Conversation with Lisa Wolford

Away From the Surveillance Cameras of the Art World: Strategies for Collaboration and Community Activism
A conversation among Guillermo Gßmez-PeÏa, Roberto Sifuentes, and Lisa Wolford

(The text published below is part of the fourth in an ongoing series of conversations with members of Pocha Nostra [Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Roberto Sifuentes, Sara Shelton Mann, and a fluctuating group of additional collaborators that includes Juan Ybarra and Rona Michele] that I recorded beginning in October 1998. This particular meeting took place over a long meal at a “pan-Caribbean” restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan, decorated with murals of exotic birds and jungle foliage — true midwestern tropicalia. — LW)

Lisa Wolford: During one of the rehearsals for BORDERscape 2000, you talked about being “hunters of images.” I’m wondering if both of you could talk about that process.
Guillermo Gómez-Peña: In this oversaturated culture, it has become increasingly difficult to find original images that speak for the times. Most metaphors and symbols seem overused, hollow, or broken. I think that one of the many jobs of an artist is to look for new, fresh metaphors and symbols to help us understand our everchanging realities and fragmented cultures. We go about doing this in many ways. Sometimes we find images in everyday life, in the streets, and we capture them with our photographic eye and then re-enact them in more complex ways on stage. At other times, we create composite images by departing from a highly charged, traditional icon such as the crucifixion, the captured primitive, the political monster, the mariachi performing for outsiders and tourists, the witch doctor. . . . Then we begin to do nasty things to these images. We begin to layer them as a kind of palimpsest. We add layers of contradiction or complexity, or we begin in serting details and features from other sources until these traditional” images implode. The result is like genetically engineered Mexicabilia. The ultimate goal is to look for images that will create a disturbing sediment in the consciousness of the spectator, images that the audience cannot easily escape from, that will haunt them in dreams, in conversations, in memories.
Roberto Sifuentes: It’s very important for us that the complex images we use in performance be open to multiple interpretations that we may never have imagined ourselves. It’s always interesting for us to hear the varied readings of our diverse audences. For example, the image of the hanging chickens in our performances: on one level, there’s our intention behind using this charged metaphor, which is that it recalls the fact that Mexican migrant workers were hung by the Texas Rangers.
GP: Even nowadays, migrant workers are derogatorily referred to as pollos. But we don’t necesarily expect our audiences to know this. We welcome other readings of the hanging chickens.Every image we use is a polysemantic image. It changes meaning with the context…
RS: Bringing this image out of its culturally specific context and presenting the work in the deep South brought out a completey different reading, which had to do with the fact that African-American slaves were hung for stealing chickens. In the Caribbean, after hearing about the image, people thought we might be into some kind of Santeria or “Mexican Voodoo” rituals. . . .
LW: Are there ever moments when this process of interpretation becomes too elliptical, too open-ended? When audience members read something into an image that you didn’t intend to communicate at all, or when a very specific message isn’t recognized by the spectator?Like this idea that you’re practicing Santeria….
RS: Yes, sometimes the interpretations of our images are really surprising. We were performing at a small college outside Kansas City, where the audience was described to us as Right Wing Christian extreemists who had, just a couple of weeks before, attacked a queer performance artist colleague of ours. So imagine how surprised we were to find out that these fundamentalists took an image on the publicity posters, that showed Guillermo in his mariachi suit, completely at face value. So these five hundred Republicans showed up to our performance with drums and maracas, ready to party, because they thought they were coming to “Mariachi Karaoke” night. And imagine how surprised they were when they saw our particular brand of Mariachi night!
GP: I used to fear being misunderstood, five or six years ago. Since intercultural misunderstanding is often the source of racism, I used to think that for the performance to be understood was very important. Now I think that whether the audience feels they understand us or not is completely irrelevant. In fact, I now distrust people who come up to me right after a show and tell me “I understood everything and I am with you.” I answer: Are you sure you are with me?” If you see a narrative film or a theater play, you immediately assume an ethical or emotional positionality. Whether you like it or not, you align yourself with certain characters, with certain notions of good, justice, freedom, rebellion, etc. You walk out of the theater and you say I got it, I liked it or I didn’t.
LW: With some kinds of theater, not all.
GP: But with performance art, it’s different. You walk out of a performance feeling troubled and perplexed. The performance triggers a process of reflexivity that continues through days and sometimes weeks, creating sediments in the consciousness of people. People slowly begin to come to terms with the images and make up their minds about what they saw, but it takes them weeks, even months. Sometimes people think they are offended because they don’t want to face certain realities or certain scary feelings they harbor, and it’s very easy to say “I’m offended,” as opposed to trying to understand what wound was opened.
LW: Guillermo, I think that really interesting, important theatre can have that effect as well. But that’s another conversation. In terms of the images, why do you think some people get offended? I don’t mean something like the use of the chickens per se — I know that animal rights groups have been very vocal about objecting to that, but their reasons are fairly straightforward. I’m thinking about people who manifest strong reactions to some of the more poetical images, such as the crucifixion imagery, or the gangmember’s stigmata….
RS: Most of the time, the audience is completely comfortable with images like a Chicano “gangmember” being beaten by the police, or dragged out of his home in front of his family by the LAPD. They see it on synidcated TV every night, on shows like “COPS” and “LAPD: Life in the Streets.” What our spectators find disturbing is witnessing these images of violence recontextualized in high art institutions by two Mexicans who talk back to them. I remember that during one performance we did, the melancholic image of Guillermo as a mariachi in a straightjaket confessing his intercultural desires so disturbed one upper-class Latina that she came onstage and whipped Guillermo so hard across the face and genitals that he crumbled to the ground and was unable to continue the piece for a few minutes. She ran out of the theater and was stopped by our agent and asked why. She only responded that this was offensive, and didn’t represent her as a Latina. And this happened in the first five minutes of the piece.
GP: There’s a very disturbing tendency in America to take things literally. Since our work is highly symbolic and metaphorical, it appears to be very much out of context in the current culture.We’re living in a time in which confessional narrative is the primary means of communication, and we don’t engage in confessional narratives of authenticity. Neither do we engage in psychological or social realism.The work is really not about “us”…
RS: It’s not autobiographical. We’re not performing our authenticity as Chicanos; what we’re doing is performing the multiplicity of mythologies and perceptions of Mexicans and Chicanos in the US. Unfortunately, some audiences don’t think of Chicanos as “cultural thinkers” or “conceptual arists,” so when I first began to portray the “Vato”(street hipster) covered in tatoos, wearing baggie clothes, and manipulating weapons, many audience members and even some journalists thought I was a Latino gang member brought to town and put on display by Gómez-Peña.
LW: So the fact that you’re both coming out of an experimental performance tradition already contradicts the ways in which people may tend to want to label your work. Also the incorporation of different media, the extent to which your performances reference theory and critical discourse, etc.
GP: Roberto and I are first and foremost conceptual artists. We always depart from a theoretical proposal, an idea which first becomes a blueprint for action, and eventually becomes a performance piece, a video, or a radio piece. But some of our collaborators come from very different traditions, especially when we work with actors, singers and dancers. Sara [Shelton Mann] comes from the apocalypse dance theatre movement that uses a lot of contact improvisation and physical movement to create original imagery and visceral rituals, and then the collaborating artists conceptualize around the imagery they have developed in the rehearsal room — that’s basically the opposite of the way we work. Roberto and I don’t spend that much time in the rehearsal room. What we do instead is write, brainstorm, debate with other artists and activists, and every now and then we rehearse. We usually only rehearse physically the month before lauching a new project. But we are learning tremendously from Sara. We are beginning to shyly incorporate some of her methodologies into our work.
RS: And Sara is begining to incorporate our methodologies. She now thinks of Doc’s Clock (our local bar in the Mission) and La Boheme Cafe as viable reheasal spaces.
GP: Imagine Roberto and I doing contact dance and Ch’i Kung. It sounds ridiculous, que no?
LW: Hey, I’ve seen it — it works. I really don’t think you could have gotten to what you’re doing now in terms of the physical images on stage without it.
GP: We are hoping to develop a kind of dialectic in which these two processes, the conceptual and the visceral, go together. When we brainstorm with our collaborators about how to incorporate a new vignette, we inevitably talk about politics, about other issues. Our discussions during the creative process are not just about the work itself. We talk about what we saw on TV the night before, about a new book we are reading, about cinema, computers, sex, anthropology, you name it. . . . We share an experience we had the week before. We describe a rare prop we just found in a roadside museum on our last trip somewhere. And then, out of these eclectic discussions, where language and ideas are like personas in a conceptual mini-proscenium, the stage of the dinner table or the bar table, a new image or a new text begins to emerge.Then we try it out informally in front of friends. When we are in San Francisco, we have performance salons at least once a month. There we try out all the new material and invite other performers to try out fresh material.
RS: A text can begin in a salon, evolve into a radio commentary and then become the basis for a major section in a proscenium piece, or else the radio piece gets worked into the soundtrack for a diorama performance. But really, the performance personae, their actions, the texts, and juxtapositions of images, never get finalized. They are always in process of development. We test them in front of an audience and that’s the moment when they begin to blossom, to really take form.
LW: When you stage a new piece, I know you often have a very short rehearsal period. Obviously, before you begin mounting a performance, you work conceptually, or you work with the text if it’s a scripted piece. You work in your apartment, or in transit, but when you come into a venue with a script to mount a performance, normally you’ve got about a week to get it up on stage —
GP: At best.
LW: Often even less if it’s an installation piece. And during the short time you’re actually working in a performance space, you end up putting a lot of attention to the technical aspects of the piece, which can be very elaborate.
RS: Not to mention the shortness of the run. We’ve never performed more than three weekends in one city. Most of the time it’s one show, two shows, a weekend at most . . . When we produce ourselves, we manage to squeeze out three weeks in a venue, but we don’t normally have the luxury of presenting the work for the time that it really needs to evolve. As artists of color in the US, we aren’t given the space, time, and funding to be able to sit and create a piece of work. Yes, we create on the road, in airplanes and hotel rooms, in cafes. No matter how visible we are, Chicanos don’t have the infrastructure or finacial support that would allow us to sit and create in peace, to spend half of the year in artist retreats.
GP: Let’s face it, rehearsing all the time is a privilege that most Chicanos don’t have. Besides, we have community responsibilites, and our community reminds us all the time of our civic dutties, which include benefits for grassroots organizations, workshops in community centers, fundraisers for particular social causes, impromptu appearances at civic events or on Public Access TV — you name it. And you cannot say no. You have to give back. It’s a basic ethical issue. Besides, the work we do in the civic realm feeds the other work. It gives strength and weight to our work in and around the art world. We constantly cross the border back and forth between the civic realm and the art realm, and this is much more important to us than rehearsing all the time. In a sense, our grassroots activities are part of our rehearsal time.
RS: Traveling and performing is our sole means of economic survival. But at the same time, that’s also our means of production. We have turned the necessity of working all the time into our creative process. We travel to the most unlikely places where our audience has never encountered Chicanos — which means that often our performance begins the moment we step off the plane. We become, in a sense, field workers conductucting “reverse anthropological” research. I am also not about to begin complaining about the amount of touring we have, because that’s something we’ve fought tooth and nail to achieve. It never gets any easier, even though because of our visibility, some people might get a false sense that we have the corner on the Latino performance art market. The fact of the matter is that we are constantly pushing, struggling, trying to find our niche, in order to make the work happen in the places where it needs to happen. We travel all the time, working in many different contexts from community centers to high art museums, from major urban centers to rural communities, from the US-Mexico border to New York and beyond . . .
LW: Could I ask you to talk a little bit about the structure of Pocha Nostra, your performance company? In the past, Guillermo, I know that you’ve collaborated with people whose primary professional identity wasn’t as performers — theorists, cultural critics, visual artists. But in your more recent work, the two of you have been integrating a number of dancers and experimental theater artists.
GP: The way we work, we have a core group of performance collaborators; for a long time, it was basically Roberto and myself, and more recently Sara. We also have another group of collaborators who are specialists in other areas. People like Mexican filmmaker Gustavo Vazquez, soundscape composer Rona Michele, or digital media advisor Suzanne Stefanac. Incredible performance artists from Mexico city like Juan Ybarra, Violet Luna and Yoshigiro Maeshiro. Chicana performance artists like Norma Medina and Isis Rodr iguez. And all of these wonderful locos y locas bring something very special to the performances. Their individual creative output finds a new context and a new sytax within the frame of our installations and proscenium performances. Then we have a much bigger, outside circle of collaborators. Some of them are performance artists based in other countries or other cities, and we collaborate with them for specific projects, usually when we’re doing a residency or presenting a performance in the areas where they live.
RS: Suomi violinists in “traditional” costume sitting on stuffed reindeer in Helsinki, English singers interpreting traditional Welsh songs while doing erotic things with opera singers, gringo rasta tattoo artists tattooing performers onstage, neo-primitives naked on a platform displaying their bodies as art….
GP: Given what has happened to arts funding in the 90s, it’s financially impossible for artists like us — politicized, experimental performance artists — to maintain any kind of big group. But we still have the desire to bring other people into the work, so the strategy we’ve developed is to create ephemeral communities that come together around a specific project, and once the project is over, they go back to their homes, to their own practice. Very often, we develop ongoing relationships with artists during our travels. For example, we’ve done several projects with our Crow friends from Montana, Susan and Tyler Medicinehorse, and we have plans to work with them again in the future. We are a tribe of nomads and misfits.
In some of our projects, we also like to collaborate with people who don’t have specialized performance training. Along these lines, we have been working with all kinds of wonderful people: politicized strippers, activists with very theatrical personalities, hip hop poets, extremely articulate transsexuals who are willing to deconstruct their performance personas on stage, mariachis and other civic artists who have chosen to transgress their own tradition. . . . We love to work with eccentrics who have performative personalities and important things to say. Whenever we collaborate with people who don’t have formal performance experience, our work has been to contribute to shaping their material so that it gets presented in the best possible way.
Sifuentes: Then it can be incorporated into the larger context of the work that we are doing.
GP: Exactly. And they always get to have the last word about their own material and their representation. Our role is to coordinate, design, and stage the larger event, not necessarily to direct it. Our goal is to attempt a model that is not colonial, in which we don’t manipulate these wonderful “involuntary performance artists,” and in which they get to have editorial say. We help them shape the material (I don’t even want to use the word help, because it’s condescending), but we work with them to structure their material because we have certain skills and experience that we have developed throughout the years.
LW: I want to shift back to the discussion of audience reception of the work, if that’s okay. In the diorama performances, there is no spoken text — the text that exists is part of the soundscape. Because you work with multivalent, polysemantic images, and because irony is such a central aspect of your performance strategy, some of the journalistic responses to the diorama performances suggest that without spoken text it’s impossible for the work to deliver a clear political critique.
GP: Who can deliver a clear political critique nowadays? When all the philosophical and political systems are bankrupt, who can possibly claim that they have found a political positionality that is not susceptible to being challenged? I cannot assume a clear positionality vis-a-vis any progressive movement, even those closest to my heart. All the ideological systems that used to be sanctuaries of progressive thought are undergoing a permanent process of renegotiation. We now know that obvious ethical or ideological borders are mere illusions, that the enemy is everywhere, even inside of us — especially inside of us. I think that in these senses, we cannot possibly assume one clear political position in the performance.
RS: Also, part of the point is that we want to see where people position themselves. The responses of our live audience in performance and the written interculural fantasies, fears, and desires we’ve collected through the Temple and the website become a barometer for America’s intolerance towards other cultures. In the 90s, handing the microphone to our audience, so to speak, has been a very effectitve performance strategy for dealing with sensitive issues.
GP: I think that what we are trying to do is to open up spaces of ambiguity where there are contradictory voices and contradictory ideas clashing in front of the audience — spaces of ambiguity in which audience members can undergo multiple emotional and intellectual journeys that lead to different responses and different political positionalities within the performance, especially if the performance lasts, say, five to six hours over a three-day period. Also, our own positionality is contextual.
LW: In what sense do you mean?
GP: When we’re in Mexico we end up behaving a bit like Chicano nationalists, because Mexicans can be quite insensitive and ethnocentric toward Chicanos. But when we perform for primarily Chicano audiences, we question this type of nationalism. When we perform solely for Anglos, we tend to asume a pan-Latino or pan-subaltern space, but when we are performing for traditional or essentialist Latino audiences, we often defend cultural kleptomania, transvestism, and hybridity as a response to neo-essentialism in our own communities. Performance art allows us to shift these positionalities. We are constantly crossing invisible borders, reframing our voices, reinventing our identities.
RS: We tailor-make our performances to be specific to the context, regardless of where we are. When we go further away from the US/Mexican border, we adapt the work a little bit so as to ground the piece in different experience, say, to find the connections between the Chicano experience and the local subaltern or immigrant group. Performance art is all about contextualization, about doing site-specific pieces that speak to the moment and the context for which they are created.
LW: What are some of the aspects of your performance strategies that remain consistent even when you move among extremely different contexts?
GP: What we’re attempting to do is to articulate unspoken complexities of race and gender relations in such a way that people don’t close down. Discussions around sensitive issues of rage and gender have reached a stalemate in contemporary America, and in order to get out of this stasis, we need to become almost like flashers. If people don’t want to see something, we show it to them when they least expect it, and in a way that they actually accept it, even enjoy it. If they don’t want to talk about a certain issue, we scream at them, but we make them laugh. If they just want us to whisper it, we say it louder and force them to confront the issues they don’t want to talk about, but in such a way that they don’t realize right away that we are forcing them to confront these issues. Performance art utilizes a very complex set of communication strategies.
Humor is a good way to deal with heavy issues so we don’t get shot, because it takes people by surprise and disarms them for a little while. They bring their guard down a little, and that’s exactly when we hit them with the tough question or with the bold image. It’s a subversive strategy in our work. We often get criticized for being too humorous.
LW: What do you mean?
GP: In a Eurocentric tradition of conceptual art, humor is often equated with lack of seriousness and sophistication. There’s an unwillingness in the US and European art world to understand that highly sophisticated conceptual constructions can coexist with very bald humor, so often when people from certain artistic millieus see our work, they just don’t know what to think. These apparently sophisticated post-posty post-colonial Mexicans who travel all over are also capable of being crass, direct, sexually out rageous, and making people laugh. It just doesn’t jive. There is also a kind of sacred irreverence in our work, a spirituality paired with satire, and that also takes people by surprise, because spirituality in the US is supposed to be a serious and solemn matter, and so are hardcore political subject matters, like racism, sexism, police brutality, etc.
RS: So when people see Sara crucified as an androgynous mariachi with a strap-on dilo, or when Guillermo as a “holistic techno shaman” in a mechanical wheelchair baptizes the audience by spitting bad tequila on them, or when Tyler Medicinehorse sells audience members “real” Indian names in the Crow language that translate to absurd things like “ichy butt,” reactions vary from utter repulsion to raucous laughter.
GP: Irreverent humor, merciless, uncompromising humor, has been at the core of Mexican and Chicano art, and it has always been one of our most effective political strategies. This humor has always taken many shapes, from social parody to self-parody to exaggerating a racist stereotype until it explodes or implodes. I would go so far as to say that humor is a quintessential feature of Mexican and Chicano art and activism. From the Royal Chicano Airforce to Superbarrio and Marcos, we’ve used humor to help fight our battles. But people forget this. Paradoxically, certain nationalist and essentialist sectors, mainly humorless activists and academicians, have become guardians of solemnity. They have forgotten that humor is profoundly political. They seem not to notice that Chicano and indigenous communities are actively engaged in humor as a mechanism of survival, as a means to generate attention to sensitive issues, as a way to elicit public dialogue. If you are funny, you can get away with murder, and you can appeal to a much larger audience. I’m not saying that all irreverence is subversive by any means — there is insensitive humor, and there are racist forms of irreverence — but our communities let us know how far we can go.
RS: Mexicano/Chicano audiences never let us take ourselves too seriously because they themselves are irreverent. They get it, get a kick out of the humor, they laugh a lot. Maybe what makes some intellectuals uptight about our work is that they’re afriad we’re making fun of them, or that they’ll do or say “the wrong thing” in one of our interactive performances and end up getting laughed at by our “less informed” Chicano audiences.
GP: These self-proclaimed guardians of SOLEMNITY promote the idea that when you perform in a grassroots context, you’ve got to be extremely solemn and “respectful,” because the elders and the families won’t be able to take our eccentricity, our transgressive behavior, our three-alarm spicy salsa. Reality tells us exactly the opposite. Every time we perform in a grassroots context, we find incredible tolerance for irreverence and extreme behavior, often a lot more tolerance than in artsy millieux.
LW: This brings up another important subject, Guillermo, because the extent to which you identify yourself in relation to the Chicano community is criticized as problematic.
GP: It used to be an ongoing source of pain for me, but not anymore. Now I don’t have time to get entangled in that rhetoric. The fact is that my colleagues and I have chosen to speak from the epicentre of the earthquake, and because of that we become the easy targets of many conservative sectors on both the right and the left. When you open a wound and then rub chile into that wound, you are asking to be reprimanded. It’s inevitable, especially nowadays when so many people are retrenching to essentailist positions. Neo-essentialism in the late 90’s has reached ridiculous extremes. Essentialists nowadays are almost like eugenic intellectuals; if you don’t show your birth certificate to prove that you were born in the barrio, if you were not present during the civil rights struggle, you can get conceptually deported back to Mexico. If your Spanglish is not “street language,” if you don’t use each and every pc term, they disregard you. But I can deal with Ch icano essentialists. I can put up a good fight. It’s an internal family affair. What drives me crazy are the Anglo guardians of the Chicano community.
LW: What do you mean?
GP:Recently some Anglo scholar argued in her book that since I left the Tijuana/San Diego border region nine years ago, my work stopped being relevant — that I was no longer a true “grassroots” artist, a real “border” artist. Give me a million pinche breaks! How many times do we have to show our stinking badges to the Anglo cultural borderpatrol, so we can get their permission to travel across Mexamerica and out of our conceptual barrios? These people want us to remain in the margins forever, so that they can comfortably ocuppy the center, and from there pontificate about us.
LW: That reminds me of something bell hooks has said, about the fact that even well-intentioned white critics speaking about marginality sometimes reinforce the silencing of other voices and end up ventriloquizing for people of color, pointing out the absences, the spaces where they would be if they were allowed to speak for themselves. . . . But we’re on the verge of opening a really huge Pandora’s Box here if we’re going to get into the issue of Anglo critics speaking about the work of artists of color. I know this isn’t where you meant to go with that comment, but hey… I’m sitting here with you guys and I still haven’t really gotten over the interrogation I got last week at the conference about how “unfortunate” it was that you had chosen Josh [Kun] and me to respond to your performance, and what that allegedly implied about your relationship to audiences of color. I mean, Josh is an amazing scholar, and his knowledge of rock en espaÏol gives him a very particular insight into your work, which is an important aspect of the performances that I’ve never known another scholar to deal with as a central topic. But his presumed “whiteness” became an issue at that conference, as did mine. I’m certainly not Chicana, but as an Appalachian woman from a mixed-race background, I don’t exactly think of myself as “white” in any simple way. Identity and affinity are so much more complicated than that, you can’t judge those things by phenotype.
GP: No, you’re totally right. But I hope you didn’t really think that I was making an essentialist comment?
LW: Come on, I know you better than that.
GP: Anyone, regardless of their race, class, or gender, who is truly committed to social change and to the transformation of consciousness, has the moral authority to discuss these issues. The binary models that say only intellectuals and artists of color can talk about their own communities are totally ridiculous. The idea that only Chicanos can talk about Chicano art implies that all Chicanos are on the same side of a border and the same side of an issue, which is just not true. As a Mexicano, for example, I must say that I have more in common with an Asian-American intellectual or an Afro-american artist than I do with the Chief of Police of Mexico City, even if he’s Mexican. Or as a Chicano, Roberto probably has more in common with a Jewish performance artist than he has with a Chicano border patrol officer. Our political coalitions and our artistic work have to do with more than just our ethnic and cultural backgrounds. But what I was talking about before was really specifically about the “guardians,” the self-proclaimed Anglo gatekeepers who believe they have the right to decide, from the outside, whose work gets canonized, included or excluded, who does or doesn’t count as a member of a particular community.
LW: You’re right, that’s a very different issue, and an incredibly complicated one, with all sorts of problematic implications in terms of ways that white institutions, curators, or theorists try to maintain a position of privilege over artists of color.
GP: With all humility, I think that Roberto and I have paid our dues, and I’m getting a little pissed about theoreticians who say that we aren’t involved in grassroots activism, that we’ve become mere darlings and pets of the liberal” art world.
LW: So there’s more of a wound there than you were admitting before about your relationship with cerain sectors of the Latino community?
GP: What can I say, the wound does open every now and then. We’ve been involved in political struggles for many years, and these struggles take place in the outside world, not in university department meetings. We’ve been workING on the front lines, so to speak. We’ve been touring the Southwest and the Chicano communities of the US for many, many years, and we have very good relations with them.
LW: That’s certainly true in Ohio. You have very strong ties with Baldemar Velasquez and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee [FLOC], which is based in Toledo.
RS: It makes perfect sense that a visionary like Baldemar has asked us to present our spoken word pieces and experimental work at the forefront of an ongoing farmworkers’ movement. And Baldemar and all the campesinos have been responding very positively to the work. They see its value in the community centers, that it can speak very directly to the farmworker experience. That for me is a very encouraging affirmation of the work, because so often people want to believe that only muralism can speak to these communities, only campesino theatre can speak to the campesinos, and that has not been our experience at all.
GP: Next weekend, it’s possible that FLOC is going to bring a couple of vans with migrant workers to see the Mexterminator performance at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, just like they did last year when we did a public lecture in Bowling Green [Ohio]. That’s not atypical of our work; it happens all the time. When we were in Kansas City a couple of years ago, there was a bus completely full of migrant workers who drove three hours in order to see the performance. This idea that we are speaking only to white liberal” audiences is really a misperception. It’s completely misinformed. I don’t want to suggest that there’s anything heroic about what we’re doing, because many of our Chicano/Latino performance colleagues have similar experiences. But it’s paternalistic to pretend that the farmworkers or the young homeboys in the barrio won’t understand our work because it’s too heavy, too dark, or too theoretically sophisticated.
For the last year and a half, we have been engaging in a dialogue with FLOC, and we have just formalized our association with them by having been declared honorary members, with very serious ethical responsibilities that go along with accepting this position. After our performances, when we engage in public discussions with the audience, we’ve committed to promote their boycott of corporations that are oppressing and mistreating migrant workers in North Carolina, and to teach audiences how they can effectively participate in this national boycott. I think that this is a very important part of our performance work, and we really don’t care if this is lauded or not; whether it is visible to the art world or to academia is absolutely meaningless to us. We are simply trying to figure out ways to be useful to Latino communities in despair and in need, and we feel that we cannot shy away from direct activism. Perhaps one of the reasons why I was more careful about entering into direct activism in the past was because of my condition as a resident alien,” because I’m not supposed to be affiliated with political organizations. That’s part of the condition of receiving the resident card. If you are directly affiliated with a political organization considered to be a troublemaker, you risk being deported. But I’m hoping to acquire dual citizenship very soon, so that would no longer be a problem.
RS: You can begin to finally exercise your civic rights.
GP: Half of the work we do is in the civic realm rather than in the art world, but it goes unnoticed by the surveillance cameras of the art world. Wherever we go we have a double agenda. We work with a mainstream cultural institution that pays the bill and helps us to present a piece of work in the best possible way, and we also engage in a number of “parallel” activities. Those are often the most significant part of our work, but they go unnoticed. We’re now on our way to Florida to do a residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and also to do a number of presentations for farmworker communities; it’s very likely that those presentations will never be documented, and that the piece at the Atlantic Center for the Arts will be covered in some way. There is no way out of this predicament. The art world is simply not interested in these other activities. And it’s good that the art world is not interested, because that grants us special freedoms. They can see what we’re doing with the right hand, but they never see what we’re doing with the left hand
LW: You’re right that a spoken word performance at the Sofia Quintero Cultural Arts Center in Toledo probably isn’t going to get written up in Artforum, but I certainly understand why it’s important to do that work. Could I ask you to talk a bit more about some of the other facets of your work in the civic realm?
GP: We have been designing what we term “experimental town meetings” in different cities across the US. The biggest up to now took place in Washington, D.C. The premise was as follows: the performance artists designed the stage and structured the event carefully, as if a performance art piece was to take place, with lights, video projections, sound, etc. Inside this performance space, we placed a table with activists and radical scholars from the Latino, Indigenous and African-American communities. The performance artists, in character and in costume, with our voices processed by an SPX machine, would get to ask these panelists questions about lack of leadership, about the state of affairs in our communities, about intra-Latino conflicts, about inter-ethnic conflicts, and so on. There was a mediator, radical psychiatrist Leticia Nieto, who would broker between the panelists and the audience. So there were many things taking place simultaneously on different levels and fronts, and any time the conversation would drag or become uninteresting, the performance artists were allowed to “intervene” with a skit or a spoken word text. At the main table where the panelists were seated, food was being served by performance artists dressed as waiters, and every now and then the waiters would go into performance mode. It was a very complicated script to write and put together, a sort of hyper-textual script with lots of open ends. Initially there was some anxiety, especially from the activists. Of course they didn’t want to make fools out of themselves. We had very prominent people working with us. Susan Harjo was there, and Baldemar Velasquez, among other people. Abel Lopez, the national director of NALAC at the time, he was there. One of the top immigration lawyers in Washington was there. Of course, some of these wonderful people were apprehensive in the beginning about what it meant for them as political activists, as lawyers and union organizers, to put themselves into this situation, which was framed in a very performative way. Susan was not, because she herself is a performance artist extraordinaire; she’s one of the co-founders of Spiderwoman Theatre and also a poet, along with being one of the most important Native American politicians we have in the country. She was also very familiar with our work, as was Baldemar. He was absolutely not apprehensive, as he himself is an involuntary performance artist, one of the most charismatic and compelling speakers I have ever met. But the others were. So it took a lot of talking to persuade them that we were not going to make fun of them. The event took place and it was a huge success, a strange hybrid of a hardcore political town meeting and an epic performance performance art piece. I wish all the performance art curators had been there, esa.. A few days ago, for the closing ceremony of the Latino MacArthur Fellows visit to Toledo, we tried another version, smaller scale. The Latino MacArturos confronted the local political elite, and Roberto and I were asked by Baldemar to design the town meeting and to be the performance animateurs. We are very interested in continuing these experiments and fine-tuning this model, this new genre, utilizing performance art as a means to design, animate, layer, and re-frame very tough political debates.
RS: It’s important that we find a new forum to discuss these issues, because so often political panels or discussions around Latino issues and intra-community conflicts get stuck. People have gotten locked into particular ways of discussing identity and race relations. The discussion gets glazed over and audiences become completely uninterested, or else the debates wander into incredibly petty or inflammatory discourse, which is absolutely unproductive. In the context of these experimental town meetings, the performative interventions help us to break through these dynamics. Because the panelists have agreed to be part of this performance context where they can sense the energy of what’s going on in the performance space, they tend to be much more concise, energetic and dynamic themselves in what they have to say. But if there are moments when the conversation starts to lag or go in an unproductive direction, the performative interventions are a good way to bring the discussion back around to the main issues we’re trying to talk about, and also to diffuse the heaviness and the solemnity that often accompany political discussions. As performers, part of what we’re trying to do in this context is to bring back the irreverence to these discussions, so that we don’t take ourselves so seriously. That’s the model that we’re going for — looking for ways to keep the discussions dynamic so that people can encounter these issues in new ways.


© 2001 Pocha Nostra