Contemporary cultural debate in the United States has tended to depoliticize the act of appropriation from its historical context, as well as from its agents. Too often, the focus of analysis is either on the individual acts of appropriation by artists and identity-benders or the large-scale exchanges of goods within the domain of global capitalism, without a questioning of the ways these practices intersect. Formalist analyses can make different operations appear to be similar, but only the most extreme forms of relativism would allow us to equate the operations of institutions, corporations, governments, and affluent consumers with the survival strategies of marginalized communities. Appropriation is a process that cannot be reduced to what happens once something identifiable is removed from the place it previously occupied. Cultural appropriation is as much a political act as it is a formal operation or linguistic game. It involves taking something, often from someone, and it is rarely an isolated gesture. Seen from a semiotic perspective, the act may be interpreted as a dramatic illustration of the arbitrary relationships between identities and bodies, or between signifiers and referents. Seen within the historical context of historical relationships among the different sectors of societies in the Americas, however, that act of taking is marked by a legacy of violence, and of forced adaptation to imposed symbolic orders and the loss of the colonized’s right to name things as their own.
While it is true that no culture is fixed and that exchange among cultures has taken place throughout history, not to recognize historical imbalances and their influence is the strategical evasion that enables the already empowered to naturalize their advantage. As bell hooks points out in her essay “Eating the Other,” members of ethnic minority groups that have endured a history of having their cultural production regulated by and capitalized on by whites deploy essentialist arguments as a defense against excessive commodification.
Coco Fusco. “Who’s Doin’ the Twist? Notes Towards a Politics of Appropriation.” English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas. 70-71.
Dolores from 10 to 10, 2001 Performance with Ricardo Dominguez
“Once upon a time in a not so faraway free trade zone at the northern edge of Mexico, a woman who cobbled machines together for a living as accused of trouble making at her job. Her boss locked her up in an office without food or water or a phone. He tried over and over to cajole her into signing a letter of resignation. He watched her to see if she would break down. She held out for twelve hours, and later she sued the company. Her boss told the judge that she was crazy and that it never happened. No one would claim to have seen her.
Dolores from 10h to 22h is based on a story that no one saw.
Dolores from 10h to 22h is a net.performance by Coco Fusco and Ricardo Dominguez that took place on November 22nd, 2001 from Kiasma, Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It was also simultanously broadcast at the Art in Motion Festival in Los Angeles, the Galerie Kapelika in Ljubjlana and iNIVA in London. ”
“Many film makers feel that the aim of the film maker is to have complete control. Then the conception of what happens is limited to the conception of the film maker. We don’t want to put this limit on actuality. What’s happening, the action, has no limitations, neither does the significance of what’s happening. The film maker’s problem is more a problem of how to convey it. How to convey the feeling of being there.”
The literalism governing American thought complements the liberal belief that we can eliminate racism through didactic correctives; it also encourages resistance to the idea that conscious methods may not necessarily transform unconscious structures of belief.
Coco Fusco, The Other History of Intercultural Performance
4 Books on Latin American and Latino
art A Shelfie from Selene Preciado, Program Assistant
I’m Selene Preciado, program assistant at the Getty Foundation. Outside of my
work at the Getty, I am an independent curator of Latin American and Latino
anticipation of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, this selection of books is
inspired by the initiative’s effort on advancing the fields of Latin American
and Latino art history by promoting their dialogue, as these are often
perceived as separate fields of study albeit sharing narratives and historical
contexts. One of the strongest points of convergence between the two fields is
in the strategies of conceptual artists, particularly in arte de acción or performance, which has been a significant area of
production in the Americas since the sixties.
exhibition catalogue for Arte No es Vida:
Actions by Artists of the Americas at El Museo del Barrio is one of the
most comprehensive compilations on performance art by Latino and Latin American
artists, and it includes a detailed chronology of the most important actions
since 1957 until the year 2000. The exhibition was also a curatorial laboratory
for exploring the problem of exhibiting performance—a time-based medium—through
documentation, video, ephemera, and objects.
432-page tome is the most important document on the East Los Angeles collective
ASCO (1972–1987), produced on the occasion of the major retrospective organized
as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A., 1945–1980 in 2011.
But don’t let its girth intimidate you—the exhibition catalogue is very
dynamic, fully illustrated, and contains about twenty essays of different
lengths and topics, such as ASCO’s walking murals, collaborations, or
“No-movies,” as well as a section on documents and extensive bibliographic information.
book was edited by theorist, curator, and artist Coco Fusco, whose work since
the 1980s has explored postcolonial, gender, and race issues. Corpus Delecti is an excellent resource
and one of the very first performance art surveys that bridged together regions
and movements by including art from Latin American, Chicana/o, and Caribbean
artists, as well as genres that blurred the lines between fine arts, theater,
vaudeville, and staged political protest.
ASCO: Elite of the Obscure, this catalogue
was published in conjunction with the groundbreaking exhibition MEX/LA, part of
Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A., 1945–1980, and organized by the Museum of
Latin American Art. Just like the exhibition, this catalogue is an
unconventional and thought-provoking approach to telling the story of the
relationship between Mexico and Los Angeles.
Departing from forked origins—from
the mythological location of Aztlán, the founding of L.A. as a “Latin American city” (since it was Mexican territory back in 1781), to the presence of Mexican
muralists in the 1930s who ignited local production—it visits chapters in L.A.’s
history that explore exchange, remix, appropriation, and ongoing negotiations
of race, class, and gender. Through the work of Chicana/o artists like ASCO, Barbara
Carrasco, Yolanda López, and Ricardo Valverde, as well as Americans such as
Wallace Berman, the Eames, or Millard Sheets, MEX/LA pushed boundaries also in
exhibition making. Its non-chronological, non-thematic approach consisted in
connecting artists and artworks through ideas.
While this book doesn’t solely focus on performance art, the
MEX/LA catalogue might be the unifying thread of this list, in
that it offers a critical view on hybrid and shifting identities as performative
constructs. You only have to take a look into the performativity of figures
such as Robert Stacy-Judd, the Zoot Suiters (a counterculture of the
1930s–40s), or even the borrowed Maya elements in the architecture of Frank
Lloyd Wright—all included in the particular universe of MEX/LA. The concepts
explored in the exhibition and catalogue of MEX/LA are part of the origin story
of what is now Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA.
Flaunting one’s sexuality may indeed be a form of self-realization, but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, nor is the only context for its appearance democratic. The absence of consent from the recipient turns the display into an act of violence.
Many other people chose a more discrete way of expressing their sexual curiosity, by asking the zoo guards if we mate in public in the cage. Gomez-Pena found the experience of being objectified continuously more difficult to tolerate than I did.
…we began to realize that not only were people’s assumptions about us based upon gender stereotypes, but that my experiences as a woman had prepared me to shield myself psychologically from the violence of public objectification.
Coco Fusco, The Other History of Intercultural Performance (1994)
Over the last five hundred years, non-western human beings have been exhibited in the taverns, theaters, gardens, museums, zoos, circuses and world’s fairs of Europe, and the circuses and freak shows of the United States. In commemoration of this practice, video maker Coco Fusco and performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena lived in a gilded cage in Columbus Plaza in Madrid for three days in May 1992. Presenting themselves as aboriginal inhabitants of an island in the Gulf of Mexico that was overlooked by Columbus, the video documents “authentic” and “traditional” tasks, including writing on a laptop computer, television, sewing voodoo dolls and working out.
Reading the Art (or was it Business?) pages about Sotheby’s auctions, it would seem that here, success is best accomplished by embodying the contradictions of capital in the artwork and selling it back to the rich, as, for example, in Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull, which is designed to allow an owner to savor the fact that he can take $75,000,000 worth of human life (that is, 75,000 years of human labor at imperialism’s third-world wages), render it useless (dead), and stick it on his wall. The mask is not just an image of death, nor is it a “mere” fetish—it is actual death inasmuch as its value is the expropriated life of others, 75,000 years of human life—in short, money, made in the imperialist market, that could have been schools, medicine, hospitals, literature, another type of art, or another type of human condition. When the world’s expropriated, disempowered poor are paying for the cynical, self-serving ecstasies of the rich, when billions are suffering for the ironic, pleasured self-legitimation of an unthinkably wealthy minority enthralled by the cult of their own personalities, when militant capitalism has subsumed culture, and when art is war by other means, it would not be prudery that asserts that there should be harsh penalties along with reparations extracted for the Hirst type of aesthetic obscenity. [Coco] Fusco’s work makes me wonder “Would ‘off with their heads’ be too much to consider?
- Jonathan Beller, "The Art of War, or Coco Fusco’s Occupation” (2009)
Coco Fusco’s Field Guide for Female Interrogators draws attention to the socially constructed belief that women are passive and non-violent, while men are aggressive. Yet recent cases of female interrogation has left many questioning this. We are now seeing pictures of women such as Lynndie England standing next to her torture victims, and hearing of the highly sexualized techniques women are using to interrogate suspects. Women have a new relationship with violence much different from that of past wars where women were nurses and care givers, if not lonely housewives awaiting their soldier’s safe return. Women are now accepted as soldiers, perceived as equal to all male soldiers they fight alongside. But what does this mean for the identity of women and femininity? Are women naturally non-violent as Virginia Woolfe, addressee of the letters Fusco writes in the book, once thought? Are women being forced/forcing themselves to be violent, and for what reasons?
Sure, the right for women to fight in the army simply makes sense. Women should have the same basic rights as men in all cases, and taking away the ability for women to join the army would be a step backwards for decades of feminist work. It is the role many women are playing in the army that seems backwards. This is the what is at stake in Fusco’s piece. We must consider why women are being used as sexual objects in order to interrogate suspects in the Middle East? Why is exploiting these men (and in many ways, exploiting the women who participate) okay? Isn’t this a step backwards for women’s rights?! Furthermore, why is this the majority of what we are hearing about in terms of women in the army? Has this taken over the story of heroines like Nicola Goddard who died in the war in the Middle East? Why aren’t we identifying women at war with stories like hers? These are all questions Fusco’s work raises for me, and questions I cannot seem to answer myself.
The trustees of the Whitney Museum questioned curators at a meeting prior to the Biennial asking for confirmation of rumors that there would be “naked people screaming obscenities in a cage” at the opening. When we arrived at UC-Irvine last year, we learned that the Environmental Health and Safety Office had understood that Gomez-Pena and I were anthropologists bringing “real aborigines” whose excrement–if deposited inside the gallery–could be hazardous to the university. This is particularly significant in light of the school’s location in Orange County, where Mexican immigrants are often characterized by right-wing “nativists” as environmental hazards.
Coco Fusco, The Other History of Intercultural Performance (1994)