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, wasnt
this the ultimate paradox of radical performance in the 90s?
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 Mexicant 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. Its 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 its 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 lets
them have it. James, Roberto, Kim and I prefer to have a drink at a bar.
Its 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 Whiteleys 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 couldnt 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
viewers mind: Are they for real?(whatever real
meant in such context) Maybe its 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
Mexarcanes products for export, a composite primitive
ready to fulfill the consumers 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
(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.
Drydens 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 couldnt 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 thats
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 didnt 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 Chipendales 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 others 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 Queens confused son, Acasius,
became a soft-hearted, liberal Californian surfer. The Queens
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 Disneys EPCOT, a place where
yuppie cultural tourists could drink margaritas and enjoy a taste of exotic
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 Drydens text could be
re-written in Spanglish, but all the sung parts needed to remain in archaic
English. We couldnt 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 werent 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 didnt
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
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.
Im truly saddened that this is the case. Although it wont
be easy, I still encourage my performance colleagues to continue thinking
of ways to infiltrate populist domains on their own terms.