INTERVIEW: Photographer Livia Corona Benjamin Explores Architectural Traces of Rural Policy in Mexico
Livia Corona Benjamin’s visual artwork explores the architectural histories of Mexican government policies relating to agriculture, land ownership, and migration. Through labor-intensive analog techniques, the artist who splits her time between Mexico City, Ensenada, and Manhattan, manipulates photographs of the colossal grain silos that can be found throughout rural Mexico. Built by the federal government in the 1960s, these silos were designed to discourage large numbers of people from relocating to cities. The history of these pyramid-like structures also intersects with the institution of the ejido system, where land was organized communally for state-supported farming. Corona Benjamin has a personal investment in these histories as her own family bounced around different parts of Mexico incentivized by government policies and projects as well as escaping the fallout of their failures. Drawing from both traditional mosaics and digital pixelization, the photo manipulations Corona Benjamin applies by hand are motivated by a desire to tell the story of these silos with a sensitivity to the individual suffering that’s interwoven into the larger political narrative. In addition to photograms and chromogenic prints, her work also spans paintings as well as photo collages layered with gemstones.
Corona Benjamin was recently honored by Woodbury University in Burbank with the 2019 Julius Shulman Institute Excellence in Photography Award. And she has a solo exhibition on view at the school’s gallery Woodbury University Hollywood Outpost (WUHO) until July 20. PIN–UP caught up with the artist to discuss the socioeconomic histories that inspire her work, the dark room process for creating her own color codes, and how she first encountered the grain silos touring rural Mexico with a performance troop.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Ensenada in the (Mexican) Baja peninsula — which is a relatively young city, only 140 years old. My mother ended up in Ensenada after her family moved to San Quintin where the Mexican government was giving out ejidos to help populate the land. Unfortunately their wells dried up and without money to dig or access to loans, they gave up the farm and moved to Ensenada.
Meanwhile, my dad’s family moved from Jalisco to Tijuana after his great uncle won the national lottery. They put their money on Avenida Revolución (the tourist district in Tijuana) where they quickly got involved in real estate and liquor distribution. However, my dad’s mother moved him and his brothers away from the strip bars to Ensenada, where he started his own business in real estate many years later.
Growing up I remember when the devaluation hit in the early 1980s, we had to sell our big house and move into a really tiny one in a different neighborhood. We were bullied by school kids when they came over for school projects. Provincial towns are very clear about these tiers of experience.
The impact of land and federal administration decisions is very clear in the family history, getting bounced from one region to another.
Was there ever a conversation about moving to “the other side?”
Yes, there was. But my father was extremely against it because he had such a marked experience with the army boys in Tijuana. All those kids from inland U.S. were coming to Tijuana for the military base. He thought he saw the worst when Americans were coming to Mexico wearing funny hats and going to strip bars that his family was delivering liquor to. He had seen something he didn’t want for his own daughters. We were forbidden from speaking English to avoid the mashing of English and Spanish. It was very important for him that his kids had a clear sense of their nationality. I think he was very protective. He also had a different experience growing up in a small town in Jalisco whereas my mom, who had grown up between San Quintin, Ensenada, and Los Angeles, had a more flexible understanding of culture.
What was your relationship with her?
My mom had a tiny silver store selling pieces from famous Taxco jewelers like (Antonio) Pineda, (William) Spratling, Los Castillo, Los Teherán. I worked at her store after school wrapping things in paper and polishing silver. I spent a lot of time in that world. I think my connection to certain types of materials is from the jewelry store. Disciples of Spratling were trying to tap into Modernism and the preHispanic roots of Mexico — like with the usage of semi-precious stones in ritual or in tributes — and mash them together. In a similar way the mosaic, trying to represent reality, is really the pixel of our time just with elevated potential.
Yes, you’ve brought this connection to your photographic work by placing stones like jade, coral, and onyx over photographic prints of grain silos. Can you tell me about these photos?
I encountered the silos traveling throughout rural Mexico. They appeared monolithic yet Modernist and at first I thought “why didn’t anybody tell me there was a pyramid here?” And the reason I thought they resembled pyramids is because they were built with available materials. Like the pyramids of each region, the silos used the materials that were endemic to each area. And they also visibly used more gravity than engineering — stacking one stone on top of the other.
What is the story of the buildings?
They were part of the Conasupo (National Company of Popular Subsistence) which succeeded in avoiding mass starvation in Mexico. The main objective, however, was to keep migration from farmland to city; to keep the countryside employed to prevent another uprising due to famine as had happened during the Mexican revolution (1910–17).
During the 1960s, the national government commissioned architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez — who was getting massive commissions like the Estadio Azteca and the Museo Nacional de Antropología — to design a prototype for grain silos. Farmers were encouraged to build their own silos, in a way that was rather arbitrary because they weren't always built close to the highway, rather close to or in the land of the ejidatarios with the most connections or with the biggest piece of land.
The government figured if they nationalized the grain, they could raise the price of export and then trickle some of this money down to the farmers, which they did but only to an extent. I’ve filmed testimonies of farmers saying “In the beginning it worked but then I don’t know what happened.” Conasupo was always obfuscated, that’s why the saying: “Nobody knows, nobody knew, what ever happened with Conasupo.” (In Spanish, it rhymes.)
Conasupo was the second biggest source of income for Mexico., It was a huge employer, but it was abruptly cancelled in the wake of the NAFTA trade deal. It had become too corrupt and had gotten out of hand. It was easier to privatize agrarian efforts than to try to untangle Conasupo which had become tainted — those higher up lived very well while the farmers received only their controlled allotment.
What happened then?
When Conasupo closed in 1999, only certain leaders of the ejidos got a pension, supposedly to ameliorate the transition between federal-supported agriculture and the entry to the agro-industry. So families of three or four generations that had grown up trained to work for a single client, the government, suddenly realized they had no training other than farming.
To the surprise of the Americans who sold us on the idea of NAFTA as a way of creating jobs in Mexico, what you saw was women from these farm towns going to the border alone to work in factories, and boys in their late teens going to the U.S. to work in farmlands because that's what they knew how to do.
So the collective thought after NAFTA came into effect and these places were abandoned was to migrate to the U.S.?
Historically, the largest wave of labor-related migration and search for work is the one from Mexico to the U.S. in the 90s after the trade agreement.
Why was it important for you to document the silos?
I had been photographing the silos since 2000. I’ve photographed 250 of them. It takes photographing them over and over to get a sense, on a national level, of how they’re performing on their own. However, the project is not about a collection of an archetype. I knew that if I was just presenting the silos as they are, I wouldn’t be able to tell the human side of the story.
I was very protective of the work, of just presenting the images straight up, because they are very attractive. And that can be dangerous because it can be perceived as a celebration of something beautiful of Mexico, but it comes with a lot of pain. Those buildings involve the destruction of families.
I also had another path to follow because of how my own relationship with the medium of photography was changing. And so the mesh (the analog photograms and the layering of gems) came along as a way to protect the image. In the pre-Hispanic era, the use of the mosaic was very important. In the digital era, it became the pixel.
Can you describe your process?
The way the photograms came about was a combination of several things. One is the idea of a lattice that’s used in architecture to keep people from looking in, and the other was the analog process (of developing photos). When you’re in the color dark room, your responsibility, to an extent, is to represent reality by getting the light to be as neutral as possible. So, I took the negatives I had made through the years and began moving the dials in the darkroom to get to what would be the purest red that you could extract out of the paper. I was trying to get as far as possible from neutral. I would just try to get primary red, primary blue. So I got all my primary color dials, and then my secondary colors, my tertiary colors, and after six months ended up with around 150 codes for different colors. Basically, like a Pantone that I could get out of my paper with my codes.
So I was in the darkroom trying to imitate pixels in an analog way through the use of stencils. I would make these little squares and would throw my colors through it. I was trying to align them in the dark room, trying to get the image to come together but it never quite does. You try again and again. It’s a very stubborn way that could be easily done with the computer, but I wanted to have the human presence. I think throughout all of the pieces, it’s important to show the hand because we’re talking about a story that involves the human hand getting replaced by industrialized lines of production.
The silos are located in very remote places, how did you find them?
In 1998 I started a project called Enanitos Toreros. I met a woman with dwarfism who needed a headshot. And then friends of hers needed headshots — they used these to get jobs with other (performance) troops. One day she asked, “What are you doing tomorrow? Come with us to Cerritos (in San Miguel de Allende).” So I hop in the station wagon and the next thing you know, I spent ten years traveling around the countryside with them. It’s a small troop that goes to really small towns (where they) arrange some benches and find a small calf. They perform imitating pop stars like Thalía and Selena, and then chase the calf around making pretend bull fights.
Traveling with them was my entry point into rural Mexico. I’m very thankful to them, I think I wouldn’t have had such a clear sense of how much is going on in what seems like small towns, but collectively, it’s really what’s defining the Mexico-U.S. experience because most of the people from Mexico in the U.S. are coming from these little towns.
What has changed in these towns over the years as you’ve been photographing them?
By 2008, the ejidos that used to be rural had become land for public housing under the (Vicente) Fox initiative. Massive developments popped up overnight. I found it very confusing that there was undeveloped land next to this very confined development with unnecessarily tiny homes considering the vastness of the area. And then far in the distance, you would see a grain silo appearing like a pyramid.
There’s an element of repetition and seriality in your work, especially in the Two Million Homes for Mexico series.
In the same way we are aware of artists performing, politicians are also performing! And how they really make their mark is with buildings. They love leaving infrastructure behind that’s associated with them. And it’s also a very photogenic way of presenting evidence of having accomplished a mission. Plus it generates numbers. So the more they do it, the more points they’re scoring. And so in certain governments, like the Mexican government, they come up with one idea and they repeat it over and over and over. And it’s become more the case as the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) has moved away from these superstar architects they worked with when they had a mission of defining nationality. After liberalization and globalization, it was just about numbers.
Can you talk about the diptychs that pair silver gelatin prints and latex on plaster paintings? They were exhibited first at the Whitney Museum and presented again this past spring by Proxyco Gallery at Frieze New York.
I’m interested in how the people who have to inhabit these spaces, make them their own. The paintings come from sketches that I made as I was moving around the buildings thinking of ways in which I would reuse them. Imagining how I would divide the space or how it could be reused but at the same time running against myself when realizing the communities in which they are lack the usual amount of socioeconomic infrastructure to support any initiative. There are too many flaws that interfere with people's safety. It would take restructuring an entire community to launch an Airbnb, for example. Some sketches are more realistic than others. One, for example is based on Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House, a plan that Fuller proposed in the 60s to make homes that were more economical and safe because they were like shelters that you could put up very quickly. The plan caught my attention that it was designed in the 60s at the same time that the silos were built.
How have you found silos being used today?
I heard of one that got turned into a bar, but it had closed by the time I tried to visit it because it got too dangerous. Then I saw one that got converted into a library for the city. Another one that’s a storage space for soccer balls for kids who play in what used to be the esplanade for drying the grain. And then I’ve seen one where people go to shoot up or smoke crack. That’s very common. And then sometimes they are toilets for passersby. I’ve even seen incinerating rooms for Conasupo documents, where they lit up a match to destroy their records.
Text by Natalia Torija Nieto.
All images courtesy the artist unless otherwise noted.