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Laureana Toledo's 'Order and Progress'
Laureana Toledo’s Order and Progress (2013-18) is a story with no definitive telling. It is an on-going project: each time it is programmed, the audience has access to a new version. Its elements vary, with a 15-minute film and a recorded soundtrack as fixed parts while a display of associated objects and a live performance are apt to change with every showing or, in the case of the performance, not to be included at all.
A further element in the story’s evolution is the audience itself. Its members are provided with images and sounds but no words. Not everything needed to develop the narrative is available to them; as with any good story, foreknowledge, personal origin and a bit of excavating amplify (and certainly vary) the experience. And in what is provided, there is inevitably more than is needed to participate fruitfully. Music is given a prominent role in Order and Progress where it is as much the source of impressions as the visual content. As an effective expressive tool, sound forms an abstract screen through which images are interpreted.
The live performances, however, offer the fullest exposure to the possibilities that Toledo both offers and intends. Involving the artist directly, they happen less frequently than the screenings, which are on a loop throughout the day. Toledo is not present at every showing so viewers can watch the film with sounds and melodies that the artist chose to record, or attend one of the occasions when Toledo and invited musicians provide their own improvised accompaniment.
For Toledo, the experience of each performance seems to refresh the depth of feeling that originally brought the film into being. For Order and Progress is a documentary; it mixes objective imagery with subjective interpret-ations to leave a bold layering of impressions. The setting is the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The artist’s family ties to this area go back several generations. Since the 1960s, its indigenous Zapotec way of life and pre-Hispanic native mythologies have influenced the content of work by her father, the leading painter Francisco Toledo. She herself grew up in the region and the film opens with the sound of children reciting phrases in the Zapotec language.
This personal element filters into all aspects of the piece. From the start, therefore, Order and Progress recalls a theme recurrent in Toledo’s other work that examines the impact of personal origins and surroundings on individual identity. She uses media that seem to her suited to her varied ideas and these have already featured photography and painting, sound, music, books and text.
Hers is an intricate and subtle approach, more complex in its connections than at first it appears. For each performance, Toledo works with a cellist (and sometimes with other instruments as well). They do not reprise the soundtrack, partly because the range of musical ability is not available. This means that performers and viewers alike experience other atmospheres that alter the narrative’s emphasis. Played live, the accompaniment is sparer, unsupported by radiophonics and more changeable when less dependent on the pulse or beat in the recording. At CAST in Helston, where Toledo collaborated on 10 performances with the composer and cellist Natalia Pérez Turner (the pair have often worked together on this piece), the tones and passages were often sombre and resonant.
The artist plays a kind of percussion with a selection of objects that add a further personal, aural dimension to the moving image. They evoke incidental sounds suggested by the film’s moving imagery or which, conceivably, Toledo remembers from the places visited during filming. There is, however, no fixed score or tempo. Both artist and musician think through their responses to the film in the moment of its screening.
Jagged sounds set up dissonant chords followed by elegiac, sustained bowing by Peréz Turner of low-keyed strings. Toledo’s contribution inserts aural colour into fast moving images of everyday activity and elaborates the visual narrative. Both sound and picture varies in pace, with Toledo tinkling glass bottles or bowing the rim of a cymbal, items she has probably picked up locally rather being props she travels with. That assumption applies most strikingly to her surprising improvisation at Helston with a metal filing cabinet. By pulling and pushing a drawer in and out, she not only discovered its screeching percussion but also an effective parody of train wheels on tracks. It would have been a credit to any Foley artist’s imagination.
The railway is, in its way, the principal character in the film. It accounts for the only auxiliary object in this presentation – a miniature train, track and wagons displayed in a case lining the darkened corridor through which visitors pass on arriving at a screening or performance. Once the film starts, Toledo’s camera follows the route taken by the Ferrocarril Transístmico. Since its construction at the turn of the last century, the railway has had a lasting effect on the character of the region. It traverses the shortest route between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean and for that reason was developed from the 1890s onwards as an aid to intercontinental trade before the opening of the Panama Canal.
At intervals throughout the film, fields with trees appear and sky with birds and swimmers in oceans that beat waves on the shore. In between this tranquil territory is disrupted by the coarse reality of a dispassionately industrialised region. The land is mined for oil, the air is harnessed for wind energy and polluted by industry, and creatures scavenge in the rubbish left behind.
The sound of children’s voices that opens the performance and the tune the artist sings to close it are at odds with numerous discordant images that punctuate the course of the film: the scavenging birds, shreds of polythene snagged on barbed wire, oil tankers lining the horizon, the silhouettes of mining structures illuminated by tall, slender flaring chimneys. While music is the territory of imagination and memory, camerawork is associated with hard fact. Perhaps in the singing that brackets the performance lie Toledo’s early memories of an idyllic place that, through adult eyes, she sees ravaged for material gain.
Toledo collects together this album of moving snapshots without any spoken commentary. She knows the setting but passes on none of the knowledge she holds about how the isthmus came to be this way – an attractive landscape scarred by commercial exploitation. Instead, it feels as if she hands the audience the task of interpreting the images into a narrative that brings order and sense to what the eye sees and the ear hears, a mix of the elusive and the real.
The work’s title presents material for use; once set beside the evidence of a country laid waste in the film, the words ‘order’ and ‘progress’ strike the viewer as bitterly ironic. But within Latin America, they form a phrase redolent of the continent’s tumultuous political heritage. The words appear in the Brazil’s national flag and still resound like a persistent tag through contemporary ideologies devoted to social advance with policies shaped by positivism. In Mexico, the rush to modernise was set in fierce motion during the 35-year administration of Porfirio Díaz, dictator until deposed in 1911 as the country’s revolution got underway. His motto, implemented with intimidation, persuasion and threats, was ‘order and progress’.
History and memory drive modern societies as much as invention and enterprise. A clue to this dimension in Toledo’s narrative appears in a brief text available to visitors. It is a useful adjunct because it introduces the name of Weetman Pearson. Pearson was a British engineer whose interests in the region became considerable and transformative for all concerned in his venture. He arrived in the 1890s and by the end of the First World War had helped lift Mexico to second place among the world’s producers of the oil. This fact alone explains the train’s arrival in the film at a station at a town in Mexico’s deep south bearing the Englishman’s name.
Public biography rings as ruefully through Order and Progress as private memory. Pearson‘s company pioneered the petroleum industry that has continued to dominate the isthmus with its ports and refineries. Supplies are sent out in tankers and migrant workers pour in from other districts to sell their labour. One memorable scene in Toledo’s film shows carriages overladen with passengers, crowded inside and surfing on top, then off-loaded at termini. In another scene, bustle turns to languor as workers stand round idly or sleep on benches, waiting. Their journey is a Pearson legacy.
One further irony in Order and Progress is that Pearson is better remembered in Mexico than he is in his own country. There his name rings few bells. His brand lives, handled today by students across the globe who study the firm’s textbooks, and by readers of the Financial Times and Penguin paperbacks. Thanks to Pearson, however, the Isthmus acquired its place in economic history as one of the earliest instances of market globalisation. To achieve his objective of modernising Mexico out of its enduring political chaos, one characterised by regular rounds of assassination and coup, Porfirio Díaz recruited foreign entrepreneurs in search of higher returns than were available in the developed world. In the late Victorian age, many were British, technically competent and reliable, and able to lever unprecedented levels of investment into their projects.
Pearson was adept at navigating political systems. He cultivated clients among Mexico’s ruling élite and the profits made with his outstanding ability at managing complex undertakings were shared among them. The Ferrocarril Transístmico railway was one of the most lucrative of these schemes. In the course of its construction, Pearson got to know the landscape through which the line still travels, terrain that Toledo also knows. He saw its potential for oil production and ultimately harnessed a fortune. By the 1920s Pearson’s business changed from engineering to banking and publishing in Europe. He had left America and private oil firms like his were eventually nationalised by the heirs of the Mexican revolution. But the cycle of official corruption and exploitation soon re-established itself to bleed the community and benefit the élite.
Stories mine deep wells of history. An abiding impression left by Order and Progress is that the present is shackled to the legacy of the past. For, coincidentally, Toledo’s work opened at CAST soon after the latest Mexican presidential election in which the victor was a maverick leftist from outside the established party system, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who advocated the return to ideals associated with the same revolutionaries who brought foreign interests like Pearson’s under state control. His mission has a familiar tone: to end the corruption, impunity and privileges enjoyed by a small élite that has impeded order and hindered progress.
Mexico currently has the eleventh largest economy in the world (in terms of GDP as measured by purchasing power) yet over 40 per cent of its population lives below the ‘poverty line’ (as defined by the World Bank). Obrador’s winning message strangely mirrors the view of the world agency that promotes growth and international trade, the OECD, expressed earlier this year by its secretary-general, Ángel Gurría, a Mexican. “The country's economic potential,” he reported, “is being held back by internal challenges such as high levels of poverty and inequality, extensive informality, low rates of female participation in the labour market, inadequate school performance, financial exclusion, a fragile rule of law, and high levels of corruption, impunity and crime.”
This is a broad and complicated prospectus to expect from one artist’s quarter-hour film. Toledo never intended to deliver it. She does not insist that the viewer follows the roundabout of history. Without it, Order and Progress remains a sharp-edged, poetic and melancholic document of a landscape and population shackled to work. Its success is derived from laying parallel narratives together with gentle inferences that alter and widen its scope depending on who is watching. Her choice of film and sound is entirely suited to this format. As such, this is one more example of the potential in art to cross frontiers between cultures, media, genres and subject matters to establish an environment in which multiple creative responses are possible. What emerges might be particular to each viewer. But it might also, when the ground is right, inform and agitate.
As a study of exploitation, Order and Progress joins numerous other films that remind a liberal audience of the disparities between wealth and levels of poverty. In the dimension brought to the film by history lies Mexico’s record of historic subjugation. Toledo draws her story from ancient landscape and links it seamlessly to recent past and a troubling present. Stalking these tales is the fragility of identity, one’s own and that of a nation. One sound made newly relevant and unheard here is the provocative campaign rhetoric of Donald Trump directed at Mexican migrants entering the United States. Toledo relates the personal to the public and to one country’s unresolved struggle, after nearly two centuries, to build a stable state within its borders.
Martin Holman is a writer who lives in Penzance.
Laureana Toledo: Order and Progress was part of Groundwork, a series of exhibitions and events by international artists in Cornwall, organised by CAST
Martin Holman © 2018