A conversation between Argentine curator Gabriela Salgado and Post-Mexican performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña.
(In this ongoing conversation/blog, a curator and a performance artist, both living and working away from their original homelands and language, discuss the politics of exclusion in the "international" Art world and its visible and invisible cartographies. They elaborate on the concept of "Zones of Silence", the countries and cities that exist beyond the radars of the art world. Gabriela's English is "British" while Gomez-Peña's is more "American." A few phrases and words here and there -in italics-have been left in Spanish. For total or partial publication of this text, please contact Gabriela Salgado at: email@example.com )
GP: The map of the self proclaimed "international art world," clearly does not include all countries. Stricto sensu it's not an "international" map, but rather a very exclusive club that involves a few European countries, the US, some secondary partners like Canada, Australia and Japan, and some "seasonal" partners like Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, Russia, China or South Africa, and only when they are in vogue. Entire regions of the world are erased from that map...It's like the IMF (International Monetary Fund) of culture que no?
GS: Definitely, this idea of internationalism is very problematic. It has historically drawn maps out of colonial dependency and trade interests which, have guided cultural policies and the collecting priorities of museums. Did you know, for instance, that MOMA New York bought works by Latin American artists during the Second World War and in the post war period, which remained dormant in unopened crates in their storage rooms until decades later?
No me sorprende nada.
GS: That 'internationalist will' of the US government, prompted Rockefeller to fund the Americas Society as one of the branches of a major project to 'include' the countries south of the US-Mexican border in a Pan American plan: it was called the 'Good Neighbour Policy'.
GP: Art as a form of conservative diplomacy or rather as an innocent front for interventionism.
GS: Yes and in the same way today, countries are incorporated or excluded from the 'international' tag depending on fashion, cultural parasitism and the voyeuristic impulses that are created mainly by economic and political trends. It's as if we were always the prey of new tendencies to develop in order to become visible...
GP: Visibility is the price of good behaviour. If Latin American artists wish to be included in the club we must be willing to paraphrase, "represent", mimic, or echo the very stylistic trends designed by the North.
GS:...with slight variations.
GP: Sure. We are allowed to deviate a bit, but not too much. What we have to contribute to the great international delicatessen is our ability to generate desire for the global cultural consumer...
GS: and perhaps a bit of fear...
GP: We are allowed to perform our stylized "difference" with an obvious understanding of Western "sophistication," and current art trends. Only the mildly ethnic sophisticates are allowed. Certain "Third World" art products are seasonally fashionable so long as they pass the quality control tests imposed by the centers. But our temporary inclusion is always in their terms. They've got the key and they point at the door we should use to enter. And then they tell us when to leave. We only comply with their expectations. The new Third World, "minority" or "outsider" artist is expected to perform trans-cultural sophistication; to perform unpredictable eclecticism and cool hybridity. If we perform well, we are in...for a short while. Soon we will be replaced by another seasonal other, another designer primitive. There is always a long line of willing others in the maquiladora of "international art". It's a never-ending ritual, a revolving door...Curators make sure that the revolving door moves fast
GS: And that is a response to the Art world's high demand for exotica and its obsession with innovation. You also need to live in the right place to be part of the club.
GP: True. When it comes to Latin American artists, one must live and work in a "major" country like Mexico, Brazil, Cuba or Argentina. We must live in countries embellished with exotic mythologies that appeal to the desire of the North. It's the Buena Vista Social Club syndrome; the Frida syndrome. But if you come from, say, Paraguay, estás jodido.
GS: No tag no joy...
GP: Artists from certain countries like...Paraguay, Uruguay, Ecuador...
GS: Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Bolivia...
GP: ...they complain bitterly about the fact that they don't belong to any world imaginary. They claim that they live and work in invisible countries, which don't even have negative stereotypes to explain them. Es una chinga. This Ecuadorian friend of mine told me recently: "At least Colombians have the mythology of drugs, Macondo and cumbia music; and the Peruvians, the powerful mythology of the Incas and Machu Picchu; even Bolivia now has Evo (Morales), and Venezuela has (Hugo) Chavez, who is a consumed performance artist...but what about Ecuador? What mythical iconography and fetishes can we evoke that can make us attractive to a German curator or a British art critic?." It's the Latino ultra-periphery; the margins of the margins so to speak, and from there, countries like Mexico or Brazil are understandably perceived as culturally hegemonic. I understand their predicament. These vatos suffer from a double bronca: The deadly combo of Latin American internalized colonialism and the lack of interest from the Northern producers of culture, who are only seasonally interested in certain milieus that fulfil their desire for exotic otherness. Their claims are real. And we should broker on their behalf.
GS: The split is due to the fact that the Latin American hegemonic countries you mentioned have a strong presence in the historical imagination.
This was produced by the insertion of their avant garde artists in the circuits of the European modern movements. That insertion in turn, was made possible thanks to the circulation of intellectuals and artists between those peripheral but somehow hegemonic capitals in Latin America and the much desired European centres of production. It is true that a regrettable invisibility affects many countries of our region. But we have to be realistic here: the art history taught outside of Latin America is only now, in the dusk of the XXI century, beginning to incorporate other modernities to its so far monolithic discourse, and that also affects the culturally hegemonic nations that you mentioned, whose artists are still under-represented in the European/North American history of art...
There is a succinct but powerful conceptual piece by London-based Colombian artist Fernando Arias: La Historia de Arias, which summarises that struggle with a great deal of humour. The work consists of a volume of Sir Gombrich's The Story of Art -the Bible of North European art historians - pierced by metal poles and made into a plinth to support another, smaller publication with identical cover and typography that reads La historia de Arias, a catalogue of the artist's own work. We are still trying to insert a huge part of XX century's creative thought produced by amazing artists and intellectuals from our continent in the European and North American historia oficial, validated for centuries as the only ruling one.
The other problem is our own lack of communication. Researchers based in the UK or New York can easily access specialised literature on those cultural movements and histories across the board, but within each Latin American country that is virtually impossible: with the ocassional exception of Mexico and Argentina, exhibition catalogues do not circulate.
GP: This endemic problem of lack of documentation, affects experimental artists and rebel intellectuals even more. The more established institutions (museums, festivals and art schools) concentrated in the main Latin American urban centers, they tend to document and catalogue the work of the best known artists, mostly painters and sculptors whose aesthetics coincide with official policies and international trends. And they will promote this small cadre of artists as a package for export with the generous financial help of their governments and some corporations working for those governments. But the pioneering artists responding viscerally to their immediate political and cultural conditions tend to be overlooked.
GS: Who are you refering to?
GP: I'm talking about the wildest performance and installation artists; the more edgy and politicized conceptual locos and locas; the independent-minded ones who don't belong to any clicas.
GP: I'm referring to those who don't receive direct instructions from Art Forum or Flash Art. These locos are never promoted by their country's institutions. Paradoxically, many of them end up migrating to the US or Europe in search of freedom, visibility and community. My lost generation was part of this migratory phenomenon. We were artistic exiles, forced to leave our country in order to be able to find the tone and volume of our voice and the true shape of our madness. And once we migrate, we begin to loose communication with those who stay. Even when we make an extraordinary effort, the communication lines become thinner and thinner, year after year...
GS: The communication problem seriously affects our capacity to generate efficient strategies for ourselves...
GP: Very seriously...There exist clear lines of communication between the main cultural capitals (Mexico City, São Paulo, Buenos Aires, etc), and the European and North American cities which are part of the self-proclaimed "international art world," but these direct lines do not exist amongst Latin American countries, or between homeland and diaspora. In other words, the chic Mexico City artists and curators, maybe more connected to their New York, London or Parisian peers than to their South American colleagues or to their Chicano distant relatives. So the crucial question is where and how do we meet? The European and US critics, curators and producers are always brokering and framing the dialogue amongst us and even speaking on our behalf. They perform the role of impresarios and ventriloquists for the so-called Third World. And we only get to meet amongst ourselves when they invite us to participate in the platforms and events they stage.
GS: ...we let them discover us, speak on our behalf, be our hosts and promoters and then take us to their metaphorical beds, so we can breed their exotic, mix cultured children.
GP: And we love to partake in this bizarre ritual.
GS: Yes...a kind of Malinchismo atávico which dates back to the first encounters between the indigenous cultures and their Spanish conquistadorers.
GP: This Faustian deal is at the core of Latin American culture. The original goals of the Latin American and African biennales were precisely to create a more inclusive cartography and to nurture multiple self-sustained art worlds; parallel art worlds with direct communication lines, but throughout the years, I guess they forgot their raison d'être and ended up emulating the European and American Biennales. Once you are part of the club, you tend to forget why you are even there. It's bizarre, que no?
GS: It is due to our internalised colonialism that the only opportunities to create our own cartographies - like in the example of the biennales you mentioned - are replaced by the emulation of mainstream models.
GP: In order to belong, to be part of the onda, the South ends up reproducing the same behaviour of the North. Fanon and Galeano wrote about this phenomenon extensively.
But tell me, Gabriela, how did you arrive to the notion of "The Zones of Silence"?
GS: The expression was originally coined by the Dutch organisation Prince Claus Fund to signal those areas of the world that remain in the shadows of the cultural mainstream. I found it appropriate to define the situation of many areas of Latin America, the zones that have a strong cultural production but do not host biennales, triennials or mega art fairs. In the zones of silence there exists an acute sense of isolation among artists and organisations, accompanied by a frustrating lack of communication with the region's multiple cultural scenes. This alienation from each other not only helps to maintain the negative dependency from the Western mirror to validate our own productions but also takes away the possibility of creating necessary networks of collaboration. I envisage stimulating new cartographies as a possible tool for the empowerment of creative communities outside of the established maps. And you? Tell me about the concept of "X-Centris" which is at the core of La Pocha Nostra's art production.
GP: My performance troupe (La Pocha Nostra) has been embarked in a long-term project of des-centralization of art. We don't talk much about it, but we are very committed to it.
GS: How did it all begin?
GP: Up to the early 90s, performance artists of my generation were trapped within a solipsistic art circuit that encompassed a handful of US cultural centres. They would tour from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and then to Chicago, New York, and a few other cities and back, over and over again. And their audiences were strictly comprised of artists, intellectuals, cultural organizers and students. But as politicized Chicanos and US Latinos, our "American" art map was much wider. Besides presenting work in the Anglo experimental art circuit, we regularly visited Latino barrios and Indian reservations. Our map included the whole US Southwest...what I term, Chicanolandia...and other US Latino milieus like Nuyo Rico, Miami and South Chicago. We also toured our Latin American homelands. Because of this, we had access to much more diversified audiences and cultural experiences than our Anglo colleagues.
By 1993, my collaborators and I decided to expand our cartographic project and to begin touring other non-Chicano USAs, places where they had never seen a Mexican as a speaking subject, much less radical Mexican performance artists. We started touring conservative states; what we thought were scary places like Montana, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana ...and that became part of our political project; to bring our border art and hybrid aesthetics beyond the terra ignota of Chicanolandia. In doing so, we started performing for non-art audiences, and realized the incredible impact performance art can have in the lives of regular people or in people who might even disagree with us.
In the mid 90's, we expanded our des-centralization project to an international level. We put special emphasis in countries that were generators of migration to the so-called First World, and the countries which were hosts of those migrations. And in the process, we created our own routes, our own bridges and tunnels. So in a sense we arrived to our concept of an "X-Centris" type of internationalism empirically; by travelling to those places and engaging in a dialogue with artists from those very sites. The theory came later.
Since then, my performance troupe has made an extraordinary effort to tour to places that exist beyond the radars and telescopes of the so called "international art world." we are always surprised to find amazing artists and vibrant art milieus in these places. I guess we confront our own ethnocentrism by doing it.
GS: Why is La Pocha's office still located in California and not somewhere in Latin America?
GP: It's a political desition; and a direct response to an ironic global phenomenon: immigrants from so called "third-world" countries live inside the much touted First-World, and by living and working within this "First-World," we are redefining its culture. The great paradox is that our host country is often responsible for our homeland's hardships. Most of the members of La Pocha are social protagonists of this border phenomenon.
GS: And for you personally, what does this mean?
GP: It's a very personal matter. My family and friends are divided by the US/Mexico border. And we did not choose this predicament. To me, it is clear that one of the main reasons Mexicans are in the US, is because the US has mingled with Mexico's economy and it has impeded that Mexico takes ownership of its own resources, including the cultural resources.
GS: Besides, 1/3 of the US, what is now California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Utah, Nevada and Colorado used to belong to Mexico.
GP: Absolutamente. These territories were taken by force through an expansionist war (1846-48). And the memory of the old border is still in our psyche. It's like the Kirlan effect of an amputated limb. We all somehow remember. It's an archeotypal memory. So in a sense I am migrating in reverse. I came to the US following the footprints and memories of my ancestors and seeking my lost family. Originally it was an unconscious process, but eventually as I became politicized within the Chicano movement, I realized that I was part of a much larger cultural project...Unfortunately, the memory of that territorial theft only exists on the Mexican side. The gringos have conveniently erased that memory, as they conveniently erase all unpleasant memories. It's a quintessential feature of US culture; to consciously forget...or pretend to forget, and then to re-write history in their own terms.
GS: What kind of activities does la Pocha engage with in these "silent" places you go?
GP: We make a lot of noise. Our basic idea has been to present workshops leading to performances that incorporate young rebel artists from those communities. The workshop becomes the nerve centre of activity during these residencies. And around the workshop we present different kinds of satellite activities including lectures, public dialogues like this one, street interventions, and video screenings. The idea is to engage with the local communities in multiple fronts and using multiple strategies and languages. The basic premise of these collaborations is founded on an ideal: If we learn to cross borders within the art space, we may learn how to do so in larger social spheres.
But this cannot happen in two weeks. In order to attain this, we must develop long-term collaborative projects with these communities. Continuity is an important part of this project. After twelve years of engaging in this "X-Centris" artistic praxis, La Pocha has become good at it. We now have long-term projects with multi-ethnic artists residing in other 'border zones", in the Other Europe, the Other US, Canada and Australia, as well as with several Latin American communities living in cities outside of the centers. We have developed robust connections in all these places. Artists we have met during these residencies often end up touring with La Pocha in future projects. It's an open and fluid system, an ever-changing entity. By now, we have Pocha 'chapters' and collaborators in different parts of the world. In a sense you can say that we are a virtual community, and our website is both our matrix and operational center.
GS: In the past years you have been putting a lot of emphasis on pedagogy.
GP: Yes, it's the core of our new political praxis. We even have a summer school in Oaxaca, and are hoping to develop more sustainable workshops in other parts of Latin America. And your curatorial work has definitely influenced this new phase of La Pocha. We are particularly interested in the "invisible regions" existing within the borders of the semi-visible countries; the otherness within so to speak; what you term "the zones of silence". I would love to develop ongoing collaborations with places like Tucuman and Rosario in Argentina; Medellin and Cali in Colombia; etc. The problem as you know is that, with a few exceptions, government bureaucracies and foundations don't really see the importance of this kind of work. It's perplexing to them. Funders constantly ask me: "Gómez-Peña, why do you want to work in Yucatan or Oaxaca, instead of Mexico City? They don't even have a performance art milieu down there?" It's like trying to explain to a corporate real state agent why you are interested in the barrio. Good luck!
What about you Gabriela? Why did you end up in Europe?
GS: At the time of the last dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983), there existed not only a deep fear in relation to our physical integrity as individuals, but also an invisible pact of silence that implicated the whole society, which mutated into a long standing culture of denial as a means of survival. This pact suppressed at once social solidarity and all possibilities of developing any kind of cultural response. Against that backdrop, hope run low for many.
I initially conceived Barcelona as a stepping stone, but it turned to be home for many years. When I arrived in Spain, the country was learning its own lesson on freedom after the obscurantism of Franco's regime, so it felt like an appropriate option.
By the 1980s, South Americans had lived in several European and North American cities for decades, having been expelled by the numerous military dictatorships that the CIA planted in most of our countries, as a response against the expansion of socialist ideology. However, despite that large South American immigration, it became clear to me that still in 1983, to speak with 'sudaca' accent wasn't a door opener in Spain.
GP: Is that why you moved to England?
GS: I moved to England to study. London gave me the chance to be part of a wider cultural landscape and that in turn has nurtured my will to work beyond its shores. I have been increasingly interested in opening more platforms for interaction between the other Latin America - the one that we saw springing out of our experience in Tucumán - to other cities in the subcontinent. Not only our countries are culturally isolated from each other -except by the all might power of music, literature and telenovelas - but they are also unaware of our relatively new culture, the one born out of the displacement of millions of Latin Americans in Europe, the US and Australia. That floating Latin America is composed of people whose experience is that of being in between cultures, in the fractures of all definitions, and that liminality interests me deeply. Surely because when dealing with it I place a mirror in front of my own self. That other Latin America in the UK is mainly composed of near one million Colombians and Brazilians, but there are also Ecuadorians, Chileans, Cubans, Venezuelans and Peruvians who settled here. Our colonial past does not link us with the larger, more established communities of Asian, Caribbean and Africans but our present does. In Brixton (a popular neighbourhood situated south of the river), the second spoken language is Yoruba and the third Portuguese. How did that happen? That incredible hybridity transpires language and is expanding through music, film and visual art and is slowly reaching the shores of mass culture.
You see, after decades of multiculturalism these other communities are growing so fast and are so embedded in the British social fabric that for some sectors of society the very notion of Britishness is at stake, and they are beginning to react in the worst way possible by signing up to a fascist agenda...In the last local election, one of London's popular boroughs saw National Front - now conveniently re branded British National Party- candidates obtaining a majority of votes...
GP: How will artists deal with this new threat?
GS: This is the kind of material that feeds La Pocha Nostra's public performances, and to me, it works cathartically, as you are opening symbolic valves that are very necessary to maintain society's mental sanity. I believe that when you put all those socio-cultural forces together in performance combined with radical pedagogy, the complexity of our realities surpasses what you have sharply called the "mainstream bizarre". In the staging of our realities as immigrants here and there, we cannot be de-politised as the mainstream needs to be. But what price do you pay as artists who dare speaking about these very hot issues? Are you and your colleagues given chances to act beyond the marginal land of otherness?
GP: Our job in this respect is to be coyotes. We are trying to broker and open doors for those who don't have access, and when possible, invite them to tour with us...The artists living in these hidden cartographies are rarely part of the "official packages" of their countries. So we perform the role of alternative travel agents. (laughter)
GS: Tell me about the Mexican "official packages."
GP: The cultural production that Mexico packages, brands and exports as "contemporary Mexican art" is really circumscribed to a handful of privileged artists from Mexico City, and perhaps one or two from other large cities. And that's about it. Es una micro-clica con mucho poder. But the thousands of artists that live in "the other Mexicos," inside and outside the national borders; these vatos seem to live in another time and place...
GS: But things have been definitely changing in the past years. These artists are beginning to raise the volume of their voices. In Argentina there are remarkable examples of a strong will to disconnect from that dependency, like what has been happening in the city of Tucumán in the last ten years, thanks to the tenacity of a group of artists who have tried to insert themselves in international networks, bypassing the mighty power of Buenos Aires. Rosario is also a good example, with a scene that is growing in reputation, a good museum of contemporary art with an interesting collection and programme...
GP: Same situation in Mexico and Chicanolandia. In places like Oaxaca, Tijuana, San Antonio, and East LA, artists are creating their own movida; their own institutions; their own aesthetic. They are developing the means and capability to broadcast their voice and image. We are definitely witnessing a new cultural phenomenon: loud voices broadcasting from the imposed margins of their national cultures.
GS: I suppose that these initiatives contain in themselves the seed that was planted in those areas back in the 1960s, when a lot of very politicised, conceptual, non-objectual and time-based practises were explored with incredible intensity. We worked together in the workshop 'Tucumán Chicano' in 2005, didn't you perceive while we were there that Tucumán (Northern Argentina) was in its own right ready for interaction with the wider world?
GP: It was definitely a strange feeling to discover that my conceptual concerns as a Chicano or post-Mexican artist were closer to the Tucumán artists, and to the artists from other regions of Argentina than to those of Buenos Aires. Now in retrospect it is more clear to me: We both are fighting similar battles in different cultural contexts. We both have consciously assumed the strategic positionality of the insider/outsider. We both are embarked in the great project of decentralization of culture...Last week, Roberto (Sifuentes) and I conducted a workshop here in London sponsored by Live Art Development Agency. Same thing: The 20 participants were all amazing artists from every imaginable hybrid and immigrant community of contemporary London. Carribean, Arabic, Sri Lankan, Latino, pan-european...and the material we all developed was strangely, strangely familiar. It is as if we were having a collective dream...or nightmare. Soon I am hoping that we will have the capability to speak directly to one another bypassing the brokers and ventrilocuists from the North.
One of the cultural organizations I respect the most is the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, a unique organization created about 8 years ago by theorists from the NYU performance Studies Department. The basic premise was to develop a trans-continental network of theorists and performance artists bypassing the main cultural centers. Every other year, we gather in places like Lima, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Monterrey...and for 2 weeks, we talk, think out-loud, debate, and present work. Many utopian initiatives have emerged out of these hemispheric dialogues. It's a good model.
GS: Tell me more about the similarities and differences of attitude between US and European 'floating' communities when taking part in your performance work?
GP: As far as artists are concerned I don't see much difference. Neta. Whether it is Chicanos from the US Southwest, Black & Asian British artists, German Turks or Sudacas and Canarians in Spain, we all seem to be bound by a sense of partial orphan hood, by the condition of being partial outsiders to both the art world in capitals and to society at large. Beyond the obvious cultural differences amongst us, there is this rebellious attitude and bifocal understanding of culture that help create a common ground for our collaborations. We are all post-national artists in search of a new conceptual nation capable of containing our aspirations and complex identities; our rage and locura. We are an unusual milieu of border-crossers, exiles, nomads and hybrids of sorts. I call our tribe, The New Barbarians. And our job is to cross the borders we are told we shouldn't cross; to infect the ethos and aesthetics of the "West"; to smuggle ideas from one community to another; from one country to another; and from the streets into the museum and back....Performance art is our common language; our lingua franca; our communication strategy.
Regarding audiences it's a quite a different matter. At the risk of generalizing, I'd say that US audiences tend to be more racially mixed; more participatory and bold; less self-conscious. It's part of the American character. European audiences are more intellectually savvy and shy...and more specialized. The gap between "high" and "low" culture is wider in Europe. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule. Spain is a major exception....Spanish audiences behave in very outrageous manner, sometimes to the point of being insensitive and a bit racist...But I like that rawness. It's a challenge.
Do you see any major differences between Latin artists living and working in the UK, versus other Latino diasporic communities say in the US or Canada or other parts of Europe?
GS: It is very difficult to avoid bold generalisation when analysing these questions, but I would say that the main difference resides in numbers. With 35 million Mexicans contributing substantially to the US economy, omnipresent Latino TV channels and a significant span of Latin American communities living in major US cities, the difference of perception is apparent. We can't equate that with any European country, where the percentages shift toward other communities, such as Arabs, Africans, Middle Eastern and Asians.
Let me give you an example: in the UK, when filling the so called "equal opportunities monitoring forms" (forms that one is required to complete when looking for employment or applying to study) you are presented with a list of 'other' ethnic groups that does not include Latin Americans. We simply do not exist in their classification system. Latin Americans are still seen as an exotic minority in the UK, despite being a steadily growing migrant community. This exoticism is highlighted by the increasing and dangerous fascination that our countries generate through the impact of the tourist and cultural industries here: films by Latin American directors are in fashion, concerts and exhibitions of Latin American artists slowly gain increasing media coverage, and so on. It's the Favela Chic syndrome...
In this climate, artists can fit in different contexts, without the need to make decisions about entering or separating themselves from a wider, inclusive identity discourse, such as the one that exists in the U.S.
Latin American art workers in the UK are testing the multicultural waters and finding their individual place in relation to personal interests rather than political agendas, as the mighty help of the equal opportunities policies does not affect them as much as other more established 'minorities'.
Of course you can also look at the case of Spain - where most economic migrants from Latin America choose to live due to the common language - and that process of exoticising does not happen: Dominican, Cuban or Ecuadorians are not seen as exotic or sophisticated, but as the noisy and far too widespread presence of a second-class immigration in an until recently, very levelled mono-racial, mono-cultural society that is beginning to change very rapidly.
Nowadays, I perceive Spain as being in a state of shock: facing the huge immigration tsunami brought by global changes, without the tools to understand the complexity of religious and racial diversity, and with frail and insufficient policies to deal with multiculturalism.
Where do you think lays the difference of the impact of your work in the US today, in relation to Latin America, Spain and the rest of Europe?
GP: The theoretical aspects of my work perhaps have more impact in English speaking countries. This is due to the fact that six out of my eight books were written in English, and also because I publish regularly in the English-speaking press. In the US, the work of La Pocha Nostra has been part of the national debates on race and culture for more than a decade, and since 9/11 we have been active participants in the debates around immigration, censorship in the arts and the cultural struggle for a more tolerant and open society. We are present in academia, and we also operate at a grassroots level. Our positionality is one of temporary insiders, or rather insiders/outsiders at the same time. We treasure this border condition.
GS: What about Mexico?
GP: In Mexico, I'd say that my work falls under the conceptual rubric of border culture and immigration. Mexico is finally interested in understanding "the other Mexicos" I was talking about earlier. The relationship with the Mexico that exists on the other side of the border (the US) is particularly important; and border and Chicano artists and writers often perform the role of brokers, interpreters, and intercultural translators....Our Mexican audiences tend to be young. The Mexican youth is very much part of the international robo-youth culture. They are bilingual, fluent in global pop and cyber-technologies, and geographically quite mobile. A huge percentage of that youth has crossed the border several times. And most of them have relatives on the US side, so they understand our Spanglish praxis and hybrid aesthetics at a very guttural level. To them it's not an intellectual exercise. It's part of their lingo and their cultural praxis. My new book, Bitacora del Cruce, published in Mexico this month, is all about this phenomenon of trans-national Mexican culture.
La Pocha's problem in Mexico is mostly financial and bureaucratic. Despite the fact that we have huge audiences down there, there is very little money to support the kind of work we do.
GP: Mexican cultural functionaries are very Euro and New York-centric, and they rather spend their money bringing European and US art into Mexico than say bringing outspoken Chicanos who will remind them of their own shortcomings and racism. But this does not stop my troupe from going down there to present work at least twice a year. If at the end of the project we end up even, we are lucky, but we love it. It's a highly charged context and we really like the challenge...When I return to Mexico to present work I always go with other Chicano and US Latino colleagues and we tend to overstate our Chicanismo, our otherness. It's a conceptual strategy which grants us special powers; again, it's the power of the partial outsider.
GS: What about the impact of La Pocha in other Latin American countries?
GP: Curiously in other Latin American countries, we are perceived and treated as Latin Americans and not as border, diasporic or "minority" artists. In Brazil, Cuba, and Colombia, people are familiar with our work, because we have performed there several times, and the experimental art scene is quite developed in these countries. I just presented "Mapa/Corpo" in Bogotá and I was happily surprised to see hundreds of young artists and students storming the gallery. They were extremely open, curious and sophisticated in their understanding of our work.
My relationship to Argentina has changed dramatically. When I first went down there in the early 90's to present "The Couple in the Cage" with Coco Fusco, our audiences were very racist, arrogant and euro-centric. We felt there was no context for our work. Recently however, when la Pocha went to Tucumán invited by you, our experience was completely different. As I mentioned earlier, we encountered a new society, rapidly becoming conscious of its multi-hybrid soul, and a very exciting movida. It was as if the whole country was awakening. I think that Argentina is now one of the most exciting places on the continent.
GS: I agree. Argentina has gone to hell and back in various occasions, but the most recent economic collapse of 2001 seemed to prepare the ground for a more realistic perception of what the country is really like, and not what it aspires to be.
How about your work in Spain?
GP: Our entry to Spain has been...bumpier. Until recently, Spain had been quite snobbish toward US Latino artists. We were perceived as "minority artists." Most Spaniards seemed to be more interested in New York and the UK. It was a nouveau riche mentality over there. Though we have been presenting work in Spain since the early 90's (The Couple in the Cage caused a major stir in Madrid), it's only been in the past years, and thanks to the efforts of a new generation of curators like Canarian Orlando Britto, and new initiatives like Zaragoza Latina that Spain has finally become interested in matters of hybridity, migration and border art. La Pocha now enters to Spain via the Canary Islands. It makes more sense. We call it "the Chicanarian project". We have also entered Spain through the side doors of Catalonia, the Basque country and Cantabria. Madrid is also slowly becoming aware of its border condition. Two years ago, we presented a project in Arco and encountered a much hipper Madrid.
GS: What about the UK?
GP: Our relationship with the UK is more complex. Thanks to the British post-colonial debates and the black British phenomenon, Chicanos started visiting the UK in the mid to late 80's, and publishing in magazines like Third Text. La Pocha has also had a very robust and ongoing relationship with many UK-based performance artists through the amazing Live Art Development Agency (London) and the Centre for Performance Research (Wales). Producers like Lois Keidan and Richard Gough have been incredible allies in creating bridges between non-Anglo US-based performance artists and our peers in the UK. It's strange to realize that there might be more of a context for our work in the UK than in Spain.
GS: It is indeed strange but understandable, as it has to do with an historical question, or rather, a matter of timing. The UK has been exposed to issues of diversity for decades, whether Spain is just getting there. While some new organisations are now venturing into exploring wider artistic territories, like in the case of the young project 'Zaragoza Latina', the main cities such as Madrid or even more Barcelona, suffer of an endogamous syndrome that affects museum programming very badly. Of course in the streets, reality is much richer and plural, but the museum and the streets are pretty disconnected...which is to say the museum world bubble is, as usual, outside reality.
GS: What strategies does La Pocha use, given its radical proposals, to penetrate the bubble of the museum?
GP: La Pocha has always had one foot in the museum world and one foot in the barrio. We have a very unique positionality vis à vis the "international art world." It's a love and hate onda; a macabre dance. They pretend to ignore us but we are always present. We get there through side doors, back doors and tunnels. We are the unwanted but necessary guests, the sexy refusniks, the mariachis with a big mouth. We are the kind of artists that get invited, with sterilized pincers and reservations, 'cause we are very politically minded and are always questioning power relations. And we don't do this because it's fashionable to be political. We've always been. It's part of our Chicano condition.
The relationship between live art and the big institutions has always been very complex. One year we are 'in' (if our aesthetics, ethnicity, or gender politics coincide with their trends); the next one we are 'out'. We get welcomed and deported back and forth so constantly that we have grown used to it. And it is only when the art world is in a deep crisis of ideas that we get asked to participate.
GS: It is the same with otherness. That is what binds live art with cultural difference.
GP: Then, when the art market recovers, they tell us good bye and don't call us back for a couple of years. Then they invite us back as if we were recently discovered. It's a bizarre ritual but I kind of like this insider/outsider positionality. It's more congruent with our beliefs. And it really doesn't affect us much, because we operate in multiple art worlds. So if we get temporarily ousted from one circuit, we just move to another one and continue doing what we do. We make a point to always operate multi-contextually. It's is our saving grace.
And you, how do you see your work as a curator and writer functioning in the UK, versus in Latin America. I bet you perform different kinds of roles in both worlds.
GS: Of course, that insider-outsider condition you were referring to occurs at many levels. As a 'specialist' in Latin American art in the UK, I am often perceived as someone capable of providing the colourful, exotic experience of a less known 'otherness' so dear to the curious British spirit. That is obviously a caricature of reality, and fortunately, I don't need or wish to oblige. But when opportunities are created for an open dialogue in a similar level with my European peers, good collaborations emerge, and then, I consider my task as a broker complete. I do this mainly through exhibitions, participation in education events in museums and galleries and through my writing.
On the other hand in Latin America, and especially in Argentina, my otherness is given by my long absence from the realities that people there have confronted all these years, so I have to humble myself and keep learning about the changes in a place that is not my current "home" in the sense of belonging, but in an emotional level because of the blood ties that link me to it.
My writing and curatorial work are enriched by and characterised by this 'life in the border', the state of being inside and outside at the same time.
It is precisely this life experience what attracted me to your theoretical work, which I started to read nearly fifteen years ago, and which opened the door to a border territory within the vast field of contemporary culture.
I articulated these ideas in a proposal for an exhibition made of artworks and events by artists who are on the move, physically or metaphorically displaced, I called it 'Dancing with aliens on a moving platform'. The title was inspired by an image that remained in my head for a long time after watching a performance by Pocha Nostra performance artists Juan Ybarra and Silvia Antolin: his naked body painted green, his head covered by an alien mask... an alien graciously dancing with a flamenco dancer...
But for me, this image does not refer to migration only: If you look at the estate of things within the mainstream, you realise that displacement is a fundamental symptom, for instance, of the presentation of artists in contexts that are completely artificial, like biennales, triennales, etc. I constantly question myself about whom we are dancing for and how is this exotic dance perceived?
Context has always been one the most difficult topics associated with the presentation of art, and not only artists, but also artworks and ideas need fertile ground to fully manifest...
GP: The mainstream always feeds off the margins and borders, and the theory and practice developed in the so called margins eventually becomes mainstream...Five years later that is...Border culture and hybridity became lingua franca years after they were everyday praxis for so many communities. This happened in the early to mid 90's. Then the paradigms of border culture and hybridity were replaced by techno art and cyber-culture as the new "isms." Now, it's a new ball game. The new praxis seems to be engaging in a stylistically "radical" but thoroughly apolitical type of transnational multiculturalism that indulges in mild difference and stylized displacement. The new praxis flattens and consumes all thorny edges, "alternative" expressions, anti-social behaviour, glamorous kink, and revolutionary kitsch. One trend or style will follow or overlap with the other as perplexed artists patiently wait to be discovered, this time under a new light--one without implications, continuity or context. Conscious decontextualization is now desirable. The definition of the photo is much sharper; the text and the context, much vaguer. And the question is always for us, how to generate fresh and sharp-edged proposals that can't be easily commodified and immediately turned into a master discourse? Is this even possible? What do you think?
GS: I think that no matter how edgy the proposal, the mainstream will eventually digest it and vomit it back to the world as an innocuous prêt à porter commodity. It is the mainstream role to process what is meaningful into flat banality in order to make it consumable...to feed the beast, as it were...But in my opinion art is a survivor of all domestications, finding its way through this demonic process with new forms, until the next trend absorbs it and makes it palatable, and so on, and so forth.... But then it will come back with new ideas, and will leave a mark, like a stubborn river that flows among the rocks, carving a path patiently, eroding the hard surface. Your work has suffered that process of commodification, but you have come back many times with fresher proposals.
Don't you think that, after all, that has benefited your practise, as it has forced you to move restlessly, not to conform to your own image but to reinvent the message once and again?
GP: Definitely. Permanent reinvention becomes a survival strategy in the experimental art world. And this involves reinventing not only our artistic praxis but also the very language and framing devices we utilize to name our praxis. It's a merciless semantic war, sin tregua. If you re-signify and re-frame (and therefore reconstitute) your work into the new trend you may have a chance to outlive the vertiginous cult of innovation. If not, you are out of the game and overnight deported back to the barrio or to your Latin American homeland. In this sense, the performance art world is not that different to the merciless world of pop. Only a handful are granted the privilege of having several reincarnations. I guess I am lucky....or maybe very stubborn. No se.
And you Gabriela, tell me, within the milieu of the Latin American curators of your generation, which are the colleagues of yours interested in creating a more inclusive art cartography?
GS: There are many ways of articulating similar ideas, therefore each individual brings a piece to the puzzle. José Ignacio Roca, a curator working in Bogotá, has been involved in very interesting cross cultural projects, like a collaboration with conceptual Japanese artist On Kawara in the Amazonian jungle. It consisted of hanging his conceptual time pieces in a couple of primary schools in deprived, isolated areas of Colombia. I liked that very much, it touched another cord.
The zones of silence need sustainable collaborations that would contribute to expand the reach of our projects, instead of competing with each other in the illusory battle for the curatorial role in the next São Paulo Biennale, or Documenta.
GP: You just got back from Cuba. What was the art temperature down there?
GS: The current Havana Biennale is a good example of how an event of historical relevance can decline due to the lack of contact both with the Cuban reality and a plurality of curatorial voices. It has become a self contained discourse that ultimately does not serve artists. Thematically, the last biennale dealt with the Urban, but few projects reached the outside world. The main exhibitions delivered a literal approach to the dynamics of the city: endless photographs and videos shot in urban centres of the world. However, during the opening days, the city was a set for parallel events that opened up a dialogue with emerging artists, like the one hosted by Tania Bruguera for her students from the ISA. There was also a project by graffiti artists from Brazil and Cuba scattered around the streets...and a fashion workshop using recycled materials in the environment of a community.
GS: I was re-reading a Border Arts Workshop publication which you contributed to in the late 80s. In it you stated: "En este momento histórico tan delicado, tanto los artistas e intelectuales mexicanos como los chicanos y anglosajones debemos intentar recontextualizarnos, es decir, buscar un territorio común y dentro de él, poner en práctica nuevos modelos de comunicación y asociación"
Twenty years later, it still seems necessary to re contextualise our work, to look for a common territory nurtured by a multiplicity of voices, beyond the sterotype, isn't it?
GP: I totally agree with you: Twenty years later the challenges are still the same, perhaps even more formidable. Among other challenges, we badly need to look for a more inclusive context to operate; a conceptual zone in which all kinds of voices are allowed to coexist and dialogue. This "territory" must be considerably wider than the existing art world, and much more accepting of cultural difference. The theorists and the curators with their binoculars must descend from the top of their mountain and hang out with us down here. And the artists...we have to recapture our compass and understand once and for all, why are we making art. It is certainly not just to be accepted by Documenta, or to get a chic New York Gallery to represent us. We must attempt to recapture a more central place in society as vernacular thinkers, inter-cultural brokers, experimental chroniclers of our times and critics of power. We must be seated at the table of debates. The reivindication of the voice of the artist seems to be the ultimate task.
GS: The other task is clearly to debunk all the stereotypes that get in the way of dialogue.
GP: True. Only by cleaning the mirror so to speak, can we have a more direct and complex cross-border understanding of one another. However, the problem is that the North continues to project stereotypes onto the South, as the center does unto its perceived margins. Meanwhile, the South and/or the margins continue to embody these stereotypes in order to appeal to the North; to be invited to the table so to speak. How to break away from this neo-colonial game of reflections and refractions? I don't know. Any ideas? Do you have a joke?
GS: ...Yes, perhaps a text I came across recently, in a conceptual piece by Luis Camnitzer: "La estética vende; la ética derrocha".
GP: The slipery nature of performance; it's reticense to be domesticated and defined, maybe another way to combat neocolonial models and art elitism. I've got a joke: What do you get when you cross a performance artist and a comedian? (Long pause) A joke that noone understands.