Monday, March 1, 2010
Gillermo Gomez-Pena and La Pocha Nostra
Guillermo Gomez-Pena and his collaborative team La Pocha Nostra create interactive “living museums” that parody various colonial practices of representation including the ethnographic diorama, the Freak Show, The Indian Trading Post, the border “Curio Shop”, the sex shop/strip joint window, etc. They exhibit themselves as human artifacts within diorama environments. They focus on border politics and the brown body as “savage”, but with a ton of wry wit. The work manifests through interactive performances. The group composes their identities as “¼ stereotype, ¼ audience projection, ¼ aesthetic artifact, and ¼ unpredictable personal/social monster.”
Did you know I asked to have GGP and then by chance I picked him out of the hat? It was meant to be. I didn't even know so much about the museum oriented work. I recommend to anyone interested in identity, the idea of the border, progressive politics, performance art and gender bending to check out GGP further. He also hosts a summer workshop on performance. I have personally seen a few recent performances of La Pocha Nostra, most recently a guided tour of the Mission district, on the Mexican Bus, a colorful San Francisco tradition. It featured Guillermo’s prerecorded guided docent tour over speakers while fellow performance artist Violeta Luna performed and interacted with many of the locations. The passengers/audience could choose to either stay and watch or step out on the street with her and interact with the environment. Locations were “where the hipsters hung out” to the old colonial mission, to a junkie and mural filled alley.
Below is a very pieced together autobiographical timeline, written in Guillermo's voice, which is very flavorful. I have edited it way down (simply because it is 18 pages) to leave mainly GGP’s development of identity as a performance artist, and works that relate to museums. The entire timeline is an excellent read and can be found at www.hemisphericinstitute.org
1971: The Normal de Maestros student massacre takes place a few blocks away from my home. I write and perform Smogman, a sci-fi piece based on one of my first alteric selves, an activist super-hero who fights against pollution in Mexico DF. The third act includes a museum of “things past” with purified water, plants, and taxidermied extinct animals. These ideas will re-surface in my work years later.
1978: I receive a scholarship to study at the California Institute of Arts. I cross the US- Mexico border in search of artistic fresh air and my lost Chicano family. I suddenly become … brown, a “wetback,” a “beaner,” a “greaser.” I do not know the implications of these words. I begin my process of Chicano-ization with the unsolicited help of the LA police. I walk from Tijuana to Cal Arts in two and a half days, my head covered with gauze. I wear my father’s suit and carry a briefcase containing my passport, talismans and a diary.
1979: The Loneliness of the Immigrant. Part I. I decide to spend 24 hours in a public elevator wrapped in batik fabric and rope, a metaphor for a painful birth in a new country, a new identity as “the Chicano,” and a new language, intercultural performance. It’s my first performance “documented” by the art world.
The Loneliness of the Immigrant Part II. I spend 12 hours lying on the downtown LA streets as a Mexican homeless person. Despite the fact I am wrapped in a serape and surrounded by candles, most people ignore me. I discover that as a Mexican (and a "homeless" person), I am literally invisible to the Anglo Californian population. Performance is my strategy for becoming visible. The first Mexican financial crack occurs and our family’s savings evaporate. My father advises me not to return to Mexico. ”Stay in Southern California and wait for better times,” he says. The wait turns out to be the rest of my life. I am still waiting …
1985: BAW/TAF’s strictly artistic activities help to protect our backs and legitimize our more activist work. In addition to art shows, publications, radio programs, and town meetings, we organize performance events right on the borderline, where the U.S. meets Mexico in the Pacific, literally performing for audiences in both countries. When the border patrol gets too close, we cross to the Mexican side. During certain performances, we invite our audiences to cross "illegally" to the other side. We exchange food and art "illegally,” caress and kiss "illegally" across the border fence, and confront the border patrol in character. We are protected by the presence of journalist friends and video cameras. The political implications
of the site and the symbolic weight of these actions garner immediate attention from the international media. These are the origins of the border arts movement.
1985: I begin The Velvet Hall of Fame, a long-term collaboration with traditional velvet tourist painters from Tijuana who reinterpret my performance characters. The process is very matter of fact; the more I pay, the better the painting is, period. They don't care about reviews or openings, but they get a kick out of my madness. My “conceptual velvet art” project will last for a decade, during which time I get to exhibit these paintings at the Walker Art Center, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Corcoran Gallery, and MACBA (Barcelona). When I see these paintings hanging within walking distance of a Gauguin or a David Salle, I somehow feel historically vindicated. I love to cross the border between “high” and “low” art.
1988-89: My main contribution to the performance monologue movement is Border Brujo, a spoken word monologue dealing with border identity. The script is written in English, Spanish, Spanglish, gringoñol and various made up "robo-languages." My portable altar, which functions as set design, as well as my hand-made costumes, are composed of "pseudo-ethnic" objects, tourist tchotchkes and cheap religious souvenirs. With Border Brujo I become a migrant performance artist, spending two years on the road, going from city to city, from country to country and back, reproducing the migratory patterns of the Mexican Diaspora. As I travel, I incorporate new texts, props and costumes into the piece. The project is documented in two videos by filmmaker Isaac Artenstein. The Brujo and I end up back at the US-Mexico border in late 1989 where I bury his costume and props and stage his performance funeral. I receive both a New York “Bessie award” and the “prix de la parole” from the International Theater Festival of the Americas (Montreal). I am suddenly propelled into the center of the art world, and my personal life becomes extremely complicated.
1991: I move to New York to live with Coco and to work on the first part of my trilogy, The Re-discovery of America by the Warrior for Gringostroika, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. One day, during rehearsal, I get the magical phone call announcing that I am a “MacArthur Genius.” Two months later, my ex-wife sues me, taking half of my fellowship in court, and some of the original members of BAW/TAF suggest that I split the other half amongst the group. I ask myself: “Is this my true birth ritual into the American art world?”
1992: Artists such as Fred Wilson, Adrian Piper, James Luna, and Jimmy Durham begin to interrogate the way museums represent cultural otherness and start a dialogue with radical anthropologists. I begin to experiment with the colonial format of the "living diorama." My collaborators and I create interactive "living museums" that parody various colonial practices of representation including the ethnographic tableau vivant, the Indian Trading Post, the border curio shop, the porn window display and their contemporary equivalents. These performance/ installations function both as a bizarre set design for a contemporary enactment of "cultural pathologies," and as a ceremonial space for people to reflect upon their attitudes toward other cultures.
1992-93: During the heated debates surrounding the Columbus Quincentenary, Coco Fusco
and I decide to remind the US and Europe of "the other history of intercultural performance,” the sinister human exhibits, and pseudo-ethnographic spectacles that were so popular in Europe from the 17th century until the early 20th century; at the turn of the century in the US, they transformed into more vulgar exhibits like the dime museum and the freak show. In The Guatinaui World Tour, Coco and I live for three-day periods inside a gilded cage as "undiscovered Amerindians" from the (fictional) island of Guatinau (Anglicization of "what now") in the Gulf of Mexico. I am dressed as an Aztec wrestler from Las Vegas and Coco as a taina straight out of Gilligan's Island. We are hand fed by fake museum docents and taken to public bathrooms on leashes. Taxonomic plates describing our costumes and physical characteristics are placed next to the cage. We tour the US, Europe, Australia, and Argentina. Sadly, over 40% of our audiences believe the exhibit is real yet they do nothing about it. The most drastic audience response is from an Argentine military man who throws acid on me during the performance in Buenos Aires. The tour is chronicled in the film Couple in the Cage.
1993: I start a long-term collaboration with Native American artist James Luna. In The Shame-man Meets El Mexi-can't at the Smithsonian Hotel and Country Club, Luna and I share a diorama space at the Museum of Natural History. I sit on a toilet dressed as a mariachi in a straightjacket with a sign around my neck announcing, "There used to be a Mexican inside this body." I unsuccessfully attempt to get rid of my straightjacket while James paces back and forth, changing identities. At times he is an "Indian shoe-shiner," at other moments he becomes a "diabetic Indian" shooting insulin directly into his stomach. He then transforms into a janitor of color (like most janitors in US museums) and vacuums the diorama floor. Hundreds of visitors gather in front of us. They are sad and perplexed. Next to us, the “real” Indian dioramas speak of a mute world outside of history and social crises. Next to us, they appear much less “authentic.” While rehearsing the 2nd part of our project , James lights up some sage. The security guards phone the DC police and we get busted in the dressing room for “smoking pot.” Furious with such a ludicrous claim, curator Aleta Ringlero calls museum administration demanding an apology on our behalf. For James and me, such a situation is just a good anecdote. As James put it, “simply one more day in the life of an Indian and a Chicano.” We reenact the bust in a series of photos.
1994-96: Roberto and I tour Temple of Confessions, a performance/ installation combining the format of the ethnographic diorama with that of the religious dioramas found in colonial Mexican churches. For three-day periods, we exhibit ourselves inside Plexiglas boxes as "end-of-the-century saints.” Those visitors who wish to “confess” their intercultural fears and desires to us have three options: they can either confess into microphones placed on kneelers in front of the boxes (their voices are recorded and altered in post-production to ensure their anonymity), or, if they are shy, they can write their confessions on cards and deposit them in an urn. If they are extremely shy, they can call an 800 number. The "confessions" are quite emotional and intimate. They range from confessions of extreme violence and racism toward Mexicans and other people of color, to expressions of incommensurable tenderness and solidarity with us, or with our perceived cause. Some are filled with guilt or fear, fear of cultural/political/sexual invasion, violence, rape, and disease. Other confessions are fantasies about escaping one's identity: Anglos wanting to be Mexican or Indian or vice versa, self-hating Latinos wanting to be Anglo or simply "blond." There are also many descriptions (both real and fictitious, but equally revealing) of intercultural sexual encounters. By the end of the third day, we leave the Plexiglas boxes and are replaced by human-sized wax effigies. The Temple of Confessions remains as an installation piece for eight weeks, and written and phone confessions continue to be accepted. The project is documented in a PBS documentary, a radio documentary for NPR, and a book (Power House, NY) with the same title. The last performance of the tour takes place at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
1995: I move to San Francisco and begin the long-term project of tattooing my torso and arms. Nola Mariano and I found La Pocha Nostra. The objective is to create a loose interdisciplinary association of rebel artists interested in collaboration. Inspired by zapatismo, our collaborative model of concentric and overlapping circles functions both as an act of civic diplomacy and as a means to create “ephemeral communities” of like-minded artists. We are more of a conceptual laboratory than a company, a strategic gathering of politicized artists thinking together, exchanging ideas and aspirations. We begin a fruitful binational exchange project with Mexican performance artists titled Terreno Peligroso/Danger Zone. It’s a good time for Mexican and Chicano artists to collaborate. We create a Free Art Agreement, an ongoing exchange of ideas and artwork, and begin to collaborate across the border. I begin my long-term association with the National Public Radio program, All Things Considered. I write and record a monthly commentary from the position of a performance artist. I suddenly have a national voice in a society in which mainstream media covers artists either as celebrities, human-interest stories, or social monsters but rarely as intellectuals.
1997: The art world begins to talk about “relational aesthetics.” Radical choreographer Sara Shelton Mann from the dance troupe Contraband, Roberto, and I jumpstart a three-year project titled The Mexterminator. The idea is to use the internet as a tool of “reverse anthropology” to research America's psyche regarding Anglo/Latino relations, then to develop an ever-evolving repertoire of performance personae based on this research. For this purpose, we develop “confessional” websites asking individuals to suggest how we should dress as Mexicans and Chicanos, and what kind of performance actions and social rituals we should engage in. The Internet confessions are much more explicit than those gathered during live performances such as Temple of Confessions. Scholars help us to select the most striking and representative confessions so we can use them as source material for performance. As performance artists, we embody this information and re-interpret it for a live audience, thus refracting fetishized constructs of identity through the spectacle of our artificially constructed identities on display. A gorgeous photo-portfolio by Mexican photographer Eugenio Castro is made out of the Mexterminator personae. At least 500 of these images haven’t yet been printed or published.
1999: I marry gorgeous Colombian curator and writer Carolina Ponce de León. Our loft in San Francisco becomes an informal roadside museum, salon and hostel for Mexican,
Colombian, US and European artists who pass through. A local TV station does a reportage on the house calling it “the Smithsonian of the barrio.”
1999-2002: The new Pocha Nostra troupe tours The Living Museum of Fetishized Identities internationally. The next step in our performance research is to develop large- scale interactive performance/installations that function as “intelligent raves and art expos of Western apocalypse.” Every “living museum” is site-specific and involves a different group of local artists. Live music, video and computer projections, cinematic lighting, taxidermied animals and twisted ethnographic motifs help enhance our high-tech “robo-baroque aesthetic.” In these intoxicating environments, we exhibit ourselves on platforms as intricately decorated “ethno-cyborgs” and “artificial savages” for 3 to 5 hours a day. The structure is open and non-coercive, allowing the audience to walk around the dioramas designing their own journey. They can stay for as long as they wish, come in and out of the space, or return later on, fully participating in our performance games or keeping to the sidelines as voyeurs. In the first hour, the experience is typically voyeuristic. The “ethno-cyborgs” create slow motion tableaux vivants that sample and combine radical political imagery, religious iconography, extreme pop culture, fashion and theatricalized sexuality. The audience members are confronted with a stylized anthropomorphization of their own post-colonial hallucinations, a kind of cross-cultural poltergeist in which the space between self and other, “us and them,” fear and desire, becomes blurry and unspecific. As the evening evolves, the experience becomes increasingly participatory. We include a diorama station where audience members can choose a “temporary ethnic identity” and become “their favorite cultural other” using make-up and costumes provided by us; after this, they are encouraged to integrate themselves into our living dioramas. Both audience members and performers make political, ethical and aesthetic decisions on the spot. In this sense, the performance becomes an exercise in radical democracy. In the last hour, we step out of the dioramas and cede total control to the audience, as the post-colonial demons dance all around us.
2001: The US experiences on its own soil its worse terrorist attack ever. The neo-cons in power rapidly transform the country into a closed society ruled by paranoid nationalism and fear. An unprecedented era of censorship for artists and intellectuals begins. This climate forces La Pocha to spend more than half of the year outside the country, becoming Chicano expatriates abroad. We begin to compare notes with Arab and Persian artists based in the US and the UK regarding the demonization of the brown body.
You can find many performance texts and much more at www.pochanostra.com
And video footage at http://www.vdb.org/