(El Border Curiosity Cabinet Project Dialogue, Part V)
11/28/02. What follows is a conversation between curator Kaytie Johnson
and performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña regarding
the genesis of their project “El Border Curiosity Cabinet”).

GP: I really like the idea of creating a contemporary curiosity cabinet comprised of carefully selected "borderabilia," barrio conceptual art, "high" velvet art, deranged tourist art, one-of-a-kind artist books, rare transcultural comix, and pirate videos…

KJ:...and of course, a selection of artifacts from your personal performance archaeology, unique props and costumes from your performance biography.

GP: Sure, todo bien robo-barroque y enciclopedico, que no? Just like our sensibilities, just like our times. The backdrop is globalization gone wrong, or rather “the global(ized) border". The overall aesthetic ought to be bien high-tech etnografica, bien Discovery channel que no?

KJ: I truly think this project could effectively recontextualize, not just mimic or recreate, the wunderkammers, or “wonder chambers/cabinets” that were wildly popular in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We can achieve this by replacing the objects of naturalia and artificialia that they originally contained with our own, borderized versions——a contemporary version that resonates with your own writing and performance strategies, and addresses and challenges the politics of (re)presentation and display engaged in by museums.

GP: Let's find some Latin, faux Latin, or Spanglish names for artist-made artifacts that mimic border pop culture and juxtapose them to trans- or inter-cultural pop artifacts that are themselves defacto "involuntary conceptual art." Am I clear?

KJ: Involuntary conceptual art——I love it! One of the categories of objects on display in the original wunderkammers was “artificiala,” which typically consisted of man-made objects that the collector, or Liefhebber, found to be unusual or exotic. In our borderized version we could include “exotic artifacts from distant cultures”---we could redefine this category by limiting it to objects associated with hegemonic [a.k.a., Anglo] culture? The dominant culture would be made exotic through cultural inversion.

GP: Our modus operandi must be reverse anthropology. Yes——anthrolopologize Anglo tribes and millennial subcultures by creating dioramas of "rednecks", “suburban families,” Chicano gang members…”

KJ: A "redneck" diorama? We would have to make sure that the male
figure(s) in the diorama had a "mullet" hairdo, bad sunburn (or farmer's tan), and a wife-beater T-shirt. A very, very Anglo suburban family, with a trompe-l'oiel SUV parked in front of a "cookie-cutter" house in the suburbs would work!!! Presenting what is considered to be "the norm" in this context would be perfect for anthropologizing it, turning it into the "new Other."

GP: What about exhibiting "the collection of a Silicon Valley tycoon,” or the paraphernalia of a "Global Apocalypse hipster". What about exhibiting in the opening a live "chic New York curator" with his/her personal photo album containing staged images of cultural transvestism.

KJ: What do you mean?

GP: I mean, photos of the curator on safari in the Third World in search of new talent and posing in local attire with the newly found primitives...or, se me ocurre, having an "authentic radical anthropologist” inside a Plexiglas box? Michael Taussig may do it. James Clifford might... It's right up their alley.

KJ: And if we can get Michael Taussig or Clifford to participate at some level——that would be great!! If one of them can't stand inside a Plexi box, maybe he would consider contributing a text from a "traditional" anthropological perspective for an exhibition catalogue, essay...or a fictionalized interview with you, the "Border Liebheffer."

GP: I believe we wouldn't have any problem finding an adventurous curator or anthropologist to perform in opening night in every city the project premiers. Then a video diorama could replace them for the duration of the show.

KJ: How about this category,“border exotica.”

GP: Or "border chic" Let's problematize contemporary notions of "border". Nowadays, with savage globalization, the "border" is quite slippery. The distance between Tijuana and Berlin is only seven minutes. My collection of border exotica was not all made in Juarez or Tijuana. The great paradox is that many of the objects in my bizarre collection of barriobilia, mexicanabilia and Chicano/border exotica were made in Singapore, Taiwan, China or New Jersey. German MTV features regularly Tex-Mex and generic Latino pop sponsored by Bacardi. We don't need to bend reality too much. Frida has finally made it in Hollywood.

KJ: Can you think of anything in your collection that might qualify for the category of “commemorative medals and plaques?”

GP: I've got a collection of bizarre distinctions I've received throughout the years.

KJ: Like?

GP: I’m thinking...The ex-Soviet Artist Union gave me a medal as an honorary member, in 1989. I also have lots of gafettes of "official
artist"--- residues and souvenirs of my temporary journey through the elite art world; being at times "the first and only Chicano artist" to be invited here and there; to be invited say by the Corcoran, the Brooklyn Academy of Music or the Tate Modern. It's funny. I have lots of nametags, some with my photo looking super-serious. They are hilarious. I can easily imagine a velvet painting with a suit covered with all these insignias of neocolonial reconquista with the title: "Border artist certified by…(the name of a big institution)…"

KJ: How about substituting portraits of the collector's ancestors and colleagues with some of the black velvet paintings of past performance personas that you've commissioned from TJ velvet artists? After all, those paintings were the reason for our meeting, and part of the inspiration for this project and dialogue.

GP: Fine, but we should also commission a new series of velvet paintings with contemporary hybrid performance personas.

KJ: Like…

GP: I’m' thinking of… "Cyborg Ricky Martin, made in Epcot" with vampire fangs, or "La Gloria Trevi behind bars." What about "Bush Laden," the Taco Bell Chihuahua with a tiny mariachi hat, or Vicente Fox as Vicente Fernandez. Marcos as a rocker? Arafat nude? The millennial Velvet Hall of Fame… I'd say let's commission at least five new ones.

KJ: If possible, these paintings should be hung "salon style," in accordance with the way they were displayed in the original cabinets. Why not also include hand-altered photographs of border characters?

GP: I know this old photographer who hand paints and then enlarges old photos. They are gorgeous. The guy is an old dandy on Mission Street in San Francisco. He holds a rare trait. We could have him create "old border characters."

KJ: Do you have photographs in your collection that you would like to use? Or, should we begin locating photographs?

GP: I've got lots of interesting photographs from various sources——performative portraits of various "Latin boomers", rare ethnographic porn, racist movie stills, etc. A selection could be amplified. We must choose it together.

KJ: For some reason (Chicano artist) Victor Ochoa's "border lotería cards" come to mind, for their versions of border characters. Are you thinking of something similar? Maybe Victor, and other artists, might be willing to add items from their own personal collections to the curiosity cabinet?

GP: A room of artist donations or gifts. We could ask Enrique Chagoya, Rubén Ortiz-Torres, César Martínez, Tracey Rose, James Luna, Richard Lou, and others to lend us their favorite border artifact.

KJ: That way we could extend the collaborative process beyond you and me. Another category in the original cabinets is described as “exquisite and rare products of human artifice.” How about commissioning a wax artist to produce some wax figures? Rubén Ortiz-Torres and Jim Mendiola just worked with a Tijuana wax artist, who made an incredible figure of Ozzy Osbourne pissing on the Alamo——it’s also a fountain. Maybe we can find a collector who will lend some wax figures from their collection? We could always "dress them up" to fit within the context of the project.
GP: Even better: Depending on the city where the exhibit appears, the educational department of the museum can research interesting local pop museums (wax, Ripley's, etc) and we can borrow stuff from them. I do it all the time for my live performances and it works.

KJ: How about including props and costumes from some of your past performances? Like the tricked-out, low rider wheelchair, the red toilet, the serape/kilt?

GP: Sure. Also my collection of poetic or useless technology and hand-made low rider prosthetics.

KJ: How about including the codex that you and Enrique Chagoya collaborated on, placed in a special case? It’s highly likely that the original collector’s cabinets contained illustrated manuscripts, or codices, from the so-called New World. Let’s present our own version….

GP: Definitely.

KJ: Okay---another category is described in the texts I’ve researched as “tools, instruments, and weapons.” How about using some of your performance texts as “intellectual weapons?"

GP: You mean in a catalogue format?

KJ: Yes, but we could also reproduce excerpts of your performance texts and display them as “conceptual weapons” on the walls.How do you feel about this idea: invite each venue that hosts the project to include an object from its permanent collection in our curiosity cabinet——one that the curator feel fits within the context of the project? I think this could be a fascinating potential component, one that would allow the institution to participate and would expose how, as a "high art" or natural history institution, it interprets the project——again, the politics (and poetics) of display.

GP: It's a hot idea. Not only one, but several pieces could be included——objects, paintings, forgeries, you name it. This way the museum staff would collaborate as well. I just don't know how many museums nowadays have a sense of humor regarding issues of representation and new strategies for presentation. I just don't know.

KJ: Are you thinking of performing yourself on opening night?

GP: I imagine a sort of deranged roadside museum impresario explaining his collection to the museum audience on opening night, a kind of Discovery Channel-Chicano Doctor Livingston who slips in and out of French or British English. The guy knows the jargon, but speaks from a different positionality. Me explico?

KJ: Absolutamente. You know, we could also consider reconfiguring your project "The Happy Little People of Color and Their Quaint Artifacts" to fit the parameters of this project. Change the identity of the private collector, who in that project was a Silicon Valley tycoon, to the newly constructed identity of you as a contemporary border liebheffer? Let’s create a borderized term for your persona in his role as this newly constructed role of a mad, encyclopedic collector of borderabilia——I don’t think it’s enough to simply define his identity as an "anthropoloco"——to borrow a term coined by Richard Lou and Robert Sanchez.

GP: I like it, but will this new performance persona permeate it all—— the metafiction of the show, the opening performance, even the PR?

KJ: I think a new performance persona should permeate all aspects of the project. Your presence could be palpable even when you are not physically there——we could make a separate video component or an audio guide (similar to those used by major art museums) where your voice leads visitors through the project. I think that would be hilarious! We could make the script for our audio guide in hyper-irreverent Spanglish; what do you think?

GP: To turn the actual museum visit into a performative/ anthropological "total experience" for the visitor? A parody of "total culture?” I like the radical pedagogical possibilities of this. But then I would have to be replaced by actual tour guides. But we can develop a script for local actors who will perform the role of "tour guide." The script will contain the hidden stories of the objects, cultural secrets, trivia, etc. It must be in Spanglish. Then a few days before opening night, I can travel to the site and workshop the text with local actors. Then, after that week is up, and our actor/tour guide is gone, we might be able to have the audio guide you mentioned earlier assume his function.

KJ: By the way, I ran across an interesting piece of information while reading up on curiosity cabinets: in the seventeenth century, one collector used a dwarf not only as a guide to the collection, but as one of the marvels or curiosities in the collection. Can you pinche believe it? Perhaps the performative component of the exhibition (i.e., opening, special events, etc.) can mimic or recontextualize this peculiarity. As a replacement for the tour guide or collector, we could add a video component that transforms you (or your new performance
persona) into a virtual tour guide.

GP: I'm working on this film titled "The Smithsonian of the Barrio," featuring my crazy home as a roadside museum. The film parodies several genres of representation: the pop archeological programs of the Discovery Channel and the Travel Channel, as well as serious art documentaries about artist’s studios. We can use it as a virtual tour guide or as "a window to the habitat of the artist/specimen, servidor."

KJ: What about a Web component? It could be either a virtual tour of the collection, or a parallel virtual border curiosity cabinet. Developing a Web site devoted to this project could be really fun and interesting——we could make it interactive——much like your and Robert Sifuentes's "Tempe of Confessions" site. The film could pan around the actual installation of the Border Curiosity Cabinet,make it almost like being in the room, part of the installation. If people can't physically get to a venue to see the project, they can visit it in cyberspace.

GP: Ex-centris Digitalia?

KJ: Hell yes! Getting back to the categories of objects on view in the original cabinets, how can we reinterpret what was referred to as “naturalia?” Fossils are an example of this——in the seventeenth century fossils were viewed as relics of a past geologic age. In our version we could reconfigure “fossils” as relics of the border itself, prior to the advent of the New World Border——tourist objects, curios, souvenirs of the border, commissioned piñatas in some freaky forms?

GP: The Chicanosaurus? We could attach the skull of a fake dinosaur to a replica of a human skeleton. I know this lady in Texas who collects composite taxidermies; rabbits with antlers and shit. It's part of Texanabilia. It would be good to have collaged taxidermies that are mythically charged in the border: el chupacabras, el coyote, el pollo/pollero, la rata…

KJ: Great! But who could create these for us?

GP: Eccentric taxidermists, we'll find them. It wouldn't hurt to add to the budget some funds to commission at least two border monsters…

KJ: We could claim that they’re from the "Jurassic Aztlán" period. How about including pieces of the border fence, sort of like chunks of the Berlin Wall? Or, perhaps "pieces" of the pre-super-militarized fence? Remnants of Ramalla?

GP: Yes!

KJ: How about presenting borderized zoological specimens, especially monstrous ones——a Chihuahua with elephantiasis?

GP: Great pinche idea!!! Other "freaks" can be performed live during the opening of the exhibit. During the first few days of the exhibit, say, two or three performance artists or actors could perform inside a Plexiglas box as "border freaks." What about "a member of the Arellano Felix (brothers) Cartel"? Or "a true TJ hooker?" A fallen PRI politician in exile in La Jolla California, or…

KJ:…a "living diorama" can be created during the opening, one that includes "living specimens" taken from the cabinet/collection, presented as "border typologies?"

GP: For the moment, we need to garner some interest in the museum community. We need to get at least three or four museums interested in the project, and begin the painful fundraising process. It might take us a couple of years…


Kaytie Johnson
Curator of Exhibitions and University Collections
Richard E. Peeler Art Center
DePauw University
10 West Hanna Street
Greencastle, IN 46135

(tel) 765.658.6556
(fax) 765.658.6552