Doc/Undoc at the Sesnon Gallery + Guillermo Gómez-Peña in Performance
“DOC/UNDOC” functions as the short name of a larger art project called Documentado/Undocumented Ars Shamánica Performática. The brainchild of book artist and publisher Felicia Rice, DOC/UNDOC includes work of performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, art historian Jennifer González, sound artist Zachary Watkins, video artist Gustavo Vazquez, and of course Rice herself, functioning as a printmaker, book artist, and publisher. Under Rice’s direction, they collectively produced what González characterizes as a “Gesamtkunstwerk” in her informative and insightful critical essay, itself a component of the project. And DOC/UNDOC encompasses performance, video, literature, printmaking, drawing, painting, sculpture, sound, and video—a “total work of art” indeed, if a far cry from Richard Wagner. The project was shown last fall in the Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery at UC Santa Cruz, accompanied by a new and distinct one-night performance by Gómez-Peña in the black box theater at the Digital Arts Research Center on campus. In this commentary I’ll touch on both the installation of DOC/UNDOC in the Sesnon Gallery and on Gómez-Peña’s sprawling, intensely affecting solo performance as well. But before I get started, full disclosure: the Institute of the Arts and Sciences co-sponsored DOC/UNDOC, and I am working with the Sesnon Gallery on two projects at present, so I am not an uninterested or objective bystander. I am, as well, a long-time fan of Gómez-Peña’s work, a colleague of González, Rice, and Vasquez, and happily so. Readers may do with this what they wish.
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.
Artist Statement: Collaboration and Metamorphosis
DOC/UNDOC is the sequel to CODEX ESPANGLIENSIS, which I published in 1998. The CODEX was a collaboration between Guillermo Gómez-Peña, writer/activist, Enrique Chagoya, artist/printmaker, and myself, bookmaker/printer. Nine years later, while discussing who would be the visual artist for DOC/UNDOC with our collaborator Gustavo Vazquez, Guillermo turned to me and asked, “Do you draw?”
At three, I ran to my mother because my big sister had made me cry, and my mother said, “Draw it, draw what happened.” When your mother is a children’s art teacher, and she sees art as the way to process any and all experience, you draw, and you write, and there’s resistance when you don’t. So I responded, “Yes, I draw,” even though I had rarely incorporated my drawings into my bookwork. Guillermo said, “You draw,” in the imperative. It was imperative that I did.
Collaboration is an active acknowledgement of the other, a call and response. What results from the mix has unique merit. In this seven-year collaboration I experienced a profound metamorphosis. I slowly emerged from behind my elegant typography and careful craft, explored and privileged my markmaking, and pulled it into my prints. As we added collaborators to the group—Jennifer González, art historian/critic and Zachary Watkins, sound artist—over dinners, in meetings, and through correspondence, another element developed: the aluminum traveling case for apprentice shamans. Only five hearts and minds could have conceived of this invitation to a self-reflective and transformative experience.
My parents were art students in New York City in the early ’40s, and were influenced by the Mexican artists working in this country, and by the marriage of art and politics. Their friends were friends of Frida Kahlo’s, and had apprenticed to Diego Rivera. Peripatetic after the war, my parents set out in an old station wagon from Vermont with their two tiny daughters to work with the muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros in San Miguel de Allende. It’s family lore that the two girls nearly died, that my father raced to Mexico City and procured a new, exotic medicine that saved their lives and allowed the family to retreat to the western United States.
Early exposure to the Mexican artists and their American apprentices eventually led me to collaborate with Latino writers and artists of my own generation. Early exposure to the work of Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada led me to the work of Artemio Rodríguez, a contemporary printmaker whose work is inspired by that of Posada, and to John Jota Leaños, and to their collaborative “El Muertorider,” an image of which appears in the book. Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s performance script, “Tired of Walking North,” is paired here with the ‘art car’ tilted up and planted in the soil of the desert like those of Ant Farm’s Cadillac Ranch, an installation in Texas dating from 1974. This page spread speaks to the treacherous walk through the desert toward opportunity beckoning in the north. Would this be the car you’d hope to find, or the illusion that would inspire one more step (as the text suggests) toward marvelous possibilities or deep disappointment?
The books I make are informed by both digital and analog processes. In making them I pass back and forth between the digital and the tangible, between setting type letter by letter on the screen, and setting type letter by letter from a 19th-century type case. I print my negatives from a computer to a laser printer, burn photopolymer relief plates, and print images from these surfaces on a 50-year-old letterpress. I build a textured surface of dust from the US-Mexico border, varnish it, run inky rollers over that landscape and print straight from the earth to the paper. I make a hundred sketches, choose thirty, scan and manipulate them on screen, make plates, cut them up and collage together images of twisted bodies, a tiger drooling a melange of fonts, a wild man tearing his hair, skeletons or calaveras in loving embrace.
What color ink will I pick this morning? What relationships exist between the images? What visual dynamic? And how can this print be consistent with, yet different from the last? I start with white ink, add some transparency for viscosity, then red, blue, for a lavender. How will this reveal what is below, and how will it suggest what color or image comes next? Is this spread sincere and caring, or leering and challenging? I’m trying to create a love/hate relationship out of the layers of color and the images and the text, one that hurts a bit, but can make you laugh while it bites your neck. I apply color to the press, place the printing plates in position and pull the first proof. This is a performative moment for me, a critical audience of one. Satisfied, I step off into the press run, exercising the principles of my craft: checking the impression, finding the best inking and maintaining it, making sure the plates don’t move any more than I’m willing to accept, keeping the sheet clean. A rhythm takes hold and I continue, exhausted and anxious and elated.
My work has moved from the traditional structured page of marching letterforms carefully avoiding one another, to a crazy, intimate dance performed by friends who know one another very well. As McLuhan pointed out a half-century ago, we’re living in a visual world, a multi-lingual world where we communicate more and more with signs and symbols. We rely upon the rules and conventions of wordcraft and typographic nuance, but not all the time. The rules are both stultifying and lovely; stifling but truly elegant. Text is a layer that drives my work, informs the visual experience, and has a place on every page I print.
I came to an understanding of beauty through craft. I recognize it when the work measures up to and transcends its own standard of excellence, when the final piece is fully resolved—perfect.
Performance Video: Guillermo Gómez-Peña & Gustavo Vazquez
Sound Art Zachary Watkins
Critical Commentary: Jennifer González
Documentado/Undocumented: Transgress, Transcend, Transform
What does it mean to be documented or undocumented? How do these terms work across borders and boundaries such as those that exist between nations and language? What are the forms of policing and regulation that maintain such categories out of fear, cultural difference or economic domination? What parts of our lives are documented and what parts remain undocumented?
These are the questions that underlie the decidedly shrewd, collaborative and experimental artwork-in-a-box by Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Gustavo Vasquez, Felicia Rice and Zachary Watkins. In a contemporary gesture toward the Wagnerian “total work of art” or gesamtkunstwerk the project combines the fine art of the printed book with sound, video, and a playful kit of objects to explore and to heal what might be seen as the cultural, social and historical rifts that exist between the United States and Mexico. The idea is to invite viewers into an intimate space of engagement that addresses all the senses: tactile, olfactory, aural and visual. Although it is a contemporary work of art, the aluminum case has an antique feel with hand-wrought hinges and knobs. Opening it, we are exposed to the treasures within, unfolding a triptych to reveal ourselves reflected in mirrors. As we move through the various sound elements and explore the objects housed in individual niches, we are drawn in by curiosity. Even the sense of taste (including bad taste) is leveraged in a playful way; but the broader social concerns are deadly serious. How can we see this artwork as part of a longer tradition of conceptual art, religious reliquaries, indigenous medicine practices, and camp theatricality? How do these diverse histories invite a peculiar cohesion in the final product?
As a work of contemporary art, it is possible to read Documentado/Undocumented as situated squarely within a long tradition of experimental, conceptual portable-art practice. For example, Marcel Duchamp’s Boite-en-Valise [Box in a Suitcase] (1948) contained miniature versions of the artist’s most famous works of art, materializing the idea of a private museum-in-box and serving as a monument to the importance of its maker. The Boite-en-Valise unfolds into a triptych-like display that includes replicas of paintings glued to poster boards and miniature sculptures in carefully constructed niches, inviting an interpretive oscillating between the case of a traveling salesman and a religious altar.
Inspired by such projects, Fluxus artists in Europe and the United States of the 1960s built elaborate “flux boxes” or “fluxkits” that contained found and fabricated objects as well as “event scores” that invited participants to perform specific actions with the objects, or with each other. Fluxkits leveraged the colorful aesthetic of commercially marketed board games that were popular at the time, and included participation by sound artists like John Cage whose compositional scores included all manner of materials and unconventional actions on the part of performers and audience alike.
Documentado/Undocumented echoes this history of conceptual and experimental art but equally invites us to consider older histories of colonialism, religion and indigenous practices. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a period of contact, contagion and domination in the Americas, as Spain’s dual Catholic and economic missions were played out on the bodies of the local inhabitants. It was a time in which cabinets of curiosity were created in Europe to house the strange and marvelous objects of the new world, and when taxonomies of plants, animals and humans were created, so that every specimen could find its proper place in the hierarchies of “natural” law.
Institutionally powerful, the church was nevertheless in competition with this emerging discourse of science, on the one hand, and more ancient systems of belief on the other. The material world was thus a battle ground of contested meanings in which gold and silver reliquaries containing the skin and bones of Christian saints vied for importance along side indigenous amulets and traditional ritual practices. For believers of both persuasions, the objects were not merely inherited signs of the past but sources of power in the present. To touch them was to participate in a communication with a divine source of existence, their proximity guaranteeing an opportunity to be enveloped by an aura through which the believer might be protected from the forces of evil, both internal and external. The decorative metal box can thus be read as a reliquary case through which divine power works via contact and religious belief, or as the medicine case of a nomadic shaman through which healing takes place via the sympathetic magic of contagion, and transformation.
Ultimately, we are invited to take up the role of supplicant or nomadic shaman ourselves, to transform ourselves into new subjects using the costumes and objects offered to us. Religious altars generally invite reflection on interior life. A vanity mirror invites reflection on our exterior, embodied self.
Emphasizing this duality, the project traces the ongoing tension of navigating a world of politics and appearance, racism and immigration, self and other, psychic states and physical states. In this way, the triptych echoes the vanity table of a private boudoir or theatrical dressing room, enclosing the subject in a visual space of ideal or surreal projected images. [Image of the book here?] Here, the small round vanity mirrors echo the rear-view mirrors on a car, surrounded in fur with neon green fringe. Lipstick, wrestlers masks, love talismans, amulets, rattles, false teeth, breath mints, paper money, eyeliner, and vials containing grains of corn invite us to participate in private acts of self-adornment, ritual offerings and genuflection. A loose-leaf title page reads as a kind of event score stating in the imperative: “open, explore, empty, choose, reimagine, collaborate, scan, show, decipher, create.” Such instructions are qualified by a subtext that instructs: “open your mind,” “touch everything,” “empty your heart,” “embrace difference.” Permission is granted for experimentation, engagement and enactment. Unlike most works of art that cannot be touched, this one yearns to be caressed, pressed, unpacked, and disassembled for the sake of initiating personal and cultural transgressions and transcendence.
If the talismans that surround the book are not merely toys, but rather tools for transcendence, then the printed book, by master printmaker Felicia Rice, can be seen as the scripture. With a deliberately camp aesthetic, and a sensuous appeal, the ruby vinyl cover and the soft, faux ocelot pelt covering the pages of the printed book suggests a tactility of “bad taste” that is nevertheless sumptuous and inviting. Layers of rich color, creative typography, and textured images break traditional boundaries of book page design, bleeding off the edge. In a quietly radical gesture for the world of book arts and printmaking, the floating images break the rules of marginal precision and free the pages from traditional frames. Each page of the book is a visual interpretation of the writings of Gomez-Peña using hand-drawn images of found objects, some taken directly from the personal collection of the performance artist. Rice’s sketches are enlarged, etched, and printed in multiple colors, endowing the pages with a rough-hewn quality that belies their careful refinement. A visual pantheon of Bengal tigers and low-rider cars, madonnas and shrunken heads, punctuate the text on the page and imply the complex mysteries and tensions that emerge after centuries of intermixing cultures, religions, desires and fears.
Aural and video elements are equally important in the gesamptkunstwerk effect of Documetado/Undocumented. A complex soundscape is triggered when the aluminum lid lifts, echoing the uncanny animism of a music box that suddenly comes to life. If we are attentive, we find discreetly distributed doorbell buttons that can be pushed to trigger even more elaborate recordings by sound artist Zachary Watkins that evoke the streets of Oaxaca Mexico, the internal sense of breath, the romantic tunes of a troubadour, the heartbeats of love or fear, the tremulous vibrations of bird song, the raucous rhythms of a fiesta or a lullaby. Joining these are the voices of Gomez-Peña and videographer Gustavo Vasquez offering instructions for how to interface with the artwork, adding bits of conversation, performance texts, elements of poetry. Watkins also brings in mechanical and artificial sounds to mix, blend and extend into many different tracks that seem endless. Because we initiate the music ourselves, a symphony of self-selection emerges; each track can be repeated or combined to create a new sound score each time the box is opened. The complete track can also be found on a compact disk included inside the book cover.
Filmmaker and videographer Gusavo Vasquez also collaborated with Gomez-Peña on a series of short videos that develop a repertoire of performances exploring what might be thought of as a genealogy of Mexican and Chicano subjectivity, as they interface with the history of film, video and performance art. These vignettes sometimes take the form of an homage to important performance artists of the last fifty years such as Melquiades Herrera, Roy Varra and Marina Abromovic for example, offering a tongue-in-cheek revision in a Mex-Chicano idiom. Some of the videos emphasize the camera “eye” in relation to the body of the performer who stretches out a hand to stroke it; or the camera becomes a tool for “shooting” and the performer’s response erupts in a threatening duet-duel of looking and talking back to the lens, shot-reverse-shot. Short clips of classic Mexican film and television, as well as alarmist and racist representations of ancient Aztecs, are interspersed with autobiographical, intimate, revelations about the difficulty of explaining “performance art.” Visually central is the flesh of Gomez-Peña’s verile, tattooed, and aging body that becomes the surface for self-manipulated plays with “high-tech” devices, or the surface projection of cultural and gender stereotypes and their unraveling.
Performing is a way of dreaming when we are awake, imagining ourselves crossing a variety of cultural borders that are not always clearly delineated but that have both psychological and political impacts. Gomez-Peña’s description of his performance practice as a form of cultural healing invites us to read the work in this way. He explores the condition of cross-cultural identifications and cross-border migrations. At a moment in history when human migration has never been greater, when transnational existence is becoming commonplace, and when economic, social and political systems cannot adequately support their populations, Gomez Pena’s ruminations on the status of so-called “illegal aliens” are particularly urgent and timely. His text explores not merely the broader social framework of US-Mexico relations and their impact on immigrant populations, it also explores the psychological effect of repeated encounters with racism, cultural misunderstanding, and stereotype that require a shifting identity that must be performed and re-performed for both others and oneself. His personal confessions and fears reveal a subject who must navigate a web of social identifications that are both political and intimate writing,
“Pero, if only I had had the guts to join the Zapatistas for good,
the guts to fight the border patrol with my bare hands,
the guts to tell my family I am truly sorry for all the pain
my sudden departure caused them 25 years ago,
when I was young & handsome
& still had no audience whatsoever.
But I was a coward.
I ended up making a life-long performance piece
to justify my original departure, el pecado original.
He also invites us to consider the risks and real conditions of performance in a racist country like the United States. Humor belies the critical engagement with the visual and political conditions of stereotyping. Prodding his audience to think about how second-class status in the United States influences so much of the Mexican-American or Chicano experience, he also reveals that even performance art is a dangerous space from which to speak.
You know, locos, some racist called us at the hotel last night.
Said he was going to “smash our greasy heads in” and hung up.
Sounded as if he was serious
and I have a reason to believe he is here tonight.
House lights, please!!
(House lights come up. I look around the audience)
Can you please stand up and identify yourself?
Are you willing to discuss it?
Or are you ready to smash my greasy head in after the show?
Hey, you’re watching me and I’m watching you.
There’s no theatrical border between us.
It’s called performance art.
Don’t you wish to exchange places before you attack me?
Come on, wouldn’t you love to be here,
right here on this stage, burning Vato,
standing at the epicenter of the Great American earthquake?”
No one responds. There is tension in the air. I continue to ad lib:
“Come on, the audience is waiting for you to make up your mind.
It’s exciting & dangerous down here.
Don’t you wish to be Mexican for a few minutes?
At the moment I hate it. It’s a huge burden.
Imagine the history of the Aztec empire jam-packed in my DNA,
10,000-year-old genes from three continents
swimming in my boiling blood,
500 years of colonial history in my aching throat.
Qué hueva! I’d rather be…French,
or something kinkier like…like…
a Mormon hair-stylist from Southern Utah,
a butcher from Vladivostok who believes in alien abduction,
a white supremacist from Montana
who dreams of becoming a Mexican performance artist…”
At this point in my harangue,
Miguel Algarin walks up to me and says:
“GP, you’ve made your point. Let’s move on!”
“Sorry, loco,” I answer,
“I was confronting my deepest fears the only way I know.”
(I scream for a blackout a few times and it does not come)
OK, Mexican blackout!
(I cover my eyes with my hands)
Documentado/Undocumented is an effort to see what is repressed, to unearth what is buried, to reach into the interior, psychic state of radical unbelonging in order to grasp the intricate, violent workings of the world that have resulted in this uneven, unequal, and unjust conjuncture. “Is there still time for dreaming, for reinventing ourselves…Is there enough time to stop the war, another war…Is there enough time to return to a homeland, a stolen homeland…?”
—Jennifer A. González
Meet the Collaborators
Felicia Rice is a book artist, typographer, letterpress printer, publisher, and educator. She has collaborated with visual artists, performing artists and writers under the Moving Parts Press imprint since 1977. Work from the Press has been included in exhibitions from AIGA Annual Book Shows in New York and Frankfurt to the Victoria & Albert Museum. Her books are held in numerous collections including Stanford University, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the Bodleian Library, Oxford. She has been the recipient of multiple awards, including the Rydell Visual Arts Fellowship, and grants from the NEA, CAC and the French Ministry of Culture. http://movingpartspress.com
Jennifer A. González teaches in the History of Art and Visual Culture department at the University of California, Santa Cruz and at the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, New York. She has written for numerous periodicals including Aztlán, Frieze, Bomb, Camera Obscura, and Art Journal. Her essays about cyborg bodies and racial embodiment in digital art can be found in anthologies like The Cyborg Handbook (1995) and Race in Cyberspace (2000). Her book Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art (MIT Press, 2008) was a finalist for the Charles Rufus Morey Book Award. http://havc.ucsc.edu/faculty/jennifer-gonzalez
Guillermo Gómez-Peña is a performance artist, writer, activist, radical pedagogue and director of the performance troupe La Pocha Nostra. Born in Mexico City, he moved to the US in 1978. His performance work and 10 books have contributed to the debates on cultural diversity, border culture and US-Mexico relations. His art work has been presented at over eight hundred venues across the US, Canada, Latin America, Europe, Russia, South Africa and Australia. A MacArthur Fellow, Bessie and American Book Award winner, he is a regular contributor for newspapers and magazines in the US, Mexico, and Europe and a contributing editor to The Drama Review (NYU-MIT). http://interculturalpoltergeist.tumblr.com/
Gustavo Vazquez, originally from Tijuana and currently residing in San Francisco, is an independent filmmaker and teaches in the Film and Digital Media department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Vazquez has directed over thirty productions, including documentaries, video installations, and experimental narratives. His work has shown at film festivals and art exhibitions including the Luton UK, Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia, Mexico, L’immagine Leggera, Palermo, Italy, Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival Broadcast on National PBS. He is a co-author of Documentary Filmmaking: A Contemporary Field Guide, 2nd edition published by Oxford University Press in October 2013. http://film.ucsc.edu/faculty/gustavo_vazquez
Zachary James Watkins is a sound artist who has earned degrees in composition from The Cornish School and Mills College. Zachary has received numerous grants and commissions and presented works in festivals across the United States, Mexico and Germany. His 2006 composition Suite for String Quartet was awarded the Paul Merritt Henry Prize for Composition and has been performed as part of the 2nd Annual New Music Marathon in Seattle, WA the Labs 25th Anniversary Celebration and the Labor Sonor Series at Kule in Berlin. Zachary has enjoyed artist residencies at both the Espy Foundation and Djerassi. http://zacharyjameswatkins.com/
Felix Kulpa Gallery – October 3–31, 2014
About the exhibition by Robbie Schoen, Gallery Director
Felicia and I have worked together before. It’s important to me that the people that I show are happy with the exhibition. Felicia is a little more engaged with the exhibition process; most artists don’t have a preconceived idea of what they want, Felicia does. I am a humble facilitator. The two of us work well together. When we’re done, we’re both satisfied with the exhibit and most likely we’ve taken the work to a very high level.
Going in we found most of what we needed here in the gallery, although some planning went on in advance. I created the cardboard supports for the book. They held the book on tables gleaned from the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. The distinguishing feature of this exhibit of DOC/UNDOC was that the book was laying flat and the viewer leaned over it to see it. This allowed people to fully absorb the work and suss out every detail of the complex images. The mantels in the room formed still life alters, holding page spreads from the book, combined with significant objects and fresh flowers. The timing was perfect to build a Dia de los Muertos altar in one corner with photos of deceased loved ones, gurus, and mentors past.
The idea was to show the book in two locations at once, both at the Sesnon Gallery at UCSC and downtown in this central location, to bring the work to both town and gown. Audiences here at the Felix Kulpa Gallery responded with real feeling to the presentation, especially the altars. It was a non-stop extravaganza. Not only was the book on display on the table and in the altars, but the video was running alongside the interactive electronic case. You can’t get this kind of experience from a kindle. DOC/UNDOC was in the house!
I was obsessed with the video. I have a personal connection with Guillermo from the past and seeing him on screen makes me giggle. I met Guillermo when I was 20, thirty-seven years ago, and haven’t seen him since. He was just as charismatic and silly then as he is now. The whole presentation was a lot of fun, it had the carnival sideshow flavor so much a part of Guillermo’s work.
—Robbie Schoen, Felix Kulpa Art Gallery Director
Sesnon Art Gallery, UC Santa Cruz- October 3–December 6, 2014
Curating Performance Archaeology
Freefalling toward a borderless future
Collaborative projects are often complicated with multiple moving parts. The Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery at the University of California, Santa Cruz, presented this complex exhibition, DOC/UNDOC Documentado/ Undocumented Ars Shamánica Performática in the fall of 2014. The collaborative exhibition, which investigated the heated topics of identity, borders, and transformation, took place during a crisis in which more than 52,000 children, from Central America and Mexico were taken into custody at the U.S. border.
Entering the gallery visitors confronted the gaze of a tattooed woman painted on velvet asking in vinyl text nearby, “Have you ever experienced an identity meltdown?” This project excavated the artifacts of San Francisco artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s provocative performance scripts, as if displaying findings from an archeological site. A dozen Gómez-Peña’s “fictional taxonomies” were displayed in vitrines– examples of what he calls “border art”: a Mariachi Ken doll, a sex worker Barbie doll, a bowing Mexican toothpick holder, a one-legged Mexican wrestler, to name a few. The velvet tattooed woman was borrowed from Gómez-Peña’s collection of over 20 commissioned velvet paintings. These objects added to the multiple temporalities of a performance event much like findings from an archaeological site. By displaying work inspired by performance and collaboration, new modalities of documentation emerge that are in favor of a work in progress or evoke fragmentary interpretation.
The focal point of this exhibition was the collaborative artists’ book created by Felicia Rice, who founded the print studio Moving Parts Press in 1977 and has been involved in collaborative projects ever since. The exhibition literally unfolded with a 30foot handmade accordion-style book winding the length of a snaking S-curved table. This limited edition book combines Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s performance scripts analyzing identity with Rice’s own colorful, expressive relief prints and typography, many depicting objects from Gómez-Peña’s collection of border art. Projected on the far corner was Pena’s performance video by Gustavo Vazquez underscoring the collaboration. In large vinyl text next to the video, Jennifer González described why, historically, we are fascinated with cabinets of curiosities reflecting our cultures. The deluxe edition of this book is housed in a hi-tech aluminum case containing a video by Gustavo Vazquez, an altar and a cabinet of curiosities. Blinking lights in the case invited the audience to push buttons that trigger an interactive soundscape by Zachary Watkins.
This performative artists’ book explores the sensitive topic of documentation of identity in America from multiple perspectives. As Jennifer Gonzalez says in her text, “In a contemporary gesture toward the Wagnerian ‘total work of art’ or gesamtkunstwerk the project combines the fine art of the printed book with sound, video, and a playful kit of objects to explore and to heal what might be seen as the cultural, social, and historical rifts that exist between the United States and Mexico.”
Gallery viewers were delighted to ponder the questions posed as quotations on the wall pulled from Gómez-Peña’s performance scripts and meander along the snake-like book, push the playful buttons on the interactive box, examine all the performance archaeology presented on shelves and then settle into watching the disturbing video that asked even harder questions.
One of the students visiting the gallery said: “This display held an internal dialogue for me that portrayed a battle of letting go to what/where a person came from, “Remember me? I used to be. . .Mexican inside this body.”
400 Porter College students saw the exhibition and were offered bookmaking and mixed media workshops to make books of their own. Each of the five collaborating artists presented their contribution in evening events. Rice performed a monologue describing the personal transformation that grew out of the seven-year collaboration. Gustavo Vazquez showed a sequence of experimental videos and Zachary Watkins created a live soundscape at the reception. Guillermo Gómez-Peña was in residency for three days at UCSC giving a lecture, a performance, and offered an activism workshop. One participant reflected after the workshop, “I remembered to be comfortable in my own body, confident, and not to be afraid when making art that would comment on socio- political situations.”
—Shelby Graham, Porter Sesnon Gallery Director