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Degrowth in the Mexican Art Biennial: Opportunities and Paradoxes

By: Sofia Avila


In October 2016, the FEMSA Foundation launched the XII Biennial of visual arts in the city of Monterrey, Mexico. For the first time in its 22 years of existence, this internationally well-known biennial has included a parallel curatorial program to articulate diverse pieces into a single discourse: The poetics of degrowth. How to live better with less? 

This novel project enhances new critical spaces of doing, living and thinking. It constitutes an outstanding opportunity of debating the relevance of degrowth in the South, as well as advancing the ‘art and degrowth’ agenda. However, the art exhibition is a paradox in itself, since it is supported by FEMSA, one of the biggest Mexican corporations. Shall this biennial be seen as a strategic opportunity for enhancing critical debates, a case of contradictory discourses, or both at the same time?


Reducing is an imperative evidently related with revaluation and relocalization” (Serge Latouche)

The project

According to Willy Kautz[1] director of the curatorial team, Poetics of degrowth aims to explore the relations between art, economy and political ecology. The project entails different platforms, including an artist residence, an exhibition, and a series of debates discussing the how and for whom of biennials. It involves theorists, curators and more than 30 artists/collectives such as Alejandro Cartagena, Mariana Castillo Deball, Daniel Steegmann, Fritzia Irízar, Rometti Costales and Tercerunquinto. The thread between pieces, spaces of dialogue, curators and artists working within the program resides in asking deep questions about our current ways of living. By interrogating "How to Live Better with Less?" the project “reflects on how to decolonize our imaginaries from the promise of happiness sustained on consumption, accumulation of material goods and economic policies of unlimited growth”.

Certainly, the whole program brings valuable experiences for today’s debates about degrowth and opens new spaces to ask how degrowth is being discussed in other latitudes. Among its various platforms, the artist residence is perhaps the most interesting initiative. Officially known as Lugar Común (Common Place), this residence has hosted artists and curators since 2015, sharing a house under the principles of voluntary simplicity, commonality and good living. These principles are also followed in the artistic production processes, where austere and convivial techniques are used to create art pieces with critical and sensible content. According to Kautz, this follows a common thread within Latin American art in general, and particularly with the neo-concretism movement, which in the 1960s expressed an open critique to the imaginary of industrialism (see the Manifesto here).

Lugar Común is located in the Obispado neighborhood, and can be recognized by a sign in its frontal façade asking ¿Es usted feliz? (Are you happy?). This is an adapted version of a series of urban interventions of the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, originally made in Santiago de Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship (see: “Studies on Happiness (1979-1981”). Jaar’s intervention is more than relevant for Lugar Común, where challenging ideals of happiness in modern society is at the center of the project.

  2 Lugar Común. Intervention by Alfredo Jaar. Estudios sobre la felicidad

Since its inauguration, this “open residency” has also hosted convivial events, discussions and seminars. The Twitter account of Lugar Común (@mtycomun) suggests that such spaces have brought some “classical” topics of degrowth into discussion, but more interestingly, they have also raised questions concerning the Mexican context in itself. As many other countries of the “Global South”, Mexico faces a rapid process of uneven development, bringing patterns of unequal capital accumulation within and outside its borders. Concerns about wealth redistribution are thus at the center of southern debates, where contradictions between growth and inequalities, globalization and environmental degradation, development and cultural marginalization are even more evident than in “first world” societies.


Redistribution of wealth between the north and south.”

Although there is great skepticism towards discussing the relevance of degrowth in “southern” countries, this project exemplifies the growing presence of critical discourses challenging the narrowly growth-oriented development project. What kind of society do we want to live in and what type of economy should sustain it? are some of the basic questions surrounding the debates. These, in fact, are concerns increasingly shared by many groups of the Mexican society, and could certainly enrich today’s political debates. As Kautz himself has stated:

“Doing art exhibitions means giving something to the public sphere, which has multiple voices and subjective forms. There will always be agreements and disagreements, and that means art should intertwine compromises with the sensible and democratic agendas. In this sense, we can not always have consensus, but dissensus” (Willy Kautz, interviewed by Concepción Moreno).

Re-using industrial spaces and the paradoxes of corporate responsibility

The whole curatorial program of Poetics of Degrowth was developed in Monterrey, the most important industrial region in Mexico since the XIX century. Today, Monterrey is ranked as one of the most competitive cities in the world, with one of the highest living standards globally. It is thus more than symbolic that the degrowth debate re-enters [2] the country in this particular space, raising questions about the project of the city itself and the country as a whole. Poetics of Degrowth also develops inside the reminiscence of the old national industrial project: the exhibition is presented in Parque Fundidora, a public restoration initiative build upon an iron and steel complex that collapsed after the economic crisis of the 1980s.


Parque Fundidora

Today, Monterrey has adapted to the neoliberal shift in the Mexican economy, hosting growing investments of national and transnational corporations. Even when some industries completely disappeared after the crisis of the 80s, others have managed to adapt to the pressures of economic liberalization and competition in global markets. Notably, FEMSA has been one of the most favored companies of this new era in Mexico. Also known as Fomento Económico Mexicano (Mexican Economic Development), FEMSA started as a regional brewery company at the end of the 19th century, and is now one of the biggest corporations in the country. It includes Coca-Cola Femsa, Oxxo, and a growing number of investments in Mexico and abroad.

Oxxo is one of the leading grocery stores in Mexico: it has around 14,000 units selling processed food products and opens around 1,000 new stores every year. On its turn, Coca-Cola Femsa is the biggest bottling company of Coca-Cola in the world, producing more than 100 brands of soft drinks and bottled water in Mexico, Latin America and the Philippines. It is not surprising that, in its latest Corporate Report, Femsa is presented as an example of continuous growth and expansion. Just in the case of Mexico, the boom of the processed food and beverage industry -shared with many other corporations- has triggered important debates on its social and environmental implications, and Femsa Foundation has developed different corporate responsibility programs on the matter.

Besides the great contribution that Poetics of Degrowth brings to aesthetics and politics, it is certainly a paradox that FEMSA is promoting this curatorial program. Many would think this contradiction is impossible to reconcile. In a context where corporations possess overwhelming power over the economic, political and social spheres, this paradox leaves multiple questions open. As degrowth is successfully gaining place in public spaces, new concerns arise on the ways these expanding debates will take place. Mexico is a culturally rich country with strong communal roots, and a place where a myriad of socio-environmental movements, organizations and critical thinking challenge today’s political scene. Beyond its controversy, this exhibition offers a great opportunity to discuss how we want to enhance alternative debates and how can we promote new and constructive dialogues with critical movements of the “north”.

Poetics of Degrowth is exhibited until January 2017 in Centro de las Artes-Parque Fundidora. Monterrey, Mexico. _________________________________________

[1]  Willy Kautz is an experienced curator of contemporary art, and a PhD student at UAB in Barcelona. In 2015 Kautz made another curatorial intervention in Mexico related with degrowth under the title who owns the world?. [2] Since 2007 a group of academics and activists have been discussing degrowth ideas in Mexico. Influenced by the legacy of Ivan Illich in Mexico and the first degrowth meetings in Barcelona, this group has developed a series of seminars and conferences about degrowth ideas and their relevance for the Mexican context. See more at: Descrecimiento Mexico  

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