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Guillermo Gomez-Peña

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Dec 05, 2002
Location: USA
Topic: Borderabilia: Imagining a New Way of Presenting Art
Interviewer: Kaytie Johnson

LatinArt:  Curators and artists throughout the world are experimenting with original presentational formats for contemporary art which take into consideration the drastic epistemological changes in the relationship between audience and cultural institution; artist and audience produced by the current mainstream culture of interactivity and role playing. In this candid conversation regarding the genesis of their project "El Border Curiosity Cabinet", writer/performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña and curator Kaytie Johnson envision a new way of presenting their ideas. The original conversation took place in late 2002. It was revised and slightly updated in July of 2004.

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  I really like the idea of creating a contemporary curiosity cabinet. It's a logical extension of both my performance/installation work (The Year of the White Bear, The Temple of Confessions, The Living Museum of Fetish-ized Identities, etc.) and your ongoing interest in border art.

LatinArt:  What do you see in it?

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  Carefully selected "borderabilia" and what I term "barrio conceptual art." We can have "high" velvet art, juxtaposed with deranged tourist art, rare transcultural comix, and pirate videos. I see pirate culture...

LatinArt:  ...and of course, a selection of artifacts from your personal performance archaeology, unique props and costumes from your performance biography.

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  Sure, the idea is to create a robo-baroque environment with an encyclopedic scope, enveloped by a literary metafiction which is part social reality and part Chicano sci-fi.

LatinArt:  Just like our sensibilities...

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  ...and our times. The backdrop is the macabre theater of globalization gone wrong, or rather "the global(ized) border," and the overall aesthetic ought to be bien high-tech etnográfica, bien Discovery channel on acid, que no? I like the term "Ethno-techno" which was coined by this Spanish critic referring to my work.

LatinArt:  I believe this project could effectively recontextualize, not just mimic or recreate, the wunderkammers, or "wonder chambers/cabinets" that were wildly popular in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We can achieve this by replacing the objects of naturalia and artificialia that they originally contained with our own, borderized versions...a contemporary version that resonates with your own writing and performance strategies, and addresses and challenges the politics of (re)presentation and display engaged in by museums.

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  Let's find some Latin, faux Latin, or Spanglish names for artist-made artifacts that mimic border pop culture and juxtapose them with trans- or intercultural pop artifacts that are themselves defacto "involuntary conceptual art." Am I clear?

LatinArt:  Involuntary conceptual art? I love it! One of the categories of objects on display in the original wunderkammers was artificialia, which typically consisted of man-made objects that the collector, or Liefhebber, found to be unusual or exotic. In our borderized version we could include "exotic artifacts from distant cultures"---we could redefine this category by limiting it to objects associated with hegemonic [a.k.a., Anglo] culture? The dominant culture would be made exotic through cultural inversion.

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  Our modus operandi must be "reverse anthropology."

LatinArt:  Explain...

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  We need to "anthrolopologize" Anglo tribes and millennial subcultures by taxonomizing their artifacts and creating dioramas of say, a "suburban family" or "a republican yuppie" with a perverse orientalist secret collection...(pause) or a "redneck"...

LatinArt:  A "redneck" diorama? Yes, the male figure(s) would have to have "mullet" hairdos, a bad sunburn or - better yet - a farmer's tan, and a wife-beater T-shirt. A very Anglo suburban family, with a trompe-l'oiel SUV parked in front of a "cookie-cutter" house in the suburbs would work. Presenting what is considered to be "the norm" in this context would be perfect for anthropologizing it, turning it into the "new Other."

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  What about exhibiting "the collection of a fallen Silicon Valley tycoon," or the paraphernalia of a "Global Apocalypse hipster?" During the opening, we can actually exhibit a live "chic New York curator" with his/her personal photo album containing staged images of cultural transvestism?

LatinArt:  What do you mean?

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  I mean staged photos of the curator on safari in the Third World in search of new talent and posing in local attire with the newly found primitives...What if I taxonomize you on opening night, and place you inside a Plexi surrounded by your own cultural fetishes? ...or even better, se me ocurre, having an "authentic radical anthropologist" inside a Plexiglas box. Michael Taussig may do it. James Clifford might... It's right up their alley. They are quite performative.

LatinArt:  Sure, I'm up for being taxonomized. It would be important to this project. If we're trying to push the envelope in terms of curatorial practice, this is a step in the right direction. If we can get Taussig or Clifford to participate at some level, that would be great, too! If one of them can't stand inside a Plexi box, maybe he would consider contributing a text from a "traditional" anthropological perspective for an exhibition catalogue, essay...or a fictionalized interview with you, the "Border Liefhebber."

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  I truly believe we wouldn't have any problem finding an adventurous anthropologist to perform on opening night in every city the project premiers. Then a video diorama could replace them for the duration of the show.

LatinArt:  How do you envision including the audience during the performance, or in the project itself? Will they be invited to be taxonomized, or to bring along and add their cultural fetishes to the installation? An important part of your performances has always been your direct engagement with the audience in the form of an invitation to become your collaborators, if only for an hour or two. It's remarkable what they are willing to do, given the chance and the appropriate props and suggestions...

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  Maybe on the poster or the poscard announcing the exhibit we can encourage audience members "to contribute a unique artifact from their secret collection which reflects their intercultural fetishes." A selction of these artifacts can be added to an "audience vitrine." We can also incorporate them in a performative manner. On opening night we can construct "living dioramas" with a few daring audience members. We can dress them up with a few costumes and props as colonial explorers or "extreme tourists" and have them pose next to other dioramas.

LatinArt:  Estas loco, pero me gusta la idea. How about this category: "border exotica."

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  Me late...or "border chic." Let's problematize contemporary notions of "border." Nowadays, with savage globalization, borders are quite slippery. Everything "border" is "hip". Border culture has become ubicuitous, and somewhat meaningless. Tijuana is only a few minutes away from Berlin or Calcutta. My crazy collection of border exotica was not all made in Juarez or Tijuana. The great paradox is that many of the objects in my bizarre collection of barriobilia, Mexicanabilia and Chicano/border exotica were made in Singapore, Taiwan, China or New Jersey, like the "Tequila Tres Dedos." German MTV regularly features Tex-Mex and generic Latino pop sponsored by Bacardi. I was just in Norway and Mexican "cantinas" are now in vogue in Oslo. We don't need to bend reality too much. Frida and Jackie Chan have finally made it in Hollywood, and Televisa imports Mexican soap operas to Russia and the Middle East.

LatinArt:  Can you think of anything in your collection that might qualify for the category of "commemorative medals and plaques"?

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  I've got a collection of distinctions I've received throughout the years.

LatinArt:  Like?

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  I'm thinking...The ex-Soviet Artist Union gave me a medal in 1989 as an honorary member. I also have lots of gafetes of "official artist" residues and souvenirs of my temporary journey through the elite art world; being at times the first and only Chicano artist to be invited here and there; to be invited, say, by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, or the Tate Modern. I have lots of nametags, some with my photo looking very serious or perplexed.. They are hilarious. I can easily imagine a velvet painting or a photo of me with a jacket covered with all these insignias of neocolonial reconquista with the title: "Third World artist certified by...the name of a big institution."

LatinArt:  How about substituting portraits of the collector's ancestors and colleagues with some of the black velvet paintings of past performance personas that you've commissioned from Tijuana velvet artists? After all, those paintings were the reason for our original meeting, and part of the inspiration for this project and dialogue.

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  Fine, but we should also commission a new series of velvet paintings with contemporary hybrid performance personas.

LatinArt:  Like?

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  I'm' thinking of "Cyborg Ricky Martin, made in Epcot" with vampire fangs, or "La Gloria Trevi behind bars." What about the infamous "Bush Laden," the Taco Bell Chihuahua with a tiny mariachi hat, or Vicente Fox as Vicente Fernandez? (pause). Wait...Subcomandante Marcos as a rocker...or even better, nude? Arafat nude? I’m thinking of the millennial Velvet Hall of Fame... I'd say let's commission at least five new ones.

LatinArt:  Great! We should hang these portraits "salon style," in accordance with the way they were displayed in the original cabinets. After all, the installation won't be aligned with the pristine white cube, minimalist installation aesthetic. That won't work here; I think this project is also important and interesting because it also throws into question notions of taste by blurring the boundary between "good" and "bad" taste. If we include velvet portraits, why not also include hand-altered photographs of border characters?

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  I know this old photographer who hand-paints and then enlarges old photos. They are gorgeous, bien 1940s. They appeal directly to the whole border nostalgia. The guy is an old dandy on Mission Street in San Francisco. He holds a rare trait. We could have him create a series of "old border characters." I've got lots of interesting photographs from various sources: performative portraits of various "Latin boomers", rare ethnographic porn, racist movie stills, etc. We must choose the images together. I get too involved and I need your bird's eye as a curator.

LatinArt:  For some reason (Chicano artist) Victor Ochoa's "border loterí­a cards" come to mind, for their versions of border characters. Are you thinking of something similar? Maybe Victor, and other artists, might be willing to add items from their own personal collections to the curiosity cabinet?

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  A room of "artist donations" or gifts. We could ask Enrique Chagoya, Ruben Ortiz-Torres, Cesar Martí­nez, Tracey Rose...

LatinArt:  ...or James Luna, Robert Sanchez and Richard Lou, "the original border artists," and others to lend us their favorite "border artifact." That way we could extend the collaborative process beyond you and me.

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  What other categories do you have in mind?

LatinArt:  Another category in the original cabinets is described as "exquisite and rare products of human artifice." How about commissioning a wax artist to produce some wax figures? Rubén Ortiz-Torres and Jim Mendiola just worked with a Tijuana wax artist, who made an incredible figure of Ozzy Osbourne pissing on the Alamo. Maybe we can find a collector who will lend us some wax figures from their collection? We could always "dress them up" to fit within the specific context of the project...

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  Depending on the city where the exhibit takes place, the educational department of the museum can help us research in advance interesting local pop museums (Ripley's, wax, roadside museums, etc) and we can borrow stuff from them, specially the stuff they don't show.

LatinArt:  You know, it would also be interesting for hosting venues to find oddities in the collections of local mainstream museums as well. Most museums have bizarre and often inexplicably obtained objects in our collections that are never put on view...How about including props and costumes from some of your past performances? Like the tricked-out "low rider wheelchair," the red-hot toilet of the Mexterminator, or the serape/Aztec kilt of one of your shamans in drag personas?

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  Sure. We just need to go to my performance storage space and unearth my "personal archaeology." I'm also thinking of items from La Pocha Nostra's collection of poetic or useless technology and hand-made low rider prosthetics - what I term "imaginary technology," la tecnologia conceptual de los que no tienen acceso a la verdadera, me explico?

LatinArt:  We could also consider reconfiguring your project "The Happy Little People of Color and Their Quaint Artifacts" to fit the parameters of this project. You have lots of strange racistobilia at home, hundreds of bizarre figurines from different periods and cultures...

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  We also need to include documents.

LatinArt:  Now in terms of "documents", we could include the amate codex that you and Enrique Chagoya collaborated on, placed in a special case? It's highly likely that the original collector's cabinets contained illustrated manuscripts, or codices, from the so-called New World. Let's present our own version.

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  Definitely. Along with a selection of transcultural comix from different parts of the world, comix that tell the story of how globalization was derailed and how street border culture took over the planet. I have many Japanese underground comic books in which the anti-hero is a Latino, and all the super-geishas wear mariachi mini-skirts.

LatinArt:  (Laughter) Okay - another category is described in the texts I've researched as "tools, instruments, and weapons." How about using some of your performance texts as "intellectual weapons?"

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  You mean in a catalogue format?

LatinArt:  Yes, but we could also reproduce excerpts of your performance texts and display them as "conceptual weapons" on the walls.

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  Short poetic excerpts in Spanglish or robo-esperanto...but they should be highly designed so as to also perform the role of "linguistic props" and design elements of the installation. The exhibit should be approached as a "total installation/total universe," que no?

LatinArt:  How do you feel about this idea: invite each venue that hosts the project to include an object from its permanent collection in our curiosity cabinet, one that the curator feels fits within the context of the project? I think this could be a fascinating potential component, one that would allow the institution to participate and would expose how, as a "high art" or natural history institution, it interprets the project; again, the politics (and poetics) of display.

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  It's a hot idea. Not only one, but several pieces could be included: objects, paintings, forgeries, you name it. This way, the museum staff would collaborate as well. Every museum has at least one curator who is as crazy are...o no?

LatinArt:  Of course...I've met a few in my day. They're the very people who will be interested in taking on this project, in collaborating with us, in pushing the curatorial and contextual envelope. By the way: are you thinking of performing yourself on opening night?

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  I imagine myself as a sort of deranged roadside museum impresario explaining his collection to the museum audience on opening night, a kind of Discovery Channel-Chicano Doctor Livingston who slips in and out of French or British English. The guy knows the jargon, but speaks from a different positionality. Me explico?

LatinArt:  Absolutamente. I see it as a contemporary border Liefhebber. Let's create a borderized term for your persona in his role as this newly constructed role of a mad, encyclopedic collector of borderabilia. I don't think it's enough to simply define his identity as an "anthropoloco," to borrow a term coined by Richard Lou and Robert Sanchez.

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  I like it, but will this new performance persona permeate it all? The metafiction of the show, the catalogue, the opening performance, even the PR? Isn't this a bit egomaniacal? I feel somehow uneasy...unless we add a serious dose of self-referential humor and a self-reflexive critique.

LatinArt:  It's fine for this new performance persona to permeate all aspects of the project. After all the collector's cabinet is supposed to be the total worldview of the collector. Your presence should be palpable even when you are not physically there. We could make a separate video component or an audio tour guide where your voice leads visitors through the project. I think that would be hilarious! We could make the script for our audio guide in hyper-irreverent Spanglish - what do you think? Deal with partial mistranslations...

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  To turn the actual museum visit into a performative/ anthropological "total experience" for the visitor? A parody of "total culture?" I like the radical pedagogical possibilities of this. But then I would have to be replaced by actual tour guides, and that is more interesting to me. I need to decentralize my persona and my voice in this whole madness. But...(pause) we can develop a script for local actors who will perform the roles of "tour guides."

LatinArt:  How about having museum docents take on this function? I've never seen a traditional museum docent transform into a performance artist...

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  Even better. We just need to write a script for them and rehearse it a few days before opening night. The script can contain "the hidden stories" of the objects, their cultural secrets, border trivia, etc. parts of the script must in Spanglish and franglé.

LatinArt:  I ran across an interesting piece of information while reading up on curiosity cabinets: in the seventeenth century, one collector used a dwarf not only as a guide to the collection, but as one of the marvels or curiosities in the collection. Can you pinche believe it? Perhaps the performative component of the exhibition (i.e., opening, special events, etc.) can mimic or recontextualize this peculiarity. As a replacement for the tour guide or collector, we could add a video component that transforms you (or your new performance persona) into a virtual tour guide.

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  I'm currently working on this film titled "The Smithsonian of the Barrio," featuring my crazy San Francisco home as a roadside museum. It's almost finished. The film parodies several genres of representation: the pop archaeological programs of the Discovery Channel and the Travel Channel, as well as serious art documentaries about artist's studios. We can use this video as a virtual tour guide or as "a window to the habitat of the artist/specimen, servidor."

LatinArt:  What about a Web component? It could be either a virtual tour of the collection, or a parallel virtual border curiosity cabinet. Developing a Web site devoted to this project could be really fun and interesting; we could make it interactive, much like your and Robert Sifuentes's "Tempe of Confessions" site. The film could pan around the actual installation, make it almost like being in the room, part of the installation. If people can't physically get to a venue to see the project, they can visit it in cyberspace.

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  Ex-centris Digitalia?

LatinArt:  Hell yes! But, getting back to the categories of objects on view in the original cabinets, how can we reinterpret what was referred to as naturalia? Fossils are an example of this. In the seventeenth century fossils were viewed as relics of a past geologic age. In our version we could reconfigure "fossils" as relics of the border itself, prior to the advent of the New World Border. How about including pieces of the border fence, sort of like chunks of the Berlin Wall? Or, "pieces" of the pre-super-militarized fence? Remnants of Ramalla? Tourist objects, curios, souvenirs of the border, commissioned piñatas in some freaky forms?

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  Border "fossils"? I like it. "El Chicanosaurus Rex?" We could attach the skull of a fake dinosaur to a replica of a human skeleton...or "the original illegal alien" and have the skull of an extra-terrestrial. I know this eccentric lady in Texas who collects composite taxidermies - you know, rabbits with antlers and shit. It's part of the perverse Texan mythology. It would be good to have collaged taxidermies that are mythically charged in the border: el chupacabras, el coyote, el pollo/pollero, la rata asesina...

LatinArt:  But who could create these for us?

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  Eccentric taxidermists, we'll find them. It wouldn't hurt to add to the budget some funds to commission at least two "border monsters."

LatinArt:  We could claim that they're from the "Jurassic Aztlán" period. How about presenting borderized zoological specimens, especially monstrous ones; a Chihuahua with elephantiasis inside a jar?

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  Great idea!!! Other "freaks" can be performed live during the opening of the exhibit. I'm talking about performance artists inside Plexiglas boxes. During the first few days of the exhibit, say, two or three performance artists could perform as "border freaks."

LatinArt:  Give me some concrete examples...

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  What about "a member of the Arellano Felix (brothers) Cartel"? Or "a true Tijuana hooker?" Que tal, "A fallen PRI politician in exile, La Jolla California," or..."an authentic Tali-Vato." ...a series of "living dioramas"...

LatinArt:  ..."living specimens" taken from the cabinet/collection, presented as "border typologies?"

Guillermo Gomez-Peña :  Sabes Kaytie, I like all these ideas but we need to begin to get more concrete. From all these wild ideas what is realistically attainable for the first 2 exhibits. We also need to garner some serious interest in the museum community cause it's going to take at least three or four daring institutions to jumpstart the project; and one of them must be located here in the U.S.

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