Rail Tale Makes for Multidisciplinary Exhibit at Centennial

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

A unique journey through Mexico’s past has led to a different kind of collaborative exhibit at The University of Texas at El Paso. It involves multiple venues and a multidisciplinary cast of artists and academics who plan to add their own spin to the data collected by the imaginative explorers.

Brothers and artists Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene are behind SEFT-1 (Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada, or the Manned Railway Exploration Probe), an evolving exhibit that opened in September in the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts, and the Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens. It will close Dec. 21.Visual artist and UTEP art lecturer Christine Foerster, center, used mushrooms to express a living network as her contribution to the Manned Railway Exploration Probe exhibit at the University’s Centennial Museum. With her are Kerry Doyle, left, exhibit curator and interim director of the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts, and Scott Cutler, Centennial Museum curator. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News ServiceVisual artist and UTEP art lecturer Christine Foerster, center, used mushrooms to express a living network as her contribution to the Manned Railway Exploration Probe exhibit at the University’s Centennial Museum. With her are Kerry Doyle, left, exhibit curator and interim director of the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts, and Scott Cutler, Centennial Museum curator. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

Puig and Padilla Domene set out in 2011 to discover how rural Mexican communities were impacted by the business decision in the late 1990s to shut down the country’s privatized and unprofitable passenger rail system, which included abandoning its 5,000 miles of track. The project involved engineers, mechanics, designers, historians, scientists and writers along with the many interviewees who shared their personal stories.

The pair traveled in a distinctive silver aluminum “spaceship,” built on the chassis of a Ford F-150, which they designed to run the rails and the roads. The pair of ferronautas, or rail-nauts, documented their yearlong mission through photos, videos, interviews and collections of rocks and “artifacts” (such as cassettes and compact discs) that became part of the presentation.

While the Rubin Center portion of the exhibit presents the journey in a science fiction light, the artists set up a research room in the Centennial Museum to involve four other collaborators who would periodically add a different perspective to the presentation. Their projects will involve teams from UTEP, the University of New Mexico (UNM), the Philosophic Systems Institute in El Paso, and the Instituto de Diseño y Arqutectura de la Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juárez (the Institute of Design and Architecture at the University of Juárez).

The concept promotes interdisciplinary museum practices that engage patrons and spark conversations. The research lab functions as a classroom accessible to the public, said Kerry Doyle, exhibit curator and interim director of the Rubin Center. She worked in conjunction with Scott Cutler, curator at the Centennial Museum.

“The opportunity to pose problems and ask questions is what makes the (exhibit) space relevant. It’s more than a picture on a wall,” Doyle said. The lab’s computers can display numerous maps, thousands of historic and contemporary images and scores of videos to help document the voyage of SEFT-1. “You probably could do a thesis with all the information in those computers.”

The first to add their two cents was a UNM team of graduate and undergraduate students from the art and technology program that used a pencil mural of images and bilingual messages to depict how vehicles replaced rail technology.

Christine Foerster, visual artist and lecturer in UTEP’s Department of Art, spent part of a recent weekend assembling “Science Fiction and the Imaginary of the Future: Mu.Shroom.City,” in the exhibit’s research room.

She painted a grid on a wall with the longitude and latitude of the El Paso/Juárez region and attached 21 bundles of straw injected with pearl oyster mushroom spores and wrapped each in clear plastic with holes that would allow for air flow and irrigation. The grid was then tented with a large sheet of clear plastic to maintain a humid atmosphere for the fungus to germinate.

The mushrooms are supposed to signify a living network much like the train tracks that connected the rural Mexican communities, said Foerster, who returned to the Centennial Oct. 3 to finish her project.

She and her team of UTEP undergraduate students and community collaborators planned at least 10 other living or artistic mushroom farms in the El Paso/Juárez region. Once bloomed, the mushrooms would be harvested and dehydrated. Her project will conclude with the mushrooms being reconstituted and then prepared by avid cook and businessman Robert Ardovino at noon Nov. 9 at the Centennial.

“Food is culture,” Foerster said. “Food is the best social connector.”

The ties to the history, culture and environment of the Chihuahuan Desert made the Centennial an appropriate venue for the exhibit, said Cutler, the museum’s curator.

“This is an interesting exhibit,” he said. “You have to be intrigued by (the artists’) adventure to see how the communities were affected by the loss of the railroads, and then to see the involvement of the others (satellite artists) and their interpretations.”

The SEFT project was done in conjunction with Desert Initiative, a consortium of art museums in the Southwest, and the ISEA 2012: Machine Wilderness, the annual International Symposium of Electronic Arts, which was in Albuquerque, N.M., this year. The SEFT vehicle is on display through Jan. 6, 2013, in the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History.

To learn more about the SEFT project, visit www.seft1.net and http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xtfiu5_seft-1_creation?search_algo=2.

For information about the Centennial, visit museum.utep.edu, and for the Rubin Center, academics.utep.edu/visualarts.