Feature photo by Zachary James Watkins
Catching word that Guillermo Gomez-Peña would be participating in an event sponsored by Columbia College Chicago, I called my brownest queerest Mexican friend, forcing him to be my date, and bought our tickets in advance. The acclaimed conceptual artist Gomez-Peña, also one of the founders of La Pocha Nostra, is a man whose work I had first seen as an undergrad in an elective art course. In his piece titled The Living Museum of Fetishized Identities, I was instantly engaged by the use of the human body combined with the artifice of various fantastical, fetishized identities to produce new compelling images. I was engaged as a viewer and student –and juggler of a handful of similar identities myself. At the time, in my early twenties, my only exposure to performance art was limited to events I was invited to by random art school weirdos and other people whose acquaintance I had made through questionable means, possibly while intoxicated. Repeatedly, the amateur performance art I was subjected to seemed playfully self-indulgent at best and embarrassingly incomprehensible and irrelevant at worst. Not surprisingly, my buddy had similar experiences, and it took some cajoling to get him to come with me.
“Wait, who is he?” my friend asked.
“He’s an artist. A conceptual artist.”
“Like a performance artist?”
“Oh,” he exhaled.
“No, it should be cool. You’ll like it. Dude is like a legend. Award-winning and stuff. Listen, this is what the flyer says: ‘In his newest performance piece, Gomez-Peña uses acid Chicano humor, hybrid literary genres, multilingualism, and activist theory as he questions whether democracy can exist without including the critical voice of the artist.’ Eh, eh?”
“Chicano acid humor? What?”
“Yeah. I don’t know what that means. If I had to guess, I would say it has something to do with Chicanos being humorous while dosing on acid. Could be fucking hilarious. Could be totally scary and uncomfortable. Probably a lil’ both. Only one way to find out though!”
“Word. I’m down.”
We arrived at the show a few minutes before Gomez-Peña took stage. His performance, billed as The Oracle Speaks, was the first installation of an all-evening event titled Gender Fusions: Our Temple of Transgressions. This is an annual event put on by Columbia College and, from what I hear, it is something of a local high holy day for Chicago’s LGBTQ youngsters in the know. Being the aging heathen I am, I had never heard of it prior to last month.
“Ah, that must be the Chicano acid humor. I get it,” my boy said to me as he spotted Gomez-Peña standing there –waxed hairless legs in shiny black pumps with one ankle bandaged; an ornate, colorful Mexican Indian-looking headdress covering his nearly waist-length salt-and-pepper hair; black leather bondage-like loincloth adorned with silver studs; and, an exposed tattooed chest under what appeared to be a woman’s blazer. There was something in his thick black eyeliner-laden stare that made him intensely serious; almost mad –equally capable of bursting into a fit of laughter or hellish rage at any moment. Yet, all the while, he exuded a peaceful calm. The sight of The Oracle instantly enthralled me. I was ready for communion.
He opened with a bit of humor suggesting that if we are to use corporate America as a judge, the joining of Taco Bell and KFC is a positive indicator that Black and Latino relations in this country are strong and healthy. An open letter to all right-wing xenophobic zealots was another humorous piece in which he suggests all English words of Spanish origin, including state names, be changed. Goodbye Taco salad. Hello, Wetback salad. Goodbye, Nevada. Hello, Snowy. But, the laughs just warmed us up. In his borderland interrogation piece, he asked the audience how we identified ourselves racially, whether we have ever fantasized about belonging to another race, whether we slept with people of other races and what we liked about it, or if we ever hired illegal immigrants: for what and for how much. People responded to his questions, and the floor became a public confessional. His line of questioning made us see, in each other, reflections of our universal desires of belonging, wanting to be different, and wanting to share a sense of community with each other –and the hypocrisy sometimes surrounding these issues, too. In his words: “we are obsessed with what we lack.”
While I was not able to catch the remaining performances of the Gender Fusions event, I was greatly impacted by what I witnessed listening to Gomez-Peña’s work. I am thankful I had the opportunity to listen to this living legend, The Oracle, in person. I left knowing that he is probably best defined as a performance artist because his work is so indescribable otherwise. Part poetry, part lecture, part comedy, part dramatic performance, the whole presentation engaged me; reminding me that critical thought is just as necessary to the consumption (and production) of art as it is to democracy. I walked away questioning our place, as Americans, and my place, as an Other, in this world. But, I left in good spirits. In his words: “Imagination is my nation.” Hope and love are not clichés. They are what keep us alive and protected no matter how much war and blood and oil and pollution and death and lies our governments are awash in. It is the artist’s duty to help keep us afloat. It is the laity’s obligation to support art. And, it is incumbent upon all of us to love and hope, to be critical thinkers in an unjust world rife with institutionalized oppression and hatred.
As listeners in Gomez-Peña’s Temple of Transgression, we attempted to answer the multitude of questions he posed, becoming members of a community and participants in a discourse. Through membership and participation in this spectacle, something new was created –a type of democracy. One in which we could not help but pose new questions: what are we doing and why; how can we exist in such an absurd space, led by the freakishly mad? Yes, ours is a strange democracy, indeed –and I am not talking about the one formed within those walls that evening, led by a cross-dressing, border-transcending, brown techno Apocalypto genius in the flesh.