them within the community.

Raul: And also, these things that a lot of people work with here in different, different levels. This is the only hyper violent city in this country that has turned that around, because they have not fallen all only in the hands of politicians. Right. And that's quite unique.

Super sad that the city had to fall down in order for it to do something. But at least it did something. And now other places that have done stuff like that, like Medellin, or Johannesburg, they're studying us. They're studying what we have done here in Tijuana, because it's unique-- in the process of doing art, in the process of doing music, in the process of doing astronomy, in the process of doing even public policy.

Goddamn. In order for us to do this thing, we ended up doing a public policy. With the help of a lot of persons. But it went through. That's kind of like our biggest art piece, I guess.

Grab the darn phone, or the iPad. Or just take your computer and put it in your bag. Walk around your freaking block. Right? And then, I don't know. Make four parameters of people who live around your neighborhood. And start describing those four people. Right? Try to see if there is a possibility to name those people before you meet those people. You know? And then meet them. And see what is the connection that you have between the image of those people and who those people really, really are. And try to see if you have enough capability to make a bridge, to see if you can at least take a picture of it, and send it to us.

Sarah: We packed up our things and headed toward the border as the sun was setting. I couldn't have been happier about this impromptu assignment giving, which seemed like the perfect way to cap our time in this illusory city.

Looks can indeed be deceiving. We weren't here long. And there are so many good galleries and art spaces we didn't make it to. We even joked that this video should be titled just "Trip" instead of "Art Trip." But as hackneyed as it sounds, I realized in this transitory place, it is nevertheless the people who make Tijuana. It's the long-term cultural workers like Torolab who make up the city, as well as the shorter term interventionists like Ghana ThinkTank.

It's both those who stay who determine its cultural makeup, as well as those who are constantly flowing in and out, starting things and leaving them, like us. And I was glad to be part of it for an instant.