“Strange Democracy: Border Wars” by Guillermo Gómez-Peña

Friday, 28 June 2013
7:30 – 9:30 pm
Pigott Theater

Blog Response by Megan Hoetger

(See also David Preciado’s Blog Response here.)

I had resigned myself to the fact that I would not see Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s performance Strange Democracy: Border Wars; it was sold out when I registered for the conference and I thought to myself, “who is going to be a no show for Gómez-Peña?” Friday came though, and a friend of mine convinced me to put my name on the wait-list where, it turned out, I was number one and the front of house assured me that I would most likely get in. At ten minutes to 7:30 pm I was buzzing around the ticket table, anxiously waiting for them to begin calling out wait-list numbers.

My wait-list ticket

My wait-list ticket

Just as they were to open the house doors, a woman emerged from the theater (whom I think Gómez-Peña later referred to as Picalina). Donning a massive eagle headdress that enwrapped her whole head and left only her face exposed through its open beak, a crotchless fishnet one-piece with an anatomically-adapted leather codpiece, and tall strappy red heels, she was pretty damn intimidating. As if that was not enough, she also had a sword; a sword which she held up in the air, declaring that Gómez-Peña would tonight be performing a radical act of discrimination. Everyone without tickets was asked to line up on one side of the entrance, and everyone with tickets on the other. Having been buzzing around the ticket table, I was well-positioned to find myself very close to the front of the non-ticketed line. I thought to myself, “Are they really going to let us in first?” How will all of these people fit in that theater?” And she did; she gestured our line inside, prompting us to “hurry” and “move.”

We reached front of house, and the poor ticket-taker did not know what to do—as with the problematic and frustrating case with the majority of workers, she doesn’t make the rules, she just enforces them. At first, she attempted to turn us away, stating that the show was to capacity. Picalina, as I will refer to our warrior-like leader even as it is possibly incorrect, was called to the front to deal with the matter. In a deadly serious tone, she said something like, “Gómez-Peña wants them in there.” Not knowing what to do and I am sure feeling completely terrified of our warrior-figure, the ticket-taker simply said alright. We started pouring in, running up the stairs; I could feel the excitement in the air. For me anyway, the collective feeling was one of amazement—we as a group led by our warrior-figure had actually gotten away with this. The networks of money that structure not only that theater, but every theater, and everything in our lives; those networks that tell us where we can go and where we can’t, what we will be allowed to have access to and what we won’t, who we can imagine being and who we can’t, and so forth; those networks in that moment and, as Gómez-Peña would powerfully address later, for this performance got a giant fuck you. I have to say, it felt good. Taking my seat third row center, I thought to myself, “I can’t believe this is actually happening.” Thinking about it now in relation to the rest of the performance that would unfold, it seems that Gómez-Peña had in that small moment given us the possibility of imagining something different, of undertaking an action that we may not have thought we were capable of in the system as usual.

The performance began with Gómez-Peña, who had a high heel on his left foot throughout the performance lecture so as to set his body in a permanent contrapposto position, standing at the microphone up on the stage and looking out intensely at the audience. He broke his stare with a well-placed reference to Marina (Abramović) and that this was not a tribute to her. Bringing up Abramović, the archive, and the self-archive (he would, in fact, be performing parts from some of his past works), Gómez-Peña quickly positioned the performance we were about to see as a critique of the recent en masse attention be given to the archive and questions around re-performance (reenactment, reinvention, reinterpretation, etcetera, etcetera) and referred to it as his “conceptual performance.” He then lit up a “conceptual” cigarette. It was a real cigarette—a prop—which led into a breathing exercise and a suggested crotch massage (what he called “Chicano Tantra”). As the smoke filled the room, I could not help but take some pleasure out of how uncomfortable that must have been making some people in the audience who, whether outwardly or not, support the United States’ culture of shame around the act of smoking. Gómez-Peña would also go on to take jabs at the organic, gluten-free, and the raw.

Gómez-Peña smoking his “conceptual” cigarette.

Gómez-Peña smoking his “conceptual” cigarette.

This critique of the multitude of highly specific subcultures that have emerged in contemporary culture was only a small piece of the performance lecture though. Much was said and many comedic gestures were made, which I simply cannot remember. There was an open letter to Jan Brewer on the implications of monolingualism; a questioning of the United States’ status as an actual functioning democracy, the problematics of protest, subversion, and marginality (it felt to me very connected to Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of the culture industry), and of ever-increasing systems of surveillance and censorship for which he enacted the censorship of words in his text; a lot of audience interaction including a bottle that got passed around (yes, I took a drink) and another bottle on stage from which Gómez-Peña periodically drank; different voice impersonations like Castilian Spanish, Midwestern U.S. English, and Chollo; some things in Spanish that I didn’t understand; and several costume changes—in the beginning with input from the audience but later because it was getting really hot in there, and Gómez-Peña had on several layers of clothing which he proceeded to take off. This shedding of his accoutrements, from his jacket, to his headdress, his head band and finally the elastic band in his hair seemed though also to progress with his oration, as the themes raised drew closer and closer to his own practice. It was towards the end that the artist began to lay it bear in terms of how he understands the space of possibility in performance. This was perhaps what stuck with me most, in part because I am often plagued by questions of political efficacy in the work that I do and the communities in which I participate. What is the effect of what we do?

With this he brought it back to our place and time, on the campus of Stanford—was this space a democracy? What is at stake? This seemed the question, now coming near the end, as the pervasive question throughout—what are the stakes? Bringing it back to his own performance that night, from where this performance lecture had begun, the question of art’s political possibility—its stakes—re-emerged. The question of the spectacles of art and radicalism as they function today connected to the larger issue of the system; the system against which Gómez-Peña had initially intervened against by demanding us non-ticket holders in first. As he said: the system does not work. The system is the problem. Even as I type those words, I get a little chill because I know it is true. The question though, and this brings us back to the stakes, is how to imagine something different. Before we can even do something different, we must first be able to imagine it. This, as Slavoj Žižek put it in his keynote presentation at last year’s Creative Time Summit and Gómez-Peña spoke to and enacted on Friday night, is what is at stake: our collective capacity for imagination.

Sunday, 30 June 2013
12:35 pm
Oakland, CA

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2 thoughts on ““Strange Democracy: Border Wars” by Guillermo Gómez-Peña

  1. Pingback: Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s “Strange Democracy: Border Wars” | psi19performanceblog

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