Wu Tsang and The Mythologies of Mourning and Community

(I was invited to write a piece about the work of Wu Tsang to be included in the publication to accompany the Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art’s exhibition Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects: Legends and Mythologies, which opens March 21, 2015, at the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles. Hope to see you there.)

Communal mourning, by its very nature, is an immensely complicated text to read, for we do not mourn just one lost object or other, but we also mourn as a “whole”—or put another way, as a contingent and temporary collection of fragments that is experiencing a loss of its parts.”                                                                  -José E. Muñoz

Wu Tsang and R. J. Messineo,  Approximate Alter (Life Chances) , 2011, Wood, spray paint, photos, frames, plastic flowers, Rhinestone clutch, 44 x 36 x 13 3/4 inches

Wu Tsang and R. J. Messineo, Approximate Alter (Life Chances), 2011, Wood, spray paint, photos, frames, plastic flowers, Rhinestone clutch, 44 x 36 x 13 3/4 inches

The altar is red and we all have our dead. Blood, risk, passion and community histories rendered in three dimensions just as Wu Tsang invokes a soul-gutting statistic from the GLBT non-profit industrial complex’ quarry of data in his essay for the Whitney Biennial 2012: the average age of a trans person of color is 23 years old.

The altar, much like the Silver Platter and Wildness, maneuvers as a site where several mestizo spiritual practices are staged. These initial contended colonial encounters introduced the concept of altar as a marker of the new and prevailing spiritual logic in the Américas; aggregating syncretic affinities on top of each other performing a type of Catholic drag for indigenous polytheisms in response to a resilient formation that rarely ends with post- as the prefix. Oftentimes these practices flirt with the fraught settler colonialism we are all anxiously enacting in pursuit of queer utopian once-befores. What it once was before we arrived. Our altars call our ancestors, the ones who were here before and that survived well enough to be remembered.

What does the altar alluding to but having never lived inside Imprenta Transgender Law Project, the legal and social service-oriented drop-in center attending to trans women of color, and known as Wildness’ “mini-institutional appendage,” do? What function does it serve within its perpetual onus of remembering, honoring and more importantly—raging? And how can queer club nightlife continue to offer a temporary salve to the traumatic burden of remembering?

On first thought this work connects with a mythology of mourning as solely an act of private loss void of its attendant structural implications. The altar here triggers the collectivizing of righteous grief, a catalyst for movement towards a futurity that coalesces in the absence of violence; an animating force that advocates for the dead.

Our dead trans people of color. Never mind that it is we who belong to them even when “community” fails at being the apt receptacle for our desire to belong. Community fails the way that we fail each other and what we mourn is communal possibility of collective benefit foreclosed by the pragmatism of the non-profit industrial complex; a boring hierarchy where only few benefit and the rest experience trickle-down community engagement, creative place-making and other funder world buzzwords and phrases.

Wu Tsang’s work with Wildness and Imprenta compel us to consider the mythology of community. I call this a boon to our weary guilt complexes and non-profit day job enervation. It is this psychic exhaustion that requires us to question how exactly does community fit within the continuum of institutionality and philanthro-capitalism? And is this really the only way we can enact a fiscally sound community organization when trans people of color are rarely placed in positions of decision-making power but so deftly placed in the cross-hairs of non-profit fundraising campaigns?

As of this writing another trans woman of color was murdered a few days ago in San Francisco. Her name is Taja Gabrielle De Jesus. Her death occurred just as members of the LGBT non-profit arena converged in Denver for the Creating Change conference. At this conference an action led by trans women of color demanded that cisgender lesbians, gay men and bisexuals activate on behalf of trans women of color. They demanded that the more privileged members of the queer spectrum—economically and socially speaking—assume the mantle that brown and black trans lives matter.

The altar in trans centered community spaces produces a constellation of memory, and the living come together to tend to one another’s psychic wounds by changing the water, throwing out the flowers, and when payday allows there are luxurious offerings with the occasional shot of rum, a tube of lipstick. It is the earthly anchor; apart from being an unwelcome material signal that violence—the random and the institutional—is more than a spectral presence but a daily reminder. The altar is what remains.  And each year the altar will grow.

 

 

Nikki Darling : December 13, 2014 @ Human Resources Los Angeles

It’s my belief that we all have the need to feel special and it’s this need that can bring out the best in us and yet the worst in us. This need created the velvet rope.        - Janet Jackson

Nikki Darling catapulted a book called Pink Trumpet and the Purple Prose into our collective public via the chapbook press I began this year called Econo Textual Objects. It’s out and the only way to culminate the mid-wife duties is by being present for its opening performance. This is my eyewitness account.

Firstly, this is not a review but a critical beholding from a fairly well informed optique that was nonetheless stunned into submission because sometimes nervous energy and myth-making is shit-starting in its purest form.  
 

Like when a sticky sullen Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski tells a wide-eyed Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois that some people may rarely touch liquor but that liquor often touches them. This sweaty panty-splashy encounter tickled an audience sauced on acidic red wine and prefaced Nikki Darling’s December performance at Human Resources.

Darling, using her body, in dark sparkle motion, in mysterious transit, produced a series of powerfully linked spatial metaphors in a performance piece that began with a movement forward; a very momentary timorous amble to the left of center of the radical white boxiness. Movements culled from the democratic spaces of YouTube strip tease how-to’s. She owns us from the jump; a bow down to the generations of complicated femininities that came before her; ones badly comprehended, nevertheless rendered indomitable by limited temporalities. Mariah Carey Dream Lover is the honor salve Darling spreads with scissor kicks and sativa-heavy fatties that she lights up, one after the other (four total), puffs and passes into the audience that has been instructed to sit the fuck down. She takes her clothes off but the looming shadows of a feral giantess behind her is what you can’t tear your gaze from and you think you know where this is going to go. But a stripping is a freeing; Nikki Darling staged a radical deprivation of oxygen the toxic value statement needs to live. The maelstrom of shame, self-worth, radical empowerment, desire, the body, violence, and feminism in a misogynistic culture reveals itself through the MGD forty-ounce shower coming down on her face and bare breasts; an aroma of beer on cold concrete and the aftermath of gooseflesh skin bruised with Abramović-style auto-violence.

Photo credit thank you to Martabel Wasserman and Sam Cohen.

Photo credit thank you to Martabel Wasserman and Sam Cohen.

And in the starkest transparency so sharp you feel the shards, Darling sits her naked ass down and proceeds to read to us. Her poetry soothes in its compulsory anti-pacifism.

Soon I’ll clean out your psychic parking spot but first let me squeeze this dry for all it’s worth.
Don’t feel bad about having been an asshole, as you can see now,
I’m an asshole too.
(from Monster Ballads)

Pink Trumpet and the Purple Prose the textual object disavows itself as a book of fiction, of prose, of poetry, of philosophy, and of theory. There are allusions to love and longing as well as a critique of the gaze, of images, of radical empowerment and of self-definition. Darling says it’s not a call to apathy or arms. It is not these things because it is a Body; always changing, shifting, and eluding it’s descriptors. She proposes a radical model of co-authorship between she and her readers.

There is one call however and it’s for a femme fiery feminist ghosting of a Los Angeles that is big and intrepid. Darling puff-puff partakes in the capital of myth-making in the West and takes it to give it back to those whose lands have been stolen. Or at least that’s the utopian longing here.

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The chapbook and performance operate as the 2nd chapter of a three part performance/poetry/prose project that started with Pussy A Progression, last year, moved to Ascension, also last year, and ends with Pink Trumpet and the Purple Prose.

Nikki Darling is a student in the Creative Writing/Literature PhD program at USC. Her poetry and experimental essays center around subjectivity, persona, and post-structualist methods of deconstructing literary form and meaning. She is finishing her first novel, "Fade Into You," a memoir of mixed race identity in the San Gabriel Valley during the 1990's. Her criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Art Book Review, Tomorrow Magazine and Public Books, among others. Her essay Appropriate For Destruction was included in Best Music Writing 2010. Her new work Pink Trumpet and the Purple Prose can be purchased here.

Excerpt from #WhiteBoo: For Yolanda Retter

#26

 For Yolanda Retter

No one
taught us
how to live
and receive

we waited
for our golden calf
any form of recognition
stated in the positive

there was alcohol
in abundance
silly smoke screens
that obscure

an honest reflection
the laws on books
you took to task
first in this city

you took issue
with history
you made it possible
necessary

absolutely life depending
to question authority
your life’s work
because life is work

took work
to appreciate
you beat your chest
refusing mea culpa

slighting the white woman
I was with that night
asking her not where she was from
but when was she going to

fuck up on me; it was you way
of saying hello.

a warrior of the body politic
the kind of fighter
that leaves on her armor
only to see my reflection

in your metal chestplate
to see what
often goes unseen
seldom a voice

yes, the armor is a mirror
that speaks roughly

--

On a Homeboy-centered Visual Vocabulary: the artwork of Hector Silva

            For the last decade, Hector Silva’s work has been seen in a range of galleries, museums, pop-up art happenings, as well as bus shelters, political campaign materials and movie posters. However, he amassed his earliest audience from the working class barrios he arrived in when he left Jalisco, Mexico over thirty years ago. It was they—though I mean we—that experienced his work for the first time on glossy paper. It was a flyer for Chico’s in Montebello, a gay Latino dive bar where go-go boys danced atop the pool table over a continuous loop of freestyle music, which introduced me to his work. These flyers would adorn the walls of Bienestar Human Services employee cubicles as if the men in Hector’s work were matinee idols. But you would never see the men in Hector’s in the movies—not unless they were extras in American Me or Blood In, Blood Out. Tough, hyper-masculine men, whom cultural theorist Richard T. Rodriguez calls the purveyors of “the homeboy aesthetic.”

            Present in Hector’s work is a re-mapping of an L.A.-specific erotic Latinidad that indexes prison ink art as much as it does the work of Touko Laaksonen, best known by his pseudonym Tom of Finland. Most of the men in Hector’s work signals a Los Angeles-specific style vector—bald heads, Dodger caps, oversized white T-shirts and Nike Cortez sneakers—seen in both the cruising sites of Elysian Park and Whittier Boulevard over the course of the last forty years. Hector’s work on queering homeboys is part of a visual register, joined by Mexican artist Javier De La Garza whose work queers the Aztec warrior prince, Cuatémoc; Don Bachardy and his line-based impressions of gay men in a mid-20th century Los Angeles subaltern; Shizu Saldamando’s rendering of a youth subcultural underground filled with Morrissey-loving goth girls and punk boys; and his immediate contemporaries in the Queer Latino visual arena Tony De Carlo and Joey Terrill, the latter whose work was imperative in lifting awareness about HIV and AIDS in Latino communities through art with the advocacy group VIVA.

            Hector has had to become an impresario to make his work available to a public eager to obtain it. He has sold his own work, setting up posts and having a direct connection to his fans making collecting his work possible, which interrupts the way a public consumes art and calls into question current gallery systems as very few of them make his work accessible to communities of color. Relying on the swap meet model, he made his work accessible and affordable to people coming to Day of the Dead festivities in Hollywood and East Los Angeles; the same people who are dealing with keeping their families together in the face of xenophobic legislation. His artwork is accessible in a way that art has not been for a community composed of queer Latinos and the families who love them; Chicanos present for many generations as well as the recien llegados.

My-Homeboys-with-La-Virgenx560.jpg

            While Hector’s work was ubiquitous if you made the rounds at Club Tempo at the nexus of Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue brought out the wiggle in the walks of macho vaqueros; the strut of the peacock boys at Arena and Circus. But his work spilled out of club spaces; parties where the persecuted danced into oblivion.  You often were able to assume a voyeur’s perspective into what happens after the club. Hector’s work alludes to a more sinister sexuality in his more personal work; an ecstatic pelón being urinated upon or the devilish smirk on the face of a knowing homeboy looking back at the spectator as he is about to dive in head first into a blossoming orgy.

            The men in Hector’s work, whether it’s one or two men standing side by side each other as the Virgen de Guadalupe hangs between them, are unapologetically rendered desiring one another. Hector creates the revelation and at times it is erotically sublime. And that desire, an ever-expansive visual vocabulary, is centered on being and remaining accessible to other young Gay Latino brown men. It is what makes Hector’s work so important.

Breaking Up With Los Angeles

Breaking Up With Los Angeles

February marks my Bay Area first year anniversary. How else to mark the occasion but to produce art? Breaking Up With Los Angeles is my new poetry chapbook. The title is excessive. It marks a leaving behind or the habitual haunting. I imagine my absence in the many faces of Los Angeles, as well as the many faces in Los Angeles.

I am hoping to move beyond the banality of crankiness; beyond not knowing what kind of neighborhood you live in or where to get the best tortillas and donuts and tire service. This is not a maudlin turn about the loss of creature comforts. This project is simply the receptacle for the ache alongside the rainbow of anxieties that are symptoms and by-products of leaving home. Loss, abandonment, and other ugly feelings have eclipsed most hangovers this past year and instead of taking it out on my loved ones or consuming my identity I turn to self-production.

Luckily, there is a place for these less than desirable inhabitable soul-crushers. That place is poetry. Poetry has always functioned as a site of no rules. It is the harm reduction that goes well with the abandonment of a lover; friendships; spatial identification. No permission. A small holder of my psychic messes. A document. A textual object.

Or an embrace for when all other embraces fail to keep me safe.

Read More

What Is Revealed When You Sleep

This is my Catalog Essay for WHEN YOU SLEEP, Shizu Saldamando's new survey of work at the VIncent Price Art Museum in East Los Angeles. The show opened on September 21, 2013 and you should check it out if you're in LA.

 

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What Is Revealed When You Sleep

It is in this space of Shizu Saldamando’s When You Sleep where we hear the dissonance in our minds; of who we are in the sobering stirring of the morning after, where escapist strategies had uninhibitedly reigned supreme. Shizu presents a visual record that explores the nocturnal meanderings of youthful discrepancy; the social experiments gone sublimely awry. That is probably why you bob your head as the silent receivers of Shizu’s images; there is music there, of course, and recognition.

Whenever Shizu is out at a party in LA’s Highland Park or a fun karaoke night at a Little Tokyo bar, at least one of the night’s walking somnambulists will make it into her artwork. As someone who has been one of the many butches immortalized in her work, I have seen Shizu wielding the always present camera and snapping away capturing moments that seem like booze-fueled throwaway scenes that you’d hate to be tagged in the morning after on the social media against your will. Except when she renders the subject—or rather her friends or people she knows using a mix of materials within the process such as wood, bed sheets, color pencil, washi paper and ball point pen, to give nod to the varying contexts and situations she depicts—she strips the party/rock show/gallery/outdoor festival context and casts a wash of ontological purity that brings the deeper, darker serenity floating inside each person to the surface. And each person may not be aware of such forces at play, for this is what we the viewer—or rather the receiver—see When You Sleep.

--

The bulk of Shizu’s work has focused on making youth cultures she has been a part of for the last twenty years visible in such a way that expresses an ontology of the ordinary; a visual murmur that reveals a lot without revealing the secrets of our complicated public identities and the scary abyss within our very private selves. That Shizu is still a part of these youth-oriented social spheres also puts forth the idea that youth can be extrapolated away from aging or demographic information. Youth in Shizu’s hands becomes an internalized endeavor.

Shizu’s project relies on magnifying her subjects by way of creating a negative space around the individual(s) that gleans more from the absence of spatialized context than the environment they occupy could ever reveal. Shizu creates an oblique portraiture that is about the people who surpass their contexts as an invitation to the viewer to activate their own queries and conjecture onto the subjects—maybe mutual friends—in the work. In conventional portraiture there is a direct and formal engagement with the subject’s deliberate self-fashioning. That formality is consistently avoided in Shizu’s haphazard snapshots. That gives way to Shizu fostering a found representation of her subjects creating an alternative formality where individuals are more complex than language and place and moreso when their choices reflect and betray those complexities. Or can at least be read that way in a work such as Carm’s Crew.

In Carm’s Crew, three distinct articulations of female gender are present in the bodies of three friends bound by a genre of affinity. The two young women flank another young woman wearing a black sweatshirt, with hoodie placed over her head and are ensconced deep in the corner of Shizu’s framing which creates (or complicates) an intimacy so powerful that Shizu hurls rays of goldleaf and glitter like outward halos that keeps predators, emotional vampires or other banal haters at arm’s length. The hoodie in Shizu’s hands becomes a feminist project; a tool against the patriarchy as it already creates a sense of gendered ambuguity. In relation to the triad of friends or sisters from other misters the hoodie creates the playful middle in the spectrum that disrupts the relation between and opposition with femininity and masculinity. Everyone in Carm’s Crew doesn’t trip on who’s sexually oriented to whom making loyalty a currency as valuable as gold.

--

Over the course of her career, Shizu’s use of negative space is one that enables a radical speculative about the subjects in her images. Unlike the world-making that emerges in John Valadez’ Car Show (2001), where every bit of sky and peek of a car’s front hood is imagining and interconnecting with a complicated Chicano identity as much as the men and women that people that reality, we see the possibility for a different kind of subjective self-possession in Shizu’s work that is weighty in that it is not contingent on an expositional context.

However, the negative space is not always the whiteness of canvas or weighted paper. Bed sheets, for example, create a sense of superbly intimate settings for subjects intwined and engaged in amorous quietude. And Shizu renders another possibility of what happens When You Sleep, but others are wide awake.

Despite the hushed sweetness of the couples in Grandstar, Chinatown or Ripples, Long Beach one might not be able to resist projecting a set of narratives onto these images—perhaps the first couple met on Craigslist and after a series of successful and titillating G-chat sessions decided to take their virtual flirting into the material world. Or maybe at the Blur concert in 1996, except they were there with different partners. What if they are a few degrees removed from the same ex? To quote Blur’s popular genderqueer club anthem “Girls and Boys”: love in the nineties is paranoid.

However, what is so covetous is the lack of paranoia here, even as the couple is presented as pieces of an otherwise unseen public. One in which Shizu illustrates to a romantic degree a space that is often antagonistic. These moments on the bed sheet softly intimate that we adjust our way of seeing so that we can locate hope that the public space be not only merciful but kind towards the lovers we observe, who not so incidentally happen to inhabit vulnerable subjectivities in the social schema.

But let’s imagine going beyond the banality of intimacy here and offer another reading that brings intimacy to a rapturous register even when it is failure that acts as the anchor. Let’s bring it back to the state of fandom, of being fanatical, of being the #1 fan. That set of feelings that come with gushing, twitching and stalking the object of our admiration and affections. Have you ever seen early Morrissey live performance videos where fans bum rush the stage as though they were seeking absolution? Seeing the people in Shizu’s work makes one self-cognizant of how we make good, rabid fans, especially since as adolescents we tend to offset our outsider feelings of robust alienation with quiet, desperate longing.

A first foray into fandom takes place in private—by pushing play on the CD deck, the iPod, and even, the turntable. For many of us, this experience began in the bedroom with a Kenwood system and headphones handed down to us by older siblings. The bedroom has a bed and that bed has sheets that witness, enshroud, embody the most intimate of acts. 

Shizu’s use of the bed sheet transforms their function as they now operate as the placeholder of a secret affection transpiring between the couples in her work. She moves towards creating the bedroom as a site of connection instead of one of consumption, as seen in Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1865), whose female subject’s defiant stare was one of the first to trouble the social order in pre-La Belle Époque France. However, the impact in Olympia’s returning gaze is still tempered by her nude passivity which abounds for male gazing. The bedroom also poses an alternative to alienation; Chris Burden’s Bed Piece (1972), where he eschewed all human contact favoring lying nude in his bed for three weeks comes to mind as the artistic prototype for estrangement (Tilda Swinton having done the same for a mere twenty four hours earlier in 2013 at the MOMA in New York to some fanfare).

The private sphere of the bedroom is a place where many an awkward youth have reigned supreme be that with hairbrush in the mirror singing along to some stubborn torch song (like the young lad in Morrissey’s “Last of The Famous International Playboys” video) or making love to the mirror in Saturday Night Live-originated Superstar-style with the hopes of attracting a mate (just like the howling desire felt in “How Soon Is Now?”). Who of us that haven’t spent hours of practicing our Blue Steel gazes can cast the first stone?

Even through mere implication of its absence in her media, the bedroom is cast as the site of self-formational transgression as a private domain for youth; the last bastion before stepping into hostile domestic and public spaces shared by family members and ordinary citizens. It is the last over-the-shoulder peek at the mirror.

The private and the public meet in Shizu’s work—the imaginary longing finding its tangible parallel in public and challenging invisibility with a stolen kiss, a tender moment, an embrace kept intact, never broken by what public spatial implications tend to do to its wary young denizens.

We make good fans because we act out emotional misfires and general fuckery on those that we love and that do not love us back. Most of our unwilling receptacles of our adoration nary have good reason for such worship; these crushes don’t sing, dance, act or write but we deem them crushworthy nonetheless. Morrissey offers in the form of “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” (1986) a vehicle needed to indulge in the melancholic search for sweet oblivion.

Shizu captures that oblivion in When You Sleep. Even in the title alone, as evidenced in the piece Backyard Hardcore, sleep here becomes two sites of surrender in the post-haze of youthful revelry. But even with the people in these works, we get to experience a whole world of their making even when they themselves are not awake to be there. In Backyard Hardcore, we see the back of a punk passed out from a night of drinking but his waking chaos is nowhere to be found. Instead he lies nestled against what one can imagine to be a tree trunk or maybe a sand dune. His sleep catching him away from the comfort and familiarity of his bed, though we can imagine a sense of freedom that enshrouds the young person into feeling safe, even when he or she is vulnerable and subject to the laws that rule public space, under the stars.

Through Shizu’s work, we are given space to imagine the events that lead to oblivion (the search for music and people who are young and alive). The space has been as ample as Shizu’s artistic latitude and it give us the opening to project our own narratives onto the worlds she creates. These are worlds we imbue with a sense of our own curiousities, contradictions, and varying degrees of liberation that produce the dream of belonging even and especially when no one else is around.

 

 

On Site Responsibility...

Baz Luhrmann once said that you should live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard; live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft.

Los Angeles made me too hard to enjoy living in New York when I was there for grad school. And I have always wanted to live in San Francisco. But I was already too soft.

1995. I was 19 the first time and already it felt too late. I had come to visit my friend Adam who had moved up to the city, living with three other artists in a large railroad flat on the corner of Hayes and Fillmore. He was trying to explain what he did at the organic food co-op in Noe Valley. I just looked eastward from his living room window at the magic hour, sulking over my inability to kickstart adulthood back in Los Angeles, wondering if maybe I should make a leap northward to the city by the Bay. But San Francisco was a place for dreamers and I didn’t yet trust mine.

However, almost twenty years later from that first trip, I made it. I managed to obtain a decent paying job in the arts even though it felt ridiculous to move to the most expensive city in the country. In Los Angeles I could be a working artist, or someone who works in the arts and makes art, too…with cheap rents and enough space to move around. I am low income by San Francisco standards even as the bulk of my work is focused on reaching out to low-income communities of color.

I cannot help but wonder if and when I leave here, it will be because living became too hard. San Francisco has eclipsed New York in those ways that make people hard.

Eviction rates that are off the scales and the concomitant anxieties that burden working class families or over-educated public sector workers struggling to pay off student debt with no relief in sight make us hard. The Mission District is a different and costlier beast that reminds me of Silver Lake circa 2004, when it was a Los Angeles barrio that was home to Cuban immigrants fleeing Fidel Castro’s reign and Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants fleeing Ronald Reagan’s but soon became the new hot ‘hood to move to when Santa Monica and Venice became too expensive for regular old Hollywood industry workers, mostly production types working 16-hour shoots.

But Los Angeles is what Reyner Banham calls a uniquely mobile metropolis, over time shifting in scale to accommodate the automobile. This is why L.A. has those beautifully dystopic creatures known only as the 405 and East LA interchange.

Arriving in San Francisco, I am reminded that this city in large part is designed to the scale of the average human being, with humane commuting strategies that put Los Angeles to shame. But what makes the space here different is that there is less of it. Space that accommodates a multiplicity of households has already been spoken for but that doesn’t stop a rightfully entitled newly moneyed class from coming in and taking it. It makes an object like the Google Bus an easy receptacle to fill with collective fear and loathing. Never mind the fact that our lives are that much better because Google exists. It’s hard to get my community partners to admit this; perhaps they can just quietly e-mail me from their gmail accounts. No one has to know how much you enjoyed playing the Moog when Google honored Bob Moog’s 78th birthday last year.

I am an L.A. person. That means I am a Dodgers fan. However, I can never fully enjoy a victory at Dodger Stadium because the ghosts of Chavez Ravine will never stop haunting us. People will be forced out and the cities they live in, they pay taxes in; the cities that have made these social contracts to take and educate our children; help us when our homes burn down; heal us when we are hurt will somehow be the first to betray.

If you’ve lived it, you call it gentrification or aburguesamiento. If you talk about it from a detached perspective or if you’re in a planning department, you probably refer to it as displacement.

Me?

I am an interloper, first and foremost, and especially when it comes to Bay Area arts and cultural organizing. It’s good to be aware of that before setting out to do community engagement for a large arts center located in one of the most fraught neighborhoods in downtown San Francisco. I arrive with open hands to greet the closed fists of folks in the South of Market neighborhood known as SOMA who are tired; weary of new people though are way too friendly to really show it. They are Filipino youth; veterans of wars and military actions in Vietnam and Kuwait; chess lovers. But by approaching an organization such as SOMCAN, I am shepherded through these complicated times and spaces and keep in mind that I must start slow, with a range of communication—e-mail, phone calls, in-person meetings, a lot of coffees, lunches and dinners on my company’s dime. I have to make it worth community’s while to spend time with me, a stranger. I sit. I listen. I learn the range of economic, educational, health and artistic community histories. I sit. I listen. I hear the stories of loss and in that tender wreckage there are moments of triumph; resilience. I sit. I listen. I ask if there are volunteer opportunities; or public events; fundraisers; political actions. These are opportunities for the artists we vet to put their hands in the soil; these are opportunities for our organization to nurture our inner-empath to see what are the trials and tribulations a community collectively faces. Most times we, as mid-level managers and entry-level program assistants, are part of those communities, struggling to make ends meet on top of student loan debt with our non-profit salaries and lack of trust funds. We work these uncertain career tracks because we love art and community and want to find ways to break open all avenues of accessibility.

We want to work with artists like Carrie Leilam Love; born in Oakland, raised in the Montclair district, of mixed race heritage and a resident of West Oakland now since 2005, and who is interested in learning about where West Oakland residents go when they can either no longer afford to live in their community, or willingly and happily sell their homes to new incoming creative class of buyers. Her Oakland in Exile project charts these changes alongside the ways that West Oakland has lost men and women and youth to the prison industrial complex.

We are on the verge of losing youth’s voices in the same we way lose elders to death; we lose them to displacement; we lose them to the prison industrial complex and the scarcity mindset that kicks in producing a discourse of mine/territoriality which feels similar to Minutemen stalking men, women and children in the U.S.-Mexico desert. 

Don’t come here; this is mine.

People turn other people into suspects. My new Mission Terrace neighbor keeps throwing eggs at my car because I park in front of his house. I don’t get mad because I am hyper aware that this manifestation of impotence is a by-product of the anxious times we’re living.

So how do you facilitate art-making with a community-specific agenda when community is in the middle of meeting changes? I posit that site-specificity has to be questioned as sites become contested. Specificity I dare say lacks that efficacy it once had when social practice enabled a purview contingent on a radical condition of possibility. And now these conditions placed upon sites where communities we’re interested in partnering with are radical in a totally frightening ways that affect individuals whose perspectives can enrich the way we think about “the arts.” So I suggest we instead think about making site-responsive community-led arts collaborations that give way to transforming the current arts institutional landscape. Respond as artists, sure, but as institutions more importantly, to what is happening on the ground, in the trenches with people that are living with the specter of change daily. Otherwise we lose. Aside from the last generation of engaged patrons (not just the kind that stay late for post-show Q&As, but that weigh in the creation of such works to begin with), we risk losing a generation of youth leaders and possibly enter a period of obsolescence.

YBCA In Community is a pilot community collaboration program with objectives to create community-relevant hierarchy-free art through mutually beneficial relationships between the YBCA Institution, professional artists and local community organizations and their membership base.

We aim to develop an innovative new framework for accessible arts engagement, one that convenes low­ income, ethnically diverse, underserved community members, partner community organizations and individual artists to collaborate in experiential art making.

YBCA IC has identified 4 neighborhoods as project sites, containing 6 projects total with over 12 community partners over the course of 12 months—SOMA, Mission & Excelsior, West Oakland and Temescal—selected by the curators of YBCA because of the long-standing communities of color, multiple and on-going histories of displacement, the need to capture community stories, and facilitate venues for attention to the plight of these communities of course to create multiple sites of dialogue. But really we hope to find ways in which our institutions can be transformed by their input.

YBCA aims to immerse itself into the fabric of local communities through a new, testing-as-we-go framework for accessible arts engagement but is aware of the institutional-community tensions and healthy skepticisms it works with and against in launching this institutionally paradigmatic-shifting initiative.

Along the way we invite scholars-activists to critically witness and engage with the tensions and healthy skepticisms that emerge in this types of collaborations; to document and analyze where we can improve as we ask and find answer for these kinds of questions:

What does it mean to do site responsive versus site-specific art? How do we negotiate the power dynamics between institution, artists, and community partners? What are the roles each of us assumes when participating in a socially engaged art practice?

The Art of Healing (Keynote for Doctors for Global Health gathering at UC Berkeley, 8.11.13))

Good morning, everyone.

I’m so happy to be here, to learn, to share, and to heal.

I was thinking about what I was going to say to a roomful of doctors, nurses and community organizers, but mostly thinking about the doctors and nurses and I started to panic. Mostly because what I know about doctors and nurses tends to come from twenty some odd years of watching intense medical dramas—and what I have learned from the doctors of St. Eligius, the County General Hospital in Chicago and of course Seattle Grace Mercy West is that you guys basically have to hook-up with each other to cope with the variety of messed up ways our global capitalist system is set up to annihilate the poor. I mean, there’s no other way then to blow off steam and detox under five minutes than to make fast and awkward love to your colleague in a quiet dark corner in the locker room, right? You don’t, right? Or…do you? I’ve never worked a 20 hour shift, so I am certainly not one to judge!

But television shows us an exaggerated version of how the world functions, right? Couple it with the right soundtrack, lighting and actors that can draw us in with nuanced performances of empathy and we have only a bare inkling of what it’s like to heal and experience healing.

Healing.

True Healing.

But nary do we see the connections between capitalism and health access; God forbid someone with McDreamy looks calls out a slumlord after removing one too many cockroaches lodged deep inside an inner city child’s ear canal.

And I don’t know why we don’t see that. It happens! You can’t make this stuff up. It is all too real.

In life, here where blood is blood and access to healing—and the kind of healings we do—becomes indicative of the divided world we inhabit, what does it mean to heal? What does it mean to heal when every day there are so many injustices that you don’t have enough fingers and toes to count them all out. Violence happens every day. We are witness to the spectrum of violence—the soft violences of being stared at because you present your gender like a fashionable unicorn or of being cat-called on the street or getting called a faggot or a wetback…but you don’t end up in a trauma unit in the hospital because someone spit in your face. And trauma has a life-or-death meaning that comes with a different set of stress disorders.

Sometimes you’re a nurse who gets spat at, who gets sexually or racially harassed; sometimes you’re a doctor who drives a kid home, a sixteen year old that came shot up the night before and you drive him because he’s a youth activist and shouldn’t be hobbling on a walker through a gang-occupied neighborhood. Sometimes you’re the only one who sees the madness behind hospital policies and the personnel that deny poor people from having any dignity because they lack health insurance or any other means of securing quality healthcare. You are the one that gets looked at like you’re possibly from Mars for being an ally. For being an advocate.

You are here because you believe in justice and you probably need a recharge. You know that working for justice made it easier to check your ego, forgo dermatology or plastics and pursue anything that foregrounds your interest in political intersectionalities. But you can’t do it alone. It is here among a range of tribes where you are seen, validated and given a siguele siguele pep talk to continue birthing and nurturing collective action and building the world where justice reigns supreme.

In Western Medicine, you’re deemed nurses and doctors. But when you pursue justice in these endeavors you have a deep relationship to the act of healing, of being healers. There is an art to healing. It reminds me of the photograph that circulated this last year as we all found different ways to turn our mourning and anger about the murder of Trayvon Martin into actionable projects—the photograph of the Howard University School of Medicine wearing hoodies in the first shot, followed by the white coats over those hoodies in the second shot. Stopping and forcing viewers to acknowledge that we don’t know that we travel our paths shrouded in assumptions and that we need to be shaken out of that. This kinds of visual interventions are moments that lead to healing.

But, what does healing mean for the healers? What might it look like for those that bring healing to others to experience healing themselves. Because if it’s one thing I take away from these medical dramas is that you, as a worker in a trauma unit, in an emergency room, in a South Los Angeles based health clinic; anyone and everyone working hard to eliminate health disparities and foster community well-being by providing and promoting the highest quality care…have really seen it. You have acted fast in moments where you probably just wanted to scream. You remain calm because it is in the moment where you must resist the impulse to judge the systemic ethical failure in order to make someone feel better about the pain that is all-consuming.

I don’t know what it is to do the work you do. I don’t always make appointments with my health provider. I don’t see the acupuncturist enough. Or the dentist. I don’t know what it means to be healthy. Even though I know that avocado and salmon have tons of omega-3s, that kale is like the best antioxidant. I know some stuff, but you. You know everything. About my body. And then you don’t really know a thing about my body. My body. You don’t know that it took a long time to want to be in my body.

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I want to share a little bit about what I do.

Well in case my bio didn’t hit it hard enough, I am an artist. I got started back home in Los Angeles about twenty years ago through punk rock and Riot Grrl—these were the ways I learned about politics, feminism, eco-activism and becoming anti-imperialist. I fell into art as a way to rebel against my family. My parents dealing with their own set of traumas raised me under a set of strict domestic policies. No sleepovers, ridiculous curfews that I would break time and time again, like their hearts. Not that my parents let me know it. When I came out of the closet I was nursing a heartbreak over my first same sex love and my father very casually says “Ay, mija, no llores, hay te vas a encontrar a otra.”

But I learned about myself by piecing my history through the stories my mom told me before my bedtime and then later as a young adult, reading about the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. I basically pummeled through all the classes in Central American Studies at Cal State Northridge in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.

These particular ethnic studies were a way to study myself, to contemplate where I came from as a child born in Los Angeles to a Salvadoran mother. My mom, one of nine kids (originally 12, but 3 died before the age of 3) grew up in a small hamlet on the border between El Salvador and Honduras, became a registered nurse who worked in San Salvador and ended fleeing not a civil war but an abusive husband who kept my older brother away from her for over six years. My mother fled one type of violence and arrived to encounter another kind in the U.S.—poverty. She was one of fourteen living in a house on Coronado Street in Echo Park—una arrimada, she called herself, or someone “leaning” on others for a few weeks without paying rent until an opportunity arose.

Learning about this type of trauma, this family history and first person account transmitted to me by my mother sometimes somberly but mostly through laughter—because my God if it’s one thing my mother never lost in leaving her country for a hostile U.S. of A it was her sense of humor. And my mother lost a lot. And her sharing the stories of loss with me was a way to heal. My mother, as both a trained nurse who couldn’t be one in her new home found other ways to offer me healing.

It was difficult to reckon, to understand that my mother and I made different decisions for ourselves at age 15, 25, 35. Knowing where you come from is a form of healing. But we share with one another the stories that to this day continue to mark the path, that like a scar, of where our pain and healing are configured.

But it took a while to get there because sometimes starting out with this work we don’t always have a language for healing. My introduction to healing came through art. It came through writing. I wasn’t in a Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers or even a Precious type of situation, but rather at a languishing 22 year old caught unprepared and under-resourced for college crossed paths with someone who had also very much experienced the world as a daughter of a Salvadoran immigrant mother had seen in me a potential to create a world where that experience can be seen, first and foremost, and then shared with others. The writing is what saved me. It helped me make sense of the hurt of racism, the confusion of desire, the numbness of addiction and the fury against imperialism. And finding a public that felt like they could drown themselves and possibly come up for air with my words was a gift. This was how I found community. This was how I found my calling.

There are many places where art and medicine connect. I like to think of these connections as sites where art becomes medicine.

In Anna Deveare Smith’s Let Me Down Easy she enacts a multiplicity of stories that center on the complicated relationships people have to health care. The one-woman tour de force explores the power of the body, the price of health and the resilience of the spirit. It is based on interviews with an eclectic range of people, from a heavyweight boxer to a supermodel, and from Texas Governor Ann Richards to legendary cyclist Lance Armstrong. Anna Deveare Smith is a seasoned stage actor and is currently part of the cast for the Showtime program Nurse Jackie. She’s been in so many amazing movies. She teaches also in the department of Performance Studies at NYU. I think about the body of Anna’s work and the thing that rings the loudest to me is that she can just be an actor. She can just be a theater acting professor. She doesn’t have to make amazing live work that focuses on the betterment of our citizenry and the ways we are good to one another. She doesn’t have to do work that focuses on race relations in Brooklyn, or the emotional toll the riots took on Los Angeles following the verdict that let members of LAPD walk free after nearly killing the late Rodney King in 1992. She is someone who talks to hundreds of people for every project she puts together. She has top billing when it comes time to perform these projects with their high production values and impeccably skilled professionalism. But that’s not even the point of her work. It’s not the product as much as the process and what you learn when you open yourself up to another human being, especially when that human being never had anyone really sit down with and really do the task of listening.

Anna’s work is like all of our work, where we work with others in mind. Yet our work in order to ring true, to reverberate beyond our individual selves, must be done so in community. Pursuing justice is akin to healing. There is healing when we fight for justice and we heal ourselves in the process of it when we turn to each other to coauthor speaking and listening.

When I was younger I performed in a variety of different spaces and stages. I thought I wanted to be the next Sarah Jones, Danny Hoch, or the next Anna Deavere Smith—crafting these one-person shows that portray a range of characters all performed by me. In the meantime I was in a group project very much inspired by the guys in Culture Clash. I did a project called Butchlalis De Panochtitlan with three other masculine of center Chicana butch female-bodied lesbians and it was good and fun and so healing to tell the story of gender outlaws. We had picked up enough traction to be invited by a range of art and academic institutions to talk about what it is to perform brown queer female bodied and barrio-raised Latinidad. It was fun. It was cool. I mean sometimes it got weird being asked to perform your identity, being in awkward Q&A sessions after performances being asked about your clothes and hygiene in really non-respectful ways. But you shake that off when you meet people who connect with your work, who are part of the interviews you do to create characters that speak truth to power. As I got older, and performed in the same venues, saw the same faces I started becoming dissatisfied with just the art-making portion of my creative life.

I wanted to see more people in the audience. But I also wanted to find different ways to activate audiences. Could they be a part of the art-making? If so, how? How do you invite someone that hasn’t much of a relationship to performance or art to co-author a piece with you? How do I engage people like my mother—a woman that loves art but is afraid of the feeling that comes from stepping into the big white cold box of most museums.

I didn’t know it but I was always a cultural organizer. It’s kind of like a community organizer, but it’s like totally specific to the arts. Or as the folks over at Arts & Democracy say, Cultural organizing exists at the intersection of art and activism. It is a fluid and dynamic practice that is understood and expressed in a variety of ways, reflecting the unique cultural, artistic, organizational and community context of its practitioners.  Cultural organizing is about placing art and culture at the center of an organizing strategy and also about organizing from a particular tradition, cultural identity, and community of place or worldview.

And that’s what I do now. Here in the Bay Area. I started out doing community partnerships for Los Angeles’ Cornerstone Theater Company, and getting clear about doing this work. Today in the Bay I work at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, building a a pilot community collaboration program with objectives to create community-relevant hierarchy-free art. What a concept, right?

My work here centers on installing professional artists—and every kind of artist you can imagine—into different communities to create work collaboratively with members of those communities and to present that work in community-specific and relevant venues, privileging access and relatability. The program I run is called IN COMMUNITY and I believe that local Bay Area community members, community organizations and individual artists can collectively meet mutual interests through experiential art making. This project approaches community collaborations with four core principles that guide the entire development, production and presentation process. While these principles might not be articulated verbally, I hope that these principles are seen in action in the way that the community is engaged and the way the work is performed.

·      RESPECT

·      DIVERSITY

·      FLEXIBILITY

·      MUTUAL MENTORSHIP

This work makes my heart sing. I am privileged every day to be able to sit with different people and learn. I learn by listening, by resisting my impulse to speak first, to really hear what the different community histories are as told by the people who have witnessed them, who have lived them, who continue to live them. Educational community histories. Economic community histories. Health community histories. Artistic community histories. These are the histo

ries and knowing them is a part of healing.

 

I can’t do this work without community. I could have written a play according to my own devices, according to what I saw, without consulting the experts that live in the community. Experts that have seen neighborhoods change, that have experienced different waves of flight, of gentrification, or just have been arbitrarily denied or limited financial services to their neighborhoods, generally because the residents of their neighborhoods are people of color. But I would have done myself a disservice to not have engaged with these community members, to hear their stories, to hear their tales of critical witnessing and to be impelled to be of service to that truth-telling. I have had to learn that I cannot go into a community with the intention of changing it, of transforming it, of making it better. I go into community with the hopes of being transformed.

 

I applaud you if you work from a place of being in community. You probably already know first hand the things I have described. If you’re seeking though a space to activate your desire for more justice, then welcome.

 

Thank you for letting me share these words with you.

 

El Danzante: on Rafa Esparza's ancestral nausea

El Danzante

In the fall of 2010 I encountered Rafa Esparza at work in a sage smoke-filled elementary school gymnasium in Pacoima, located in Los Angeles’ Northeast San Fernando Valley. I had expected it to be a practice, with a choreographer in the middle barking staccato-like numbered utterances to dancers finding their routinized footing. But, that does not transpire during a ceremony.

Walking in sounds like Niagara Falls. The chachayote rattles bound to ankles and wrists, made from the seed of the Ayoyote tree, echo the ribcage-rattling thunder under high ceilings and hardwood floors. It always is when you have scores of men, women, elders, adolescents and children dressed in ceremonial garb moving to the North, then the South. Followed by the East and then the west, the ground and finally, upwards towards the sky. It is here where the copal and sage smoke obscure my outsider gaze; interrupting my consumption of the mise-en-scene.

I feel the pangs of ambivalence rise to the surface of my psychic dermis. It is a familiar response to the spiritual community that reflects a Mexica indigenous worldview that permeates a certain politicized sect of L.A. Xicanos. I have only ever looked at this world through windows and being in that gymnasium that afternoon I felt voyeuristic. Danza and its concomitant practitioners and spirit workers have always signaled an authenticity that eludes me, but it still seduces me into wanting a comfortable, if not toxic, essentialism. I want it to be enough, but it’s not—and I want to be enough but I’m not. We’re like lovers, idealized in your mind but emotionally unavailable.

I see Rafa, well over six-foot-three, sweaty. His skin glistens the color of soft red dirt and he is breathtaking in his garb; his gilded loincloth, bandana fashioned with red hawk feathers. I am deeply aware of the problematic and dangerous cliché but I am letting this fantasy go to Disneyland because as Mexican poet María Rivera says la belleza cura. Since I’m usually so smugly critical about the white supremacist heteropatriarchy around me and having taken my fair share of Chicano Studies courses at Cal State Northridge, home of the most robust community-based Chicano Studies department in the country, I thought I could treat my criticality to some brain candy calorically anchored in brown pride.

Dark-skinned, statuesque, graceful and undeniably earnest—Rafa is royalty in my eyes because he is unabashed in this ritualized practice. There is nothing here to indicate that we are in on the same joke—no white people being led by collars and leashes, no fake North American tribal affiliations or sacrificial offerings covered in the little American flag toothpicks (like the ones I used to get atop my Bob’s Big Boy’s hamburgers in Downey, California). Of course I reference a significant portion of Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s corpus of work where he has eschewed narratives of authenticity espoused by U.S-Latinos, particularly Chicanos who are more occupied with passing a particularly politicized brown-ness than their Mexican counterparts.[1] However, while Gómez-Peña and his collaborator Coco Fusco (1992-1994) work to subvert the fetishization of authentic brown subjectivities, they did so in the context of the museum and academic institutions, spaces that heretofore continue to feel hostile to low-income communities of color.

Rafa, in contrast, avoids presenting himself as a queer enfant terrible to unsuspecting compulsory hetero-dominant working class brown families and our otherwise straight and educated counterparts, allies not included. He engages in daylong prayer through movement in anticipation for the coming Day of the Dead—a durational meditation where danzantes move for hours, pushing the limits of where bone meets joint.   

Prior to that day, I had only known Rafa outside of his danza work as a young and aspiring performance artist on the threshold of his last year of a long undergraduate journey, culminating with a year of studio art training at UCLA. I found it profoundly refreshing to see someone actively pursuing a learning for the queer genealogical threading they belong, not looking around to see who was watching, allowing his transformation to begin through the spirit whilst engaging in a community without the suspicious turn into social practice. It was refreshing to see a young artist not enact the trappings of Oedipality. Rafa is a spirit dancer preparing to answer the call of performance art; to kiss the hand of fathers under a matriarchal rubric.

Rafa is among the danzantes, ranging in virtuosic skill and spatial awareness, rehearsing steps and spins, looking to the four directions in hopes of finding indigenous ancestral memory. We begin East where Rafa started doing danza in 2002 after being radically politicized by “the xikano/o (with an X) ambiente” when he was a community college student and part of its MEXA (also known as MEChA, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) student chapter. This was at the time when the ELAC chapter went unrecognized by MEChA’s statewide and national conferences and had zero voting rights at those gatherings. According to Rafa, MEXA’s agenda focused on bringing culture to folks still connected to community vis-à-vis pow-wows, concerts, protests, vigils, and art workshops to truly engage with neighbors and non-students, unlike more powerful chapters ensconced in flagship UC campuses that organized the default community of the student body incubated within the college.

I’ll never forget the first time I danced. The homie Geo invited me to come to danza with a group young danzantes in obregon park, in east l.a. There was no "head" no leader...it was mixture of danzantes that had grown tired with the politics of the danza world and wanted to create a new, more democratic space. It was a beautiful space. I came having no intentions of dancing. "I'll just sit and watch this first time"......" ah si, asi dicen todos..." I remember Sombra, an already very skilled dancer who taught me my first steps.....as if he knew that what would happen be the inevitable opposite. As soon as I heard the drum sounds vibrating throughout the gym I stood and joined the circle, it was irresistible.

Rafa looks back to his early college days admits to having a nostalgia for danza, especially as he confesses that while he was thankful for those spaces providing a chance at self-interrogation, he was avowedly closeted and could not bring himself to be an out queer man in a space of ceremony.

I remember being in the lodge once and when it came time for me to pray, I was silent...I didn't say a word instead I let all of my thoughts of longing and lusting over love making with men rush through me but never out vocally. I would have visions of myself fucking with men, having orgies, fucking just for the fuck of it. Fucking with abundance. Fucking with my ancestors, on beds of feathers, in jade rooms. It was like that for a long time for, nourishing my queerness quietly in secret.

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Rafa Esparza’s Time Traveler

One year later I make the drive from Huntington Park to Beverly Hills to see Rafa’s work at the Garboushian Gallery. Time Traveller is a part of Together, a night of performance art curated by Samuel White. The Garboushian Gallery is a small white box with large picture windows facing the eastern part of Beverly Hills, with a few pillars that re-frame the mini-panoramas for the spectators inside the space. There are a few rich art collector types among art students and practitioners.  

Stage-left sits a mattress-thick platform with black-brown garbage bags woven around it like a basket. In the center of the thick opaque plastic lies a large bump. Could it be? Could that vessel be large enough to contain Rafa?

I think no, but yes; Rafa Esparza is inside the womb of his mixed media sculptural piece, Time Traveler, a work he first performed as part of a final sculpture critique while he was still an undergrad at UCLA. Tonight he will restage the piece in homage to his paternal and maternal elders, all who died one after another. "Es como si se estuvieran jalando uno a otro,” he recalls his mother saying to him, (it’s as though one is pulling the other after him), as a way to make sense of the abundance of familial death in a short amount of time.

 

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Time Traveler is an embodied pondering beginning with darkness. Rafa tells me he is inside the woven sculpture for well over two hours before he begins his performance. He is inside a dark encasement that creates a site of mourning for his elders, a place to lodge himself firmly with nowhere to go. It is a scary place to inhabit physically and psychically. This is a grief for his abuelos, his people, his connection to another time and place he carries like the burden that transborder people do—that longing, ese aguanto of what never was lo que nunca pasó--that ties him down until he is ready to appear. 

The platform begins to stir. A sole arm suddenly shoots through the weaving and it is striking for its visual contrast against the gallery’s white wall. The arm begins to throw out rusted brown beer bottles, one by one, each carrying the weight of what is yet to come out of the sculpture. The rusted empty beer bottles still smelling acridly of booze. Next up are hawk feathers and chachayote rattles, traditionally sacred objects that are prayer carriers that fill his senses with both gratitude and nausea. Rafa’s body becomes another object among objects, living among each other creating preciousness and repulsion the way families do.

 

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Even with members whom we have never met, Time Traveler posits that a ghostly revulsion is present amongst the moments of sublime belonging; an ancestral nausea channeled through Rafa. Like the nausea channeled in the political critiques that East Los Angeles multimedia arts collective ASCO wielded against violence in their communities and young Chicanos coming back in body bags from Vietnam, the ancestors in Time Traveller become agitated at the lateness in honoring the genealogies we emerge from, or disapprove of the ways we fetishize and objectify our colonized skin hues in our Ethnic Studies class. They wait for us break ourselves open at the dinner table,  or eschew new bordered mindsets in hopes of reaching the moment we can recreate ourselves to be rapt receivers of ancestral integrity.

Once all the objects are out, Rafa pushes himself out of the broken vessel, dragging himself backwards and behind where most of the audience is sitting. He does not walk but moves in a manner that connotes that he is trying to throw himself far away, like an object. Time Traveler creates the break in the physical and emotional distances between transborder families of origin.

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Was there a link between danza and performance for you? If so, what

does it look like?

Yes.  I invited my novio and a friend Kate Gilbert a couple of years ago to a danza practice. they had a great time and afterwards we had a lengthy conversation about the history of danza, and dance in general; but Kate asked me something that no one or I had ever asked myself. She asked me if I thought that danza was functional outside of the ceremonial space that I practice it in? I naively responded yes, because on a personal level  danza has provided me with so much than just spirituality However after thinking about it more for a while I started to think of her question in a less subjective manner, and that question is what ignited my interest in performing in art spaces. (tezcatlipoka memoirs is a direct result). I haven't answered that for myself yet, what that means  in more general terms about danza and the context for it, how that changes danza, does it, how does danza in return change the space, does it. Are both things impenetrable or porous? If so, why, when, how? I'd rather not answer the question/s instead I find wonder in swimming in the possibilities that the question arises. As much as I try to and compartmentalize these different facets of what I do, something like the often contact between danza and art is unavoidable, and inevitable, they can be very easily interchangeable.

 

You've involved your family in some of your performances--what is the comment you're making on kinships of origin?

I have, on a couple occasions brought in family into my work. I did a piece [called Tezcalipoca Dreams, performed in Blessed Is This Blood at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica curated by Raquel Gutiérrez] where I had my older brother help unravel a box where I was hidden in and tied for almost an hour. The box was covered in blankets, which eventually wove onto ropes, that where attached to brass coils pierced into my chest. The performance ended with my brother yanking the coils off my chest while they were still inserted in me.

It was important to have relatives activate some of the spaces that I was inhabiting, especially the males in my family because specifically in those pieces I am interrogating a particular structure of masculinity and I want them to understand how they are implicit, just as much as I am in how we’ve come to understand ourselves. We create the source of our masculinities as much as we feed it, abide by it; so rupturing from it had to be also a collaborative effort. My brother, an ex-felon, ex-cholo, ex-macho…well maybe still a little macho was more than “DOWN” to be in my piece, in spite of the fact that he had NEVER been in a room full of brown queers before that night. After my piece ended that evening I reached over to hug him and say good-bye, but instead he rejected my offer and said he wasn’t leaving and that he wanted to stay and see the rest of the acts. I realized first hand the value of sharing these experiences with my family and others whom otherwise would probably never step foot in a theatre, gallery, museum space.

Rafa Esparza performs el hoyo at Human Resources in Chinatown on Saturday, July 19th.

[1] In an interview with Bomb Magazine GGP claims that “this authentic Other has to be pre-industrial, has to be more tuned with their past, has to be less tainted by post-modernity, has to be more innocent and must not live with contemporary technology. And most importantly, must have a way of making art that fulfills their stereotypes…”

10 Mexican Days

One of my colleagues at work asked me if I had fun while in Mexico City a few weeks   ago. I felt my brows furrow as I thought about it and answered a plaintive no. It's notthat I didn't enjoy visiting the world class city. I went to Mexico City for the first time as an   adult and in the context of an artistic exchange where the bulk of the conversations with  artists, writers, cultural producers and journalists centered on the myriad of ways we  understand violence and the blood economies from where it originates. Preparing for these conversations compelled me to be versed in diverse narratives of violence, such as books by Charles Bowden, films by María Novaro and Luis Estrada, and of course music by Los Tigres Del Norte (the latter being the source of many teenage tantrums after losing control of the tape deck on family trips to Tijuana to see the dentist). It is a range of narratives that explore violence with both a heavy hand and a tongue in cheek. I hadn't spent this much time with intense brutality since my days reading about the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala while minoring in Central American Studies at Cal State Northridge. 

These particular ethnic studies were a way to study myself, to contemplate where I came from as a child born in Los Angeles to a Salvadoran mother. My mom, one of nine kids (originally 12, but 3 died before the age of 3) grew up in a small hamlet on the border between El Salvador and Honduras, became a registered nurse who worked in San Salvador and ended fleeing not a civil war but an abusive husband who kept my older brother away from her for over six years. My mother fled one type of violence and arrived to encounter another kind in the U.S.—poverty. She was one of fourteen living in a house on Coronado Street in Echo Park—una arrimada, she called herself, or someone “leaning” on others for a few weeks without paying rent until an opportunity arose.

Being eye-deep in the grisly accounts of the kinds of border violence that happens to Central American migrants passing through Mexico gave me pause. I’m thankful my mother didn’t encounter deadly train robbers or Zetas terror, the kind that coerces  migrants into dark economies or mass graves. Instead, my mom won a visa lottery that enabled her to get to Las Vegas to take care of children, clean homes and hotel rooms before arriving to Los Angeles in 1969.

All of our lives are a series of choices—left or right, east or west, stay or go. I think about my parents’ choices to leave their countries and wonder if I would do the same. Here is a hypothetical situation—what if I was born in Mexico? The idea comes up while I am getting into a fair amount of gender trouble while traveling around the Mexican capital. I wonder if the psychic toll would propel me forward to try my hand at being in a country that was more “tolerant” of my gender non-conformity.  It’s not like being told I was in the wrong bathroom was hardly a point of contention with the  country from where my father emigrated from; it's not the first time and certainly won't be the last time I get caballero'ed during dinner or joven'ed on an Aeromexico flight back to Los Angeles. These are only just a sample of the kinds of passive, or soft, violence that gender non-conforming people survive every day on both sides of the border. If and when luck is on our side we hear the nagging voice—maybe it’s intuition telling you to move out of harm’s way.

Lots of queers living in large metropolitan areas get harassed, bullied, assaulted and murdered. I have been spared heretofore the rod of homophobes glowering at me and my thug-dandy ways. However, it isn’t always the case for my queer brothers and sisters, many of whom self-medicate when the burden of challenging society’s narrow gender norms becomes too much to bear. The scythe sweeps down or comes close; another gender renegade’s life gets cut short whether it’s a bullet or a hypodermic needle. The rest of us are left mourning or wanting immediate escapist gratification.

So I wasn't surprised when I came home from Mexico City with a bout of low-grade humming depression. The analog kind; knowing that violence is always playing in the background, like a radio with a fuzzy signal at the lowest volume possible that allows you to know it is still there. Even when you see violence negotiated through the lens of  artistic production, you are saddled with a particular type of compassion and empathy in your critical viewing that has to be balanced out with both grief and fatigue in order to keep it from totally consuming you. Because that is what the violence portends—that you will be consumed.

Consumption. Like a Victorian novel way of meeting your maker, or at least experiencing the symbolic death that artists in privileged spaces get to while the extreme poor suffer horrible conditions, like the 165 U.S.-bound migrants, mostly Central Americans, that were_held against their will in Tamaulipas near the border town of Laredo, Texas by drug traffickers and liberated on June 5, 2013.

But I don’t escape to shirk the duty to listen anymore, to bear witness for other witnesses. 

At least, not with drugs.

La Guerra De Los Dos Lados/The War On Both Sides explores the representations of violence through conversations with groups of artists throughout the week we were there. Every morning over black bean breakfast tamales and mud_thick coffee Rubén, Rafa and anticipated conversations that might focus on the political, or the aesthetic or the social implications of violence, or the violence we render in our work. It was exciting and of  course, anxiety-producing, wondering what grab bag of artists and thinkers we'd be  paired with each day and if there would be any chemistry around our mission or if we  would be burdened with identity politics about being Chicanos and Pochos and the concomitant nopal on our foreheads with surfer cadences to our English that operate like broken traffic signals and slow down our attempts to connect.

But that was never the case on this journey, where other classed anxieties were present; I'm a child of economic migrants who came to Los Angeles from Mexico and El Salvador in the late 1960s, finding each other--my father and mother--in an East Los Angeles dancehall one fateful Valentine's eve. Now my parents are U.S. citizens and their experience is so different from the migratory patterns of the impoverished men and women and children that travel out of the countries of my parents’ origin. Or those that don’t, like the 72 people massacred by los Zetas in a village called El Huizachal in the municipality of San Fernando, Tamaulipas in 2010; their names, ages, genders and nationalities and humanity restored with great care in the poem Los Muertos, written by María Rivera of Mexico City and read out in pure oratory power on April 6, 2011 during the National March for Peace that Javier Sicilia galvanized less than two weeks after his son Juan Francisco was murdered by cartel-affiliated assassins.

Violence happens every day that we talk about violence. The time we spend meditating about how we negotiate impotence while we stand in front of your or my generation’s Guernica and The Third of May 1808, is a privileged yet fraught space. Every day we talked about violence in our Mexico City ateliers, real violence occurred in parts of Chihuahua City, Reynosa, and Ciudad Juarez. As cultural workers, we consider violence in the works of pulp novelist Elmer Mendoza or visual artist Teresa Margolles (both from Culiacan, Sinaloa, where the Sinaloa Cartel is centered) in order to complete the task of holding critical spaces, which is a lot like holding your breath. It becomes necessary to deeply consider the scope and foreclosing limitations brought about by representations of violence but it is difficult. It feels like self-harm. These works become a reference we necessarily make about violence in order to talk about healing, which is kind of like needing to step over the  bodies to make room for the living.

In our first conversation that week, we spent time with Gabriela Jauregui's and her poem Oasis of power/Oasis of horror. The authoritative voice in this piece creates an already negotiated position in an account of violence that is not necessarily culled from an archive of personal agency or trauma but of a constructed witnessing. Nevertheless, these invented perspectives make it into Gabriela’s work as a way to imagine hearing the elusive voice of assasins in a complex web of mercenary marketability. She provides our need to understand the darkness enfleshed in the men who make predators and the possiblity that we could dare to empathize with them.

The following are excerpted stanzas from Gabriela’s poem.

***

Juaristán is my playground,

Juareztine is my home,

King of my mono-metal reign of bullets

Here we celebrate more deaths than births every day

I make bullets rain over the border on the other side of the river

So El Paso sees me shine seems me fly through its skies in a flash

I am the fastest golden sun

I blow up cars I blow up homes I blow I blow I blow

Silvertip, Semispitzer, Hollow Point, Teflon-covered, Very Low Drag, Total

Metal Jacket, Lead Bullet, Full Metal Case, Speer Gold Dot, Remington

Core-Lokt, Armor-Piercing, Gold Sabre

***

I’ll take you to Salón Río Bravo but first to El Herradero where it’s all about

meat meat meat so you can meet my team of killer flesh fresh-shaved-headcholos (long

shorts long socks long barrel) and my python-tipped cowboys:

we are all gold-chained

and after and always we go to taquería Iris then sex at the oxxo in excess

chica cachonda busca chico en Chihuahua

***

As is. So: pare down this rape

pare down and peel and cut open and trim and carve and skin and scalp and

flay and decorticate

AK47 I own you now woman

We hear from the woman in the second part Oasis of horror:

On my way to work I see the children outside my house play sicarios, narcos

and policemen with sticks and stones

they know the caliber of every gun, of every bullet they carve

in stone and gavel and play-doh

they know bones and they’re dead wrong

now they’re dead

and still wrong

***

while I am forced to listen to Juan Gabriel’s greatest hits

smothered and

slit

is my throat

my slit

filled with silt

a river dries

my hair

Irene   Silvia   Mercedes         saints in the desert

blind

bonedry

flow nowhere

no place for slits

and lipstick lips

mujer muerta

and what you hear now is the sand that buries me telling my story to

the wind

***

Gabriela creates a counter-narrative to the feminine position in Juarez. The feminine has become ossified with fatigue after too many escorted trips to the local OXXOs in Ciudad Juarez, a perspective produced during a writer’s residency in Juárez that lodged her deep in the deadly reality. The threat of rape is real, actual rape is always a looming specter if you are female-bodied in any part of the world, so just because it didn’t happen to you—that you are still alive as far as you can tell—does not preclude the obligation to make work about it about in fast-moving cinematic language.

Or maybe it does? In the poetic inventions contingent on la memoria ajena (the other’s memory) where implications are embedded in different feminine voices urging the reader to keep seeing the city named after Benito Juarez drenched in blood; pulling gendered violence out from the ether and imploring us to see the slits filled with silt and not be at all comfortable in the reproducing of the same narco sensationalist discourse its intending to criticize. In Gabriela’s poem even Juan Gabriel is implicated.

Artistic interrogations made in comfortable art spaces produce ambivalence about the cushy and inaccessible place art inhabits amongst the general populace, at least back home in California where each year, art education becomes the first to go in dwindling school budgets which makes art appreciation a relic. So who is art for  and why the need for these conversations when we don’t have the tools to forge the next generation of art lovers that emerge from communities of color?

However, these artistic interrogations for the many of us that did emerge from beautiful barrios in and around Los Angeles produce a hope illustrated in the way our new friends and colegas stage an intertexual conversation with one another and with each other’s work about violence.

Narco-mantas (banners) came up a lot throughout the week’s conversations. These banners are the propaganda between warring cartels, hung over bridges or near a pile of deliberately placed dead bodies. Cartels claim responsibility for murders and warn rivals and police to stay away from their territories or to recruit locals into their armies. Narcomantas became a rich site of interrogation for artists, as they can be mixed and re-mixed to produce radically different, darkly humorous or curiously gendered texts and placed in public sites to produce a different set of responses outside or beyond compulsory terror, or to comment on the range of soft violences many of Mexico’s citizens experience daily, as seen in the work of Julio Torres. Julio’s piece En Este Pueblo Ya No Cabemos Los Jotos on the homophobia that saturates his hometown of Mexicali, even though, ironically, he was unaware that his banner media was the favored means of cartel communication.

However difficult it is to revisit work made as President Felipe Calderón entered office in 2006, it was worth it to arrive at a resensitizing about why writing about violence is violent. So our conversation landed on the important question--how to make work that does not revictimize the victims? This question becomes important with each new conversation. John Gibler, who has been in Mexico since the late 1990s, doing solidarity work with the Zapatistas and the late human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa, and who now writes and contributes to news sources such as Pacifica radio station KPFA in Berkeley and publications such as  Z Magazine, Left Turn and Colorlines. John has seen firsthand contemporary Mexico shift from being a country complicated by neoliberal policies like NAFTA to a deadly environment fueled by impunity for the indigenous population, women and human rights activists. As a person, John is open, warm and humble as all get out. Reading his books you will know that he has seen his share of humanity’s worst attributes as well as gun fights. I wonder how does someone who has reported on so much violence—even the sexual violence committed against the 26 women in the wake of riots in San Salvador Atenco in 2006, many of whom are John’s friends—continue to be impelled by a deep well of optimism?

I reach for my copy of John’s book of  poems 20 poemas para ser leídos en una balacera (20 Poems To Be Read During A Shoot-Out). It begins with a series of alerts for the new guy to get down. The reality surrounding him is one where a bullet is followed by a hundred and impunity reigns supreme. The poem’s hardened guide might be an adrenaline junkie as he gleefully tells the new guy that even as you run away from the lead-heavy shower of brutality in a zig-zag formation be sure to guard your disgust against jadedness. You can never forget that this is home for you and thousands of Mexicans who deal with this daily occurrence and every day is worth the risk.

As cultural producers we use words, objects, and intention to create a different world that offsets the traumas of the world we inhabit that’s been riddled by bullets and indifference. Creating these worlds often become a convergence of blessings, curses, risks, burdens and privileges that haunt the daily task of imagining justice.

During one of the week’s first conversations, Jen Hofer referenced Audre Lorde's famous adage: the master's tools can't dismantle the master's house. She called for all of us to adopt the need for new, different tools that expose the relationship between power and language and to be ready to see how they embed in one another to produce an oppressive regime. Jen compels us to be something I imagine John already is--different. We have to be different in order to imagine a just world; to become listeners and inquisitive about human life in other parts of the world. Even John’s assertion that he “receives” art rather than consumes it, reveals a lot in the little ways we can reinscribe our relationship to the world we want to inhabit.

Later in the week I stepped away from these conversations and into Mexico City. I saw art that Mexican-American journalist and author Daniel Hernández wants Americans to witness and be troubled by. Daniel told me about Martha Pacheco’s new exhibition at the Museo de Arte Moderno, Excluidos y Acallados (Excluded and Silenced), curated by Alicia Lozano. This is a series of oil paintings of cadavers that have not been named or claimed by family members that Pacheco photographs and then paints. I was struck by the light in her paintings—the vividness of the fluorescent lighting in her oils eerily accent the red blood of her victims gaping wounds and sloppy post-autopsy sutures.

There’s also a series of people that live in sanatoriums who Pacheco photographs and then paints from the photo she has taken. The pieces, part of a body of work spanning two decades, pose the question, according to the Lozano’s curatorial statement of who do we become when we are forced to confront matters of death and madness? It is strange seeing such grisly depictions of violent death in an art institution, supported generously by the Mexican government, where the curatorial or artist statements not make any mention or gesture to the current social context of drug-related violence. As part of the Guerra De Los Dos Lados, the only commentary I encounter about this show takes place within the four walls of our daily meetings inside the safety of another Mexico City museum, El Museo Del Chopo.

Is it possible to translate the culture of violence into an aesthetic site of healing? If, as Jen states, all literature is translation then perhaps the visual language that Martha Pacheco’s work employs could be considered primal screaming. Martha Pacheco’s images make the language of state silence strange, even when silence underscores the ability for the museum to exhibit her work. And that alone is possibly an extraordinary expression of that strangeness.

After ten days in Mexico, it is only the strange that feels familiar.

NACO POWER (For The War on Both Sides)

NACO POWER

I'm at a club
called La Plaza
She’s still alive and holding it down
on La Brea

Cross street
Melrose in Hollywood

Maybe you know it?

Tonight
there is so much jotería here
Naturally you sometimes forget
the women of invention, rehearsing
lyrics, songs of betrayal, the kind you hear
Paquita wail in the songs that have made
her the grand dame
of vengeance

Doors open
Here comes the
Naco power.
Naco power.
Naco power.
Naco power.

Start the show
see the arc of golden feathers
glow under a
mirrored globe
I arrive with my best friend
Mari, the bachelor looking for the loosest of long hair

Her aggressive braids
Female Male thickness
Dressed in football jersey
going long all night

My friend so naca
So naca my friend
She’s got the

Naco power.
Naco power.
Naco power.
Naco power.

We see a girl
with hair the color of carrots
She wears gold chains
And amulets
she’s only nineteen

Her name we’re told is Viri
Viri
Viri
Viri, Viridiana
She wears her name on a thick platinum bracelet
in case we forget

I smiled weakly
But I’m here because I support you, Marí
We have
Naco power.
Naco power.
Naco power.
Naco power.
between the two of us

Two weeks later
Mari told me
I got stood up
Viri wouldn’t leave her house

I could see her at the window inside
an enormous house in the middle of a barrio
in southeast Los Angeles

You dodged a bullet, my friend,
my friend, you dodged a bullet

Two hours spent waiting
I wanted to
you-know-what but the little girl had an uncle
and her uncle had a package for her
She said she felt bad

Packages
packets waiting for her
long story these packages

I don’t even know where to start

Surprises
filled with
Naco power.
Naco power.
Naco power.
Naco power.

NACO POWER (for la guerra de los dos lados)

Estoy en un disco
que se llama La Plaza
todavía vive y queda en la
calle La Brea cruzanda
la Melrose en Hollywood

Tanta jotería se encuentra aquí
que a veces es natural olvidar
las mujeres inventadas, ensayando
las letras de traición que se escuchan
en las canciones de Paquita, la gran
dama de la revancha

Se arranca el
Naco power.
Naco power.
Naco power.
Naco power.

Empieza el show y las plumas doradas
brillan de bajo de un
globo espejado
Llego con mi mejor amiga
Marí, la soltera buscando las del puelo suelto

Trenzas agresivas
Femenino masculino gruezo
Vestida con camisa de futból
Americano
Anda suelta la soltera
y las dos nos queremos
echarlas a todas

Que naca bien naca
Bien naca mi fren
Trae

Naco power.
Naco power.
Naco power.
Naco power.

Vemos a una chica
con pelo el color de zanahoria
Trae cadenas doradas
Amuletas de oro
apenas diecinueve

Que le digan la Viri
Viri
Viri
Viri-Viri Diana
Hasta el ombligo trae joyas
No es ni cualquiera

Yo me sonrío debilmente
Yo te apoyo Marí
Tenemos
Naco power.
Naco power.
Naco power.
Naco power.
entre las dos

Dos semanas después
La Marí me contaba
como se quedo plantada
Pues La Vidi so salía de su casa
era una caseron en medio de un barrio
en el sureste de Los Angeles

A lo mejor te salvastes, mi fren
mi fren, te salvastes

Dos horas pasé esperándola
me la quería
pues tu sabes

pero el tío, había un tío
no te conté de la Viri y su Tío

Paquetes
le estaba esperando los paquetes

ni te cuento de los paquetes

Pa' que te cuento

Sorpresas
por andar de pendeja
Y llena de
Naco power.
Naco power.
Naco power.
Naco power.

BAD GIRLS (Toot Toot, Beep Beep)

I performed a piece called BAD GIRLS (Toot Toot, Beep Beep) in January on Ear Meal Webcast with my friend Gabie Strong on guitar and feedback. Ear Meal is Alan Nakagawa's project that invites performance artists engaged in sound work to do longer work on camera and for an online audience. It was a bit of a challenge to wrap my head around performing for an absent audience, or to imagine a different way of giving my work and putting my faith out in that the reception of it would be as committed by anyone sitting on the other side of a computer screen.

Anyway, the piece itself is a continuation piece I first did two years ago for the LA VS WAR event curated by several people. The performance component was curated by Amitis Motevalli. BAD GIRLS (Toot Toot, Beep Beep) of course is a reference to Donna Summer, but it's a song that carries a particular psychic load in that it is what LA Sheriff deputies would blast from their patrol cars at dawn as women were being released from the Sybil Brand Institute in City Terrace, a neighborhood in East Los Angeles. Sybil Brand isn't there anymore though, it had closed down due to earthquake damage from the quake centered in Northridge in 1994.

BG (TT, BB) is also working for me as a meditation on maternity and the liminal space I inhabited as someone who got close to previously incarcerated women dealing with custody issues with family and the state and as someone who was seeing friends working with the state to foster children whose mothers were unable to care for them due to mental and addiction issues.

Yes, lots of issues, but this performance is not a news stand. I can assure you of that. Gabie Strong provides the dissonant soundscape for my 29minute stream-of-consciousness mantra making about the ambivalence that alternative motherhood produces within the confines of state-sanctioned structural violence.

I've never been a mother. I don't intend to become one though I think we're always in these loose networks of familial kinships without having to avow the hierarchical relation structures.

BRUTALITY AS RESEARCH (on preparing for a trip back to the fatherland)

"Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth, thus capitalist society stands." - Rosa Luxembourg

Have you read Horacio Castellanos Moya's book Senselessness? It’s about a writer  hired by the Catholic Church to edit a 1000-paged legal manuscript who slowly goes insane after reading hauntingly poetic testimonies of indigenous men and women from an unnamed Latin American country who survive a bloody genocidal campaign. After reading these frightening accounts of mass murder, gang rape and torture, the nameless narrator carries on in his non-working hours drinking in bars, chasing women of transnational global elite extractions and discovering his choices have led him into the belly of the beast’s favorite cosmopolitan party sites. He becomes incrementally paranoid with each passage he absorbs especially since those military generals are essentially still running the country.

I am reminded of HCM's narrator after spending these last few weeks reading El Narco by Ioan Grillo, a cultural history that charts the rise of the Mexican drug cartels with plenty of sobering accounts of violence on the border and both Mexican coasts. So sobering that I'll never want to light up a joint for as long as I live. The implication that we're all at fault is so obvious it doesn't even warrant mentioning. Or does it? El Narco is such brutal read that compels me to think beyond finger-wagging, or to at least put the finger-wagging on hold while I meditate on a different kind of implication that comes from being a citizen of the Global North who has spent a lot of time with genocide survivor testimonies I read for all the Central American studies classes I took back in undergrad. The privilege of being able to consume such testimonies from the comforts of my two-bedroom apartment in Silverlake I had in 2001 isn't lost on me.

However, this time the violent insurgencies aren’t ideological, they’re darkly and intentionally criminal and remind me of all the ways that capitalism has mutated to desperately sociopathic levels. Unlike the narrator in Senselessness though I don't feel paranoid about being persecuted, but I do feel like I'm going a little insane.

At first it was chilling, the hair on my head standing straight up and out at the banal depictions of violence. 100,000 deaths. One victim equaling a hundred bullets. And then something so typically American happened to me: I couldn't stop. I super-sized. I developed a low grade addiction and called it research. I kept reading and reading ever so voraciously, flirting with narco blogs, daring myself to look at the carnage. I felt my body drain of humanity in the presence of snuff films; real as  the threatening banners with succinct messages promising a fate worse than death to those who dare skim what is not rightly theirs off the top of the deadliest of trades. I did myself a raw and what Maggie Nelson's calls in The Art of Cruelty a "grave disservice by staying riveted by top-of-the-hour ad nauseum "proof" that [we] humans have always pursued...the bloody business of genocide, state-sponsored war, terror and individual acts of sadism across space and time."

Before it was easy to pretend I wasn't aware of it. If you've ever done drugs then you can understand how easy it gets to pretend stuff doesn't exist.  I avoided a lot of what was happening in Mexico in the last five years because I just didn't have the stomach to look at the real let alone the representations of violence in the eye. Why rehearse injurious terror I mused while smoking my little French Theory cigarettes. And I felt far removed from the cultural dynamics happening in the capital city of my father's homeland mostly because I was estranged from family and didn't feel connected to any of the queer or activist or organizing or artistic communities. I didn't have any friends in Mexico and so to speak truthfully yet brusquely I didn't have any investment.

Well now I want to connect.

I’ve been reading up on the Drug War to prepare for a trip to Mexico City with collaborator and friend Rubén Martinez, along with Los Angeles performance artist Rafa Esparza. We have planned to meet with various artists, writers, and cultural critics in Mexico engaged with the current social context of violence, drug economies and its concomitant artistic representations. These conversations will take place in museums and other intellectual holding spaces that offer a safety to them, one that will make it easy to talk about and defend certain representations. Discussing the ethical and challenging implications of artistic responsibility in representing the social milieu for the global spectator isn't new. The representation often comes through an American or European lens. But we'll be talking about the Mexican social context and for me, it is an opportunity to learn about the artist's role in preserving some semblance of humanity in those that arrive to the work in question.

In preparation for the trip though I wonder: does consuming range of high-middle-and-lowbrow narco related cultural productions like Tucanes De Tijuana, El Gallo De Oro, Miss Bala, El infierno, El Narco, and Reina Del Sur put me on the same plane as fans of the Saw franchise? The representations of violence might not be overt or avowed or as crass as Jigsaw's reign of terror, but isn't there a thread of prurience that places it all on similar terrain?

And then I think about authenticity, about origin. What gives me the right to talk about something I feel so distant from, whether it's a privileged disavowal or not. Could I write the next Salvador or The Tattooed Soldier? I look at the work of Natalia Almada and Teresa Margolles, both of whom are renown artists with roots in Culiacán, Sinaloa and understand the impetus, if not the divine right to tell the story of what is happening because of the connection. It makes sense that they get to and to do so and doing so in a way that doesn't rehearse a crude and cruel violent mise en scène but rather creates a poetics of aesthetically rigorous empathy. The creative impulse towards a politic of compassion and action is always the hope. But considering how enormous of a reach the drug trade has, that the goods reach as far as New York and London, the Bay Area and wherever there are nightclubs and pot bars and how defensive we get when our buzz is killed, does the structure of feeling surrounding the way we take in the works of Almada and Margolles already preclude a possible substantive and actionable compassion? 

Doesn't that mean that we all have a drug piece inside us all? And how to access that piece inside us all that connects us to the drug economy without creating a pornography of terror?


on parasitism and direct action

"Reading a book can help someone decide to take action but it is not the same thing as taking action. Writing a book is not the same as taking action. The responsibility of every writer is to take their place in the vibrant, creative activist movements along with everybody else. The image created by the male intellectual model of an enlightened elite who claims that their artwork is their political work is parasitic and useless for us."

- Sarah Schulman on the responsibility of the writer.

Against Nostalgia

It's the morning after the big event. Last night I was on a panel with folks connected to Jabberjaw. It was the opening keynote panel for the Los Angeles edition of the Experience Music Project conference that usually happens every year in Seattle. I submitted the panel proposal late last year when I saw that the call for papers had a distinctly Los Angeles bent centered on locality, organic musical community formations, identity and overall clique-y scenester-ness. I hit up Michelle Carr, co-proprietor of Jabberjaw slash archivist on Jabberjaw emphemera and now editor of the upcoming anthology It All Dies Anyway: LA, Jabberjaw, and the End of an Era because the book project was creating a flutter of excitement from previous patrons and members of the old Jabberjaw community. It seemed like a great way for all of us on the Jabberjaw Facebook group to take our communications, creative exchanges, tensions and other healthy beefs into the public.

I drove down from the Bay yesterday morning. I arrived to my parents' house in Huntington Park to basically put together a 100+ slide slow for the event. I arrived early enough to set up my tech stuff while greeting the who-was-who of Jabberjaw past. Time has been kind to us.

This was my first EMP contribution ever and the combination of caffeine and nerves was one thing but the feedback on the mics took me off balance and I probably didn't say as much as would have liked to. I was really happy to be on a panel with some of Jabberjaw's brightest stars, to be amongst friends from back then who I'd stand next to and be the most present I've ever been in my young life. Sure brightness can sometimes blind and as someone told me after the panel, this was the nicest and restraint I've ever been when it comes to discussing issues of race-class-gender-privilege. I woke up thinking about it this morning. I felt like I was trying to reference the teenage person inside of me that was a frequent patron and sometime performer at Jabberjaw and that person wasn't articulating the burden of identity during that period in the early 90s. The young person inside me saw the way Riot Grrl polarized people in the Jabberjaw community, the micro-aggressive iterations against feminists taking the space back, even if it was only psychic space, and it haunted me. If gender spooked folks into acting like their dads, I was not about to bring up race or ethnicity. Jabberjaw, for as much as it gave us all permission to imagine living our lives creatively and not starve, it was still kind of a nihilistic space. And that was the allure. It was so many things at once--dystopic and hopeful crawling with innocent Peter Pans and  intense addictive personalities.

Spot the little identitarian-in-process with the black cherry lips in front.

Spot the little identitarian-in-process with the black cherry lips in front.

Did it scare me? Maybe it did. Was it worth it to me to speak up even when deep down I knew Jabberjaw was as diverse space a space as it was ever going to get if I wanted to see bands I gave a shit about? I mean, even if Jeffrey, Sajay, Sisi, Adam, Jessie, or Gabe or any number of my friends of color didn't want to talk about it, make a big deal about being the brown and black faces in this sometimes sea of white, it was our prerogative. Were we all politicized? I surely wasn't at 17. I could barely swallow calling myself a feminist. It is hard dressing for battle. But even now it's not like I'm a very good at being a person of color, whatever that means. I'm reminded every day about structural racism and fall back all the things I had to do to be a good cockroach and survive all that symbolic ontological annihilation, even when it's coming from supposed allies. All I knew back then was that I loved shows and that sometimes things got awkward for brown kids. 

We do bring it up, however. We do it behind closed doors. Over telephone conversations. In a 'zine that will be distributed to maybe 5 people. And sometimes in documentaries like Martin Sorrendeguy's Mas Alla De Los Gritos/Beyond The Screams: A U.S. Latino Hardcore Punk Documentary or Kerri Koch's Don't Need You: The Herstory of Riot Grrrl or James Spooner's Afro Punk...the other black experience.

And even then those documents aren't enough. When you have three narratives, they become the GO-TO narrative for all things brown and punk, or female and punk and so on, so forth. Riot Grrrl gets cast time and time again as this white, privileged, educated space, when my time in Riot Grrrl was spent with bad ass Chicanas and Filipinas into punk and fucking shit up and being way too much for the white girls around us too conveniently clueless about their varying forms of privilege. The elision of Los Angeles Riot Grrrl is annoying mostly because I feel like this is the Riot Grrrl narrative you've been waiting and hoped to find in Sara Marcus' love letter to Bikini Kill otherwise known as Girls To The Front. But that elision just underscores the quandary of having a conversation about race in those circles--no one was ready. But those tensions gave way mostly because they had no choice and explode into new and exciting forms of identity-based spatial awareness. Like I said last night, if it weren't for Jabberjaw I'd not know the brilliant, liberatory genius of Vaginal Davis. Vag went on to create some of the most exciting performance venues for gender outlaws in Los Angeles, spaces where you could engage with the collision of sex, identity, practice and radical self-formation.

Now twenty years after these creative movements, communities and eras there we are seeing the emergence of curators, editors, archivists and librarians coming forth with the ephemera they held onto carefully and sharing it with the rest of us. That's exciting to me because it is an opportunity to create new and counter-narratives to what we know about punk/indie/DIY culture. My main impetus in sending in the panel proposal was to bring attention to the care that Michelle Carr has taken with all of these historical materials and the vision she has to find a receptacle for these materials in the form of a coffee table book. She took care of Jabberjaw when it was a living space and continued to take care of Jabberjaw in its living death.

I am a fan, a champion of the organic archivist--those with personal libraries containing important ephemera like flyers, photographs, 'zines, cassette demos, compilation records and Xeroxed writings about DIY culture, 3rd wave feminism, hardcore post-punk, rock posters, Riot Grrrl, and all things Los Angeles in the 1990s. A few weeks ago I finally gave Lucretia Tye Jasmyne my Riot Grrrl Los Angeles oral history. I had been asked to give my oral history by a few other curators and scholars working on the Riot Grrrl movement and I either didn't have time to or just hadn't undone the knot of anxiety that kept me from wanting to relive that time in my life. Props to Chelsea Starr for being tenacious in broadening the dearth of voices of color in the RG discourse and to Astria Suparak and Ceci Moss who're busy working on curating an extensive exhibit on Riot Grrrl culture nationally. Astria has gone so deep into the archive she's unearthed my fanzine Soda Jerk (copies that Lucretia Tye still has and has promised to mail to me) and compilation cassette I put together called Fountain Of Youth. For more insight to Astria and Ceci's work, check out: http://riotgrrrlcensus.tumblr.com/

This is the work that is really thrilling to me. People not asking for permission to get our stories told, no matter how fraught and complicated and drowning in nostalgia they may be...

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I wish we could've talked about how in the photos of the audience, nary a cell phone was visible. No one was looking down at the wretched pager going off in their jean pockets or busy capturing themselves by way of an Instagram selfie. I can't imagine a band like Low performing to utter quietude today.

Okay, I smell nostagia so I'll stop here.

* A note about the photographs: from the Jabberjaw Facebook Group Postings. My apologies that I don't have the photo credit, but please feel free to post who the photographers are. I believe the Bratmobile photo is by Ben Clark, but I am not entirely certain.

FROM L.A. >>> THE BAY.

Well I didn't see this coming.

Or maybe I did. It's hard to say since I've spent the bulk of my adult life stuck in that hometown loyalty vortex that challenges the imagination and stuffs your brain with some things Dodger blue. It was just that I thought I'd always live, love, thrive and die in Los Angeles, except for those 14 months when I lived in New York.

But looky here, I ended up in the Bay Area, that place that weirdly became the gay Mecca I was ambivalently resentful towards for no apparent reason than a chip on my shoulder is just like my default mode sometimes. But I'm here. Now. Any why not? Love and career are some of the most compelling reasons to uproot yourself. And I did. And it's GOOD.

Like last weekend for instance, marked the end of my fourth week and San Francisco saw a hint of an early Spring. The sun was blooming. The sky was a bright cornflower blue. The clouds were few but powder white and succulent in the sky. I drove into the city (because I live in Oakland!) and arrived to a bagel brunch organized by Beth and Ali, held to welcome me, the new butch in town. Isn't that the nicest thing ever? 

I walked in, holding my sweetheart's hand and a canvas bag full of bubble water and sparkling wine giddy with anticipation. I've reached a point where I don't really get social anxiety or expect my fun to come from anywhere else other than my own guts and heart and brain meats. I'm optimistic to a fault so I was super eager to transfer my inner fun onto a new world peopled by beautiful, talented, generous artist/creative types. I can't help it. I'm just like a naturally curious sentient being and I ask questions and offer my own solicited intimacies in ways that enable me to continue being generous to humans. It was NICE. To get out of my head and into my body. To get out from under the burden of screenburn and amplified noise vis-a-vis social media and into the faces of strangers turning acquaintances turning friends.

For three hours and then some I was welcomed by a community. It's an idea I think we should all honor whenever the opportunity reveals itself. I admit that for the bulk of my life I fetishized the small town--mostly because I've longed for a sense of belonging. You think you might get that because the less-ness of bodies brings us closer together, hungry for warmth. Scarcity doesn't make a community.

I realized recently as I saw the constant thread in my life emerge, the thread of creating community. You work at it and then you work at it some more. And you see the fruit, the investment and you put some in the community bank and you see it grow and it's there and now there's so much of it wherever you go.

Whether it's goods to share, food to eat, tales and glory to gather around, the important part is doing.

Connect.

TO SIR, WITH LOVE for Christopher Lee

I am heartsick about the passing of Christopher Lee. I was a generation behind him, a firebrand of visual activism. His a life was devoted to bringing images of trans men to light, on celluloid, on digital film, both transcendent and sexually aggressive, no holds barred and so unapologetic.

I don’t want to give you the impression that we were friends. We weren’t. We weren’t because I thought there would be time to get close, forget our common ties, if our paths ever crossed again, third time being the charm and all. I can only give you snapshots of where our lives touched in the last ten years, in Los Angeles mostly, and then San Francisco.

I met him the winter of 2003 through someone had begun dating who unbeknownst to me would bend, twist and break open my world for the better and apocalyptic worst. Let’s call her Sabrina. Christopher and Sabrina were friends—she would tell me, a young brown butch, that he would always try to “daddy” her. Well…what do you mean? I would ask though galaxies away from being ready to deal with the answer. He was older than me, had the San Francisco experience over my lesser Los Angeles sheltered life of La-la-latina lesbianism. It didn’t occur to me in my nascent gender exploratory (yet anchored in essentialism) phase that you could be a Daddy well beyond the bedroom and dungeons.

Christopher was a Virgo—he could Daddy you to throw out shit you weren’t using, like broken vintage lamps, black velvet paintings, gas station jackets and cat-scratched up furniture. At least that’s what he did for Sabrina, who was trying to purge a life with her ex to make room for the hit-and-run romance she was initiating with me. Although no one ever said as much—those days were spent mind-reading, baby butch sulking, and operating in the angriest of silences. She was one of those I-Hate-You-Don’t-Leave-Me macho femmes. I was threatened by Christopher Lee’s friendship because he probably knew her better than I ever could. I mean, how could he not? He’s walked the miles, put in the time, had had his fair share of angry silences. For fuck’s sake, he was a Daddy.

I know this is now a very San Francisco banal way to be, but now as I walk through the Mission, Christopher’s distinction is one of near extinction. Christopher’s passing reflects that shift here. He was one of the dangerous ones.

Throughout my relationship with Sabrina, I would see Christopher whenever he’d come to L.A., usually unannounced, sometimes knocking on her door while we were still in bed (she lived in a building that required being buzzed in) and I visibly annoyed. I was a young turk, Oedipal and Napoleon were my complexes de rigueur in those early to mid-oughts and I squandered the opportunities to get learned from a gender warrior ahead of his time. He was in town for Outfest, as one of the few visible trans filmmakers, he would make the identity political panel circuit impeccably dressed in beautiful hues of eggplant and lavender, exploding categories before our eyes. Even as a young punk, I had to give him that.

I never came correct with Christopher, but that had a lot to do with the social dynamics seemingly predetermined between us. In other words, I had fraught relationships with all of Sabrina’s trans- and butch-identified friends. I’m not proud of these moments enshrouded by my insecurities. But they’re there and I’m making peace with them.

My break-up with Sabrina sent me down a dangerous spiral where I encountered my darker, shadier side. I call the summer of 2009 Break-Up Summer. I was flying to San Francisco, then New York and back to San Francisco away for over three weeks for readings and trying desperately to maintain sobriety. I was doing thirty days in AA because I thought I was an alcoholic. I felt like Robert Downey Jr in Less Than Zero and all I wanted was not a drink but a shot of my ex. I was in withdrawal, a different kind of addict in need of serious soothing. I found an 8pm AA meeting in The Castro. It was after my share as a newcomer that Christopher put his hand on my arm as I sat back down. I turned my head and saw his familiar face. Instead of puffing my chest out, I exhaled a sigh of relief, smiled meekly and squeezed his hand. After the meeting, we went out for a slice of pizza and cans of soda.

Christopher was there for me when I needed someone who had been there before. He listened. Christopher was a good Daddy, after all. I needed him to tell me I was crazy while reassuring me that my crimes were not worth crucifying. It was good to make peace with him, to apologize for being such a baby. He was kind, shrugged it off. We left each other warmer than we’d ever been. But we left with a see ya around.

Sabrina was the break-up that sent me back home to mommy because I could never be a Daddy. Sure, I went home to lick my wounds, but I got closer with Yemaya, too. I thank her on the regular and you should, too. I got reacquainted with the divine maternal and make sure my butch armor isn’t shiny with toxic masculinity day in and day out. Now, I could be there, maybe, cavalierly, vulnerably, for all the Christophers that came before me, to ensure they stay around for the babies, pre-teens and adolescents. It’s hard to tell them apart these days.

In other words, I’m stronger now.

I regret little though wince that I didn’t stay in touch with Christopher. I could feel his pain over late night pizza, but knew I, shaky with my own traumas, couldn’t provide the salve. I hope he is at rest, wherever he may be.

Until we meet again, kind sir.

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