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At 35, with messy, curly hair and a perennial two-day stubble that rises to the top of his cheeks, Calderón’s the sort of character you might see at Spaceland on a Monday night. But in the Condesa, he is a superstar. It takes him a few minutes to make it through the room, stopping to shake hands and plant kisses. He knows everyone in Bistro Mosaico. This makes both of us a little uneasy, so we take a table outside on the sidewalk.
But the Miguel effect is inescapable. People walk by with their pets, returning home after yoga or an evening at the gym, and in most cases, Calderón knows them. With each passerby, he shares a heartfelt greeting, then whispers their C.V. once they’ve passed: She’s a model. She’s an artist. He got nominated for an Oscar. He owns the Naco T-shirt company. Finally, when yet another group approaches, Calderón cranes his neck to see who they are, then says with relief, “I don’t know any of them, I swear.”
He misses the old Mexico City, Calderón says — the more lawless, less trendy one, the one that sparked all the creative energy in the ’90s that only now is getting international attention. In those days, Mexico City was mostly just a steamy urban hell. In less than half a century, its population had increased from 3 million to nearly 20 million, spurred by steady migration into the capital from rural zones long neglected by the Mexican government. A genteel city not unlike Paris in its structure and manner exploded into a megalopolis that swallowed towns and villages in its periphery and became the world’s leading example of City Gone Wild. Pollution, crime, violence and congestion rose at startling paces. Then came the great earthquake of 1985. Social problems only intensified with the economic crises of the 1990s. The authoritarian PRI government had reached its most vile levels of corruption and repression.
Back then, you could, as Calderón says he often did, walk into a topless bar with your band, set up your equipment and play a set without any hassle from security guards, because the guards were too busy performing cunnilingus on the dancers. Back then, he went on, you could go up to a couple of cops and ask them to be in your art piece — and they’d do it, gladly.
Other artists were pushing the limits of inspiration from the D.F.’s radical urbanism. Belgian-born Francis Alÿs walked through the Centro Histórico wearing shades and holding a loaded gun to see how long it would take for police to stop him. When they finally did, after 12 minutes, he explained he was doing an art piece, then asked the officers to reenact their exchange for his cameras. (They did.) Daniela Rossell started shooting her now infamous photographs of Mexico’s criminally rich and morally bankrupt, the “Ricas y Famosas.” Minerva Cuevas established the Mejor Vida Corp., a one-woman company designed to make no profits in its efforts to make minor improvements in everyday life in the capital, such as sweeping the metro platforms. Santiago Sierra, commenting on the difficulty of getting around the city while aggravating that ?very problem, created his “Pedestrian Bridge Obstructed With Wrapping Tape” and “Obstruction of a Freeway With a Trailer Truck.” During the happenings, the city’s pedestrians and motorists, always on the move, made little fuss and sought ways around them.
“Art reflects what’s going on (as you say),” Calderón says.
I suggest that there’s an aesthetic to the Mexico City scene, and the art it produces when that art directly engages the city: It is generally sarcastic, even a little sadistic. Disagreeing, Calderón asks for an example. So I use a project of his in which he placed classified ads in Mexico City newspapers asking for the cooperation of people possessed by the devil for an art piece. He heard back from several of Satan’s children, and ventured into their homes in some of the city’s roughest neighborhoods to document their plight.
“It is sarcastic, but a lot of it was also inquisitive,” Calderón says. “When I started going to these people’s houses, I was really scared. By the end of the project, I realized I was dealing with a lot of bad actors. You could say it’s funny, but it’s also kind of tragic.”
Calderón starts texting and making calls. There might be a party later, but friends are at a mescal bar down the block. “Do you want to go? Do you want fiesta? If you want fiesta,” he says, “I can give you fiesta.”
Later, Calderón explains why he’s stuck around and not flown off to New York or Berlin or Los Angeles. “Mexico City to me has become like the movie by Luis Buñuel, The Exterminating Angel, in which a crowd of guests are at a party and when the time to leave comes, for some strange reason nobody can leave. They just seem to be stuck there. For the past 12 years, I’ve tried to move somewhere else, but for some strange reason, I can’t get out ?of here.”