First, the exhibition. DOC/UNDOC presents itself as a seven-year effort in which, as Rice notes, “an unlikely group of collaborators re/imagine the future of bookmaking.” Visitors to the Sesnon Gallery encountered the accordion-format book itself, unfolded and upright, displayed snaking over long, curving tables. An earlier book by Rice was also on view, also shown open and upright. On a nearby pedestal stood DOC/UNDOC’s “deluxe edition” in a custom aluminum case. It takes the form of an elaborate audio-visual treasure box housing a “shamanic” performance kit complete with sound effects, kitschy-campy objets d’art, a vanity mirror, and a fake fur frame. On the gallery wall, videos from the book’s accompanying DVD played in a loop.
The two voices at the center of the exhibition and indeed the project are those of Rice and Gómez-Peña. His words, body, and performative presence suffuses DOC/UNDOC. Rice’s images and work as project director foregrounds him. In the book she offers a layered visual track under and alongside his words, leveraging his psycho-personal-political-poetic voice into a series of high pitch, often-nightmarish images. Demented clowns, tigers, cartoon figures, skeletons, and the Grim Reaper populate this world, and inflect his voice on the page. Vasquez’s videos are to the point, offering short bursts of “GGP,” as he sometimes calls himself, in action. Although less suited to the gallery setting, the critical essay by Jennifer González offers an excellent introduction to the deluxe edition of the book-box and the ways it riffs on books arts and art boxes from Marcel Duchamp to Fluxus. I recommend it highly.
Showing artists’ books in a gallery always poses a challenge. The experiential mode of the gallery differs from that of a book, even an illustrated book. Galleries are for looking while standing, often conversing with friends or family, in a public zone. In contrast, books tend to be private matters. Sitting down to read a book takes you out of social space and into an intimate, internal zone. In the case of DOC/UNDOC, both the book and the personal performance kit of the deluxe edition seem aimed partially at solitary acts of reading, looking, contemplation, and imaginative play. Gallery visitors encountering a book always confront the question, “How much of this must I read to get it? Am I willing to put in the time…?”
That said, in the Sesnon Gallery the ragged intensity of Rice’s imagery and the short bursts of Gómez-Peña’s performance texts offered a visual-verbal experience that worked for me. And while the default “please do not touch” atmosphere of an art gallery seemingly contradicts the subversive, “please play with me” attitude of the deluxe edition of the book, this is precisely the point. DOC/UNDOC centers obliquely but inescapably on the divisively public issues of immigration, hybrid identities, and border crossing. It does so through the medium of graphic art, performance art, performance scripts by Gómez-Peña, video, and critical commentary. The public dimension at the heart of the project is therefore clear. DOC/UNDOC confronts issues we can’t avoid, can’t refuse to consider, not here, not now. The recent refugee crises in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central America, and the emergence of the Trump campaign’s ugly attacks on immigrants in the Western Hemisphere only underline the themes that DOC/UNDOC explores.
The tenor of the current political moment and what it feels like to an engaged, idiosyncratically activist artist like Gómez-Peña were on brilliant display in “Imaginary Activism: The Role of the Artist Beyond the Art World,” a solo performance at UC Santa Cruz on Nov. 6 at the DARC black box theater. Performing two days after widespread Republican victories in the mid-term elections, he termed the evening a “living archive” of past work, “up until last night.” He moved widely between topics and themes common to his work over the past two decades and more. Yet rather than feeling like a best hits anthology, “Imaginary Activism” was a bravura, brutally honest summing up of where, at 59 years old, Gómez-Peña found himself on that day, in front of that audience. I saw the piece that evening, and I have watched it again on video in preparation for this commentary.
Gómez-Peña took the stage wearing a get up that combined male, female, native American, punk, and hipster garb, describing himself as a “vernacular philosopher in deviant shamanic drag,” “a spoken word DJ,” a “linguistic tightrope walker and a mariachi with a big mouth.” There is no way to convey on paper or in words-on-screen the sprawling brilliance and intensely personal-political nature of the episodic performance that followed. It was hilarious, sarcastic, biting, painfully honest, and deeply sobering. Over the course of 80 minutes, he mused on the nature of performance art, language, his own complex performance persona and career. But above all, Gómez-Peña ruminated on contemporary politics as seen from his distinct, dissident position as a long-time Mexican resident of the USA, an internationally acclaimed, MacArthur Fellowship award-winning performance artist and poet, a man of color and political activist. As he commented at one point, “Yes I am obsessed with political speeches. Some performance artists are frustrated rockers. Others are bad, or rather enigmatic activists. And I am both.”
His piece was a utopian lament for a dystopian era, a plea for art, poetry, and literature in a time and country that have, in his telling, little use for either, really, except as existential window dressing and political alibi. It was also a plea for justice—an accusation and a set of demands delivered in full recognition of the impossibility of collecting on his claims, proclaimed with complete moral authority and the confidence of one who has nothing to lose, and knows it full well. At one point, he imagined himself the “first Mexican President of the U.S.,” and proceeded to fantasize about everything he would do, including establishing “nude universities” and “deporting neocons and paleocons… Feels great to imagine! What else do we have at this point in time?”
After asking why American politicians are constantly invoking god, he offered a shouted litany of “God Blesses” to countries, peoples, and places that rarely if ever grace the lips of a presidential or senatorial candidate. This included enemies such as North Korea and Iran, hemisphere neighbors such as Ecuador and Canada (“for protocol reasons”), the Iroquois and other indigenous North American peoples, and more.
At another point, Gómez-Peña observed, “I don’t believe in government. I don’t believe it is possible to correct the problem from within the system. The system is the problem.” And, “the very same politicians who forced us into globalization and free trade across borders don’t want us to be bilingual…and I wonder if you can be a monolingual member of a multilingual community?” He proceeded to read an open letter to the Governor of Arizona and right wing media figures such as Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, proposing to delete all Spanish words from the English and American lexicon, including all proper names for cities, states, and places, along with “Santa Cruz” and “California.”
In passage after passage, Gómez-Peña retained the anger of youth, leavened now with a tinge of desperation fed both by age and wisdom. Between the jokes, you could hear bruised hopes still surviving after years of creative effervescence and improvisatory self-reinvention in the face of insurmountable odds. He offered a high wire act, determined to embrace both his own and the world’s contradictions without a net below, attempting to cross a chasm of rage and disappointment a million miles deep. You could accuse Gómez-Peña of sentimentality if his humor didn’t have such a sharp edge. And he takes aim repeatedly at himself, his calling as a performance artist, and the contradictions it entails.
“The crucial question here is where does one find the spiritual energy to continue, when you don’t believe in mainstream politics and institutionalized religion gives you the creeps? What to do when you are too old to belong to a subculture and participate in the global rave, and too strange to get a chic job in academia? Where do we locate our dissent when dissent is a corporate product, an HBO special, a perfume…or when kids can simply wear a T-shirt that says ‘Art is Resistance’ and think the job is done… I mean what to do when all the master discourses and epic narratives of hope are bankrupt.
Gómez-Peña’s sense of himself as both an outsider and insider was a topic he returned to often, at one point observing that, “if you comply too much, you lose your voice, your sharp edges, your culo, you become someone you dislike, and one day when you least expect it, they send you back to the margins to wait and wait and wait for a second chance that rarely comes.” I wondered at this point what students and younger audience members would make of this insight from a veteran of the art world “culture wars” of the late 1980s and 1990s, looking back on a remarkable career in a time of aesthetic, political, and economic tumult. But it is the part that came next which was the most telling: “…or should you succeed in preserving your ethics, uncompromised, you will eventually be rendered so marginal that no one would know that it was your choice in the first place to remain inconsequential.”
Re-experiencing this gut-wrenching passage again on video while working on this commentary, I was sobered by Gómez-Peña’s willingness to expose internal contradictions bred by his life as a political artist for nearly three decades. Tapping that deep legacy, he conjured a poetry of despair struggling with hope throughout the evening. “In my world,” he said, “political candidates are not politicians, they are artists and literati, visionaries, not functionaries!”
“The country I would like to live in only exists in Planet Poetry and Planet Performance… Where imagination is the only law. Art is part of everyday life, and everyone practices what they believe. Imagination is my Nation. That’s where I wish to live and die.”
The evening concluded with a focus on the here and now, with Gómez-Peña first proposing the possibility of small utopia of himself and his audience in a single place, if only for that moment. Directly addressing, “you, my audience,” he said,
“My hope is not connected to god, country, or economy…. It is always located on the other side of the border, or mirror…or in animals I have never seen. In this very moment, my hope is located in your arms. I want to hug you…but there is a formidable border that separates me from your body, and it’s called, the proscenium…. And despite a century of attempts by the avant garde to destroy it, it remains intact, even in performance art.”
Then asking if it is possible to love “as if the Patriot Act didn’t exist, as if there were no iPads or iPhones,” he softly replied, “I think we can.”
Despite this offer of a happy ending, however temporary and provisional, Gómez-Peña returned, before closing, to reiterate the underlying theme of the evening: the need to accept and embrace contradiction and hybrid identities in an age of border crossing and cultural upheaval. As he put it, “My community is not confined by ideological, national, or ethnic boundaries. Mine is a community of difference, and therefore it is fragmented, ever-changing, and temporary, and that’s how I like it.”
Anyone growing up in an advanced capitalist country is raised on an unending diet of stories in the mass media, organized religion, and education that proclaim the ideal of a unified human consciousness. This notion of the individual assumes that however complex our identity may be, it aspires to escape internal conflicts, to achieve an internal, psychic balance, to be one entity, one “centered” being. On every level, Guillermo Gómez-Peña rejects this possibility today. His performance at UC Santa Cruz was an eloquent, harrowing argument for his position and its political, artistic, and psychological inescapability for anyone who is awake and aware in the world that we now live in.
John Weber is Founding Director of the Institute of Arts and Sciences at University of California, Santa Cruz.