** Originally published at World Now and re-published in the print edition of the Los Angeles Times:
The pay phone is tucked into a colonial-era doorway facing a busy sidewalk downtown. It happens to draw attention only because the phone is bright red. “Free calls,” reads a plain sign taped inside, along with instructions on how to dial any number in Mexico or in the world.
An installation conceived by artist Minerva Cuevas, the phone also features a photograph of a chimpanzee picking up an old rotary phone, like an open invitation. One recent day, this reporter stumbled upon the phone and did what millions of others might do when faced with a free call. I called my mother.
“Hey, mom! I'm calling you for an art piece!”
“Oh, that's great, mi'jo,” she replied, before launching into the latest local gossip.
Few artists in the world challenge the penny-for-penny profits of global capitalism as bluntly as Mexico City native Cuevas. She puts revolutionary slogans inside mass-produced fortune cookies and hands out bottles of water taped with the word “Egalite” instead of “Evian,” because shouldn't water always be free?
Her free pay phone is a new work produced for an exhibit at the Museo de la Ciudad de Mexico, or Museum of Mexico City. The show, on view until Aug. 5, covers a career defined by Cuevas' knack at turning art into giveaways for ordinary people hustling to make ends meet in a tough city. They are particularly subversive gestures for Mexico, the artist says, a society where the very wealthy and connected usually get all the shortcuts and giveaways they might wish.
Cuevas' Mejor Vida Corp. is perhaps her most well-known conceptual project. This Better Life “corporation” distributed subway tickets inside underground stations, handed out low-price barcodes to sneak onto items in stores, and produced fake student ID cards (for transit and entertainment discounts) by request from strangers.
As might be expected, the public responded approvingly. Mejor Vida Corp. went on to become an icon of contemporary Mexican art in the 1990s.
The exhibit on Cuevas also highlights works that are surprising for their almost formal expressions in painting and performance. In a 1995 video, the earliest piece in the exhibit, Cuevas films herself through the process of drinking an entire bottle of tequila.
She does so mostly in silence. In person, Cuevas is similarly soft-spoken yet precise, deliberately measured with her words. She would describe the tequila video only as “sculptural.”
The free pay phone is a powerful piece, the equivalent of an art-world bomb aimed at the web of private financial structures that profit from our 21st century need for telecommunicating with loved ones. It is especially potent in the financial nerve center of Mexico City, where telecom magnate Carlos Slim bases the Telmex and Telcel empires that make him the world's richest man.
“It was one of the most difficult pieces to get installed,” Cuevas acknowledged on a recent bright midday outside the museum. “Obviously, in Mexico, we have the reference of the monopolies, of Telmex, but it's also about creating this oasis in the city.”
Cuevas said she is paying for calls made at the installation herself. She is keeping a registry of the calls made, but in keeping with the strategy behind Mejor Vida Corp., the data will remain private. (The artist said she can confirm that calls from Mexico City to Cuba are the most expensive.)
On Wednesday, free-admission day at the museum, the phone doorway was closed because the museum's telephone and Internet connections were inexplicably down, a spokeswoman said. It was a cold reminder for any would-be caller of the frequently unreliable nature of telephone service here, even in today’s wired world.
* Photo: Artist Minera Cuevas says her free pay phone is about "creating this oasis in the city." Credit: Daniel Hernandez / Los Angeles Times