Border Crossing: Avant-garde performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña transcends national and ethnic boundaries

“British Curator and Mexican Specimen” by Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Bryan Biggs; photo by Manual Vason

“British Curator and Mexican Specimen” by Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Bryan Biggs; photo by Manual Vason

One phrase runs through all of Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s work: crossing the border. The artist’s numerous projects in theater, video installation, and written word all center on an inspired attack on categorical definitions of identity, especially on labels of ethnicity, gender, politics, and genre. The artist’s work, which has acquired its own labels of “ethno-techno art” and “Chicano cyber-punk performances” seeks to replace these simple statements of identity with hard questions about them.

Born and raised in Mexico City, Gómez-Peña came to the US in 1978 to study post-studio art at the California Institute of Arts. He spent the next three decades crossing the borders of the international art world. He is also the author of several award-winning books, a frequent contributor to National Public Radio, and a writer for newspapers and magazines across the world. In 1992 he and artists Roberta Sifuentes and Nola Mariano founded the arts performance troupe “La Pocha Nostra” around an evolving manifesto based on exploring the questions of multi-centric and ever-changing identities. The collective, which, according to its manifesto, has “died and been resurrected dozens of times,” is hard to pin down. It has passed through incarnations as “an experimental sideshow, an interactive museum and curiosity cabinet, and a political X-treme fashion show” as well as “a radical school, a town meeting, an ‘intelligent’ rave, and a virtual resource center.” But what holds Pocha Nostra together isn’t a shared answer to artistic questions, but a shared exploration of a political one. The Manifesto states: “We strive to eradicate myths of purity and dissolve borders surrounding culture, ethnicity, gender, language, and metier.” The collective revels in representing this mission even in the language (and often languages) that they use to define their work. “The Spanglish neologism ‘Pocha Nostra’ translates as either ‘our impurities’ or ‘the cartel of cultural bastards.’ We love this poetic ambiguity. It reveals an attitude towards art and society: ‘Cross-racial, poly-gendered, experimental, y qué?’”

Now with factions all over the world, Pocha Nostra has moved out of the garage, and is producing projects exploring the questions of power and identity on a larger scale. The effort to dismantle borders frequently takes the collective across the line between art and politics. “We claim an extremely unpopular position in post-9/11 US. No homeland; no fear; no borders; no patriotism; no nation-state; no ideology; no censorship. Our America is still an open society with porous borders; our America is neither Red nor Blue; it is brown, black, yellow, pink, and transparent. Always.” And while the collective prides itself in disturbing neat cultural classifications, they acknowledge themselves within very real social borders. “Pocha Nostra was created out of our necessity to survive as Chicano/Latino artists in a racist Art World. The fact remains that Chicanos and other ‘artists of color’ don’t have the support enjoyed by the Anglo avant-garde.” Still, the final clause of the manifesto states clearly: “La Pocha is, above all, a utopian idea…a marker in the political distance, a philosophical direction, and a path we often lose.”

The “brujo-poeta-activista” Gómez-Peña is touring his latest step on the path with his performance, “El Mexorcist 4: America’s Most Wanted Inner Demon.” The genre-bending production will make use of Chicano humor, mixed literary forms, multilingualism, and activism as a mode of criticism of the anti-immigration frenzy and the construction of the barrier at the US-Mexican border. Gómez-Peña brings the rebellion to the South Side when he takes the stage at Mandel Hall this week. Expect to play an untraditional role in the audience seat.

Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th Street. February 17. Tuesday, 7:30pm.