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In Performance: Guillermo Gomez-Pena's calls to action

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Eight bodies entwine in a tableau that's a cross between postapocalyptic anime and a fetish fashion show. A man in white lace stockings, high-heeled vinyl boots, and shorts enhanced with a Dirk Diggler-size prosthesis displays a red legend scrawled on his bare chest: Who's Your Daddy? His teeth clamped onto one end of an American flag, he's engaged in a tug-of-war with a woman wearing a hijab and a flowing skirt, a rifle tucked into her sash. The director, a man with flowing salt-and-pepper locks, nods admiringly. "This looks like Hollywood gone wrong," he says. "Or National Geographic." Another woman dressed in a bright peasant skirt and wearing a headdress that could have belonged to an Aztec priestess aims a rifle at the "pregnant" belly of a woman in a muumuu and hair rollers.

It's Friday evening at Columbia College's Glass Curtain Gallery, and the eight performers--Columbia students from various disciplines--are slipping in and out of costumes and changing props and scenarios under the fevered guidance of Guillermo Gomez-Pena. A California-based writer and performance artist, and a 1991 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," Gomez-Pena and his company, La Pocha Nostra, are in the middle of a two-week visit at Columbia. Readings and video presentations of his past work are part of the residency, but the centerpiece is this experimental performance workshop, called the Brown Sheep Project. Gomez-Pena and his colleagues Juan Ybarra and Michelle Ceballos have conducted the workshop--which is designed to explore sexuality, race, ethnicity, and power--at colleges and community centers nationwide, but this is the first time they've brought it to Chicago.

The theme of borders, literal and metaphorical, runs through Gomez-Pena's work. Born in Mexico City, he's lived in the United States since 1978 and has addressed issues of cultural and social identity--particularly those related to U.S.-Mexican relations. In recent years he's focused on the role of the Internet and technology in shaping cultural myths and misperceptions, creating interactive "techno-dioramas" like the Mexterminator Project, in which performers adopted characters such as "the CyberVato" and "El Transvestite Mariachi" were placed on display as "ethnographic freaks" in a mock museum setting. With Brown Sheep, he and his collaborators say, they're trying to cross another border--the one separating generations of artists.

"About three or four years ago, we discovered a vacuum of leadership in our communities," says Gomez-Pena. "Something had happened somewhere in the process and we had abandoned our teens. There are some incendiary intergenerational conflicts going on. So we decided to devote a certain amount of time each year to share our skills with the next generation, and sharpen their conceptual, activist, and performance skills." Harold Mendez, a Columbia alum and currently the assistant to the director of Glass Curtain, is a longtime fan of Gomez-Pena's work, and pushed to bring him to Chicago.

The three members of La Pocha Nostra, along with a videographer, roam around during the rehearsal, encouraging, prodding, and occasionally "freezing" the action so the videographer can capture a particularly provocative scenario. "Think of an advertisement," says Ceballos to the group. "Now add racism as an element. Sexism." A man fondles a woman's breast. She looks at him in fright. "In an advertisement, you'd be happy about that," says Ceballos. The woman's expression changes to a stiff, wide-eyed smile.

For the final performance (involving a dozen students of various ethnicities), similar scenarios will be enacted simultaneously on platforms arranged throughout the Glass Curtain space. Text, slide images, a soundscape will be added, and audience members can wander around the gallery and create their own narratives from what they see.

"We're really dealing with culture as a pathology," says Gomez-Pena. "These young artists are totally hip, totally bright, and are far more cognizant of and comfortable with gender fluidity and racial-ethnic hybridization than a lot of older artists. This is also a generation that grew up knowing they could be artists. They know how to digitally alter photographs, make QuickTime films, compose their own music with computer software. What we hope this project offers them is the promise of talking back."

Columbia College Chicago presents La Pocha Nostra and the Brown Sheep Project Thursday, December 12, and Friday, December 13, at 7 PM at the Glass Curtain Gallery, 1104 S. Wabash. Admission is free; for more information call 312-344-6650.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eric Fogleman.

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