The Art of Camouflage

"Americans cross the border South in search of identity and history. Mexicans cross the border North as if coming into the future. Since we suffer from an excess of identity, deep inside what we really want is to get rid of it.... We cross the border to reinvent ourselves..."
                                                      From the film "Borderstasis," 1998
 "In the 70's performance was about authenticity. The blood was real blood, so to speak. In the 90's, it's all about artifice. Chicanos and other so- called “artists of color” understand artifice 'cause the hardships of everyday life are so intense that they demand to either be forgotten, satirized or stylized."
                                                      From my performance diaries, 1997

The Art of Camouflage

(Performing in extremely unusual contexts) 1999

The following text chronicles four collaborative performance projects which took place in  unusual contexts: cable TV, a Natural History museum, malls and an opera house.  Each of these contexts presented particular challenges to me and my collaborators, and demanded that we adopt different tactics and strategies. These otherwise highly diverse projects are unified primarily by a goal of destabilizing and subverting problematic notions of “racial” and cultural authenticity. I am well aware that my wonderful collaborators would probably construct very different accounts of these experiences, and I deeply respect their experiences and interpretation of events, but the narratives I present here are as “true” as memory allows.


Information Super-highway “bandits”

(Performing for Cable TV)

         On Thanksgiving Day, 1994,  the evening news of over 3.5 million American households was suddenly interrupted by two "cyber-Aztec TV pirates," transmitting their bizarre views on American culture and identity direct from their underground vato-bunker, somewhere between New York, Miami and Los Angeles. In actuality, what the viewers were watching was an experiment in interactive television via satellite.  Roberto Sifuentes and I had teamed with filmmakers Adrienne Jenik, Philip Djwa and Branda Miller from Eye-Ear Studio at Rennselear Polytechnic, New York State, to broadcast a simulacrum of a pirate TV intervention to hundreds of cable television stations across the US. Our amazing publicist had managed to persuade over 400 program directors from all over the country to advertise the time slot under a fictional title. Initially, as far as the viewers were concerned, what they were witnessing was a “true” pirate TV intervention, though they slowly became aware of the artifice behind our performance strategies.
         The style of the broadcast was influenced by MTV, with five hand-held cameras in constant motion.  The content was a unique blend of radical politics, autobiographical material, “Spanish lessons for xenophobic Americans,” and outrageous parodies of traditional TV. Roberto and I spoke in English, Spanglish, Franglé, and invented “Nahuatl.” During the broadcast, we demonstrated a “Chicano virtual reality machine” by means of which the viewer could (in the context of the fiction) request “instant visualization of personal and historical memories;” these were in fact pre-produced segments utilizing home movie footage and videos from past performances. The broadcast also featured a “Chicano virtual reality bandana,” that would allow (Anglo) users to vicariously experience racism. We also received “live” reports from writer and performance artist Ruben Martinez via PictureTel (video telephone) from the Electronic Cafe in Santa Monica.  Footage of other types of broadcasting intercut with our performance video were meant to suggest to the viewer that the “legitimate” broadcasters were attempting to regain the airwaves, but we ultimately managed to maintain control.
         For an hour and a half, the “TV pirates” invited perplexed viewers to call in and respond to the broadcast. We  encouraged them to be intelligent, poetical, and performative in their responses. The performance was also  transmitted over computer networks via “M-Bone,” and those watching in cyberspace could interact with us (and each other) by posting images and written comments. We received dozens of phone calls and computer messages, and probably  broke many FCC rules.
         Roberto and I were scared shitless of the possible legal repercussions of our TV experiment. For weeks after the event,  we waited in dread for the arrival of a mythical FCC inspector in a trenchcoat. But instead of the scary repercussions we expected, it turned out that the experiment was so successful and “hip” that many cable stations who originally refused to go along with our fictitious premise decided to air the broadcast a few months later. When this happened, we were flattered, but uneasy. What did it mean to re-broadcast a supposed  pirate TV intervention that was a simulacrum in the first place? We became obsessed with this dilemma. Our unexpected success could mean two entirely different things: either we managed to find “a crack in the system” and accidentally kicked ass, or the system was completely immune to radical content, and only concerned with the high production value and aesthetic hipness of the project. If this was the case, we asked ourselves, wasn’t this the ultimate paradox of “radical” performance in the 90’s? Our perplexity continued to increase. After the national re-broadcast of Naftazteca:Cyber-TV for the year 2000 AD, a one-hour, edited version of the project won first prize in the category of “best experimental video” at the Guadalupe Film Festival in San Antonio. At that point, I could only conclude was that American culture  has always had a place for the anti-hero, the accepted iconoclast, and that nowadays perhaps some performance artists occupy that place.


“The Shame-man meets El Mexican’t at the Smithsonian Motel and Golf Course.“

(Performing in Museums of Natural History)

         Native American performance artist James Luna and I have known each other since the mid-90s. Our work is stylistically very different; James practices an aesthetic of simplicity, whereas (according to critics) the style of my performance work is  “excessive” and “neo-baroque.”  But we share similar political and theoretical concerns: We both theorize our own artistic practice; we are both critical of the way indigenous and ethnic identities are portrayed by mainstream cultural institutions and commodified by pop culture, tourism and self-realization movements; and we both utilize melancholic humor and tactics of “reverse anthropology” as strategies for subverting dominant cultural projections and representations of Mexicans and Native peoples.
         My friendship and conceptual kinship with James has engendered many projects. From 1993 to 1996, he and I engaged in one collaborative project per year under the title "The Shame-man meets El Mexican't at [name of the host organization].” One project in particular stands out for me....
From my performance diaries: 
         It's Friday morning. Luna and I share a diorama space at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum. We are inside an ethnographic prison cell. I sit on a toilet costumed as a mariachi in a straightjacket with a sign around my neck that reads "There used to be a Mexican inside this body.” I attempt unsuccessfully to get rid of my straight jacket in order to "perform" ("entertain" or "educate" my audience). A Mexican waltz mixed with rap contributes to the pathos of my tableau. Meanwhile, James paces back and forth, changing personae. At times he is an "Indian shoe-shiner", offering to shine the shoes of audience members. At other times, he becomes a "diabetic Indian," shooting insulin directly into his stomach. He then transforms into a “janitor of color” (like most of the janitors in this, and other US museums) and sweeps the floor of the diorama. Hundreds of visitors gather in front of us. They look very sad.. Next to us, the “real” Indian dioramas speak of a mute world outside of history and social crises. Strangely, next to us, they appear much less “authentic”. The visibly nervous museum staff makes sure the audience understands that “this is just performance art...and they are famous artists.
         James and I have been rehearsing our next “intervention” at the Natural History Museum. The piece consists of a selection of irreverent monologues, songs, dances, and staged conversations that problematize our bittersweet relationship with mainstream cultural institutions. This time the performance will take place in the main auditorium. It’s 10 p.m., and James and I decide to take a break in our dressing room. Roberto and our producer, Kim Chan, are with us. James lights up some sage. I light up a Marlboro. Minutes later, several security guards break in and try to bust us for “smoking dope.” When they finally realize it’s just sage, they feel embarrassed and leave. I write in the margins of my script: “The performance is never over for us. No matter how much we understand that ethnic identity is a cultural and ideological construction, and that as performance artists we have the power to alter it at will, nevertheless, we are always confronted in the most unexpected moments by the guardians of fetishized identity and the enforcers of stereotype.”
         When Aleta Ringlero, the curator of Native American art, finds out what  happened, she gets furious, calls each and every Smithsonian undersecretary, and let’s them have it. James, Roberto, Kim and I prefer to have a drink at a bar. It’s just another day in our neverending pilgrimage towards the end of Western civilization.


Ethnic Talent for Export

(Performing in Malls)

         When the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta*) was finally approved in January, 1994, the side effects of the rapid globalization of economy and culture became an important subject in the work of many Mexican, Chicano and Canadian artists. Cultural institutions on both sides of the two borders began to engage in an depoliticized exchange of what, at the time, I termed "Naftart". As a direct response to the pervasive trans-cultural hype, Cuban-American writer and artist Coco Fusco and I decided to invent a (fictional) post-Nafta multinational corporation to market and distribute ethnic talent worldwide. We named it “Mexarcane International (Ethnic Talent for Export).” We decided that the logical location for this fictitious enterprise would be trendy shopping malls, the ultimate space for performance in globalized commodity culture. We placed our exhibition stand and temporary “office” in a highly visible mall locations in major cities such as London and Toronto, usually next to the food court. This project was first presented at the National Review of Live Arts (Glasgow), and then taken to Dufferin Mall in Toronto and to Whiteley’s Mall in London as part of LIFT ‘95.
         Persuading mall administrators to let us stage an experimental performance art piece was not a problem, especially if we were backed by a prestigious art organization or festival. The management couldn’t care less about the content of the project. All they wanted to know was if the show would bring in more people. We answered affirmatively. Our original idea was to mimic the “friendly tribalism” of corporations like Benetton, Banana Republic and The Body Shop. For this purpose, our presentational style and overall design needed to be sleek and yet ambiguous enough to generate a doubt in the viewer’s mind: “Are they for real?”(whatever “real” meant in such context) “Maybe it’s an interactive advertisement for a new store or an upcoming product.”  We quickly discovered our presentation needed to be hyperstylized so as not to be to be engulfed and erased by the environment of consumer entertainment and fake tolerance.
         For the performance, we set up a corporate-style backdrop (created by a professional corporate designer), complete with “explanatory” texts written  in imitation corporate jargon, and images of “happy natives” from around the world. Coco was seated at a desk in front, dressed as the Aztec girlfriend of Mr. Spock. Across from her, approximately 20 feet away, was my cage. For four to six hours a day, over three-day periods, I exhibited myself seated inside a tiny gilded or bamboo cage as an exotic “multicultural Frankenstein.” Each detail and element of my costume came from a different culture in the Americas. I was "a living sample of  Mexarcane’s products for export,” a composite “primitive” ready to fulfill the consumer’s desire for exotica. Mall visitors were encouraged to "activate" me in order to EXPERIENCE my "incredible ethnic talents.”  My "live demonstrations" included: commercials for chile shampoo, "Ancient Grains” cereal, and other organic products; modeling tribal wear (in hopes that someone would hire me “for a rock video shoot or a kinky catering service”); posing in attitudes of martyrdom, despair, and poverty "for German documentary photographers"; doing shamanistic rituals and playing new age tribal music concerts (on toy instruments) “for confused suburbanites"; and (the most popular of all) demonstrating "pre-Columbian condoms," using a clay dildo as a proxy. During these demonstrations, Coco conducted interviews and surveys to determine the “ethnic desires” of the audience. After each interview, she would decide which "demonstration" was most appropriate for a particular consumer, who was then instructed to approach the “composite Indian” and ask me to "perform". Since I was not supposed to speak  English (after all, I was an “authentic primitive”), the person who approached me had to mouth their request slowly and carefully, one syllable at a time,  as if talking to an infant or a trained animal.
         Contrary to our original expectations, our presence in the mall was not considered particularly outrageous. An eerie kind of “normality” and cool indifference seemed to surround the event. People participated very actively, acritically and without self-consciousness,  in much the same way they were used to participating in other interactive displays in the mall. Those who expressed strong feelings about the piece were primarily immigrants and people of color, but these emotional reactions never went beyond shedding a tear, or leaving us a supportive written note. Usually, by  the third day of a performance, the management finally figured the real implications of a piece, and was extremely happy to see us leave for good.


The first, the last, the only “Lowrider Spanglish Opera.”

(“There Goes the Opera House...”)

         When Los Angeles producer Michael Milenski first contacted me in late 97 to ask if I wanted to direct an opera for the Long Beach Opera House, I truly thought he was kidding. The proposed piece was The Indian Queen, a 17th century British baroque opera with text by Dryden and Music by Purcell. Before aceepting, I asked him two things: to fax me the libretto, and to become more familiar with my work by reading some of my books.
         Dryden’s text is filled with  outrageous racist stereotypes and Eurocentric constructions of otherness. Set in an imaginary pre-contact Mexico, it describes a fictional conflict between Aztecs who behave like British royalty, and Incas who behave like mythical Scots. (In the 17th century British imagination, Scots were perceived as savages.) The Indian Queen herself is the personification of America salvaje, an oversexed, gluttonous primitive, hungry for war and quick to betray her family and people.
         The thought of “inverting” the script was so seductive that I couldn’t resist. I got so nervous I developed acute insomnia. My initial proposal to Milenski was as follows. I wanted to rewrite the libretto in Spanglish, set it in a contemporary Californian mediascape, work with both symphonic and Mexican pop musicians, and create a cast using mainly Chicano performers and experimental artists, including many of my close collaborators. My demands were so outrageous that I felt sure they would be REJECTED (maybe deep inside that’s precisely what I wanted) but Milenski reluctantly agreed. Just to make sure he really knew what he was getting into, I invited him to a performance of Mexterminator in San Francisco. After seeing the performance, he still insisted that he wanted to go forward with the project.
         Since I didn’t know much about opera, my very first task was to assemble a team of collaborators whose work I knew well and whose aesthetic vision was compatible with mine. City Lights editor Elaine Katzenberger agreed to be dramaturg for the project and work with me in writing the new Spanglish version of the libretto. Sara Shelton Mann was hired to choreograph the ritual dances of the “primitives” (in our “inverted” version, the Aztec dancers were depicted as “blue savages” out of Celtic legend). Chicano filmmaker Gustavo Vazquez was comissioned to make a film including excerpts of B-movies, Mexican soap operas, and racist ethnographic documentaries, that was intended to comment on the live action and create a sort of ongoing “meta-reality.” Milenski approached conductor Andreas Mitisek from the Salzburg Philarmonic, who got a kick out of the idea of directing an orchestra dressed ala “Chipendale’s Aztec,” and agreed to be part of our adventure for very little money. We knew that we also needed a staging director with experience in opera, someone with the skills to handle the difficult challenge of bringing together the work of actors, musicians, singers, and dancers, and who would agree to carry out our aesthetic and political vision rather than imposing his own. Los Angeles Maestro David Schweitzer was a logical choice.
         Elaine, Sara and I had already shared a number of professional adventures and knew each other well. We clicked with David from day one. We shared an irreverant sense of humor and a fascination with perverse pop culture, high kitsch and sharp-edged politics. Perhaps the hardest task facing us was the need to create a new collaborative model with an unusual division of labor specific to the project. We had to learn to trust each other’s sensibilities and decisions. Though Elaine and I did most of the re-writing and conceived the main concepts for the production, it was David who eventually had to work out most of the actual details of the staging and assemble the whole enchilada. For my friends and I, this was a radical exercise in ceding authority. The situation was made even more complicated by the fact that Sara and I were already comitted to another project that overlapped with the rehearsal period for the opera: an extremely intensive, month-long residency in New York, which included performances of Mexterminator at Museo del Barrio and a number of outrageous performative events and interventions produced by Creative Time. Whenever Sara and I could manage a couple of days off from our multiple projects and commitments in New York, one or both of us flew back to California to work on the opera. It was an extremely chaotic and nerve-wracking experience, and our sense of ourselves as “trespassers” in the high-cultural, Eurocentric domain of opera made matters even worse. The unusual collaborative structure and fragmented working conditions made us fear that we could lose aesthetic control and end up with a project so eclectic that it would be an epic flop.
         Auditions came. The team agreed that Moctezuma needed to be cast as a Chicano wrestler. Since the original Indian Queen was a cultural transvestite, we decided to cast the role as a “clepto-Mexican” Anglo (not a Chicana) who purposely mispronounces her Spanish lines. The Queen’s confused son, Acasius, became a soft-hearted, liberal Californian surfer. The  Queen’s archenemy, an Inca tyrant, became a Miami narco-politico, and his daughter an archetypal assimilationist Indian collaborator -- a folkloric “Mexican señorita” sponsored by the Department of Tourism whose job was to welcome the enemy into her culture.
         The set was puro Aztec High-tech in Vegas. It involved a huge metallic pyramid, a lowrider car in the shape of a red stiletto shoe (the throne of our Indian Queen), and a “pre-Columbian nightclub” made out of Styrofoam that looked kind of like the Mexican pavilion at Disney’s EPCOT, a place where yuppie cultural tourists could drink margaritas and enjoy a taste of “exotic Mexico.”
         While were were finishing revisions of the script and assembling the final company of actors, dancers and singers,  the list of restrictions coming from above became increasingly longer. MagisterDixit: The spoken parts of Dryden’s text could be re-written in Spanglish, but all the sung parts needed to remain in archaic English. We couldn’t have any musical intervention from outside sources, which meant no mariachi band, rap group, or Tex-mex accordionist -- not even special sound effects. Full nudity for the “blue savages” was out of the question (g-strings were ok). Every day we had to (politely and indirectly but firmly) fight to defend and re-conquer every inch of  the creative freedom we needed in order to stage an event that would genuinely merge performance art and opera with a strong Chicano sensibility.
         Rehearsals began. In the highly specialized hierarchy of Opera, the roles of Sara, Elaine and I were extremely restricted. We weren’t allowed to participate openly in the rehearsal process, and were instead restricted to writing notes and passing them on to David in private meetings so as not to undermine his authority in the eyes of the actors and singers. Actors, dancers and singers all rehearsed separately for most of the process, and it was only in the final stage of rehearsal that everything came together, which made it almost impossible to foresee the end result of such an unprecedented collaborative project. This process severely tested my tolerance and creative will, and of necessity increased my blind faith in my collaborators.
         Opening night arrived. The Carpenter Center was packed. My colleagues and I were experiencing a combination of childish excitement and acute panic. If the piece didn’t work, I knew I would be forced to go into hiding for at least a year. To our amazement, the performance was not only successful, but according to the press, it shined. At the end of the piece, the audience applauded like crazy. None of us were prepared for what the LA Times reviewer said about the project in his collumn the following day: "There is something in The Indian Queen to offend just about everyone. There is also something in it that should delight and astonish just about everyone as well. It's a mess. But it's a dazzling mess. It utterly, totally, unapologetically undoes just about everything its authors, composer Henry Purcell and poet John Dryden, set out to do in 1695. But it saves a work that probably could survive in no other reasonable way. It brings something new to opera at a time when you might think just about everything imaginable has already been done."
         In the weeks after closing night, we were all high. There was talk about taking the opera to other places, and the critical buzz about the piece was extremely positive. However, I went into a pensive and anti-social mood for a while. With the opera, as with the other projects previously discussed in this chapter, I became hyper-aware of my privileged “experimental populist” status. Despite my utopian attempts “to cross over with dignity” into other realms and hopefully leave the door open behind me for other Mexicans, Chicanos, and artists of color to get in as well, it became clear that not many people were going to be given these opportunities. Most likely, the door would slam closed behind me, and the performances would become exotic anecdotes in the history of the institutions. As of the date this manuscript goes to press (June 1999), neither the Smithsonian nor the Carpenter Center have invited other Latino performance artists to “experiment” with genres of representation. Malls and cable TV might be more open to artists’ proposals, since they practice decentralized authority, but probably only those backed by prestigious organizations, and those who already have a certain level of name recognition. I’m truly saddened that this is the case. Although it won’t be easy, I still encourage my performance colleagues to continue thinking of ways to infiltrate populist domains on their own terms.