|What I thought I would do today is show you a couple of clips from performances and some slides, to give you a sense of two trajectories that I've explored in performance work. And then we can go up to the gallery and look at Magdalena's video installation. I was actually up there earlier today making notes to try to figure out what would be a good bridge... I think that both Magdalena and I are interested in ritual as a form of interface, of pre-technological interface, because rituals are, in a way, interactive with objects and people, and through those interactions, people define themselves and their sense of place. A focus of some of the work I'll show you today of mine has been more involved with public rituals, with institutionalized rituals, with state rituals, with disciplinary rituals, and Magda's work, in this particular piece, Spoken Softly with Mama, is focusing on private rituals and family rituals. But nonetheless we're interested in how those rituals generate, for individuals, a sense of place.|
This was a traveling performance that I worked on with Guillermo Gomez-Peña. We did the piece nine times over the course of two years in the United States, Europe, and Australia and we ended up in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The idea was to make a satirical commentary on the history of the ethnographic display of indigenous people....We were sort of arguing that the practice [began] with Columbus, [who brought] Arawak Indians back [to] the Spanish court and had put one of them on display. That's a kind of intercultural performance that we thought hadn't been really recognized as part of performance art history, and we traced its path from the early period of contact to its development into a kind of circus/freak show of phenomenon in the late 19th and early 20th century.
It wasn't our intent to fool anybody, and you'll see, I'm going to play you a clip from the documentary. We look pretty ridiculous; we look more like we walked off a television set of Gilligan's Island. I think that the confusion that our presence generated was really an educational experience for us. We had no idea that the power of certain institutional frameworks could have to encourage people to project certain kinds of fantasies onto us. And that's what the performance experience was for us, to learn just how little control we have over how people see us when we start engaging in these kinds of performances in public. I'm going to show you a clip of Amerindians
After working on that project, we there thinking about ways to take the problems and the issues that we had been dealing with in relationship to history, to think about ways those paradigms were reproduced in other contexts in the present. I was also really amazed by the possibilities that were opened up by working with what I call "spontaneously generated performance audiences"--people who don't necessarily choose to see a work, but sort of bump into you for one reason or another. That's what public space sort of enables you to do, or create, pulling a stunt like getting yourself inserted into a Museum of Natural History, where people aren't really expecting that sort of work to be presented to them.
I was interested in the idea of working in a shopping mall because it was another kind of semi-private, public space, where people are kind of in this zoned out state of looking at things, looking at windows, looking at objects, buying and touching, and in a kind of interactive mode and visual mode. Once you leave places like New York [the mall is] the only place where people congregate [in America]... So we thought about ways to create a piece that dealt with how shopping malls represented or communicated a kind of classification of the world by means of what was in them. Maybe I was just really blown away by the Mall of America, which I saw when I was working on this project at the Walker, and it was the biggest mall I had ever seen in my life. But there was a way in which it has everything, in the way that fools you into believing that everything is there, and it's all sort of neatly classified and packaged. There's this weird dynamic, because the mall is full of weird little corner shops where you can buy coffee from Kenya and flute music from Peru, but adolescent youths of color are definitely not desirable people to have in there. So I thought there [were] certain strategies of containment that I'd like to explore.
So we developed this piece called Mexarcane International, and we set up shop in different shopping malls...The idea was that we were representatives [of] a multi-national corporation that marketed and distributed exotic talent for special events...[In corporate attire with] my computer and my cell phone, [I interviewed people] and...[gave] them a set of multiple choice questions to determine their taste for exotic people, exotic places, exotic travel, exotic sex, exotic tschotchke's, exotic anything you might find in a mall or in the mall itself. And on the basis...of their answers, I [gave] them a code that would then [let them] see Guillermo do a performance for them--a really short one--that was like a taste of what they would get if they actually bought into the whole service.
Unfortunately, we weren't able to convince a shopping mall in the US because they saw pictures of our earlier work and thought that we were too frightening! So we ended up doing it in Toronto, Glasgow, and London. And so that kind of wrapped up my work on ethnographic paradigms. I felt like I had expired that issue and that history to the max, and that I wanted to go into related areas. I was particularly frustrated with not being able to deal with issues of gender and femininity when I was exploring these kind of problems, so I moved into another area.
Rites of Passage at the Johannesburg Biennale|
For the Johannesburg Biennial I created a piece that had to do with the classification of people and the imposition of identity through documents, legal documentation, in the history of apartheid. That piece was called Rights of Passage. I was dressed up as a South African policewoman and actually designed, with a graphic designer, simulations of the old South African pass books. But instead of now only being giving to blacks and those designated as colored they were for everybody attending the Biennial. And after a few minor altercations with people who flipped out because they couldn't tell it was an art piece, I kind of let every one know they could invent what every identity they wanted with the document. And this turned the piece from becoming totally abject into completely playful. And I had artists coming back every two hours for different pass books, because they had a few identities and they wanted to have a document for every identity. People coming and photographing in the photo booth their genitals, they wanted to have pass books for the genitals. People were inventing weird tribal names for themselves and it was very interesting. I made a list actually for all the identities that people decided to ascribe to themselves, and I'm still sort of thinking of what to do with all of this material. Anyway I worked with three drama students, south African drama students who were the door guards and they had to stamp peoples books as they came in and out of the buildings. They had a blast doing these pieces, you can probably imagine. They started screaming at people in Afrikaans at different points because apparently during apartheid the policemen generally were Afrikaners and so the language that took to symbolize that repressive relationship to the state was Afrikaans.
Better Yet When Dead
I tried to think about other ways of creating performances [and] installations where I could find other framing devices to talk about containment and identity as a form of containment, and...about Latin women and problems... [and representation] of femininity within Latin culture. And what got me going for developing a series of works was the phenomenon of these young Latin women dying very tragic deaths and then becoming instant household names. I was thinking about this after the death of Selena, the Tex-Mex singer, in 1995, who was virtually unknown outside of the border regions. [Yet when] she gets shot and killed, she hits the cover of People magazine. The success of that issue made the magazine decide to launch a version in Spanish. [It's] not my favorite publication. It's the most widely read magazine in the world; they sell 7 million copies a week. And this woman's death was what pushed them into the Spanish language market. I thought of Ana Mendieta; I thought of Frida Kahlo and the way in which she sort of dies on canvas--there was this form of performance... I started to think about these processes of idealization that are very much a part of Latin Catholic Culture, where women get shafted in reality and then deified at the moment of their death. I thought that one of the things that is kind of bizarre about this, in this particular moment in history, is that death becomes a kind of opportunity to really commodify to an incredible degree the images of these women. So I think about Evita Peron and the business that's been generated by her corpse traveling around the world for 40 years; the difference between Ana Mendieta in life and in death; what happened to Frida Kahlo who got one solo show in her entire life in Mexico and now is the best-selling artist from her country. It could be argued that this happens with other people, but I was particularly interested in how a Catholic culture negotiates this kind of commercialization of the dead women.
I wasn't the only person thinking about these things - here I am as Selena. I created a series of wakes in which I appeared as a corpse in a coffin in homage to these different women. But also the cartoonist, Chicano cartoonist, Lolo Lopez made this cartoon for POCHO magazine about the commodification of dead Latinas.
<Series of slides>|
This is Better Yet When Dead, which I did in Toronto [and] Medellin in 1997. It was interesting--in Canada people tended to be a little bit flipped, all their cultural baggage about death would come out, and they'd step back and be a little weirded out. And then some would come and poke, and a couple of people tried to kiss me. But in Colombia, particularly in Medellin, which is kind of like the "City of Death"... where violent death is a way of life. People were cavorting with me as a corpse in a way that I couldn't have imagined, trying to pull me out of the coffin, pouring wine down my mouth. A woman would come every night and read me the same set of poems about death, read them into my ear, tell me that I was in some kind of zen state and that she knew that I couldn't really communicate with her, but that she was communicating with me. It was a very, very intense and very interesting experience, and because I was the only [living] dead thing in the whole biennial there was a whole line of people going to see the live woman being a dead body. It was a really bizarre moment.
In Cuba last year I did a variation on this piece in which it was another wake, but I was looking at very different themes. And I thought this was a good point of connection with Magdalena's work. I wanted to do a piece about the problem of repatriation of Cuban exiles. I don't know how many of you know anything about the history of the Cuban revolution, or Cuban immigration, but the generation of people who have come to define the Cuban exile community are people who emigrated in the early 1960's, for the most part. There were Cubans here before, and many who have come after, but it was that moment, [the] exodus, that really has defined the Cuban community. And many of the people who emigrated at that time are dying. Many of those who left left thinking that they were going to go back in a year, 5 years, 10 years, at some point. The fact that this generation is kind of dying off has become what that's done is create a whole sort of immigrant awareness of dying outside one's homeland. It's created a kind of panic among people who never imagined that they would have to die outside of their homeland, and it's also created opportunities to invent all sorts of semi-fictitious businesses promising the repatriation of human remains back to the island. And this is a big business in Miami of selling people the idea that their ashes will be strewn over the island or in the water in the sea by the island, or that they will be buried there, when, in reality, it is excruciatingly difficult and almost impossible for somebody in exile to have their remains repatriated.
I was thinking a lot about this because my older relatives are worrying about this more and more. When I did this performance I had a text--a story about how my aunts and my mother used to always worry about where they were going to live and now they worry about where they're going to die. And it's become a constant [topic of] conversation: "Where will our bodies end up?" This is particularly serious for an aunt of mine who got breast cancer several years ago and started to make moves to repatriate because she thought, "My death is coming and I want to be sure that I'm in the right place when I go."
The Last Wish|
The Havana Biennale last year was dedicated to the theme of personal and public memory There's sort of a network of independent artist-run galleries that have sprung up in Havana--for the most part, for the past three or four years--and I've been in contact with a lot of the artists who are working in these galleries and are exhibiting their work and their friends' work. I decided to inaugurate a new gallery with a performance artist, Tanya Abrugera (sp?), who's decided to open up a new gallery in her home. This was the piece that I did, and she did another piece in the front of the house. (There were a series of parallel events [at] the Biennial, but they weren't part of the official Biennial-- it was kind of like the "counter-Biennial" or the "additional Biennial" or whatever you want to call it.)
This piece, called The Last Wish, was based on the story of my grandmother who died in 1982 and who wasn't able to return to the island to die. So she decided one day..to go to...Barcelona-- she checked into a hotel by herself and died the first day that she was there. She never explained to anybody in my family why she did this. I was in Paris at the time, as an exchange student, and I was dispatched by my family to retrieve her things, and when I got there the only thing that I found were her glasses and her wallet. I was really taken by this mystery: "Did she come without a suitcase? Did she just come and plunk herself down and decided that that was it? Or did somebody steal the stuff?" I don't know, but I started to think that she planned it, that she had this kind of internal clock and that she had made this decision. And I was reading a lot about representation of dead women in literature and in art. One thing I learned about in a book Tania Bruguera by Elizabeth Bronfen was how a lot of women artists have talked about death as a kind of expression of the self for women who live in an oppressed state and can't express their desire or their will in any other way. So anyway, this was the last wake piece that I did, which was in June of last year.
Paquita y Chata Go Se Arrebatan
In addition to working on [The Last Wish] I developed a piece with Nao Bustamente, who's a San Francisco-based artist. I wanted to deal with the issue of Latin women's sexuality. I had been doing some research on the reemergence of prostitution or sex tourism in Cuba that has escalated since 1993 to become, at this point, probably the most [or one of the most] significant source of income for women under 25. I did a lot of interviews with women involved in the business, with men who were involved as pimps, with men who were involved also as prostitutes (although gay prostitution is not as big a deal in Cuba as it is on some of the other islands in the Caribbean or in Brazil). And it was based on those experiences that Neo and I started to think about the history of this representation of the Latina as oversexed, as a sex pot.
There are these dolls that are sold in Latin folk art shops; they're made of paper maiche and they're these busty, cute Latinas--mostly Mexicans--with dark, curly hair and their names are hand-painted across their undershirts. And it turns out those dolls are representations of prostitutes from the port city of Veracruz in Mexico, but on Mexico's Caribbean side. So to get ourselves into developing a piece about this, we started to do photo shoots in which we dressed up as the dolls, and I have a couple of shots here from a series called, is "Paquita y Chata Se Arrebatan" (Paquita and Chata go over the top)
Then we wrote our script for STUFF, which deals with how tourism, which I call the "underbelly of globalization," affects Latin women in countries that are very close to the United States, the Caribbean, and Mexico. And we kind of go through, section by section, different kinds of culture tourism, indigenous-oriented tourism, new age, spiritual tourism, and we get to, finally, sex tourism. And there, the sociological material that we drew from for the script [came] from the interviews that I had done in Cuba and all these sex tourist language books that we bought, which are like Berlitz guides, but instead of saying, "How do I get a taxi?" and "Where is the bank?", it's like "Roll over and get the whip" and "Are you married?" and "If you're married, are you into having an open relationship?" [These phrases are used by tourists] who want to have sexual partners in Asia and Latin America and anywhere else they decide to go.
This part of the performance is a dialogue in which we bring on a male member of the audience and train him, using phrases from the guide books, on how to pick up a Cuban girl in Spanish. And he gets his Spanish lesson on stage and it's very very funny. And presenters always say, "What if people don't want to do it?" I've never had trouble getting a guy up there. I don't know if it means that I have some special talent, or that they're just really eager, but it's never ever been a problem.
And <slide> here's another victim of our little dialogue.
In the galleries: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons|
I was trying to think of things that connect our work and ideas that I think are really elemental for Spoken Softly with Mama I've known Magda for twelve years and I've been following her work. She started out as a painter, and when I first saw her work she was doing shaped canvases, kind of á la Elizabeth Murray, but with a real Cuban twist to it. She would do shaped canvases that had to do with references to female sexuality, sometimes in a kind of literal way and also sometimes using shapes of fruits that in the Cuban slang are code words for female genitals and other body parts.
Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons that's her full name; I call her Magda. She's Cuban. She was born, I think, in 1959 she came to the United States first as a visitor, a visiting artist in 1988 and was at the Massachusetts College of Art and then went back to Cuba. And then she moved here in 1991 after spending a couple of years in Canada, and she has lived in Boston ever since. She's exhibited all over the country, was also in the Johannesburg Biennale, and, even before she came to the U.S., she was exhibiting in Europe and all over other parts of Latin America...She's sort of fleshed out a lot of themes that she developed early on in her career... [and has] moved into a lot of other media. Being in Canada for an extended period and being in the United States gave her access to experimenting with all kinds of sculpture materials and also with other electronic media. She spent a lot of time at the BANFF Centre. For example, when she first left Cuba, she got exposed to working with video and started to do performance video at BANFF Centre. She also has said many times that being away from Cuba kind of made her reflect a lot more on who she was, and also, on her being black, being Afro-Cuban, and the history of blacks in Cuba. She thinks a lot about the place [where] she came from and about the specific history of family and people in ...Cuba where she grew up. She was actually born in a little town called Manguito near Matazas, which, if you speak Spanish, you know is really funny because it means, "The Little Hose." It is near the city of Maganzas, which is one of the main cities in Cuba--having one of the largest and oldest black populations and a very important history for Black Cuban culture in that there was a free black artisan class established as early as the 18th century. It's a center for the development of Santeria, as well. Maganzas and Santiago, it's a very important place for the birth and development and evolution of Black Cuban culture. And a lot of her work has been about the history of people from the area that she comes from and, in particular, how communication with members of her family and her old neighbors keeps her centered, gives her a sense of self, and, more and more, a source of material for creative expression.
I saw an installation that she did at Intar Gallery several years ago which dealt more with the history of the slave trade and how the people she knew were descendants of those who had migrated on ships. She had wooden carvings, wooden large-scale renditions of the infamous drawings of slave ships with the small black figures penciled in. I thought it was very interesting because the arrangement of the ironing boards is very similar to the arrangement of those wooden sculptures in the Intar exhibition.
One of the things I think that Magda is emphasizing more and more is the role of women's discourse, of women's language. When I saw the ironing boards represented as reflective surfaces, I instantly thought of my grandmother who used to iron and think and use that period to reflect on herself. It's not just about being oppressed by labor and all this; it's also about a moment in her day when she could actually think. And she used to listen to the radio and sing and chat while she was doing the ironing. Another piece of sociological data that I think is important to this is that Cuba and the Caribbean is a culture where if you don't iron you just don't survive. Everything needs to been ironed. Everything is made of cotton and linen, so ironing is a lot more central to people's lives, or was at one time--[the] colonial period. When my mother thinks of a beautiful thing to wear for the hot weather, she thinks of a linen dress that somebody's going to have to iron over and over and over again. And so it's actually a more central part of women's work than maybe in other parts of the world, where knitting might have a similar role.
So I was very interested in ironing boards being used as reflective surfaces; I was really interested in combining portraiture of women who she's related to with a space where she can kind of dynamically interact with them, because that's her in the video, those are her legs, that's her head. Through these rituals, as I was saying before, she can kind of make a connection across time and space with her women relatives and with her female ancestors. I thought it was really moving that she would use video to convey this, because we think of video as a medium to talk about the present, and yet she's using it as a medium to communicate with the past. It's the video bouncing off of the pictures, bouncing off of the ironing board, bouncing off of these irons and other pieces that have been transformed from solid material into these very beautiful glass pieces.
The other thing--[Magda's] really interested in women's discourse, not just about the ironing thing but how cultures are preserved and maintained alive by women in societies where the public sphere is entirely given to men. That public discourse is extremely controlled. Cuba is an example of that--it's not the only place in the world where men have full control of the media and all the discourses, but the combination of the colonial history that's extremely embedded in patriarchal structures and a rather authoritarian political system that limits access to communication, women's discourse has been a place for alternative ideas about the self to be preserved, to be maintained, and to evolve. It's really interesting for me to think about this piece in relation to, for example, Christina Garcia's novel Dreaming in Cuban, where women across the water communicate with each other in their dreams. They can't see each other; they have to find true technological means of virtual connection with the people they love. Magda is creating a kind of space for us to be able to see how, on a daily basis, she is interacting with the women she loves, finding virtual means of maintaining those connections. The phone calls are really short--we have conversations about this all the time. She makes [appointments] with her mother and her sisters to talk on the telephone, because they don't have a telephone, so they have to go somewhere else and be ready to receive a call. It's easier to do that now because the lines are open, but once upon a time, you had to call at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning to get a line. So there's this huge adventure to actually communicate with somebody telephonically, and that just made spaces like dream spaces, and convening on a kind of ancestor-worship way with portraits, and video even more important. I have gone to Magda's mother's house with a video of Magda's son, and sat with her and watched the video with her over and over and over only a grandmother would be able to watch a baby video of like, "Here, he's going to the toilet for the first time here he's " But Magda doesn't only use it in her artwork--there is a kind of connection to how she maintains communication with her family by using these media that extend the powers of her communication.
©1999 The Museum of Modern Art, New York