September 29, 2006

Letter from Oaxaca: Performing in the Flames

By Guillermo Gomez-Peña

“Opening day arrived, and while we were setting up in the Museum, 50,000 citizens had gathered outside to support the teachers. The sound of their loudspeakers intertwined with the sound of our rehearsal.”

Dear friends:

On August 1st, my performance art troupe La Pocha Nostra began our annual “summer school” in the Mexican city of Oaxaca. Each summer we conduct two intensive workshops, one for ‘beginners” and another for seasoned performance artists. The result is a public performance at MACO (Museum of Contemporary Art, Oaxaca). Artists come from as far away as Canada, the US, the UK, Spain, Holland, Australia, and Peru to collaborate with indigenous Oaxacans working in experimental art forms.

The workshop is an amazing artistic and anthropological experiment—how do artists from different countries spanning three generations, from every imaginable artistic background, begin to negotiate a common ground? Performance art has provided the answer, becoming the connective tissue and lingua franca for our temporary community. But this year the usual cross-cultural borders and dilemmas we regularly face multiplied in all directions. The gorgeous bohemian city had become center stage for one of the most intense political conflicts in contemporary Mexico, a nation on the verge of total collapse.

I’ll be more specific.

On May 22, the Teacher’s Union (section 22 of the SNTE), who had been demanding a small raise in teachers’ salaries, began an indefinite occupation (planton) of downtown Oaxaca. The government responded with a violent police assault in which, on June 14th, several teachers were wounded. The APPO (Asociación Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca) immediately joined the Teacher’s Union and together they expanded the planton and took over the Canal 9 TV station, two radio stations, and several government buildings, blocking the main avenues and freeways surrounding the city.

By the time my colleague Roberto Sifuentes and I arrived in Oaxaca (July 29th), government hit men had carried out 38 political assassinations and several teachers had been sequestered. The city felt like Belfast or San Salvador in the late 80s. Thuggish paramilitaries and porros (infiltrators posing as teachers) hired to create mayhem were roaming around, every wall was covered in graffiti and the government was cowardly operating in absentia.

In this highly volatile environment, we continued our daily performance workshops in the studio of artist Demian Flores, located in Jalatlaco, one of the oldest barrios of Oaxaca. The participating artists were all extremely brave and committed to their practice. Before workshop hours they would walk the city, talk to people, observe, sketch, and write notes. Despite the unnerving daily rumors, never did they express any fear or desire to leave. Word from the street and from local colleagues was extremely worrisome: “Tomorrow we are expecting violence;” “The governor (in hiding) is asking all foreigners not to leave their hotels today;”

“Flights might be cancelled indefinitely.” Each morning before we started teaching, Roberto and I got together to discreetly discuss possible contingencies. What if someone was arrested? After considering the possibilities our advice was “Be cautious but open. Be active observers but don’t get too involved because you might get deported.

(Foreigners are not allowed to get involved in national affairs.) After all, our artwork is our way to be part of it all.”

Outside the planton area a strange normalcy pervaded which, paired with habitual cultural tenderness, characterizes Oaxaca. Life went on in a high intensity mode…not unlike performance art.

One day, during one of the many marchas, the teachers were ambushed by police snipers. One man was killed and several wounded. The next day, the teachers carried the corpse in front of a ritual pilgrimage across the streets of the city. We were immediately reminded of the Gaza strip.

The questions infusing the workshop exercises and improvisations were strangely analogous to our political predicaments: Which are the borders we can/must cross? Where are the ethical/political limits of art? Should we be participants or chroniclers? What is our new relationship to the civic realm? What are the new characteristics of our ever changing multiple communities? Where do we belong when our alliances are not with the nation/state?

Inevitably the performance material we developed unconsciously revealed the frailty and danger of our immediate universe. It revealed the discreet fears stoically harbored by our psyches: beautiful images and actions of a world in turmoil where political violence and cultural perplexity intertwined with religious imagery.

We were like needy children clinging to one another. At night we would eat together, dance at El Central or have a drink at a hipster bar.

Perhaps the only ritual undisturbed by the omnipresent crises was bohemia. At night, Oaxacans were as motivated as ever to dance, drink and laugh their way out of apocalypse… and so were we. One Friday night, we couldn’t enter El Central because the porros had burned a city bus right in front of the bar, but the next day Willy, the owner, reopened as if nothing had happened. The late night separation was the hardest.

Walking back to our hotels amidst bonfires and buses blocking the streets was surreal. Not knowing if those shadows in the corner were teachers or porros was unnerving, but after a week it all became part of the strange normalcy.

If someone from the workshop didn’t show up one morning, my colleagues and I would freak out and one of us would go immediately to their hotel to make sure they were safe. Near the end of the second workshop, Marietta, our producer, told us, in reference to MACO (the museum that would host our public performance in a few days) “There is word in the streets that all cultural institutions might be taken over tomorrow, so we may not even have a museum…then what?” The group response warmed my heart. “No problem. If that happens, we will find another space, refurbish it overnight, and have our performance there.” We were beginning to sound more and more like the Oaxacan civil society.

Opening day arrived, and while we were setting up in the Museum, 50,000 citizens had gathered outside to support the teachers. The sound of their loudspeakers intertwined with the sound of our rehearsal. It was extremely humbling and many times during that day I was stricken with doubts. Should we cancel the performance? Was it appropriate for the show to go on? But I quashed my doubts. At 7:30 pm, just as the demonstration ended, we opened the museum doors, and to our surprise, hundreds of people began to storm in. A perplexed museum employee said to me, “Maestro, why would all these people (over a thousand citizens) come to experience weird performance art and experimental video on such a day?” Precisely, I thought.

There couldn’t have been a better time for us to be there. It is precisely in times of acute crisis that cultural institutions become true sanctuaries for freedom of the imagination, that the function of art becomes clarified. The wide-eyed audience, which included many of the victims of the conflict, couldn’t have been more playful or more interested in our bizarre imagery and actions. Art clearly brought them to another place, a parallel reality were symbols, metaphors and rituals attempted to make sense out of the political maelstrom we were all experiencing.

Today, August 20th, as I pack my suitcase, I’m thinking about the ineffable relationship between art and politics and how sometimes we just don’t have the luxury to separate them, period. I’m also thinking about the bravery of the teachers defying the government and of the artists who participated in this amazing adventure with my troupe. In a few hours, I will be flying back to the US, a place under a different kind of siege, where the citizenry is either sleeping, or scared shitless (regardless that they are unable to talk back to their politicians in the way Oaxacans do), a place where artists are being censored and feel inconsequential, a place that rarely looks South, an isolated country I paradoxically chose as my second home for the opposite reasons. I am worried about my Oaxacan friends. I already miss my new colleagues. It will be extremely difficult for me to return to the existential ambiguity and political complacency of San Francisco.

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