Conversation with Josh Kun
Chihuahuas, Rockeros, and Zoot Suits : Notes On Multiculturalism Without People of Color
Guillermo Gßmez-PeĻa and Josh Kun
Josh Kun: I wanted to start this whole conversation off by asking you to talk about your intellectual relationship to Subcomandante Marcos. I remember you recently telling me that you considered yourself an unofficial disciple of Marcos. Why would Marcos matter to a performance artist?
Guillermo Gßmez-PeĻa: I’ve always regarded Marcos as a performance artist extroadinaire. I think that perhaps Marcos’s geniality lies precisely in his ability to understand the symbolic power of performative actions; the symbolic power of props and costuming. He also understands the importance of new technologies as a means to enhance his voice; the importance of staging press conferences-as-performance, and of course, the strategic use of poetics in a time in which political language is completely hollow and bankrupt. He understands the power of language to help us constantly reinvent ourselves, and that to me is the essence of performance art. Performance artists are interested in exactly the same things. Roberto [Sifuentes, Gßmez-PeĻa’s current collaborator] and I see clear parallelisms in our methodologies. Of course, we are operating on a much smaller scale and without the consensus of hundreds of thousands of people.
JK: You also seem to have begun to echo Marcos in your approach to technology and your commitments to developing new technological strategies of representation and activism. In the last few years, your work has become increasingly invested in mining the symbolic and communicative power of the web and exposing the cultural politics of internet technologies and cyberculture. Marcos is one of the supreme examples of the subaltern, the ex-third worlder, harnessing what are positioned as First World technologies and using them to launch a counter-strike on First World institutions and systems of domination.
GGP: His is one of the most efficient activist uses of new technologies. It’s unbelievable. Once the cease-fire occurred, his revolution became first and foremost a cyber revolution, a revolution that took place in virtual space. The net has been his main means of communication with the outside world and the way to keep his mythology alive and the presence and aura of Zapatismo alive in the world imagination. And he did it so successfully at a time in which the debates on new technologies (1994-1996) were completely apolitical-
JK: -and top down
GGP: And top down. For years, people were wondering how the hell he managed to overnight send his communiqus and the discussions of the commandancia Zapatista straight from La Realidad (where his headquarters are located) at a time when La Realidad didn’t have electric lights all the way into the highly designed Zapatista web sites. It was a total mystery. Now people know how he’s doing it, but it took everybody by surprise, that this group of insurrectionists living in pre-industrial conditions in the Mexican jungle would so successfully broadcast their plight through the internet in a more sophisticated way than city intellectuals were doing it at the time.
JK: Absolutely. But what’s also interesting about his use of technology in combination with the way he and the Zapatistas manipulate their media images, is that they are also tapping into how the internet has become a site of performative activism. That is, so much of Marcos’ agenda has been centered on the way he performs himself as an insurrectionist— the masks, the hidden identity, dropping out of sight for months at a time, showing up at soccer games— in ways not terribly far from the strategies of say, El Santo and Superbarrio, other masked heroes of the people. And the internet has, among so many other things, become a site of everyday performance— its very structure, its anonymities, its disconnections from physical visible bodies, have opened it up into a kind of everyday theater of self re-actuation that is perfectly suited for Marcos’ campaign. The internet has become about creating fictional identities, inviting and in a sense, requiring, its users to take on alternate selves, virtual selves. I’d be curious to know if this quasi-normalization of performance has affected the parameters of performance art. Has it changed the way you work, the way you think about what constitutes performance art and performative action in the age of the internet?
GGP: The performance art world is merciless. Since it defines itself always in opposition to its immediate past and it’s always inevitably and acritically looking at the future, you are forced to redefine yourself constantly if you want to remain seated at the table of debates in the field. Otherwise you are out…gone. The speed at which the field changes is vertiginous, unlike any other field, and a performance artist nowadays has a very hard task, which is that of constantly reinventing him or herself and developing new and surprising strategies in order to remain alive and current. And the performance field is constantly shifting: what is performance today won’t be performance in two or three years and what was performance five years ago is no longer performance. Performance deals in the realm of the immediate, in the here and the now, and there is a sense of urgency and immediacy that in many ways makes it be closer to journalism than to theater.
JK: The difference (one of them anyway) is that journalists rarely realize that what they’re doing is a performance, that their bylines signal their own role-playing, their articles their own fashionings of re-arrangements and in many cases, extreme misrepresentations of the world they chronicle. Your work, though—especially recent pieces like Temple of Confessions, El Mexterminator, and Friendly Cannibals— has overtly responded to the ubiquity of internet culture—
GGP: One is constantly re-evaluating one’s methodologies. By 1994 my accomplices and I found ourselves faced with a dilemma. The art world had declared multiculturalism dead, very conveniently. The backlash against multiculturalism started to spread into academia, mass media, pop culture, mainstream politics and suddenly matters of race and gender were seen as pass. And we found ourselves in a serious dilemma. We needed to re-define all of our strategies. Suddenly, there was no longer a place for the angry black man or for the rabid Latino revolutionary or the angry feminist sister talking back. Liberal audiences began to experience “compassion fatigue” and they were no longer willing to tolerate strident, in your face, kinds of messages.
At the same time, the art world began to celebrate the arrival of new technologies in a very acritical way, especially in California. The utopian discourse about new technologies coming out of the Bay Area was completely ludicrous. Wired magazine, and some of the theorists of technology to remain nameless—
JK: —the internet as some new digital manifestation of egalitarian democracy
GGP: -Sure carnal. People were saying that virtual space was a truly democratic space, that everybody regardless of race, culture, class, or gender could participate equally, could belong” at a time when no one was feeling a sense of belonging to any community. So because of this new conceptual configuration we had to crash the new digital art world yet one more time or we would be left behind. And believe me, there were no Chicanos in virtual space at that time.
JK: Or at least anyone identifying themselves as such—
GGP: Yeah. So we began to not shyly venture into cyberspace as web-backs, as cyber-immigrants, fully aware that we were going to face the cyber-migra eventually. Then there is this other issue. Being “transgressive,” “alternative,” or rebellious,” are notions that have become very hollow in the nineties because the mainstream has realized that they can profit from the more thorny margins, the more poisonous margins. Now you can witness extreme performative behavior on cheesy talk shows, HBO programs, and Hollywood films that surpasses the outrageous behavior of performance artists. You are then forced to re-evaluate your position as a social provocateur. If Jerry Springer or Howard Stern are capable of engaging in more transgressive” social or sexual behavior than your colleagues, what does it mean to be “transgressive”? Or what does it mean to be kinky when in the trailer parks of rural America or in the halls of the White House there is more kink, raw kink, than in the most sophisticated vampire Goth clubs of New York City? It’s disorienting ese.
JK: Which is precisely why the question that, for a brief moment, plagued reception of the Jerry Springer Show was: are your shows real? or is it all staged? Talk shows always walk this line between the “actual” and the “performed,” and it’s a line that millions of TV watchers are fascinated by. Performance is made everyday in this way. We are getting more and more accustomed to seeing “real life” as staged, more and more accustomed to assuming that what is being offered up as real TV, real life, reality programming, is a product of elaborate performances.
GGP: Performance art is national daily spectacle. There is no question about it.
JK: This issue you raise of marketing transgression makes me think of these new GAP ads for khaki pants. Have you seen them? They feature multi-racial skaters, rave kids, swing kids, punks, and b-boys all performing their subcultural difference in the same brand of pants. The first one was swing, then hip hop, now they have “Khakis Soul” and “Khakis Country,” and you realize just how good mass culture has gotten at harnessing and containing difference while letting people think they are still being different— perform your difference by wearing our pants. Be marginal, be transgressive, just do it wearing the same pants.
GGP: Illusions of difference can be easily commodified. Retro-lounge culture and swing are like multiculturalism without people of color. That’s what they are. Martini bars in San Francisco or Manhattan- choose the theme. Polynesian? Afro-Mambo? Miami Galore? Tex-Mex? You choose the subject matter. In these clubs there are no people of color. The impresarios of this new hype managed to somehow create a sexy multicultural” scene without having to suffer the anger of being confronted by people of color and being accused of appropriation or bad dancing. They have successfully managed to erase the political text of difference. It’s brilliant. They always outsmart us.
JK: Let me try to re-direct us back to the role of the internet. What I find interesting in relation to your use of it— especially if we can talk reductively about your work as moving from a site-specific approach to the border to a more elaborated, extended, or symbolic approach to it— is that one place you hear always hear about “erasing borders” or “going borderless” is in internet discourse. According to the boosters, the internet is the ultimate borderless zone. And of course there are any number of ways to critique this: borderless as long as you post in English, borderless as long as you can afford a computer with ample memory and the passport software required to enter this zone, and on and on. But in your work you deal with the internet on the one hand as a space of possibility in terms of cross-cultural circuitry and transgressive identity enactment, but on the other as a place that is still policed.
GGP: I think that by 1995-96, the tone of the debates began to change because cyberspace was crashed by feminist theoreticians, by anarchists, by hackers, by pirates, by people of color, by Third World intellectuals, by postcolonial theoreticians who learned the new lingo in a few years. And suddenly it became highly politicized and all these white guys who felt they had found a safe place of escape away from the complexities of the times, were once again scared of the cyber streets— there went the cyber-neighborhood, so to speak.
JK: So would we be willing to say that there’s a relationship between the erosion of radical multiculturalism as a cohesive, viable discourse on the left, i.e. before multiculturalism became the discourse of the right, and the birth of the internet as an alternate sphere of possibility? There’s an interesting connection between the decrease of public sphere multiculturalist intervention and the potential gain of the internet as a space of radical intervention.
GGP: Yes and no. The two main organizations, at least in the art world, dealing with new technologies— CyberConf and ISEA (International Symposium on Electronic Art)— have found a seasonal place for Roberto, myself and a handful of other politicized Chicano/Latino colleagues. But just like in the early days of multiculturalism, we’re the unwanted, necessary guests at the party; the temporary insiders; the mariachis with a big mouth; the savages who unexpectedly fart. We are given the microphone for a couple of hours, and we use it fully knowing that we may not be invited again. But as we keep crashing those conferences year after year we don’t see more representation coming. In fact in the last couple of years, what we see is the emergence of a “friendly backlash” type discourse…”Oh, we already dealt with this or that issue two conferences ago.” To give you an example. Roberto and I proposed to ISEA a huge international town meeting with techno disc jockeys in cyberspace coordinating multiple activities happening in so-called marginal communities and third world countries simultaneously for a span of two days, where performance artists, theoreticians, and activists were going to participate in a very exciting unmediated dialogue that would be the centerpiece of this year’s(1988) international ISEA gathering. Then two months before it was about to happen, they canceled on us alleging they couldn’t fundraise all the necessary money to make it happen. I truly believe they suddenly realized how complicated and potentially dangerous it was going to be. Because of incidents like this one, I am much more realistic than I was during the multicultural era, much more pragmatic. I know Chicanos and Latin Americans will always be temporary insiders or insider/outsiders, and that is in fact a condition we will bear until we die. And I don’t mind it because it grants us a special kind of freedom. I don’t want to be an official cyber artist by any means. I remember when I became the official border artist and believe me it was a pain in the ass. The fact is that the art world only knows what we do with our right hand but they never know what we do with our left. Half of our activities, often the most interesting ones, go unnoticed. The art world is only interested when we hit the Corcoran gallery, the Walker Art Center or the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
JK: But not when you’re meeting with farmworkers in Ohio—
GGP: or with troubled teens in San Antonio or Native Americans on reservations in Canada and the U.S., nobody pays attention. None of our work taking place in extra-artistic contexts over the past five years has been covered by the art world and it’s definitely the most interesting work we’ve done so far. So this condition of being insider/outsider is in fact a very convenient one- it keeps us from being entirely co-opted. I don’t know if this is clear.
JK: It is and it also doubles back on something we were discussing the other day, when you asked me if I thought it was possible to successfully be a public intellectual in the US. Perhaps it’s this insider/outsider position, never fully being one or the other, that is the condition necessary for the emergence of a public or “organic” intellectual. Because you’re not fully inside the art world or academia, it forces you to inhabit the gap between them and that’s where community enters. I’m really interested in your anxiety about your own status as a public intellectual. I was surprised to hear you say that. I was surprised to hear you say that you’re looking for models.
GGP: In the US, because we don’t have a tradition of organic, public intellectuals, and my generation is just in a process of trial and error, trying to develop models, because of this we never quite know what our real impact is. For example, my role as only one of two Latinos who ever get to speak on All Things Considered (National Public Radio)— does that mean that I truly have a national voice or not? I am not sure. I know that there is a potential audience of five million people for my radio essays and that the programs in many cities get to be re-broadcast twice in a day so there might even be a potential audience OF ten million, and that makes me feel very good. I mean with one of my radio commentaries I get to reach more people that I ever will with all of my live performances put together. It’s wild. So I put as much time into my three or seven minute radio pieces as I put into a very elaborate performance piece, because I know that to go on the air is a real political victory for a politicized performance artist. But then I never know if the fact that if I have to craft my voice to fit the All Things Considered format means that I’m taking the chile and the spices out of my food. I mean, I try to push the envelope but in public radio, the envelope is quite stiff. Sometimes, when I do a piece that truly challenges radio tolerance, I inevitably receive a call from my editor, “Guillermo, you have…How can I put it? Make your ideas more understandable.” Or if the piece slips through the cracks and gets recorded exactly as I wanted it, then suddenly the tape disappears mysteriously from the shelves or its broadcast gets postponed indefinitely. It’s fine with me. It’s like a little game, each side trying to reposition the borders of permissiveness.
JK: It’s the same with my music writing, though on a much smaller scale. Whether it’s for alternative weeklies or national musical magazines, I’m always faced with trying to put something out to a potential audience— making a political point, introducing a new artist, raising issues that I feel other writers ignore— while making sure not to alienate that audience. Because I do see each piece as a rare window of opportunity to actually make an intervention in a public way.
GGP: It’s also a great challenge of simulacrum, a great exercise in expropriation of the form. It would be ludicrous if you attempted to be as experimental as you can when you write for the Guardian or if I were to use my most transgressive performance techniques when I do a radio commentary for NPR. It would be politically kamikaze-
JK: And thoroughly counter-effective.
GGP: The point is to expropriate the format and push it one more degree and find an outer limit within the format. That is the challenge. And it is not an individual task, it must be a communal task, a task that a whole generation of thinkers, artists, activists, politicized journalists, must undertake.
JK: Sure, because if not, then the one person suffers from burdens of collective representation and suddenly you find yourself as not just NPR’s leading Latino but as standing in and speaking for the Latino community as a whole, which as you know, is incredibly problematic to say the least, for everyone involved.
GGP: Very problematic.
JK: And you become the token brown voice-
GGP: the Andrei Cordescou of Tijuana (laughs), or the Joseph Beuys of the grassroots (laughs more)-
JK: You laugh, but that kind of qualification, that kind of re-contextualization, happens all the time when I try to get editors at national English-language magazines to approve story ideas involving rock en espaĻol bands, punkeros, Latino pop artists, Mexican rapero crews, etc.. Usually the only way I can get them to say yes is to couch the artists in the context of the world the editors privilege. Speaking of Cafe Tacuba as an avant-pop band from Mexico City who transform traditional Mexican and Latin American musics means nothing, but calling them the “REM of Mexico” or something equally ridiculous perks an editor’s ears. When US publicity for the Monterrey-based hip hop/lounge/electronica duo Plastilina Mosh started rolling out, they were the “Beck of Mexico” or the “Mexican Beastie Boys.” That kind of comparison may serve some degree of purpose in terms of cross-cultural translation, but it also works to elide the very real and important fact that in Latin America the kind of pastiche and recycling that both the Beastie Boys and Beck practice have been fundamental aesthetic strategies for centuries, if not from the very moment of colonization itself. So suddenly all that history is erased and Plastilina Mosh is just some Mexican copy of a First World original. It’s frustrating and deeply problematic. There’s never a way to talk about it that upsets the balance of cultural power. It keeps them exotic, foreign, and marginal and always reinstates colonialist hierarchies of representation. And when they do get written about, it’s only one band every few months; running more than one review or article on a Latino/a or Latin American band in the same issue is a complete impossibility. For example, a recent issue of Details, their “music issue,” was themed as a sort of “world music” issue and was supposed to focus on artists across the planet. I was assigned a piece on the Venezuelan group Los Amigos Invisibles, but because there was also a piece on narco-corridos at the border, my article got killed. The exact words of my editor were, “Because of space, we couldn’t have two articles on Spanish music.” Spanish music! It wasn’t even the old case of lumping together acts as nationally and stylistically distinct as a Venezuelan disco-funk band and Sonora corridistas into the vague “Latin music” generalization. It was seeing them only in terms of either their shared language— which would emphasize the extent to which so much of this comes down to an English-only language politics— or their shared colonial links to Spain. Regardless, it always comes down to this attitude of patronizing and paternalistic inclusion, of being generous enough and taking enough of a perceived demographic risk with advertisers, to allow one of these groups in. It’s the old bringing the margins to the center saw— never realizing that the center is marginalized, never realizing that Rolling Stone’s white male demographic of Fleetwood Mac and Pearl Jam fans is rapidly becoming an imaginary one that the magazine is working over-time to re-create and keep alive.
GGP: We always make fun of that. When I was part of the so-called performance monologue movement in the late eighties, I used to call myself “Spalding Wet” in reference to Spalding Gray and like espalda mojada—wet back—, and I had a performance called “Swimming to Tijuana.” I always like to joke about the fact that we are always being referenced through the filter of US and European art and pop culture and never seen on our own terms— like Roberto and I being called the Cheech and Chong of the art world.
JK: Maybe this is a good juncture to get back to this question of being a public intellectual. As an artist who inhabits the US and Mexico simultaneously as a state of mind-
GGP: -and as a conceptual cartography
JK: -do you think that being a public intellectual in Mexico works differently? I ask this because a term like “public intellectual” is always nationally moored. Your work and your performance itinerary, the map you are always moving across, is transnational in its scope, and this transnationalism, be it geopolitical or cultural or performative, I think poses a challenge to how we generally characterize public intellectual work. So how does it work for you being in both Mexico and the US. Is it easier to play that role there?
GGP: It was up to the early 90s. Since Mexico wholeheartedly jumped into the troubled waters of neo-liberalism and globalization, my beloved native country has gone from being a partially industrialized society to an information-based, advanced capitalist society in a matter of say eight years without ever enjoying the goods of capitalism or information; without ever completing its industrialization phase. So we have engaged in the most dysfunctional form of capitalism and media culture, but nevertheless Mexico has thoroughly become a virtual nation that only exists in the cultural-scape of Televisa, the mega-media conglomerate. More and more, Mexico is experiencing the malaise of a post-industrial information based society and as a result of this the intellectuals are becoming less and less national players and more and more media celebrities and only those who know how to play the media have made that leap. The great majority haven’t. They are still writing for newspapers and only a small educated portion of the population reads the paper. And there’s nothing wrong with this, but there was a time when in Mexico intellectuals could be heard regularly on radio, seen on television, could write for the national papers, could engage in debates with the political class, where everybody knew them in the country, much more so than in the US. And this is no longer the case. Probably the best example as a marker is Octavio Paz’s relationship with Televisa. When suddenly Paz was adopted as the official intellectual of Televisa about ten or twelve years ago, a new type of intellectual was inaugurated in Mexico, the official media intellectual. So now intellectuals in Mexico are experiencing the same marginality that US intellectuals experience. Here (in the US) it is perhaps a little worse because the only real space an intellectual has to survive in is academia and academia is not exactly connected to media or pop culture or community praxis. It’s self-contained and self-referential, like a reservoir of intelligence, and only a handful of intellectuals existing in academia are really allowed to broadcast their views in national media, and we know they are not the most critical voices. If the US was a healthy and truly democratic society, we would see Naom Chomsky and Mike Davis and Michelle Wallace and Susan Harjo and Ed Said, we would see them regularly on television talking about politics and culture. Instead we get obscure social scientists and lawyers, lots of lawyers, and idiots like Bill Maher (on Politically Incorrect) explaining society to us.
JK: Part of the reason I brought this up again was because the more musicians I speak with and write about in Mexico, the more instances I find of musicians as intellectuals, or intellectuals as musicians— musicians who in Mexico truly are cultural workers. Musicians who double as journalists, columnists, community leaders, video makers, writers. There’s much less of that in the US. Someone like Pacho in the Mexico City rock fusion band Maldita Vecindad. He uses his music to address cultural and political issues and in a sense, either rehearses those ideas or extends them, in his columns for the Reforma newspaper. It’s rare to see entertainment and political dialogue co-exist and inform each other in the public sphere in the US— being a rockero and a critic, a drummer and a cronista.
GGP: No, you’re right. There’s still some instances of this— Felipe Ehrenberg, the performance artist, and Roger Bartra the social anthropologist. They write in daily papers for example— but there’s less and less of it. Besides, people like Felipe, Roger, and Pacho should have their own TV shows. Can you imagine que locura? Another factor that contributes to intellectuals and artists becoming increasingly less visible is the fact that it is practically impossible for them to live strictly from their work. So they are forced to engage in double or triple production and wear many hats and masks in order to survive.
JK: But isn’t part of it also that in the US, in the case of rock music, there’s a very different mythography and a very different culture attached to rock than the one in Mexico? In Mexico, if you’re a rockero, you’re not just performing as a musician, you are, whether you like it or not because of the politicized history of rock in Mexico, enacting a certain kind of resistant, subcultural identity. This was of course especially true in the seventies and eighties, from Avandaro until after the Mexico City earthquake, before Televisa decided to support rock and introduce it into the federally sanctioned national media culture.
GGP: True, There was a time when the rockeros were the great alternative chroniclers of “la reconstrucion” of the city after the earthquake-
JK: Exactly. There’s more of a slippage between these two spheres— cultural expression and politics— in Mexico than in the States, or at least the two have been more frequently brought together out of necessity, as a survival strategy.
GGP: But NAFTA has made it harder, neo-liberalism has made it harder, globalization has made it harder. Mexico is looking and behaving more and more like the US, and soon, in five or ten years, there won’t be visible cultural differences across borders in this continent- both ways.
JK: So what do you do with that? How is this different from what you yourself have written of as ‘the new world border,’ an artistic transcontinental border zone?
GGP: In my performance work and writings I have attempted to articulate this “other cartography,” a transborder culture not imposed from above but organically emerging from within-
JK: An anti-NAFTA transborder zone?
GGP: Exactly. At times, it looks similar at a far distance but when you get closer you realize they are fundamentally different. On the one hand you have the CNN or Discovery Channel type of continental or “global culture,” the Benneton worldview, the pseudo-internationalism of world beat and the internet, and on the other hand you have this more proletarian or grassroots “transworld culture” that is emerging organically from within, from street level up so to speak, in which chavos banda (rock kids) from Sao Paulo or Mexico City are not behaving that differently from youth in the Bronx or Oakland. The rockeros in the outskirts of Buenos Aires are dealing with similar issues as…
JK: -as North Africans in Paris
GGP: -or Chicanos in East LA or Pakistanis in London-
JK: Something like a subaltern transnationalism.
GGP: An ex-centris kind of internationalism, a new internationalism that has nothing to do with fifth avenue tycoons or Parisian ethno-music impresarios. I mean, this internationalism escapes the CNN cameras.
JK: In a talk I gave once, I proposed rock en espaĻol as a good example of how this happens, how as a movement and now a genre, it has created a series of aesthetic and political transnational bridges between Mexicanos/as and Chicanos/as. And someone responded by saying that he couldn’t think about transnationalism apart from imperialism. My point was precisely the opposite, that thinking in that way is a trap, thinking that way blinds you to the workings of cultural expression that works within the very channels of economic imperialism. Rock en espaĻol has been a force of re-connection between rockeros in Mexico City and rockeros in say, Chicago or San Jose. Jaime Lopez called it “un canto fronterizo” for good reason. We have to remember that there can be transnational resistance within economic transnationalism.
GGP: That’s a very good way to put it. When you see a Lacandon Indian wearing a t-shirt of Ozzy Ozbourne ten years later in the Yucatan jungle, that doesn’t mean that he has been colonized. He has, in fact, co-opted it and turned it into a symbol of resistance, in this particular case against the government sponsored folkloric culture that Indians are supposed to wear and represent. So even though at times, corporate transnationalism and grassroots transnationalism can look very similar, one has to be very careful to distinguish them. And also, at the end of the century, in this era of rabid globalization, alliances of political affiliation are of a different order; they’re very eccentric and don’t necessarily respond to ideological patterns.
JK: So take a band like Molotov, who mix Chicano-inflected hip hop with metal, who are from Mexico City, and who are signed to Universal. Their politics are supposedly progressive. They’re anti-Zedillo, anti-PRI, anti-Televisa; they rap about political corruption and media hypocrisy, about economic injustice and call for redistributions of power. And yet, they are fully misogynist and homophobic and supposedly come out at one point as big supporters of the PAN. Yet people have been writing about their music as radical and revolutionary. They’ve gotten support from leftist intellectuals like Carlos Monsivais. But is this musical leftism? Is this progressive? How do we talk about this kind of production that frustrates existing political alliances and allegiances?
GGP: I’m not sure. A culture that is used to suppressing anger in the public sphere, maybe it allows the commodification of anger. But on the other hand, groups like Plastilina Mosh and Molotov are more about the performance of anger than the content behind that anger. It is this sexy performative anger that appeals to people more than the political ideals behind it. It is the possibility of saying “chingada” in a song
JK: or in Molotov’s case, “puto” and then “dame todo el poder”
GGP: and not the content of what these words actually translate into. I think this is very much a nineties phenomenon. We are already living in a society beyond content, in a world without theory, without ideology, where style is what matters, the form is what matters, the total experience is what matters. Complex ideas seem to be dated. It’s really scary.
JK: My favorite thing about Molotov is that the gringo from New Orleans in the group, the drummer, landed in Mexico City because his father moved the family there when he was working for the DEA.
GGP: That’s A perfect example! It makes total pinche sense! That’s the thing. We have to be cautious when we assume an easy binary position because it simply doesn’t work anymore. All the progressive conceptual territories that used to be sanctuaries of freedom and tolerance and contestation are now undergoing a process of redefinition and reconfiguration. So we cannot be blindly Zapatistas or entirely Chicanos. It doesn’t work anymore. Our alliances are shifting with the shifting topography of the end of the century. Excuse my metaphors but we are in the middle of the earthquake. All the buildings and bridges are falling around us. And what is progressive in one context is not necessarily progressive in another. And this might change tomorrow.
JK: Which complicates the way rock and hip hop have started bringing Chicanos and Mexicanos together, the way that so many Mexican musicians are sounding more and more Chicano.
GGP: The Mexicanos who haven’t had an immigrant experience in the US have a much harder time accepting this fact than the Chicanos and other US Latinos. The process of Chicanization in reverse that Mexican culture in all territories— in pop culture, in the arts, in fashion— has experienced in the last five to seven years is profound and irreversible and the Mexicanos are having a very hard time accepting it, especially the privileged intellectual and political elites.
JK: Rubn MartŲnez wrote a great piece about—and I’m greatly summarizing here— how gang names in Neza are borrowed from gang names in East LA and South Central when none of these kids have ever been to LA. But they have seen American Me and Mi Vida Loca. So with this coupled with the way, say, Mexican raperos like Control Machete, Plastilina Mosh, Molotov, El Gran Silencio, are emulating cholo style and language— for the first time in a long time, Mexicanos aren’t looking at Chicanos through Octavio Paz’s eyes as cultural huerfanos, as empty of identity and culture, as Mexican sell-outs. They’re looking at Chicanos, especially Chicano youth culture, as models for new identity. But this gets complicated by what you’ve said, because what would be a progressive Chicano politics in 1999 might meet with resistance on the streets of Monterrey or Tijuana or Mexico City.
GGP: In the early days of rock en espaĻol, when the rockeros started syncretizing rock with traditional Mexican music, they were so invested in being perceived as original. So when they were confronted with the fact that Chicanos were already doing that in Los Angeles and San Antonio, they didn’t like it and didn’t want to acknowledge any overt influence. That was ludicrous. I remember engaging in very tough conversations with post-earthquake rockeros Mexicanistas in 1987-88 and saying, You guys are sounding more and more Chicano and that’s really cool,” and them getting really pissed. This also happened in the performance art world with many of my colleagues as well as in literature and cinema. The diaspora always ends up influencing the homeland. But artists in Mexico are so insecure vis-a-vis the US and Europe and so ethnocentric regarding Chicanos that they have this desperate impulse to always be perceived on their own terms, as original, and innovative.
Luckily things are changing and I’d like to venture a theory. Before Zapatismo erupted, Mexicans thought that Mexico had already overcome its identity crisis since the Mexican revolution. And that it was those Chicanos, those ex-Mexicans living on the other side of the border, who were afflicted by a permanent identity crisis. In those days, the notion of identity was closely linked to language and territory. If you spoke Spanish and lived in Mexico, you were Mexican. And if you crossed the border you ipso-facto became a renegade, a traitor, a pocho. That was a complete fallacy based on a very old-fashioned binary model of identity. The Zapatistas came to prove this model wrong. When their revolution exploded in 1994, the country realized there was not just one Mexico; there were many. And many of which had been forgotten and had never been part of the national life of the country. There were certainly a number of indigenous Mexicos that had nothing to do with the hegemonic views of national identity, and who were finally demanding recognition. So suddenly Mexicans became aware of their acute crisis of identity and they realized their crisis was at least as grave as that of the Chicanos on the other side. The potential for a new alliance, a new reconciliation began to emerge. On both sides of the border we are children of crises and orphans of two nation-states.
JK: One of the biggest effects of neo-Zapatismo on the rock en espaĻol scene, on both sides of the border, has been the increase of support for the Zapatistas. And it’s happened to such an extent that voicing support for Marcos or playing a Zapatista benefit show has almost become de rigeur to the point of ideological emptiness, like wearing a red AIDS ribbon in the States. In the beginning, only a handful of bands, Maldita Vecindad, Tijuana NO, Santa Sabina, were doing benefits for the Zapatistas, pledging public support, using images of Zapatistas on record covers, using Marcos speeches on their albums, then it became a more widespread political gesture. And by 1998 or so, the Zapatistas had become a central part of what we were talking about, the commercialization of rebellion, with Marcos as just another revolutionary on a t-shirt.
GGP: But it’s also true that without the support of the rockers, of the internet, and without the sponsors of international hip, without ethno-sexual tourism— the myriad Europeans who arrive in Chiapas in search of an Indian maiden— without the support of all these bizarre things, the Zapatistas would have been wiped out by the Mexican government.
JK: This happens in the US all the time as well, the way subcultural performance and expression often relies on its very co-optation for survival.
GGP: Look at the lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) phenomenon in San Francisco, all these “Mexican wrestlers” who are in fact post-punk white kids performing a fictional identity. But as much as we criticize these new bohemian yuppies who are hardcore consumers of S&M, of fringe performance art, and world foods, tattoos, piercings, they are half of our audience in the nineties. Therefore we have to mimic the very objects of desire of these new audiences in order to appeal to them and turn them around. It is a very interesting predicament for us. We don’t want to shy away from those audiences, so we are very interested in mimicking a certain aesthetic that from a distance appeals to them because it explores the fringe desires and extreme aesthetics they are into. But once we have them, we turn it around them.
JK: How do you explain this shift in your audience’s desires?
GP: In the past years, performance art audiences have experienced an acute case of compassion fatigue. They have grown increasingly more intolerant of intellectually challenging and politically overt work, and at the same time much more willing to participate acritically in performance art events which allow them to engage in what they perceive as radical behavior.” As a response to this, my colleagues and I have been experimenting with new performance formats which can effectively speak to them, and catch them by surprise with their guards down so to speak.
JK; Can you give me some examples?
GP: We are designing political raves and peep shows in which audience members get to become cultural transvestites and voyeurs at the same time. We are also working on interactive TV programs and designing a conceptual web page in which audience members assume some of our performance personas, are given tasks by us, then go and carry them out in public and then reconvene at a live performance event. We are hoping to be able to crossover with dignity into the pop cultural terrain and stage large populist spectacles without losing our souls, our political clarity, our thorns and edges. The new goal is to accept the Faustian deal, but hopefully to outsmart the devil. I still don’t know if this is possible. It is still too early to wage the success of these experiments.
JK: You have to be paradoxical in order to make your point. And it seems to me this is a very particular paradox that belongs to a very particular moment in the history of multiculturalism. One of the ways you’ve chosen to deal with and, in a sense, embrace this paradox is to highlight the extent to which so-called multiculturalism in the nineties has really become less about transformative politics and more about cultural confessions and collective racial therapy sessions. In Temple of Confessions you entered this very territory, the connection between multiculturalism and cultural confession. I’m interested in how multiculturalism has become just another form of confession, of confessing our sins. And especially how this mode of confession has shifted agency and voice away from people of color and toward Euro-Americans, how multiculturalism is now very centrally about white folks confessing their multicultural sins, desires, guilt, phobias— a lot of guilt and phobia. The key then is to recognize how deeply confession has saturated multiculturalist discourse and to then regain control of it by controlling the mode of confession itself. Temple of Confessions attempted to do this, I think. You took the confessions. You manipulated the confessions.
GGP: Earlier, we were talking about the similarities and differences between journalism and performance art. Another difference is that performance art deals with the invisible forces of social phenomena, with what I term “the geology of social and cultural phenomena.” It also deals with subtle, hidden or indirect psychological and spiritual forces. In other words, performance deals with the subtextual more than the textual; with the forbidden, and the unspoken. Because of this, as a performance artist, I am particularly interested in revealing the hidden texts of multiculturalism, those that were never part of the public debate. For instance, in early 1994 when Roberto and I began our confessional experiments, I was particularly interested in tapping into the collective subconscious of my audience in order to articulate all the unspoken relationships between the South and the North, between Mexico and the US, between Anglos and Latinos. And this meant dealing head-on with issues of fear and desire; interracial sex, and all the sensitive stuff that academicians and the mass media rarely talk about. Mexico and the US have always had a very complicated relationship of intertwined fear and desire. Anglos and Latinos are both scared and seduced by one another. T he marines in San Diego who are trained to go and kill Central Americans, they all have Mexican wives or go to Tijuana on the weekends in search of a mythical “seĻorita.” Meanwhile, Mexican nationalists listen to US rock and roll, watch American movies, wear puro US fashion and if they can, they fall in love with blonde foreigners. I mean, our fears contradict and complement our desires. It’s inevitable.
JK: Ralph Ellison once wrote about a group of white kids harassing black kids while listening to a Stevie Wonder record.
GGP: That’s the territory we are interested in, the forbidden texts. There are many undercurrents beneath the US-Mexico border and that’s what I want to get at. For example, I want to understand the connection between racism and sexual attraction; or the connection between racism and the exoticization of the other. A lot of people, many of whom are racists, fantasize in this country (the US) about wanting to be of another race, about wanting to escape their own race and ethnicity. I mean, a great majority of Americans. Whites wanting to be black, Latino or Indian; Latinos wanting to be blonde or Spanish, Blacks wanting to be white, everyone wanting to be Indian. To want to become an Indian is a quintessential American desire. Those who spout racist statements against Indians, they’re completely seduced by an alleged indigenous wisdom and spirituality and mysticism. As much as they hate “real” Indians in the big city, they’d love to be Indian warriors or shamans. Same with Mexico. One of the things we are doing lately— it’s so dangerous we have only been able to perform it three or four times under very careful circumstances— we call them “identity make-over booths.” We invite the audience into spaces where they go through different stages of “ethnic transformation.” First, they check out a catalog where they get to choose their favorite cultural Other. It can be a mythic cultural other, say a mysterious Arab terrorist, a macho Mexican revolutionary or an angry Afrocentric activist or they can create their favorite composite identity, incorporating elements of the various identities in the menu. Then they go to the next room where special effects make-up artists begin to transform their faces and the color of their skin. Then they go to another room where professional costume artists give them the right clothes and then, once they are finished with the transformation, they finally get to perform their fictional identities in a diorama for ten minutes. At times, they get to choose their poses, and believe me what they come up with is extremely revealing. Other times, we as performance artists get to direct those poses, and we turn them into “human paper cut-out dolls,” which is the exact opposite of what we do in The Mexterminator, where we become the passive cut-out dolls for our audiences. We reverse the experiment. So you have these audience members at the end of the performance who are fully transformed into their favorite cultural others and we often encourage them to go into the streets with their new identity; to go into a bar or a restaurant and experience how it feels to occupy these identities. And it’s only in the morning after, when they wake up with a horrible cultural hangover, that they realize the implications of the experiment. Then, they feel angry, pissed or betrayed. It’s a very delicate experiment.
JK: It may be delicate because it exposes the extent to which that kind of outfitting, that kind of organized racial transvestitism, happens everyday in a very mundane, unremarkable, organic way. Wearing the identity of an Other is common practice within American culture, particularly of course among whites— blackface, cowboys and Indians, white Negroes. Contemporary white youth cultures, for example, are built upon racial fantasy, appropriation, and cross-dressing. I just went to a hip hop show in Western Massachusetts a month ago and virtually the entire audience was white, with very few black kids around. Everybody in the audience was completely performing black style, hip hop style— baggy pants, sideways visors, white guys calling each other “nigga.” What was especially unsettling about it was the way black kids themselves were erased, turned into phantoms and traces only leaving their mark through style.
GGP: This is precisely the point in the nineties. You go to a high Latino lounge to listen to Esquivel and drink tropical cocktails. Just experience otherness in a safe environment without having to suffer the physical, social, cultural, and political repercussions that entails. The idea is to pretend to venture into the extreme margins, the most foreign and dangerous margins and experience them without having to co-exist with the unpleasant citizens of those margins, without having to be subjected to accusations of expropriation, mindless tourism or cultural privilege.
JK: A perfect example of this is this song “Zoot Suit Riot” by this band of white swingers from Oregon, The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. They’ve been at the helm of the whole swing revival, which we could talk about all by itself, but this particular song is amazing for the way it uses style— a kind of neo, de-politicized pachucismo— to erase not just the people of color who inspire it but the histories of racism so overtly embedded in it. They’ve built a party song around the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, when zoot-suited Chicanos were violently attacked by US servicemen on the streets of East LA. Of course there’s no comment on the riots themselves or what their memory means to present-day Chicanos who might be listening on the radio or hearing the song live. It just uses the riots for effect, confusing fashion with racial violence. I remember reading in the Los Angeles Times that the band’s singer said, “I don’t mind if people take it as a Latino anthem, but I was just trying to pay tribute to this new breed of swingers that was emerging, I just like stylish people.”
GGP: There’s this great pachuco suit store in San Francisco and it’s all Anglos buying them. The store owner is so perplexed by it. He’s like, “Man, three or four years ago, I only had a handful of Chicanos in their 40s and 50s coming in for custom made pachuco suits and now hundreds of Anglos are coming in every week, wanting to look like real pachucos. And they’ll come with their Lowrider magazine in hand and they’ll point to the very photograph they want me to reproduce.” It’s a process of cultural gentrification where culture is reproducing the same process that happens in urban settings. Take the Latino barrio of the Mission District in San Francisco. First come the sheriffs with the mandate of the city officials to make the streets safe and we know what that means: to get rid of homeboys, prostitutes, the so-called drug dealers, the homeless, undocumented immigrants, etc. And then behind the sheriffs come the real estate agents and then the young impresarios who are looking for little cantinas with lots of character to refurbish them into martini bars overnight. And immediately after them come the lounge hipsters and bohemian yuppies emulating the very otherness that was fumigated in the same place to make the neighborhood safe for them to be there. Of course, a few human props must remain. A touch of authenticity is necessary. The norteĻo trios must remain. The Latina prostitutes must remain. The tamale vendors must remain. The flower vendors.
JK: -the paleteros (shaved-ice vendors)
GGP: -the pachuco clothing store, the pinto tattoo parlors, the best taqueria. There are a few things that are OK to have but the Latinos must move out to the East Bay. This is exactly what is happening in culture.
JK: If this is the case, do you feel an urgency as a Latino artist to address it somehow in your work?
GGP: One of the main subjects of our work is cultural transvestitism. We are interested in exploring it and doing it in a non-judgmental way, a non morally righteous way, because I don’t entirely object to it. Let me explain myself. I understand that there is a lack of symmetry in that very proposition— it is not the same to cross the border from north to south than from south to north and it is not the same for a Mexican to impersonate an Anglo as it is for an Anglo to impersonate a Mexican. There are different political implications, but I don’t rule it out all together. In the book Gone to Croatan, I read about these sixteenth century Irish and British dandies who were so appalled by the intolerance in the Puritan enclaves that they decided to go native. They went to live with the Indians, they submitted themselves to scarification and tattoos and body paint. They got an Indian lover. They went native. Or Geronimo Aguilar, the Spaniard who ended up living with the Mayans and went native. He was technically the first hippy of the Americas. At the end, Aguilar actually fought on the side of the Mayans against Cortez and lost his life at the hands of other Spaniards. Cabeza de Vaca the Spanish explorer became an apprentice of an Indian shaman and almost lost his mind in the process. There are hundreds of examples. This type of cultural transvestitism is at the core of continental American culture, and all we can do as artists is try to understand it. One of the things we have done in the past years is to collaborate very openly and very textually with white women, in defiance of Chicano and Chicana nationalists. They have been extremely critical of the fact that some of our main collaborators in the last couple years like Sara Shelton-Mann and Rona Michelle have been Anglo women.—not all, because we also work with wonderful Chicana, Latina colleagues. Besides the fact that we respect their work, Roberto and I collaborate with these women because they are unapologetic about their cultural kleptomania and transvestitism. And to articulate these processes on stage is extremely important to us. We try to do it critically of course. But our critique is not a morally righteous one. We are not condemning them of appropriation. We are again bringing to the surface the unspoken texts of multiculturalism and trying to do it in a very creative way.
JK: You’re making me think again that we can no longer afford to keep discussions of multiculturalism separate from corporate culture, because this is the very convergence that makes the everyday transvestitism possible. In the twenties, for example, if you were a white singer interested in black music, you went to a bar or a nightclub to watch black singers and musicians. If you were say Al Jolson or George Gershwin, you went uptown to Harlem, watched and listened, and then went back downtown and re-created what you saw and heard in your own language and musical grammar. The difference now is that you don’t have to go uptown. You watch it on cable, on BET. You pay for it each month. You sit in your bedroom in suburban Ohio or Iowa or wherever and watch Wu-Tang or Master P videos and there is no sense of what’s at stake. Because it’s on cable, on your TV, in your private bedroom, it in a sense becomes yours and you claim ownership of it and appropriate it without having to deal in any way with the physical realities that once had to be negotiated. And then you go to your local mall, buy the record, and not think twice about taking that identity on.
GGP: Exactly. The Northern multicultural model as opposed to the Southern multicultural model is a Danteian model. You leave the self-proclaimed center, and from the center you either descend to the seven rings of hell or you venture towards the margins. And in the process of “descending”, you find enlightenment. Then you come back to the center and speak about it. Or you “discover” an exciting type of otherness which later on you will sponsor, emulate, or be a ventriloquist of.
JK: How would you say the Latin American “multicultural” model differs?
GGP: At its best, the Latin American model is about ascending the social scale and taking the power away from those who have it or moving from the margins we’ve been forced to inhabit to the center and occupying the center, de-centering it. This is what the revolutionary projects have been about: ascending, taking power, and de-centering. But since US multiculturalists are engaged in the opposite process and venturing in the opposite direction,—from the center to the margins—what happens is that we merely bypass one another. The result is mutual misunderstanding. Anglos don’t seem to understand why Latinos and blacks in this country are so obsessed with going towards the center. And it’s so obvious. If you have been marginalized for five hundred years, the margins are no longer romantic or desirable to you. Once the Chicano and African-American rappers are able to leave the “ghetto” or barrio,” and stop wearing those clothes, they will do it. For them, it is no longer romantic. But for the Anglo kids who have been raised in the suburbs, to look like “gangster” rappers is definitely a romantic proposition.
JK: I guess what I’m trying to get at is that, as you said in the context of the Irish dandies “going native,” now to go native you don’t actually have to go anywhere and you don’t need any actual natives.
GGP: You have Burning Man-
JK: Sure, but you don’t even have to go there. You order a CD off the web, you watch BET, you watch MTV. The sampling debate has touched on this too. In the days of anthropological field recordings, ethnomusicologists traveled to indigenous communities to record ritual songs, ceremonial chants, work songs, whatever. Now you can buy a digital version of those recordings in a record store in London or New York, sample and loop it on a digital sampler, put some high-speed breakbeats beneath it and release your own twelve-inch. Sampling is traveling without the travel. When Loop Guru, two white British DJs and producers, or Deep Forest, two white French studio engineers, sample pygmy music or North Indian ragas, they’re going native without having to leave the space of their recording studio.
GGP: This is happening in a different way with border culture. Since the early nineties, border culture has been fully commodified. Mainstream culture has stripped border culture of any of its political content and has turned it into an object of desire. Border cantinas became in chic in New York in 1993 and Macy’s had a border fashion shop. Border imagery can be seen on the pages of Colors magazine, and on the album covers of LA rock bands. MTV is filled with hip images of the border, Fridamania, Guadeloupabilia, bleeding hearts, Mexican altars, wrestler masks, Chicano gothic tattoo art, you name it. So what do you do with that, with the border no longer being a zone of danger and contestation but a hip conceptual mall? You then have to re-position the border. That is what is so fascinating about border culture. The border has to be re-defined over and over again.
JK: Because for better or worse, the border has always been a site of image control— how the government portrays it, how Hollywood portrays it. So as a consequence, there always has to be this shift in image control, among artists and cultural workers and activists, to re-direct how the border gets envisioned and talked about. The border also becomes a set of condensed floating images, disconnected commodity objects like the Taco Bell chihuahua. That dog doesn’t represent the border as such but it—
GGP: It’s the most famous Mexican in the US
JK:- conjures up older archives of cultural stereotyping.
GGP: This friend of mine, Michelle Ceballos, the Colombian performance artist living in Phoenix, has always been talking about the invisibility of Latinas in the US. She recently told me something hilarious, she said that she had finally discovered how to solve the problem of Latina invisibility: just buy a chihuahua dog. “I got myself a chihuahua and I have become visible in America. No matter where I am people talk to me.” This is just one aspect of how the border becomes re-centralized. It went from being a site of contestation, the source of a binational project of decentralization to a site of re-centralization by transnational cultural institutions. So, for example, look at how border art has gone from being a subaltern cultural movement to becoming a world expo…InSite (Tijuana/San Diego), a huge binational art expo sponsored by mainstream museums and the PRI with a decreasing number of local border artists. It’s border art tourism at its best. Curators, fashionable artists, and jet-setters get to go hang out at the border. They get to do the border safari, see real life migrant workers be chased by the border patrol, see real life lowriders. They get to go to the border fence, to Tijuana sex clubs. Then they go back to the art openings and exchange anecdotes and border trivia. It’s kind of sick. It’s official multiculturalism gone wrong. The job of artists and theoreticians, then, is to move away from hipness once hipness has become institutionalized and to go where the cultural energy goes. Our job is to follow that energy and do everything we can to articulate it.
my bio…. Josh Kun is a music and cultural critic whose writing has appeared in The Village Voice, SPIN, Salon, Color Lines, and The Boston Phoenix. His column “Frequencies” appears bi-weekly in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, where has been a regular contributing writer since 1994. He is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside and is currently completing the forthcoming manuscript, Strangers Among Sounds: Listening, Difference, and the Unmaking of Americans.
© 2001 Pocha Nostra