Guillermo Gomez-Pena

Performing the Other-as-freak

Performing against the backdrop of the mainstream bizarre has been quite a formidable challenge. My colleagues and I have explored the multi-screen spectacle of the Other-as-freak by decorating and 'enhancing' our brown bodies with special effects make-up, hyper-ethnic motifs, hand-made 'lowrider' prosthetics and braces, and what we term 'useless' or 'imaginary' technology. The idea is to heighten features of fear and desire in the Anglo imagination, and 'spectacularize' our 'extreme identities' so to speak, with the clear understanding that these identities have already been affected by the surgery of global media. The composite identities of our 'ethno-cyborg' personae are manufactured with the following formula in mind: one fourth stereotype, one fourth audience projection, one fourth aesthetic artifact and one fourth social behavior. We pose on dioramas as 'artificial savages' making ourselves completely available for the audience to 'explore' us, smell us, touch us, change our costumes and props, and even replace us for a short period of time. In the last hour of the 'show', people get to choose from a menu of possible interactions, which changes from site to site. Among other options, they can whip us, handle us roughly with S&M leashes, 'tag' (spray paint) our bodies, and point replicas of handguns and Uzis at us. Some audience members actually invite us to reverse the gaze and inflict violence on them. Curiously, they tend to be the most conservative looking ones.

Ceding our will to the audience and inviting them to participate in what appear to be 'extreme performance games' are integral aspects of the new phase of our work. Regardless of the country or the city where we perform, the results of these border performance experiments reveal a new relationship between artist and audience; between the brown body and the white voyeur. Most interactions are characterised by the lack of political or ethical implications. Unlike say 10 years ago, when audiences were overly sensitive regarding gender and racial politics, our new audiences are more than willing to manipulate our identity, overtly sexualize us, and engage in (symbolic or real) acts of cross-cultural/cross-gender transgression, even violence. Unless we 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. As performance artists, we wish to understand our new role and place in this culture of extreme spectacle which has been forced upon us in the past five years. In the process of detecting the placement of the new borders (especially since September 11), it becomes necessary to open up a sui generis ceremonial space for the audience to reflect on their new relationship with cultural, racial and political Otherness. This is a conceptual place in which they may be able to engage in meaningful, transgressive behaviour and thought. The unique space of ambiguity and contradiction opened up by performance art becomes ideal for this kind of anthro-poetical inquiry. 


Part of Live Culture at Tate Modern