3.C / The Year in Conversation, 2011

Interview with Guillermo Gomez-Pena

By Tess Thackara April 13, 2011

Image: La Pocha Nostra, Piedad Postcolonial, 2005; photograph. Courtesy of the Artists.

Tess Thackara: What does La Pocha Nostra mean?

Guillermo Gómez-Peña: It’s essentially a neologism. “Pocho/a” means a cultural traitor, or a cultural bastard. It’s a term coined by Mexicans who never left Mexico to articulate the post-national Mexican experience. It’s slightly derogative, but we have expropriated it as an act of empowerment. And “Nostra” comes from La Cosa Nostra, the Italian mafia. So you can translate it loosely as the cartel of the cultural traitors, or there is another more poetic translation that essentially means “our impurities.”

TT: I’m interested in the way the mission of your troupe is conceptualized as a facilitator of cross-cultural exchange. What do you see as the value of that meeting ground, other than strengthening marginalized communities and expressing common experiences between these communities?

GGP: Well, we originally conceived La Pocha Nostra as a loose association of artists rather than a performance troupe; artists across borders interested in working with me and my colleagues. It began to expand—to develop chapters in many countries and cities. When La Pocha Nostra went beyond the U.S.–Mexico border and became internationalized, it inevitably became a cyber community, with our website as the matrix. There are approximately fifty to seventy artists that work every year with us in different capacities. And they are primarily performance artists, but there are also writers, filmmakers, composers, radical actors, rebel dancers, and curators.

So it’s a very eclectic organization. It’s a permeable, fluid, and ever-morphing live entity that is in the constant process of reinvention. That’s how we like it. We fear institutionalization profoundly, which is one of the main issues that the field of performance art is increasingly facing. How do you deal with the fact that we have been fully accepted by academia, and theorized about, and taught, and therefore de-fanged? We have also been fully embraced by international festivals.

TT: Do you ever turn down festivals?

GGP: I would never go to the Edinburgh Festival. There are certain festivals that are just way too mainstream—where I know that I’m just going to be a seasonal freak. And those festivals I do turn down. Most of the time, if the festival is interesting, my challenge will be to present a project that is not "festivalized." Because festival art has become almost its own genre. Performance artists are being asked to tone down their work and package it very carefully. So in many ways we have become a simulacrum of our work, or a unique form of devised theatre.

But, I still believe that there is a way to participate in this international market of performance art without having to compromise your practice. It essentially means that you have to engage in a more ongoing and deeper dialogue with the curators and the producers to make them understand that the kind of project that you will present is not just a credible, repeatable project, but in fact that you will respond to the site; you will incorporate local artists; you will present something that has never been performed before and will never be performed the same way—and that there is always a margin of risk and failure…and they have to accept your terms.

TT: Is there a common practice or a common methodology between you and all the artists in your troupe? How do you find members of the troupe?

GGP: Let me read you the first page of one of my upcoming books, which is on radical pedagogy. It reveals the nature of the strange multinational community of rebel artists we have formed. It says, “This book is for the rebel, critical, experimental, theoretical, race and gender literate, techno-savvy, tender, bold, hybrid, queer, immigrant, orphan, outsider, deterritorialized, robo-shamanic, performance or live artist obsessed with crossing borders, all kinds of borders in his/her practice.” So I think that’s a good definition of what we have in common. But other than that, it’s a very eclectic mix. We don’t look for them; they find us.

TT: That is very thorough! There’s a quote on your site that says, “The goal is to create a total universe capable of containing our extreme difference.” That really captures how massive the scope of what you’re doing is—in terms of the quantity of references you use. There is a lot of history in your work, multiple cultural identities, the erotic, the Other—the list goes on. I watched an interview with someone leaving one of your performances, and he said that he was completely overwhelmed with impressions and very moved. I thought it was interesting that there are so many references and ideas that get triggered through your work—the work is so dense—that you come away and you’re forced to disentangle all of those references. Is that an intentional way of inviting people to really grapple and engage with the issues in your work?

Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Gustavo Vasquez, A Muerte (Segundo Duelo), 2007; video; TRT 2:53. Courtesy of the Artists.

GGP: In my solo practice, this happens less. It is my mind at work and only my mind. But when I’m working with my troupe, acting in simultaneity within a large performance space, things get really interesting. Essentially people enter a hypertextual universe. Every audience member is allowed to draw their own journey, to stay for as long as they wish, to come in and out of the space, to get as close as they wish to the individual performers, and in some cases, to even participate in the pieces. There is always a multiplicity of perspectives from which you can enter the piece. We do this because we’re interested in nonauthoritarian formats.

One of the problems faced by performance artists is that, since the early Dadaist experiments and performances, there have been a century of attempts to destroy the fourth wall and erase the border between audience and performer; to engage the audience in the process and to operate without the conventions of having a beginning and an end. Still, one century later, we see that museums and festivals are presenting performance as a proscenium piece. You go there, you sit down, the lights go out in the audience, the lights go on onstage; the magic begins. You’re not allowed to talk back, you’re not allowed to touch the artist, you’re not allowed to grab a prop. You must sit quietly as in a mass, as in a modernist theatre play, let’s face it, and then you go home. It’s a total contradiction in terms, because performance by nature is and must be messy. It’s hard to define when it begins and when it ends. It should be unrepeatable. And the performance artists must take decisions on-site during the process, which are visible to the audience.

Last year, Marcel-i Antunez, the brains behind La Fura del Baus—a very well-known performance troupe from Barcelona—organized a really interesting performance event in Madrid precisely about this. He managed to persuade the most traditional and important theatre of Madrid to lend him the whole building for a week to create a performance festival that brought all the people from my generation to fuck with it.

What do you do with a gorgeous classic proscenium? I chose to invite the audience in a revolving door onto the stage and back. I created a huge screen dividing the stage from the seats where several cameras were live-feeding images of the performance for those who couldn’t go onstage. So half of the performance was live film—in a sense a reality show—and the other half would be experienced by circulating through the stage. It was interesting because in many ways we were dealing with the ultimate paradoxes of the institutionalization of performance.

TT: In the timeline for the Museum of Fetishized Identities on your website, you go through, step by step, the behaviors and reactions you tend to get from people. It seems as though—not that they’re prescribed—but that people tend to react in ways that you do anticipate. Is that the case?

GGP: No, not really.

TT: So you are always surprised?

GGP: I am constantly surprised by human behavior. Especially because of the kind of practice we do. One week we are in a chic space in New York or Berlin, and then the next week we are in Zagreb or Oaxaca (Mexico), where people have never experienced our work. We don’t just tour the main centers of art, like many of my colleagues. Many of my contemporaries are just touring New York, London, Milan, Paris, and blah blah blah. We do go to these places because it’s important to remain current and visible, otherwise we’ll be completely ousted from the field and deported back to oblivion! But for us, it’s much more interesting to go to places that exist under the radar of the art world—places that are definitely outside of the international art market. Argentine curator Gabriela Salgado calls them the “zones of silence.” This is when things get really interesting—when we take our bizarre practice to Bolivia or Curacao, for example.

TT: Do you change your practice according to where you’re performing?

GGP: Yes and no. I don’t try to make it more accessible or simpler, just because I assume they don’t have an international artistic education. I believe in the sophistication of the human condition. I believe that performance art is such a visceral art form that it allows for multiple points of entry—some are intellectual, but some are spiritual or emotional. I may make certain adjustments in the text—both in the program notes and in the text that is interspersed with the performance. I may be less theoretical and a bit more populist or humorous in the texts, but I think that the secret to entering the heart of these communities that exist in the zones of silence is not changing the nature of the piece but working with local artists. They will give us entry; they will open the door for us. We locate, in advance, a handful of really interesting artists who have a foot in both worlds—they will be our mediators.

Since we have made a practice out of crossing borders, most of the time we succeed. And of course, a few times we get misinterpreted. But I think that misinterpretation and mistranslation are essential contemporary experiences. If it’s just certain aspects of the piece that get misinterpreted, like certain symbols and metaphors, I welcome it. This is inevitable.

TT: If there are those misunderstandings, how do you turn that into a conversation?

GGP: There are reflective and constructive mechanisms within the piece that make people aware that their discomfort, or their misunderstanding, is part of the contemporary experience and we’re commenting on that. Most people get it.

La Pocha uses various mechanisms for our audience’s feedback. People can get back to us through the website with their thoughts on a performance. We take them into serious consideration, and many of these reflections have been published in my books; otherwise we would just be legislating performance and imposing performance practice on communities. Often, as part of our residencies, we make sure that the performance is the last event, but prior to the performance we engage in lectures, public discussions, spoken word recitals, and screenings of videos, and this will prepare local audiences for our practices.

TT: It does seem as though you’re trying to activate your audience—as though your performances are supposed to be a transformational experience.

GGP: They have a pedagogical dimension. This is also another defining aspect of our performance, as important as the border practice. At this stage of my life, I am more and more interested in the pedagogical aspect of performance. Performance has to be emancipatory; it has to be a liberating process.

TT: Do you think that people come to your shows expecting to be liberated?

GGP: No, not everyone. Unfortunately, because some of my performance pieces have to do with shamanism, there are a lot of people that take me at face value and literally see me as some kind of spiritual guide. It blows my mind because I’m the most irreverent person! I have written extensively against the idea of the artist as shaman, problematizing the relationship between spiritual seekers and shamanic charlatans.

Still, there are people that attend live art looking for answers. I feel that the artist doesn’t really give answers. That is the role of the theorist, the scientist, the political activist, and the religious leader. The role of the artist is to ask impertinent and complex questions, irritating questions, and also to make the audience aware of the process of inquiry, and that’s where the pedagogical dimension lies—when the performance becomes the search, and when the process of search becomes the performance; and people see you struggling with meaning, with your own philosophical despair, with your political demons, and your own aesthetics. The audience can participate and join in the struggle of seeking some kind of light—not much, but some clarity.

TT: For people that haven’t been exposed to your work at all, can you run through an example of one of your performances and what that might entail in terms of audience participation? How do they begin to feel they can participate?

GGP: In our project Mapa Corpo, the central image was a live body acupunctured with needles bearing the flags of the occupation forces in Iraq. This was our response to the invasion in Iraq. At the end, we invited the audience to decolonize the body-map of the Middle East by extracting, one by one, the forty-four flags, and by doing it they were making an ethical commitment to peace. That’s a very clear example of how audiences get to participate.

La Pocha Nostra, Border Interogation, 2009; video; TRT 1:26. Courtesy of the Artists.

TT: And in the Living Museum of Fetishized Identities you invite people to perform their own ethnic fantasies?

GGP: We had an “identity makeover booth” where people got to choose, in dialogue with fashion designers and makeup artists, their own fetishized look. It could be a gender- or ethnic-bending fantasy look. They could be as outrageous as they wanted and then they would join us on platforms to create their own tableaux vivants.

More recently we performed a piece titled Corpo Illicito. It essentially involved reenactments of some anthological pieces intertwined with brand-new live images. For example, I did a reenactment of one of my classic pieces where I was dressed as a generic terrorist in drag and I invited audience members to hold an uzi or an AK-47, a real one without bullets, and point it at different parts of my body while I was staging iconic images taken from the history of the representation of violence in painting, cinema, and journalism. People got to experience how it felt to have a human in the crosshairs. People would point the weapon at my eyes, at my heart, at my genitals, even at my butt. People would step on top of the platform and put a leg on top of my back and point the weapon at my neck.

The performance environments we create are very intoxicating and seductive. There are multiple projections and electronic music, so people get seduced by the space and they let go and participate sometimes without realizing the implications of their symbolic actions. It’s only after, a day or two later, that they go, “Hey, wait a moment. We are all capable of violence; we are all capable of holding a gun against another human being.” This realization comes when they wake up with a little pain in the heart. It is that moment of realization that I’m after. I really distrust kneejerk, immediate reactions to a piece. I think an effective performance creates sediment in your subconscious and it begins to filter into your conscious mind in the coming days and weeks and always in dialogue with other artworks, other books, and other films. That is where the power of performance art lies, as opposed to narrative cinema, a novel, or a traditional theater play, where you are asked to make up your mind right at the end of the piece.

TT: When people come up on stage with you and interact—I know you’re not taking a position of judgment toward them in any way—but do you have any sense of how far they’re performing an identity because it’s a response to seeing you perform something, or whether they’re really channelling something innate?

GGP: I can only speculate. I am not an anthropologist, a sociologist, or a psychologist, but I do have a lot of experience with audience behavior—practically three decades of experimenting with human behavior through performance. Some people enact archetypal behavior; they connect to a common, primal self, and in that archetypal behavior—which I love, I adore—I feel that some people are motivated by psychological needs of protagonism and visibility and they tend to overact, and that’s less interesting to me. Others are motivated by true compassion and the need to connect and to engage in a dialogue with the artist. Other people are just performing for their friends—especially the people who have had a little too much to drink or who are on their way to a party. A few are, by nature, exhibitionists. This spectrum of possibilities makes for very interesting audience participation. But as you said, we try to never judge. The only time we stop audience participation is when it gets dangerous—when they grab a dangerous object and you can tell that they no longer have control.

But these are the exceptions to the rule. Most of the time I think people understand that we’re creating a symbolic universe and that whether it’s a violent act or a sexually explicit act, it’s just symbolic. As Chicanos, we’re into artifice, not into phenomenology. Phenomenology belongs to the past—to the '70s, when blood was real blood, and violence was real violence. We’re more interested in the construction of highly complex and stylized symbols. They are as powerful as the real actions they refer to. Most of the time the audience understands that. It’s like a contract; a subtextual, unspoken contract between the performer and the audience member.

TT: What are some of the off-the-map places you have performed in? How remote do you go?

GGP: We had a four-year-long project with Sammi communities in the tip of Norway—where Norway meets Russia in the Arctic. It’s a border city where a lot of Russian traffickers and bootleggers bring illicit goods into Europe. It’s a very wild, multicultural place. There are Finnish, Russian, Norwegian, and Sammi peoples—the indigenous peoples of the Nordic countries. We did a four-year project there.

We have also performed in small villages in Alaska and in the Canary Islands, off the shores of Africa.

TT: Why do you choose those places?

GGP: Because that’s where we get to test our practice—in extreme border conditions. We have also been to many small Latin American cities where there is absolutely no contemporary artwork, where they have never seen an experimental art piece.

TT: Do they understand that what you’re doing is art? How do they understand what you’re doing as separate from reality?

GGP: Every place in the zones of silence has been a challenge unto itself. Often it is the indigenous communities that help us enter into the soul of the place, because indigenous peoples throughout the world have extremely performative practices that are closer to live art than say, to Western theatre. They get it. When a Hopi bird-dancer or a Cree grass-dancer dances for twelve hours, don’t tell me that is not performance art!

Performance artists may have all sorts of social shortcomings, and we may be terrible with administering our finances or sustaining a nine to five job, but when it comes to crossing borders, we make very good intercultural diplomats. I think that if governments were more enlightened, they would make good use of us. Imagine inviting a performance artist to redesign a hospital. From the lighting to the music and the activities presented to the patients, hospitals would become more human places. Or, imagine performance artists defining the curriculum of a high school or the activities of prisoners—even to humanize the corporate people, giving performance workshops to corporate staff during lunchtime or DJ-ing religious conventions.

Guillermo Gomez-Pena La Pocha Nostra Natural Born Matones

La Pocha Nostra, Natural Born Matones, 2005; photograph. Courtesy of the Artists.

TT: I read about Mayor Mockus, a former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, who hired mime artists to address increasing numbers of people being run over by cars. They would step into the street and make fun of drivers who were being irresponsible, or pedestrians who were walking carelessly across the street without looking.

GGP: I know Antanas Mockus very well. Let’s also think of Subcommandante Marcos, the intellectual leader of the Zapatistas; he was a performance artist extraordinaire. There are many cases where activists and politicians have effectively utilized performance strategies to implement social programs and communicate their ideas.

TT: Would you want to be hired by the government?

GGP: [Long pause] I wouldn’t mind training and advising people who occupy certain government positions. Cruz Bustamante, the ex–vice governor of California, happens to be the brother of Nao Bustamante, the performance artist. Cruz never invited Nao to advise him, and as a result, his campaign strategies when he ran for governor were so wimpy and uninteresting that he ended up losing. If only he had invited his sister to advise him, he would have been in much better shape.

TT: I saw that in 2011 you have plans to explore the culture of violence. Can you talk about that?

GGP: One of the reasons I am based here (in the United States) is because my own country has been taken over by organized crime. Violence is a very emotional issue for us post-national Mexicans. It’s becoming increasingly hard for us to return, and as we witness how our families and loved ones are falling prey to crime on a daily basis, I want to contribute to a dialogue around the causes of violence and try to understand why, in just a few years, Mexico went from being an peaceful country to becoming the continental capital of organized crime. I also want to mourn, through my performance work, those who have been killed. I want to tackle the issue of violence as one of the central issues of our times. I feel that it’s time to create an artwork that concentrates in the exploration of violence.

Another thing that I’m really interested in—and this has to do with the place that I am at in my life—is conversing on the stage or in the gallery with some of my contemporaries. So I have been engaging in a series of performance collaborations with my contemporaries, with artists that have been my friends for many years: people like Tania Bruguera, James Luna, and Reverend Billy. These performance projects are quite moving. When you witness two friends from different cultural backgrounds and artistic practices working together, coexisting, sharing the space, the project becomes a radical act of diplomacy.


Guillermo Gómez-Peña is a performance artist and writer based in San Francisco, where he is artistic director of La Pocha Nostra, an international collective of artists, curators, and intellectuals. A native of Mexico City, Gómez-Peña’s pioneering work in performance, video, radio, installation, poetry, journalism, and cultural theory explores cross-cultural issues, immigration, the politics of language, "extreme culture," and new technologies. Critics have described his live work as “Chicano cyber-punk performances.” Gómez-Peña is a MacArthur fellow, an American Book Award recipient, a regular contributor to National Public Radio, a writer for newspapers and magazines in the United States and Mexico, and a contributing editor to The Drama Review (NYU-MIT). His performance, installation, and video work has been presented at over seven hundred venues across the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Australia, Russia, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Brazil, Peru, Venezuela, and Argentina. Most recently, he has presented work at Tate Modern (London), the House of World Cultures (Berlin), MACBA (Barcelona), The Chopo Museum (Mexico City), the Encuentro Hemisférico (Lima, Rio de Janeiro, and New York), and the Habana Bienale.

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