Notes on the death of the American artist

Guillermo Gómez-Peña

Peo­ple ask me all the time: Is La Pocha Nos­tra (my per­for­mance troupe) being cen­sored in the USA? Tired of silence and diplo­ma­cy, with my heart aching and my polit­i­cal con­scious­ness swelling, I now choose to speak.

As a child in Mex­i­co, I heard adults whis­per­ing about black­lists and those who named names. My old­er broth­er, Car­los, was involved in the 1968 movimien­to estu­di­antil, and sev­er­al of his friends dis­ap­peared for good. Dur­ing my for­ma­tive years in Latin Amer­i­ca, cen­sor­ship was indis­tin­guish­able from polit­i­cal repres­sion and often result­ed in the impris­on­ment, dis­place­ment, exile or death of dis­si­dent” intel­lec­tu­als and artists. 

In the 70s, many Latin Amer­i­can artists end­ed up migrat­ing to the Unit­ed States and Europe, in search of the free­dom we couldn’t find in our home­lands. When I moved to Cal­i­for­nia in 1978, I found a very dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion. Artists and intel­lec­tu­als sim­ply didn’t mat­ter. The media treat­ed our art as either an exot­ic new trend or a human-inter­est sto­ry, and the polit­i­cal class didn’t pay atten­tion to us, which gave us the illu­sion of free­dom. As artists, we rejoiced in our myth­i­cal con­di­tion of lib­er­ty, our cel­e­brat­ed Amer­i­can freedom.” 

I devel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion as an icon­o­clast by engag­ing in sym­bol­ic acts of trans­gres­sion that explored and exposed sources of racism and nation­al­ism. Coco Fus­co and I exhib­it­ed our­selves inside a gild­ed cage, dressed as fic­ti­tious Indi­ans,” to protest the quin­cen­ten­ni­al cel­e­bra­tions of Colum­bus’ arrival in the West­ern hemi­sphere (Two Undis­cov­ered Amerindi­ans Vis­it …, 1992 – 93). Rober­to Sifuentes and I cru­ci­fied our­selves in full mari­achi regalia to protest immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy (The Cru­ci-fic­tion Project, 1994). I became good at orga­niz­ing ephemer­al com­mu­ni­ties of like-mind­ed rebel artists. I advised activists on how to use per­for­mance art strate­gies to enhance their polit­i­cal actions. I used the art world as a base of operations. 

In 20 years of tour­ing the Unit­ed States as a rad­i­cal” per­for­mance artist, I have come across innu­mer­able sit­u­a­tions in which the con­tent of my polit­i­cal­ly direct,” racial­ly sen­si­tive” and sex­u­al­ly explic­it” mate­r­i­al had to be adapt­ed” and trans­lat­ed” to the site. Because of this, accord­ing to a cura­tor friend of mine, I am no vir­gin in the house of censorship.”

Since 911, how­ev­er, my col­lab­o­ra­tors and I are fac­ing an entire­ly new dilem­ma: pro­hi­bi­tion – both overt­ly imposed and inter­nal­ized. My agent, Nola Mar­i­ano, recent­ly told me in a letter:

Besides the ide­o­log­i­cal cen­sor­ship exer­cised by the Bush admin­is­tra­tion, I believe that we have entered a new era of psy­cho­log­i­cal cen­sor­ship, one that is sus­tain­able as we, our col­lab­o­ra­tors, and allies find our­selves sec­ond-guess­ing our audi­ence respons­es, fear­ing for our jobs, and unsure of our boards’ sup­port. Unable to quick­ly iden­ti­fy the oppo­si­tion, we find our­selves shad­ow­box­ing with our con­science and cen­sor­ing our­selves. This is a vic­to­ry for a repres­sive polit­i­cal admin­is­tra­tion. One not won but rather hand­ed to them.

The imposed cul­ture of pan­ic, pro­hi­bi­tion and high secu­ri­ty per­me­at­ing every cor­ner of soci­ety – includ­ing our arts orga­ni­za­tions – has cre­at­ed an incen­di­ary envi­ron­ment for the pro­duc­tion of crit­i­cal cul­ture. We are being offered bud­gets that are half what we used to work with in the pre-Bush era. As a result, we can only present small-scale projects in the Unit­ed States, and under tech­ni­cal­ly prim­i­tive con­di­tions. These new con­di­tions are sim­i­lar to those we face in Latin Amer­i­ca, but with­out the com­mu­ni­ty spir­it and the humane envi­ron­ment we find there – with­out people’s will­ing­ness to be always present and donate their time and skills.

So far, what has saved La Pocha Nos­tra from clos­ing our doors is inter­na­tion­al tour­ing. Six­ty per­cent of our bud­get now comes from oth­er countries. 

As if this weren’t enough, due to secu­ri­ty restric­tions,” our props, cos­tumes and art mate­ri­als are care­ful­ly scru­ti­nized at every air­port we enter. Home­land Secu­ri­ty offi­cers are now even check­ing the titles of our books and open­ing our note­books and phone agen­das, both when we leave and when we return to the Unit­ed States. Fre­quent­ly our mate­ri­als are con­fis­cat­ed. Once, our trunk of props was con­fis­cat­ed by secu­ri­ty at Boston’s Logan Air­port, held for two days, and then deliv­ered to us a half-hour before open­ing night – with no expla­na­tion. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, all the weird”-looking props were miss­ing, cour­tesy of Home­land Secu­ri­ty. Should we change the nature of our props and art mate­ri­als, and the way we dress? My col­leagues and I are already doing this. Isn’t this a form of censorship?

— —  —  —  —  —  —  —  — –

In this rar­efied atmos­phere of para­noia, dis­trust and scruti­ny, per­for­mance artists have come to sig­ni­fy poten­tial trou­ble” for U.S. art insti­tu­tions. We are invit­ed with pro­vi­sos, inter­ro­gat­ed in advance by cura­tors. It’s a new Amer­i­can art rite. 

The cul­tur­al insti­tu­tion decides to go ahead with the project, but still has appre­hen­sions. We are tak­en to a nice art bar and, after a few drinks – bless his/​her heart – the cura­tor or pre­sen­ter takes a deep breath and starts the euphemistic interrogation: 

Is this per­for­mance audi­ence-friend­ly”? (A euphemism for art with­out ven­om or sharp edges.) Any­thing we should be wor­ried about? Frontal nudi­ty? Vio­lence and sex? (The dead­ly com­bo.) Blood­let­ting? Expo­sure to bod­i­ly flu­ids? Will your per­form­ers touch any audi­ence mem­ber inap­pro­pri­ate­ly? Will you force any audi­ence mem­ber to do any­thing that might be con­sid­ered humil­i­at­ing or offen­sive? Any pro­fan­i­ty? Any dis­re­spect for reli­gious imagery? Will there be flag des­e­cra­tion? Will you be mak­ing fun of the Troops? 

We try to be as spe­cif­ic as we can in terms of describ­ing the images and per­for­mance rit­u­als in our piece. We then try to nego­ti­ate, case by case, image by image, the inclusion/​exclusion of the most sen­si­tive mate­r­i­al. It’s tough; if we give in too much, then the project becomes defanged, decaf­feinat­ed. But if we don’t pay atten­tion to their fears and just go ahead and do what­ev­er we want, we will imme­di­ate­ly be black­list­ed in their cir­cuit. It’s like per­form­ing in 70s provin­cial Mexico.

The prob­lem is that the fears of the pre­sen­ters are well-found­ed; their moral dilem­mas are real. Their insti­tu­tions, whether main­stream or alter­na­tive” (does any­one know what alter­na­tive” even means nowa­days?), are rapid­ly los­ing their fund­ing. The media is not as will­ing to defend art as it used to be, and the new­ly empow­ered faith-based orga­ni­za­tions” are look­ing for blood: An art scan­dal calls down the wrath of God. Then, both the insti­tu­tion and the artists are attacked with hate mail and pick­et­ed by zom­bies. We might even be added to one of the many lists of cul­tur­al trai­tors,” fea­tured on sites such as www​.probush​.com/​t​r​aitor or www​.amer​i​cantrai​tor​.us.

And we might be vet­ted by groups like the New York Region­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Grant­mak­ers, which warns on its Web site:

In accor­dance with Exec­u­tive Order 13224, the USA Patri­ot Act and oth­er relat­ed laws, includ­ing vol­un­tary guide­lines issued by the Trea­sury Depart­ment, grant­mak­ers reg­u­lar­ly check the names of their prospec­tive grantees against var­i­ous watch lists pro­duced by the gov­ern­ment, and doc­u­ment their com­pli­ance to pro­tect them­selves from pos­si­ble crim­i­nal and civ­il prosecution. 

Let’s face it, overt cen­sor­ship is hap­pen­ing through­out the Unit­ed States, and not just in red Amer­i­ca.” My per­for­mance art col­leagues and fel­low spo­ken-word poets are being mon­i­tored, inter­ro­gat­ed, defund­ed, watered down, ignored, and un/​disinvited by our cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions, many of which per­ceive them­selves as lib­er­al.” It’s a major dilem­ma for crit­i­cal cul­ture in the Unit­ed States, and at the same time it’s an inter­na­tion­al embar­rass­ment. The whole world knows about it because it’s not hap­pen­ing any­where else, not even in Catholic Latin America. 

The Unit­ed States is no longer the land of oppor­tu­ni­ty” it once was, or the most advanced democ­ra­cy” it claims to be. It is now the land of cen­sor­ship, iso­la­tion­ism, xeno­pho­bia and Puri­tanism; one of the most parochial places on earth; and the only Chris­t­ian democ­ra­cy left in the con­tin­u­ous­ly shrink­ing free world” it claims to lead. 

Our polit­i­cal class is obsessed with clos­ing our bor­ders and keep­ing out­siders from enter­ing. Since 911, the INS has denied La Pocha Nos­tra five visas to bring Mex­i­can, Cuban and Colom­bian artists to the Unit­ed States to work with us. In this sense, the bor­der has become anoth­er form of cen­sor­ship, and cul­tur­al exchange is now a nos­tal­gic project of the late 20th century. 

— —  —  —  —  —  —  —  — –

One of the chill­ing by-prod­ucts of cen­sor­ship is that even­tu­al­ly artists begin to accept it as inevitable – nor­mal, even. One of our per­for­mance projects, Mapa Cor­po (2004), was reject­ed by a dozen U.S. muse­ums and uni­ver­si­ties when they learned the nature of the cen­tral image: a nude body cov­ered with 40 acupunc­ture nee­dles, each bear­ing a small flag of one of the coali­tion forces.” Audi­ence mem­bers were invit­ed to decol­o­nize the body/​map of the per­former” by extract­ing a needle/​flag. After so many rejec­tions (some explic­it, oth­ers euphemistic, such as those cit­ing health con­cerns”) we decid­ed to just per­form the piece in oth­er coun­tries, such as the Unit­ed King­dom, Cana­da, Mex­i­co and Brazil. 

The ques­tion for us per­for­mance artists is: How much are we will­ing to accept? 

We can delete cer­tain texts, erase entire scenes, tone down our out­ra­geous behav­ior,” and even­tu­al­ly, when we least expect it, we will have lost our voic­es and our souls. If we choose to com­ply over and over again, even­tu­al­ly a tiny crys­tal (our dig­ni­ty?) will shat­ter inside our chests. We will car­ry the pain silent­ly wher­ev­er we go, and it will wors­en each time we face yet anoth­er warn­ing or humil­i­at­ing inter­ro­ga­tion. One day we will wake to find we have become bro­ken humans, with­out even real­iz­ing it.

An expand­ed ver­sion of Dis­claimer” appeared in the March 2006 issue of The Dra­ma Review.

Guiller­mo Gómez-Peña, a per­for­mance artist, writer and MacArthur fel­low, is artis­tic direc­tor of San Fran­cis­co-based Pocha Nos­tra, a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary arts orga­ni­za­tion for artists explor­ing issues of glob­al­iza­tion, immi­gra­tion, inter­cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty, bor­der cul­ture, the pol­i­tics of lan­guage and new technologies.
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