Three Public Interventions
"We are wetbacks we are web-backs we defy your sense of belonging to a world you can't even understand despite your claims of discovery and ownership" Techno-placa distributed on the internet, 1997
The Virtual Barrio @ The Other Frontier
(or the Chicano interneta)1997
by Guillermo Gómez-Peña
From 1995 to 1997,this text went through many revisions and appeared in various contexts, including Internet magazines, zines and public discussions. An early version appeared in the book "Clicking In: Hot Links to a Digital Culture," edited by artist Lynn Hershman (Bay Press, 1996). This version is considerably revised; I have rewriten certain sections and elaborated key points.
Some colleagues have pointed out various contradictions in the text: Mexican artist Pedro Meyer and Le Mond journalist Francis Pisani observed that I criticize the role of "victimization" that Latinos assume in relation to high-technology,but that I often assume the tone and positionality of a victim. Meyer also noted that it was strange that I chose to originally write the text in English, since I criticize the use of English as lingua franca of the net. I have chosen to not "correct" my "contradictions;" rather, I have incorporated these observations into the internal debate of the text.
I wish to express to the reader that this text, like most of my theoretical writing, suffers from an acute crises of literary identity -- partly because it reflects my ever-shifting positionalities as a Mexicano/Chicano interdisciplinary artist and writer living and working between two countries and multiple communities, but also because the text attempts to describe fast-changing realities and fluctuating cultural attitudes that will probably seem dated in a very short time. As of now, I am still not sure of the best format to articulate these ideas: a "personal" chronicle as in the first section of the text, a theoretical essay capable of containing contradictory voices (anathema in traditional academic writing) as in sections 2 and 3, or an activist manifesto, as in the final part.
Throughout the text, I constantly shift from "I" to "we.", The "we" at different times refers to "my main collaborator Roberto Sifuentes and I," "my (techno-art) colleagues and I," "all Chicanos on the net," or "all outsiders/insiders on the net." This "we" is shifting, temporary, and contextual. I am fully aware of the risks of using such a collective pronoun, but I cannot escape the following predicament : " We" all criticize the problems of a "master narrative" in the 90's, and yet "we" all express a desire to belong to a community larger than our immediate tribe of collaborators. How to resolve this, I still don't know).
I: Fighting my own endemic "tecnofobia":
I venture into the terra ignota of cyberlandia without documents, a map or an invitation at hand. In doing so, I become a sort of virus, the cyber-version of the Mexican fly: irritating, inescapable, and hopefully highly contagious.
My "lowrider" laptop is decorated with a 3-D decal of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the spiritual queen of Spanish-speaking America. It's like a traveling altar, an office and a literary bank all in one. Since I spend 70% of the year on the road, my computer is second only to my phone card as a primary means of keeping in touch with my agent, editors, and performance collaborators spread throughout the US, Mexico and Europe. The month before a major performance project, most of the technical preparations, last minute negotiations and calendar changes take place in the mysterious territory of cyberspace. Unwillingly, I have become a techno-artist and an information superhighway bandido.
I use the term "unwillingly" because like most Mexican artists, my relationship with digital technology is characterized by paradox and contradictions. I don't quite understand them, yet I am seduced by them. I don't want to know how they work; but I love how they look and what they do. I criticize my techno-savvy colleagues who are acritically immersed in las nuevas tecnologías, yet I silently envy them; I resent the fact that I am constantly told that as a "Latino," I am supposedly "culturally handicapped" or somehow unfit to handle high technology. Once I have the apparatus in front of me, however, I am uncontrollably compelled to work against it -- to question it, expose it, subvert it, and/or imbue it with humor, radical politics, and linguas polutas such as Spanglish, Franglé and cyberñol.
Contradiction prevails. Two years ago, my collaborator Cybervato (Roberto Sifuentes) and I bullied ourselves into the hegemonic space of the net. Once we were generously adopted by various communities (Arts Wire, Chicle and Latino net, among others), we suddenly started to lose interest in maintaining ongoing conversations with phantasmagoric beings we had never met in person (I must confess to a Mexican cultural prejudice: if I don't know you in person, I don't really care to converse with you). Then we started sending a series of poetic/activist "techno-placas"* in Spanglish. In these short communiqués, we raised tough questions regarding access, identity politics, and language. Since the responses were sporadic and unfocused (at the time we didn't quite know where to post them in order to get maximum visibility), our interest began to dim. It was only through the gracious persistence of our techno-colleagues that we decided to remain seated at the virtual table.
Today, despite the fact that Roberto and I spend a lot of time in front of our laptops conceptualizing performance projects that incorporate new technologies or redesigning our web site, every time we are invited to participate in a public discussion around art and technology, we tend to emphasize its shortcomings and overstate our skepticism. Why? I can only speak for myself. Perhaps I have some computer traumas, or suffer from endemic digital fibrosis.
Confieso: I've been utilizing computers since 1988; however, during the first 5 years, I used my old Mac as a glorified typewriter. During those years I accidentally deleted 300 pages of original texts which I hadn't backed up on disks and thus was forced to reconstruct from memory. The thick and confusing "user friendly" manuals fell many times from my impatient hands. As a result, I spent desperate nights cursing the mischievous gods of cyber-space, and dialing promising "hot lines" that were rarely answered, or if they were, provided me with complicated instructions in a computer Esperanto I was unable to follow.
My bittersweet relationship to technology dates back to my formative years in the highly politicized ambiance of Mexico City in the 70's. As a young, self-proclaimed "radical artist," I was full of ideological dogmas: in my perception, high technology was intrinsically dehumanizing (enajenante in Spanish) and was mostly used as a means to control "us" (little techno-illiterate people) politically. My critique of technology overlapped with my critique of capitalism. To me, "capitalists" were rootless (and faceless) corporate men who utilized mass media to advertise their useless electronic gadgets. They sold us unnecessary devices that kept us eternally in debt (as a country and as individuals), and conveniently distracted us from "the truly important matters of life." Of course, these
"important matters" included sex, music, spirituality and "revolution" California-style (meaning, en abstracto y bien fashionable ). As a child of contradiction, although I considered myself a rabid "anti-technology artist," I owned a little Datsun, and listened to my favorite US and British rock groups on my Panasonic importado, often while meditating or making love as a means to "liberate myself" from capitalist socialization. My favorite clothes, books, posters and albums had all been made by "capitalists" with the help of technology, but for some obscure reason, I was oblivious to the contradiction between my ideological stance and my affection for these devices.
Luckily, my family never lost their magical thinking and sense of humor about technology. My parents were easily seduced by refurbished and slightly dated American and Japanese electronic goods. We bought them as fayuca (contraband) in Tepito neighborhood, and they occupied an important place in the decoration of our "modern" middle-class home. Our huge color TV set, for example, was decorated to perform the double function of entertainment unit and involuntary postmodern altar, with nostalgic photos of relatives, paper flowers, and assorted figurines all around it. So was the humongous equipo de sonido next to it, with an amplifier, eight-track tape machine, two record players and at least fifteen speakers that constantly played a syncretic array of music, including Mexican composer Agustin Lara, Los Panchos (with Edie Gorme), Sinatra, Esquivel, and Eartha Kit. Cumbia followed Italian operas, and rock and roll alternated with racheras.(In this sense, my father was my first involuntary instructor of postmodern thought.) Though I was sure that with the scary arrival of the first microwave oven to our traditional kitchen, our delicious daily meals were going to be replaced overnight by sleazy fast food, my mother soon realized that el microondas was only good to reheat cold coffee and soup. The point was to own it, and to display it prominently as yet another sign of modernidad. (At the time, modernity in Mexico was perceived as synonymous with US technology and pop culture). When I moved North to California (and therefore into the future), I would often buy cheesy electronic trinkets for my family (I didn't regard them as "cheesy" at the time). During vacations, going back to visit my family in Mexico City such presents ipso facto turned me into an emissary of both prosperity and modernity. Once I bought an electric ionizador for grandma. She put it in the middle of her bedroom altar, and kept it there (unplugged, of course) for months. When I next saw her, she told me: "Mijito, since you gave me that thing, I can breathe much better." She never plugged it in, but she probably did. Things like televisions, short wave radios, microwave ovens, and later ionizers, walkman radios, crappie calculadoras, digital watches and video cameras were seen by my family and friends as alta tecnologia, and their function was at least as much social, ritual, sentimental, symbolic and aesthetic as it was pragmatic
It is no coincidence that in my early performance work (1979-1990), chafa (cheap or low) technology performed ritual and aesthetic functions as well. Verbigratia: For years, I used TV monitors as centerpieces for my "video-altars" on stage, and several "gettho blasters" placed in different parts of the gallery or theatre as sound environments for my performances, each with a different tape and volume. Fog machines, strobe lights, gobos, megaphones and voice filters have remained trademark elements in my performances. By 1990, I sarcastically baptized my aesthetic practice, "Aztec high-tech art." When I teamed with "Cyber Vato" Sifuentes (1991), we decided that what we were doing was "techno-rascuache art." In a Glossary of Borderismos that dates back to 1994, we defined it as "a new aesthetic that fuses performance art, epic rap poetry, interactive television, experimental radio and computer art, but with a Chicanocentric perspective and an sleazoide bent." As of today, my relationship with high technology remains unresolved. I am able to theorize about its aesthetic possibilities and political implications, but I am incapable of implementing any of my theories "hands on." Luckily, thanks to Roberto and other cyber-accomplices, at times I can pass for a "techno-performance artist."
"(Mexicans) are simple people. They are happy with the little they've
got...They are not ambitious and complex like us. They don't need all this technology to communicate. Sometimes I just feel like going down there and living among them."
Anonymous "confession" from the internet
II: Mythical Differences
The mythology goes like this. Mexicans (and by extension other Latinos) can't handle high technology. Caught between a pre-industrial past and an imposed modernity, we continue to be identified as manual beings -- Homo Fabers per excellence, imaginative artisans (not technicians), our understanding of the world strictly political, poetical or at best metaphysical, but certainly not scientific or technological. Furthermore, we are perceived as sentimental, passionate creatures (meaning irrational), and when we decide to step out of our "primitive" realm and utilize high technology in our art (most of the time we are not even interested), we are meant to naively repeat what others, primarily Anglos and Europeans, have already done much better.
We Latinos often feed this mythology by overstating our "romantic nature" and "humanistic" orientation, and/or by assuming the role of "colonial victims" of technology. We are always ready to point out that social and interpersonal relations in the US (the strange land of the future) are totally mediated, filtered, distorted, or managed by faxes, phones, computers, and other sophisticated technologies we are not even aware of, and that the overabundance of information technology in everyday life is directly responsible for the social handicaps, sexual neuroses and ethical crises of US citizens.
Is it precisely our lack of access to these goods what makes us overstate our differences? "We," on the contrary, socialize profusely, absorb information ritually and sensually; and remain in touch with our (allegedly still intact) primeval selves. The mythology continues to unfold: Since our families and communities are not exposed to the "daily dehumanizating effects of high technology," we are somehow unaffected by philosophical "illnesses" such as despair, fragmentation, and nihilism, so characteristic of the postmodern condition in advanced capitalist societies. "Our" problems are mainly political, not personal or psychological, and so on and so forth. . . . This simplistic and extremely problematic binary world view portrays Mexico and Mexicans as technologically underdeveloped yet culturally and spiritually superior to its northern neighbor.
Reality is much more complicated. The average Anglo-American does not understand new technologies either. People of color and women in the US don't have equal access to cyberspace, despite the egalitarian myths promoted by devotees of high technology. Furthermore, American culture has always led the most radical (and often childish) movements against its own technological development, naively trying to "get back to nature." (In the 90's, American Luddites tend to be much more puritanical and intolerant than their Mexican counterparts). Meanwhile, the average urban Mexican (more than 70% of all Mexicans live in large cities), exposed to world transculture on a daily basis, is already afflicted to varying degrees with the same types of "First World" existential malaise allegedly produced by high technology and advanced capitalism. In fact, the new generation of Mexicans, including my hip generación-Mex nephews and my eight year-old, fully bicultural son, are completely immersed in and defined by MTV, personal computers, super-Nintendo, video games and virtual reality (even if they don't own a computer). In fact, I would go as far as to say that in contemporary Mexico, generational borders can already be determined by cyberliteracy and the degree of familiarity with high technology. Far from being the rrrroomantic pre-industrial paradise of the American imagination, the Mexico of the 90's is already a virtual nation whose fluctuating boundaries are largely defined by transnational pop culture, television, tourism, free market economics (a dysfunctional version, of course), and yes, whether we like it or not. . . the internet.
But life in the ranchero global village is riddled with epic contradictions. Very few people south of the border are on line, and those who are "wired," tend to belong to the upper and upper-middle classes, and are mostly professionals or corporate employees. The Zapatista phenomenon is a famous exception to this norm. Since 1995, Subcomandante Marcos, techno-performance artist extraordinaire, has been communicating with the "outside world" through the extremely popular Zapatista web sites sponsored and designed by US and Canadian radical scholars and activists. These pages are more familiar to those outside of Mexico for a simple reason: Telmex, the Mexican Telephone company, makes it practically impossible for anyone living outside of the main Mexican cities to gain internet access, arguing that "there are simply not enough lines to handle both telephone and internet users."
Every time my colleagues and I have attempted to create some kind of binational dialogue via digital technologies (ie. to link Los Angeles to Mexico City through satellite video-telephone), we are faced with a myriad
complications and assymetries. In Mexico, with few exceptions, the handful of artists who have regular access to high technologies and who are interested in this kind of transnational techno-dialogue tend to be socially privileged, politically uninformed, and aesthetically uninteresting. And the funding sources willing to support this type of project are clearly interested in controlling who is part of the experiment.
"Rebecca [Solnit] thinks America Online is like K-Mart, and keeps getting lost in the aisles somewhere between press-on-nails and flash sessions. This morning AOL fell asleep while I was forwarding your text to my brother (the Anglo-Sandinista one) and it disappeared. Maybe it's like a combination of K-Mart and the Argentinean military, what with all this disappearing, loco?"
(Excerpt from an e-mail)
III: Cyber-migras & "Webbacks"
Roberto and I arrived late to the technological debate, along with a dozen other Chicano experimental artists. At the time, we were shocked by the unexamined ethnocentrism permeating the discussions around art and digital technology, especially in California. The master narrative was couched either in the utopian, dated language of Western democratic values or as a bizarre form of New Age anti-corporate/corporate jargon; the unquestioned lingua franca was of course English, "the official language of science, information and international communications"*1; and the theoretical vocabulary utilized by both the critics and apologists of cyberspace was depoliticized (postcolonial theory and the border paradigm were conveniently overlooked) and hyper-, I mean hyper-specialized -- a combination of esperantic "software" talk, revamped post-structuralist theory, and nouvelle psychoanalysis. If Chicanos, Mexicans and other "people of color" didn't participate in the net, it was presumed to be solely due to lack of interest, not money or access. The unspoken assumption was that our true interests were "grassroots" (which is to say, limited to our ethnic-based community institutions and the streets of our barrios), and our modes of expression oral, folkloric and pretechnological. In other words, we were to continue painting murals, plotting revolutions in rowdy cafes, reciting poetry, and dancing salsa or quebradita. Some colleagues consider the fact that Roberto and I, along with a handful of other Chicanos, are now temporarily welcome in the cyber "community" to be an enormous political victory. Others, more cynical, suspect that we're invited to the "great rave of techno-consciousness" to bring some Tex-Mex glamor and tequila to an otherwise monochromatic and fairly puritan fiesta.
When Roberto and I began to dialogue with US artists working with new technologies, we were perplexed by the fact that when referring to "cyberspace" or "the net," they spoke of a politically neutral, raceless, genderless, classless and allegedly egalitarian "territory" that would provid everyone with unlimited opportunities for participation, interaction and belonging -- most especially "belonging," a seductive notion at a time when no one feels that they "belong" anywhere). There was no mention of the physical and social isolation or fear of the "real world" that propels so many people to get on line, invest huge amounts of time and energy there, and convince themselves that they are having profound experiences of communication, belonging, or discovery (three peculiarly American obsessions). To many, the thought of exchanging identities on the net and impersonating people of other genders, races, or ages, without risking any social or physical consecuences was seen as liberating, rather than superficial or escapist.(*2)
The utopian rhetoric around digital reminded me of a sanitized version of the pioneer and frontier mentalities of the Old West, and also of early 20th century futurism. Given the extent to which the US had already begun to suffer from compassion fatigue regarding delicate issues of race, gender, and cultural equity, it was difficult not to see this cult of technology as an attractive means of escape from the social and racial crises afflicting the nation in non-virtual reality.
Like the pre-multi-culti art world of the early 80's, the new, technified art world assumed an unquestionable "center" and drew an impermeable digital border. Those condemned to live "on the other side" included all techno-illiterate artists, most women, Chicanos, Afro-Americans and Native Americans in the US and Canada, along with the populations of so-called "Third World" countries. Given the nature of this hegemonic cartography, those of us living South of the digital border were once again forced to assume the unpleasant but necessary roles of web-backs, cyber-aliens, techno-pirates, and virtual coyotes (smugglers).
"In the barrios of resistance, contemporary versions of the old kilombos, every block has a secret community center. There, the runaway youths called Robo-Raza II or "floating greasers" publish anarchist laser-Xeroxed magazines, edit experimental home videos about police brutality (yes, police brutality still exists), and broadcast pirate radio and TV interventions like this one over the most popular programs...
These clandestine centers are constantly raided, but Robo-Raza II just move the action to the garage next door. Those who get "white-listed" can no longer get jobs in the "Mall of Oblivion." And those who get caught in fraganti are sent to rehabilitation clinics, where they are subjected to instant socialization through em-pedagogic videos (from the Spanish verb empedar, meaning to force someone to drink, and the Mayan noun agogic, o sea, a man without a self, like many of you)."
-From "The New Word Border", City Lights, 1996
IV: First Draft of a Manifesto: Remapping Cyberspace
In the past years, many theoreticians of color, feminists and activist artist have finally succeeded in crossing the digital border without documents. Luckily, this recent diasporic migration has made the debates more complex and interesting. But since "we" don't wish to reproduce the unpleasant mistakes of the "cultural wars"(1987-1994) nor to harass the brokers, impresarios and curators of cyberspace in such a way as to elicit a backlash, our new strategies and priorities are quite different. "We" are no longer trying to persuade anyone that we are worthy of inclusion; we now know very well that we are, and will always be, either temporary insiders, or insiders/outsiders. For the moment, what "we" (newly arrived cyber-immigrants) desire is:
to re-map the hegemonic cartography of cyberspace
to politicize the conception of cyberspace
to develop a multicentric, theoretical understanding of the cultural, political, and aesthetic potential of new technologies
to exchange different sorts of information -- mythopoetic, activist, performative, imagistic
to hopefully accomplish all this with humor, inventiveness and intelligence
Chicano artists in particular want to "brownify" virtual space; to "spanglishize" the net, and "infect" the linguas francas.
These concerns seem to have echoes throughout Latin America, Asia, Africa and many so-called "Third World" populations within the illusory space formerly known as the "First World."
With the increasing availability of new technologies in "our" communities, definitions of "community art" and "politicized art" are changing dramatically. The goal of activist artists and theoreticians is to find innovative, grassroots applications for new technologies (i.e., to induce Latinos and other youth of color to exchange their weapons for computers and video cameras), and to link community centers, artistic collectives, and human rights organizations by means of the internet. CD-roms and web sites that reflect community values can perform a vital educational function as cultural "memory banks" ("encyclopedias chicanicas," so to speak), spaces for encounter, dialogue, and exchange.
To attain all this, the many (predominantly white) virtual communities are going to have to get used to a new cultural presence (the Web-back, el nuevo virus virtual), a new sensibility, and a variety of languages employed in cyberspace. As for myself, hopefully one day I won't have to write in English in order to have a voice in the new centers of international power.
San Francisco, Califas
July of 1997
*1: Why then, several colleagues (including Meyer and Pisani) asked me, did I choose to write this text in English? First, because I only know two languages, and Spanish-speaking net-users are still a micro-minority. How else could a Mexican communicate with an African, an Indian and a German? How else would you, whoever you are, be reading this text right now? Secondly, I chose to write this text in English because in order to fight a hegemonic model I believe we need to know and speak the language of hegemonic control.
*2-Many of my feminist colleagues have expressed the belief that exchanging genders in virtual space can be both liberating and transgressive for women.
© 2001 Pocha Nostra