Paseo performance stirs dispute

Tableau by 'La Pocha Nostra' group draws fire by locals

By Rick Romancito
Posted 9/19/19

Social media blew up like a wildfire the day after the "La Pocha Nostra" performance art group enacted a tableau many called "offensive," "sick" and inappropriate for a public venue …

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Paseo performance stirs dispute

Tableau by 'La Pocha Nostra' group draws fire by locals


Social media blew up like a wildfire the day after the "La Pocha Nostra" performance art group enacted a tableau many called "offensive," "sick" and inappropriate for a public venue where youth and children could easily view. The event Friday (Sept. 13) was part of The Paseo outdoor art expo. It was repeated Saturday night (Sept.14) on Civic Plaza Drive in downtown Taos.

On Facebook, user Rocky Gabe Medina posted video of the event which triggered a large number of negative comments, some of which took to task civic leaders for "allowing this to happen."

Town Manager Rick Bellis said in a Monday (Sept. 16) email, "To be very clear, this was not the town's event, the town did not approve, pay for or hire the act, it was not in the list of acts we were given and we knew nothing about it till after it happened. We have a great deal of respect for the work of the Paseo and its organizers and have a long and fruitful relationship to date that we believe has helped to reset Taos back onto the stage as a world-class destination for the arts and which, in many ways, became the progenitor for Meow Wolf.

"We also are not without knowing how what you intended, no matter how well meaning and thought out at the time, when placed in the hands of an artist can become your worst nightmare, and that the single instance should not undo all the good you have done before and after. And we will also hold final judgment until our debriefing and examination of all the facts is complete. However, that said, from what we have received so far, this was not an act that reflected what either our residents or our visitors have come to expect from the Paseo, nor what the town would have approved of to be included, both in its message and presentation, in any town-sponsored event.

"The town is committed to supporting nonoffensive, nonpolitical, nonconfrontational events and art for all people and all ages. While the Paseo as an event met that standard, this act did not and was not appropriate for the event, despite measures being taken by the artists and sponsor to alert audiences to its potentially offensive content." (The full text of his email is in the breakout box at left.)

Here's a bit of context. Back in July Tempo ran this announcement: The Paseo Project 2019 artist-in-residence -- La Pocha Nostra, an art group consisting of Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Saul Garcia Lopez/La Saula and Balitronica Gómez -- announced they planned to have one of their legendary international performance summer school workshops in Taos.

The performance ended up being called "The Enchilada Western (A Living Museum of Fetishized Identities)," a play on the idea of the spaghetti western.

These workshops, the announcement stated, are considered to be La Pocha Nostra's "most important pedagogical and political adventures of the year."

This three-hour per day workshop was said to include a five-day "immersive" in what is referred to as La Pocha Nostra's "foundational performance exercises and pedagogy."

"You will be immersed in performance art with a focus on the human body as a site for creation, reinvention, memory and activism," the release continued. "This amazing cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary and cross-generational laboratory will explore the magic of the human body and as a site for permanent reinvention, radical spirituality and collaboration."

The "Pocha workshop" is internationally recognized as "an amazing and rigorous artistic and anthropological experiment in which carefully selected artists from several countries and every imaginable artistic, ethnic, multicultural and gender persuasion begin to negotiate common ground. The workshop becomes the connective tissue and lingua franca for our temporary community of rebel artists."

This workshop offered two parallel processes: Participants were exposed to La Pocha Nostra's most recent performance methodologies, which are described as "an eclectic combination of exercises borrowed from multiple traditions including performance art, experimental theater and dance, the Suzuki method, ritual shamanism, performance games and live jam sessions. Parallel to this hands-on process, the group will performatively analyze the creative process, the issues addressed by the work, its aesthetic currency, cultural impact and political pertinence."

Who was asked to attend? Performance artists, experimental actors, dancers, theorists, costume and prop designers, activists and students interested in the topics addressed by La Pocha Nostra. Ages can range from 18 to 100 years old. Applicants must have some performance experience, and must be familiar with La Pocha Nostra's work.

The application began with this statement: "Nudity and symbolic violence in live art are never encouraged, expected or mandatory, but if you wish to get nude, please help yourselves. The nude body is a territory for reinvention of identity, imaginary activism and the creation of new poetic cartographies especially so, for the outcast and colonized body. Our skin and blood are the only materials we are left with after centuries of repression. Our body is the only thing we can directly reclaim and empower to talk back."

The performance, at the outset, was described as an edgy and certainly provocative experience. Anything could happen. When it did, a local graffiti writer and Paseo participant, Scripture, said in a Facebook post, "Dear Paseo Project, Thank you for the opportunity to participate in The Paseo Project this year. Due to our participation we were not able to stroll with our 9-year-old son, when we found him strolling with friends the exhibit he was looking at made my heART drop. The fact you knowingly exposed my child amongst many other youth to that scene is extremely hurtful. We are ashamed to have been part of your so-called 'family friendly' art walk. My wife and I along with the [Vagrant Heart] crew are disgusted and disappointed in all of you. Watch as we walk away."

An anonymous woman who called Tempo magazine Monday (Sept. 16) asked, "What's happening up there in Taos? I heard there was a festival that had all this Satanic symbolism and anti-Christian stuff. That isn't art." Despite an attempt to explain this was only a small part of the overall festival, which was universally well received, she was convinced this was what The Paseo was all about.

When it resulted in this kind of upset, the organizers at The Paseo had to act. On Monday (Sept. 16), they issued the following statement:

"This year, Paseo Project looked at 'connections.' We hosted artists who examine our relationships with each other, our environments and the world. We included artists exploring our acequias, artists with disabilities, artists of color and artists with various sexual orientations.

"But, with connection comes disconnection.

"We brought Guillermo Gomez Pena's La Pocha Nostra to Taos for an intensive workshop for local and visiting artists, and a public performance at Paseo 2019. We knew the nature of this work is controversial, but also believe that it represents important viewpoints and concerns, especially those of marginalized communities. It is clear that some viewers loved it, and some hated it. We see this as an opportunity for ongoing dialogue -- about our values, about art, and about how our community engages with each other and the world.

"We encourage people not to make judgments based only on out-of-context images or videos shared on social media, and to explore La Pocha Nostra's long history of radical performance art in this country and around the world to better understand the intentions of the piece. As expressed in a recent PBS Newshour's article about 'La Pocha Nostra's' visit to Taos, the troupe asks people to think across the dividing lines of race, gender, language, class, generation and political belief.

"The Enchilada Western was only one of more than 32 exhibits at the event, and we took precautions during this outdoor performance to ensure that people would have to make an informed choice to engage with the work.

"The Paseo Project intended to offer 'The Enchilada Western Museum of Fetishized Identities' by La Pocha Nostra in a separate space from the rest of the festival. We placed it off the main road of the festival, in a parking lot that was blocked off with police barricades and manned by volunteers letting people know about the potentially sensitive nature of the piece, and increased these efforts on Saturday, deploying additional warnings, more signs, additional verbal announcements and handouts. It's clear that our efforts were not sufficient to protect younger audiences from this challenging adult content, and for that, we are truly sorry.

"Thanks to everyone who has offered their feedback. We ask our community to judge Paseo Project and its youth program on their six-year track record of presenting engaging, educational public art, rather than on one performance within a larger event. We look forward to having a productive dialogue with our community and continuing this conversation in service of making deeper connections between us all."

Now, about its content. La Pocha Nostra chose to "dive into the collective subconscious of New Mexico featuring highly stylized personas that reveal contradictions, complexities, dreams and nightmares. Our performance opera also comments on the dangers of cultural appropriation, 'queers,' the popular mythologies of the Southwest," an organization statement reads.

Central to helping bring this to Taos was Dr. Tessa Córdova, owner-director Las Pistoleras Instituto Cultural de Arte in El Prado.

"Of course in this particular art installation, this interactive diorama encouraged full audience participation," she said in a Monday statement to Tempo. "That being said, as I observed the performance myself I really listened to the narration as my guide to the performance. If you followed that particular thread it may have helped to clarify the visual performance. This type of work you must lean into full sensory mode and try to weave the layers. Even this morning I'm still unpacking all that the performance has to offer.

"A local poet and lawyer, Anna Martínez, from Española was also on hand talking about our own issues in this state. She did a poem about the women of the West Mesa, Zapata and Pistolera. I saw many of my former students that are from Taos and have moved back and now have their bachelor's degrees. These students, in particular, attended my classes at University of New Mexico main campus where we have studied the work of Guillermo Gómez-Peña and La Pocha Nostra critically. They were fully engaged and excited that the Paseo brought 'artivists' of this caliber to the festival.

"Post-La Pocha Nostra, we now find an opportunity to educate the community and at Las Pistoleras Instituto Cultural de Arte where we will be hosting some educational gatherings in order to contextualize this very important work. We will announce the dates soon but consider this an opportunity to define 'Art as Activism in Taos.' For me, that's exciting!"

Córdova reminded us that Gómez Peña is no stranger to Taos. "My first Pocha Nostra experience was one of their interactive performances in this very community of Taos during the Taos Talking Picture Festival," she said. "It has remained one of the most transformative, intense and incredible experiences to date. My first experience and those that have followed continue to foster and encourage my view of the power of performance art as activism. This experience has held my attention and has been mind-altering.

"Thanks to the work of Paseo and La Pocha Nostra, our community is in for one of the most incredible life-changing opportunities we've experienced in this art world we call Taos. Be prepared and open for the possibilities to educate your mind because this weekend you will connect to their performance in various ways and on various wavelengths. ¡Órale mi raza, prepare to be transformed!"

Lastly, here's a statement from Gómez Peña: "Through the performance ritual, the audience vicariously experiences the freedom, cultural risks and utopian possibilities that society has denied them. Audience members are encouraged to touch us, smell us, feed us, defy us, in this strange millennial ceremony -- this Pandora's box opens and postcolonial demons are unleashed."

On Thursday (Sept. 19), La Pocha Nostra issued an additional statement which we will run in next week's Tempo magazine.


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