Performance Art and the Politicized Body

Please be aware, some images in this post contain nudity.

I was shocked, not surprised, when Donald Trump was elected. I have been spending a lot of time in Mexico over the past year, watching from a little further away as he spouted his dangerous rhetoric to all who would listen. I felt fearful, disgusted, and partially confused. How could someone this hateful and uninformed be running for the presidency? No one running for the GOP was any prize, but this? This was unprecedented. And yet, deep down I had a gut feeling he would become the president. I understood just the kind of person who believes lies because that feels less scary than their own truth.

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My character from the performative fashion show exercise. San Miguel De Allende, MX. May 2016.

Being in Mexico has allowed me some perspective and pause. Residing in the states, I can definitively say I was living in fear. Living in Portland, ME, my daily life was relatively tame, but blatant racism and microaggressions were a regular occurrence. The news brought devastating reports of black deaths by the hands of police, mass shootings, burning of churches, and countless other fear inducing stories throughout the US. There were days where I felt that I was the one bleeding in the street, every fear pouring out of the figurative wounds in my body. I mourned, got angry, felt compelled to make a statement. Compelled to use my body as a vessel for change. Yet, marching and protesting were not where I felt most comfortable.

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My character from the final performance, in San Miguel De Allende, MX. May 2016

Where I do feel comfortable is in my creativity. Performance art has been my main creative outlet for the past 5 years. Creating art with my body is the thing that has saved me over and over again. Leaving Maine was an opportunity for me to challenge myself creatively, and I have had many occasions to do so. And while being in Mexico, I was gifted with the most amazing opportunity to work with radical performance art troupe La Pocha Nostra.

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‘Los performeros se preparan para el jam’ From La Pocha Nostra’s Re-Encuentro 12. Baruk Serna, Linnea Rufo, Raul Gamez, and myself. San Miguel De Allende, MX. May 2016.

La Pocha Nostra has been around since 1993, creating performance, visual, and poetic art that they meld together into their interactive live jams and art labs. Founder Guillermo Gomez-Pena, a Chicano poet, activist and performance artist, has been addressing the relationship between the US and Mexico for over 30 years. The group’s work primarily discusses border culture, the politicized body, and cross cultural identity; reaching into nuanced areas such as gender, sex, race, stereotypes and religion, among other topics.

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‘Preparando la Cena Canibal’ From La Pocha Nostra’s Re-Encuentro 12. San Miguel De Allende, MX. May 2016.

Having been in this game for 22 years as a collective, the knowledge of La Pocha Nostra members spans disciplines, mediums, education styles and techniques, allowing them to provide a truly immersive and cross-disciplinary learning experience. They hand select participants from across all spectrums of gender, race, nationality, age and heritage, bringing together artists from all over the globe. There is no tokenization of identity here, yet the images created by these diverse groups call attention to the social tropes attached to their bodies.

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Characters from a live jam exercise, Baruk and myself. Guanajuato, MX. September 2016.

Participating in these workshops made me increasingly present in my body and mind. The structure of the 8 hour days starts with body activities in groups or with partners. Gazing exercises, sensory deprivation, and practices such as Aikido are incorporated and ‘Poch-ified’. Participants work with each other as ‘artist’ and ‘raw material’, collaborating to create images with each other’s bodies. The second half of class begins to involve props and costuming, and pulls in the basic exercises as well. Instructors pose prompts for the images, and we work as a team without speaking to pull together the elements for the bodies and the scene.  Everyone involved has shared ownership in the finished product, we each have the chance to all fill the roles and to use an editing eye.

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Poster for La Pocha Nostra’s ‘Uroboro’ performance,presented during Festival Internacional Cervantino. Guanajuato, MX. October 2016.

The culmination of these days, whether the workshop be 3,5 or 10 days, is a photo shoot and a live jam performance. Characters and images emerge throughout the process, which are later recalled and culled through by the group. Final selection is done by Pocha members. These images are then documented in strategic locations, with several being placed into the final performance. Quite often, the sites of Pocha works hold great social, political or spiritual context, and the placement of bodies within these spaces create a powerful language of activism.

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My character from a live jam exercise. A preliminary version of what became my final character for the performance. Guanajuato, MX. September 2016.

In my experience, the most important element in La Pocha Nostra’s approach is the concept of radical tenderness. Their definitions range from practical to poetic, but the most obvious way of putting it – treat others as you want to be treated. Pretty simple. Applying it in performance art is essentially the same as real life. Yet, in this performative space, participants communicate and interact with such awareness, that one can palpably see borders disintegrating. It has allowed me to feel connected to a room full of people whom I’ve never met – closer than I feel with many family members, other activist friends, and people I’ve known my entire life.

The mantra is simple: Sin Fronteras – Without Borders.

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Testing out my final character,’ High Fashion Tribal TechNomad.’ Guanajuato, MX. October 2016.

The most amazing thing about this experience is the effect if has on the participants themselves. Beyond the message and the visual impact imparted to the audience, the work that I did in those workshops was transformative to my being. And I believe strongly that it is an experience everyone should have. Whether it’s as radical as the work that La Pocha Nostra is doing, or as simple as coming together with any group of people to play and explore what it means to be human, we should all be doing it.

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Poster for the workshop performance salon & La Pocha Nostra performance during Festival Internacional Cervantino. September/October 2016

I believe art saves lives. It may seem cheesy, but it’s the truth. The act of creating is, to me, crucial to understanding oneself, others, and the world. Creativity is innate in all humans. Yet, not enough of us tap into that potential. Taking in the message of art allows us to step into a world someone else imagined, leaving behind for a moment our past perceptions. However, exercising creativity is potentially the single most enriching endeavor for any human. And potentially one of the most political actions as well. In that action comes an extraordinary kind of freedom.

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My durational statuary character from ‘Uroboro’. Centro Cultural ISSSTE, Guanajuato MX. October 2016

I want people to become less afraid of performance art, of labels, of invisible borders and faceless enemies. I want them to embrace poetry, radical tenderness, collaboration and the power of the nude body to send a message. Among many other things, I want people to become less afraid of each other, and to translate that fear into a healthy awareness of their impact and our shared responsibility to each other. Most of all, I want people to recognize their universe-given power to create their reality. And what I find most beautiful about collaborative art- it allows us to create a new reality together.

 

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