Radical Changes

Guillermo Gómez-Peña

I just turned 49, which is quite dra­mat­ic if you con­sid­er that I am a much tout­ed rad­i­cal” per­for­mance artist, mean­ing some­one who is known for his trans­gres­sive aes­thet­ics, polit­i­cal brava­do and uncom­pro­mis­ing irrev­er­ence. Sud­den­ly, I am grow­ing white hair and a bel­ly, and my voice is rea­son­able and tem­pered. A cru­el cura­tor friend of mine says that I am no longer feared or desired but respect­ed.”

Young artists are begin­ning to call me Pro­fes­sor Gómez” or even worse, mae­stro.” It flips me out. 

I have spent a life­time uti­liz­ing my body and my tongue as tools to express my oppo­si­tion to main­stream cul­ture, to advo­cate anti-author­i­tar­i­an artis­tic prac­tices, to pro­mote alter­na­tive com­mu­ni­ties and sup­port rad­i­cal sex­u­al­i­ties. And I always thought of myself as age­less. Or rather, as per­ma­nent­ly young. To remain young for me implied a relent­less capa­bil­i­ty to rein­vent myself, to con­stant­ly take risks, and to remain in touch with the cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal pulse of the times and the streets. It also meant not to think too much about the past or the future, to always oper­ate in the here” and the now.” My exis­ten­tial mot­to was If I don’t go mad at least once a week, I will lose my mind,” and I was loy­al to it.

But one day I turned 40, and my rebel con­tem­po­raries and part­ners in crime began to set­tle down. They mar­ried. They bought homes. They got full-time jobs. They sud­den­ly had much less time to hang out in seedy bars and under­take wild art projects. I saw them, one by one, los­ing their spunk and brava­do, becom­ing cau­tious and mod­er­ate, talk­ing about sav­ing for the future (anath­e­ma for a rad­i­cal artist), and dye­ing their hair to hide the grey. It made me sad. I hung out more and more with younger artists who were will­ing to jump into the abyss with me. I even per­ceived a gen­er­a­tional fault line between peo­ple of my gen­er­a­tion and me.

As I con­tin­ued to tour, per­form, write, ques­tion pow­er and engage in crit­i­cal cul­ture, my con­tem­po­raries advised me: Gómez-Peña, you should get a job in acad­e­mia. It gives you med­ical insur­ance.” I got depressed.

I expe­ri­enced my mid-life cri­sis by going out with some­one 17 years younger than me, a Mex­i­co City upper-class princess. Our extreme dif­fer­ences in lifestyle,” pol­i­tics and taste in art made me even more con­scious of my age. One day, I real­ized I was def­i­nite­ly going through my cli­ma­te­rio when I found myself dis­co danc­ing in a Mex­i­co City night­club sur­round­ed by 20-year-old hip­sters. Patéti­co. I excused myself, pre­tend­ed to go to the restroom and escaped through the back door … for good.

The symp­toms of aging were cru­el. When I was younger I had visions, utopi­an visions; after 40, I had dreams. As a young artist, the streets were my lab­o­ra­to­ry of exper­i­men­ta­tion; as a mature” artist, con­ver­sa­tions and rehearsals replaced the streets. I used to always col­lab­o­rate; sud­den­ly I was think­ing more and more of my solo work and of my per­son­al voice.” (Was I more self­ish or mere­ly wis­er?) I became increas­ing­ly more con­scious of my artis­tic lega­cy,” anoth­er anath­e­ma for a per­for­mance artist. But worse than any­thing, I became tol­er­ant” of polit­i­cal dif­fer­ence … and very sen­ti­men­tal. I stopped hav­ing for­mi­da­ble intel­lec­tu­al fights with con­ser­v­a­tive crit­ics. I start­ed to cry at Mex­i­can boleros. I even stopped get­ting naked on stage. (Clear­ly, I did this to pro­tect my audi­ence from my grow­ing love handles.) 

I also became aware of the fragili­ty of my body. After a life­time of abus­ing my body — par­ty­ing and sim­ply work­ing very hard — one day I got grave­ly sick. I came face to face with Death. For eight months I faced the prospect of a life with­out tour­ing, with­out per­form­ing; a life as a sta­tion­ary intel­lec­tu­al for­ev­er meet­ing my inner ‑demons in front of my lap­top. I was incon­solable. Dur­ing my slow recov­ery I wrote my first script that dealt with my past — a bio­graph­i­cal reflec­tion on what it meant to be a rebel Lati­no artist fac­ing the abyss of the 21st cen­tu­ry and the dark clouds of mid­dle age. I noticed that my poet­ic tone had changed. I was more … somber and self-crit­i­cal; less out­ra­geous. I was think­ing about my place in the world, my rela­tion­ship to fam­i­ly, friends, art, com­mu­ni­ty and the uni­verse at large. I had lost some of my sense of humor. That script was bet­ter lit­er­a­ture, but denser and more enigmatic.

I even­tu­al­ly recu­per­at­ed and went back on the road, think­ing it all had been a tem­po­rary night­mare. But I was wrong, pinche wrong.

When I turned 45 my mem­o­ry began to betray me. I sud­den­ly start­ed for­get­ting names, con­ver­sa­tions, inci­dents, book and film titles. My recent mem­o­ry, say, of the past three to sev­en years, was even worse. I first attrib­uted it to Caribbean rum and tobac­co, but then I start­ed talk­ing to oth­er artists my age, and they were going through an iden­ti­cal expe­ri­ence. An Indi­an artist friend told me: Don’t wor­ry ese, it’s the Big Smoke. You are sim­ply going through the Bii­igg Smoke.” My wise moth­er told me: It’s the Ger­man guy inside of you — Mr. Alzheimer. You have to start mak­ing peace with him.” It wasn’t fun­ny. I began to con­scious­ly engage in mem­o­ry exer­cis­es, in accep­tance exer­cis­es. I became a Chi­cano Buddhist.

Now that I am approach­ing 50, I tru­ly won­der if as an artist one can remain cur­rent, hip” and con­nect­ed to the world at this age, or if soon I should with­draw with dig­ni­ty from the world, become a neigh­bor­hood drunk or com­mit rit­u­al sui­cide as my last per­for­mance art piece. But when these thoughts begin to linger over my inner stage, my sense of humor and my love for life some­how redeem me once again. I think to myself: Per­haps I can hang my weapons on the wall and still be a war­rior,” like my Colom­bian bru­jo told me … or per­haps I can become a hip elder loco artist like Duchamp or Bur­roughs … or bet­ter yet, a sexy old rockero like Bowie or Jagger.”

For the moment my only hope is to con­tin­ue walk­ing, not run­ning, with a bit of style; to remain open-mind­ed and tol­er­ant; to con­scious­ly con­tin­ue tak­ing risks and oppos­ing author­i­ty when­ev­er I smell it; and to exor­cise the future … as much as I can. My only bless­ing is that Car­oli­na, my wife, also 49, is still gor­geous, hilar­i­ous and as much a lunatic as she was when I met her eight years ago in New York City.

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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