In the border region between the United States and Mexico, who are the insiders and who are the outsiders? Guillermo Gómez-Peña puts borders – between people of different nationalities, ethnicities, religions and sexual preferences – at the center of his work. He returned to his CalArts alma mater for the Arts in the One World Conference (AOW), January 27-29, to give a keynote presentation and a workshop for aspiring artist-activists. He challenged participants to use their art to create borderless zones that can bring people together.
Convened by the School of Theatre at Cal Arts, AOW is an interdisciplinary look at how the arts, politics and society connect. In past years the gathering has focused on genocide and mass violence. This year participants discussed the borders that divide us and heard artists describe how they are mapping new terrains that breaks down walls put up between people, cultures and nations.
Gómez-Peña is a self-described “stubborn Aztec hipster,” who likes to play with iconic images that get manipulated to feed our fear of the other. His personas include a Narco-Dandy, El Mexterminator and San Poncho Aztlaneca, a shaman/saint from an unknown border region.
While still a student at CalArts Gómez-Peña wrapped himself in a batik cloth and lay down on the floor of an elevator, a statement on the lonliness of the immigrant experience in the United States. Another time he dressed as a homeless Mexican and begged for food. (No one stopped.)
The human body is often used in his work as a metaphor for the body politic. In his Mapa Corpo Series, performed with Violeta Luna and an acupuncturist, he re-created a ritualistic sacrifice in which members of the audience were invited to help stick needles topped with flags into Luna’s naked body. The piece is a statement against the War On Terror, which Gómez-Peña calls “the War On Difference.” (To see the piece on YouTube, click here.)
Using his artistry, wit, intellect and a considerable dose of compassion, Gómez-Peña invites us to examine the transgressions of western society and overcome our fear of “outsiders.”
In a seven-hour workshop held at the conference, he gave participants a suitcase full of simple props, and told them to transform themselves into icons representing the sacred and profane. “Think of it as a performance jam,” he said. “Performance artists jam just like musicians.”
With an eccentric selection of music playing while the actors got into their roles, he likened the exercise to a cabaret: “Think of it as an obscure German lounge bar where the images connect in a common theme.”
At the end of the workshop he encouraged aspiring performance artists to create “a borderless ethos” – experimental laboratories for change where divisions between outsiders and insiders begin to fade away. “The way forward requires hospitality across the divide,” he said.
Participants emerged with huge smiles on their faces. CalArts multimedia artist Mersiha Mesihovic said she felt the workshop changed the way she would approach her work in the future. Dancer Lindsey Lollie agreed, adding she hopes to attend the International Summer Workshop in Oaxaca, hosted by Gómez-Peña’s troupe, La Pocha Nostra.
Reprinted in Dangerous Border Crossers. (2000: 61)
For more on GGP’s workshops, see this link . For resrouces, check out La Pocha Nostra’s bookstore. See also this article, “Disclaimer: Notes on the death on the American artist,” from In These Times (May 19, 2006).
( Merisha and Lindsey, mentioned above, collaborated on another AOW performance, “On The Subject Of Freedom,” which you can read about it by clicking here.)