On Friday, May 3, 2019, as part of the Big Ideas in Art and Culture Lecture Series, CAFKA is hosting an evening with Guillermo Gómez-Peña with cameos by Pocha Nostra members Saula Garcia Lopez and Balitronica Gomez. Combining spoken word poetry, activist theory, radical storytelling and language experimentation, Gómez-Peña offers critical and humorous commentary about the art world, academia, new technologies, the culture of war and violence in the US, organized crime in Mexico, gender and race politics, and the latest wave of complications surrounding gentrification in the “creative city”. On the following Saturday, May 4 and Sunday, May 5, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Saula Garcia Lopez and Balitronica Gomez will conduct a two-day cross-cultural/cross-disciplinary/cross-generational workshop for performance artists, actors, dancers and students from diverse ethnic communities, generations and artistic backgrounds. From the Pocha Nostra web site below, a history and reflection on the La Pocha Nostra philosophy of live performance. 

La Pocha Nostra Live Performance

In 1993 Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Roberto Sifuentes and Nola Mariano founded La Pocha Nostra in Los Angeles, California. The objective was to formally conceptualize Gomez-Pena's collaborations with other performance artists. In 1995 La Pocha Nostra moved to San Francisco's Mission District. In late 2001 La Pocha completed the process of incorporation and became a non-profit-organization. Members include performance artists Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Violeta Luna, Michele Ceballos, Roberto Sifuentes and over thirty associates worldwide. Projects range from performance solos and duets to large-scale performance installations using video, DVD, photography, audio, and cyber-art.

Over the years, La Pocha Nostra's most significant contribution to the field has perhaps been in the hybrid realm of performance/installation. We create interactive “living museums” that parody various colonial practices of representation including the ethnographic diorama (as found in museums of natural history), the Freak Show, the Indian Trading Post, the border “curio shop,” the sex shop/strip joint window display and their contemporary equivalents in global media and corporate entertainment. In fictionalized contexts, we “exhibit” ourselves as human artifacts, our bodies highly decorated, within aesthetically designed diorama environments. At times we are “specimens” from an endangered tribe or “border saints” from a persecuted religion. Other times we surrender our will to the audience and assume composite identities dictated by the fears and desires of museum visitors and/or Internet users. 

The composite identities of our “ethno-cyborg” personae are manufactured with the following formula in mind: one quarter stereotype; one quarter audience projection; one quarter aesthetic artifact and one quarter unpredictable personal/social monster. These “artificial savages,” are mere cultural projections of First World desire/ fear of its surrounding subcultures and the so-called “Third World Other,” The live performance becomes the process via which we reveal the morphology of intercultural fetishes as well as the engineering mechanisms propelling the behaviour of both our “savages” and our audiences.

When the doors open, the audience steps into a “total” environment, where we (the ethno- cyborgs) are “on display” on platforms of varying heights and sizes for three to four hours a night, sometimes over a three-day period. Live and pre-recorded music, multiple video projections and slides, fog, cinematic lighting, embalmed animals, old-fashion medical figurines and “ethno-kitsch” design motifs (cigar shop Indians, sleepy Mexicans, “Negro-bilia” etc.) all help to enhance our “ethno-techno” and “robo-baroque” aesthetic, and contribute to create a “heightened state” in the spectator / participant.

In the first hour of the performance, the experience is purely voyeuristic as the ethno-cyborgs create slow motion emblematic tableau vivants. Our ritualized actions sample and mix radical political imagery, religious iconography, “extreme” pop culture, sports, racially orientated fashion and theatricalized sexuality. Symbolic sexuality is everywhere. Some performers feel inclined to eroticize political violence and even while others utilize performative sexuality as syntax to gel religion and politics, or as a means to invert power relations and media images of demonized “Otherness” These ever-morphing tableau overlap with each other creating surprising juxtapositions and fleeting glances of unique third meanings, which develop above and beyond our original intentions. At times, a catwalk connecting two platforms becomes a revolving stage for short performances by local artists commenting on fashion, gender and ethnicity. All action happens simultaneously.

The performative structure is open and non-coercive resembling in its poly-artistic nature an ancient community event. Audience members walk around the dioramas designing their journey. They can stay for as long as they wish, come in and out of the space, return hours later, or even the following day, they can either be full participants in our performance games or mere voyeurs, and no one is ever judged.

As the evening evolves, what began as a purely voyeuristic experience becomes increasingly participatory, we begin to make ourselves available for audience members to “explore” us and play with us. They can touch us, smell us, and hand feed us. They can braid our hair, change our make-up and props, and try different headdresses on us. In other words, they get to use the performers as “human dolls” In some instances, they can tag [spray-paint) the bodies of certain performers. They are able to point replicas guns at us in order to experience the feeling of having another human surrender at their feet or even put dog leashes around our necks and engage in consensual power games with us. At times, audience members may suggest something we’re not attempted before, in Which case we have to try and respond to their challenge. The “menu” of possible performance interactions, changes from site to site.

We often set up a diorama station where audience members can choose a “temporary ethnic identity” and become “their favorite cultural other” through make-up and costumes provided by us. Once their “instant identity change” takes place, they are encouraged to integrate themselves into our other living dioramas. Audiences love this part. Almost everyone is willing to escape their ethnicity and gender as long as there are no physical or social repercussions, again, we don't exercise judgment on anyone.

We also give audience members the option to take off their clothes and symbolically perform their inter-racial sexual fantasies on a platform and many are willing to do so. We are always surprised by the number of people willing to be sexually performative in public. This even happens when we are performing in conservative cities or in countries not used to performance art or experimental theater, (We can't stress enough that the nature of this play is strictly symbolic and never crosses over to include actual sexual acts, sometimes it becomes necessary to point this out, even to the audience).

Occasionally we incorporate an open mike in the center of the space to allow audience members to speak up or talk back, they can read their own poetry, voice their opinion on the proceedings, express an outrageous fantasy, or desire, or give commands to the performers. If what they are saying is uninteresting or too long, we try to politely persuade them to hand the mike to others.

Throughout the performance, both audience members and performers are continuously making aesthetic, political and ethical decisions on the spot without even realizing it. For the audience, choosing whether or not to participate in this or that performance game means it becomes necessary for them to exercise their civic muscles and political intelligence, This is precisely where we feel the true political power of the word lies, In the last hour of the performance, we finally reverse the gaze and step out of our dioramas. We then create tableau vivants with the most responsive and audacious audience members, symbolically manipulating their body positions and adding or subtracting costumes and props to their impromptu personae. The distance between performer and audience is completely erased. This is our favourite part of the performance.

Inspired by director Richard Gough, sometimes we set up a “food station” within the performance space where a local chef cool-is his/her favourite dishes and sells delicious food snacks with names invented by us to suit the atmosphere of the event, As the food station is usually located right in front of the catwalk (where an extreme fashion show takes place) the audience member is placed in the uncomfortable position of being a cultural tourist. We also set up a bar inside the performance space as this helps to encourage a carnival atmosphere throughout the experience. When this is possible, the behavior of the audience changes as they become dramatically less inhibited during and after the ingestion of tropical cocktails or shots of strong liquor. This scenario allows for a more “revealing.”

What the live audience ends up experiencing is a stylized anthropomorphization of their/our own post-colonial demons and hallucinations-- a kind of cross-cultural poltergeist, in which the space between self and other, us and them, fear and desire, becomes blurred and unspecific, It becomes ground zero in intercultural relations, In this sense, the performance/installation functions both as a bizarre set design for a contemporary enactment of “cultural pathologies” and as a ceremonial space for people to reflect on their attitudes toward other cultures. The playfulness and seductive imagery of these “dangerous border games” creates an atmosphere in which audience members are not always immediately aware of the implications of their actions - until the next morning, when they wake up with a “cultural hangover” and a philosophical headache.

Unless I detect the potential for real physical harm, we let all this happen. Why? Our objective (at least the conscious one) is to unleash the millennial demons, not to pontificate. As performance artists, we wish to understand our new role and place in this culture of extreme spectacle. We believe that these bizarre millennial rituals and games trigger a long-term process of reflexivity in the psyche of the viewer, which hopefully leads to deeper ethical and political questions. Why?

The heightened state audience members may find themselves in during a performance allows them to look at and accept images they would usually reject as impossible, distasteful or unrealistic. These images clearly stay with them, later on, the audience will recall them and will have to deal with their own memories in the “cold light of day” – this allows them to question what they have seen and their feelings towards such imagery closely and over a long period of time. The subtexts of these performance games seem to read: “We are all racist and sexist; we are all horny, tender, playful and violent; it's human nature; we are all implicated in this madness, Let's figure it out together. Let's cross each other's borders and see what happens.” It is precisely in these raw interstices of tolerance/intolerance where we can really further a dialogue on intercultural relations, instead of pretending that hollow gestures of sympathy and “empathy” can transform human condition overnight.

We strongly believe that performance furthers dialogue by creating various pathways, trajectories and unsuspected intersections which are mostly discovered/learned through the body and later circulated through language and action. For the moment, our job is merely to open the Pandora's both of our times and let the demons loose; to open the infected border wound so to speak. Others (academics and activists) will have to help us understand, domesticate or fight those demons.