Instead of Redface: Theater & Performance in the Indigenous Americas
Theater History Seminar for Brown/Trinity MFA Actors & Directors
Erica Lord, James Luna, and Guillermo Gomez Pena walk precariously on the line that divides the modern Native American narrative and the old Native American trope. The Artifact Piece panders more to the post-colonial objectification of the American Indian by literally putting a modern Native and his body on display while Pena critiques not only the objectification of the Native American, but also the spectacle and commercialization of his exoticism. Unsurprisingly, the observer becomes the spectacle in both pieces. The Artifact Piece appealed to camera-happy museum goers, and The Couple in the Cage served almost anyone looking for entertainment.
I was particularly disturbed by the juxtaposition of the caged actors and the seemingly indifferent business people sipping wine. The scene was reminiscent of a slave auction. The circus aspect of the piece harkened back to a time when parading exotic peoples was a lucrative and welcome endeavor. That the museum goers were willing to pay money to hear jungle stories and see foreign genitalia is indicative of how tempting otherization can be…
The Couple in the Cage and Artifact Piece both demand the acknowledgement of the Native American body. In Couple in the Cage, the historical experience of gawking at Native Americans as though they are a performers in a freak show is replicated (they are performers, but the audience doesn’t know). The exhibit says more about the viewer than the guatinaui people themselves. One cannot help but feel shame at the enjoyment the viewers receive from interacting with these seemingly otherworldly and exotic creatures. Though the exhibition seems to invite a humorous or lighthearted interaction with the couple due to the “touring rock star” nature of the event, it takes more knowledge on behalf of the viewer to respond with shame or empathy.
Artifact piece seems to create a more reverent interaction with the Native American body. The man on the bed dirt appears to be dead or sleeping, and the viewers maintain their distance. It seems like a setting for quiet reflection on our country’s history and the disposing of Native American culture.
The Artifact Piece immediately reminded me a lot of artist Marina Abramovic (http://www.openculture.com/2013/12/artist-marina-abramovic-former-lover-ulay-reunite.html) and her experience of performative artwork. So it was really exciting to see an allusion to her in the article. I was really struck by the descriptions of the EMOTIONAL scars, in a way to “dismantle the aura of the historic” – I can only imagine how deeply those emotional descriptions sunk into readers as they looked upon a live body. I’m also very curious about the response of younger viewers vs older viewers.
Going through the reading and media clips for this week’s class, I began to wonder what the role and responsibility of an anthropological museum is to the cultures it houses. How do museums better respect the social, cultural histories they represent? How do they improve their representation of Native American artifacts? Or perhaps, would it be better to not include them at all? The readings proved especially insightful to me; the difference of representing Native American culture in museums, as opposed to any other colonized indigenous group, is that historically, Native American culture was wiped out and replaced, substituted with a fetishized, commercialized view of what Native American “-ness” meant. Evans writes, “It is a problem when it is possible for museumgoers to leave an exhibition about Native peoples thinking that Indians only existed in the past.” (85) This highlights Fusco and Gomez Pena’s performance piece, where a supposedly “new” tribe is showcased and objectified, deemed “other,” even though they have an immediate presence. I’m wondering how anthropological museums can get it right, and where, specifically, they went awry.
A theme the past couple of weeks seems to be using satire and humor to tackle gigantic and emotional subject matters (human genocide…). Why and how is this more successful than other approaches? Is it more successful? Audiences are being asked/forced to interpret the performance art and to guess the artist’s intentions thus making viewers feel a “degree of responsibility.” And some audience members are bound not to receive the art/performance in the intended way.
I tried to imagine myself in the position of stumbling across the Couple in the Cage in NYC and I hope that I wouldn’t be laughing. I found the nudity rather startling and unnecessary. I’m interested in exploring why sexualization seems to be tied in to almost every performance we have studied. The Couple in the Cage doesn’t feel like a “serious social, intellectual, and even spiritual act” and it doesn’t feel like entertainment. And how are children going to receive and understand the Couple in the Cage? I’m surprised they were welcomed into the performance space. “As often happens when anticipating an event, the questions one dreams up ahead of time may not be the ones that dominate public discussion.” I suppose that is always the gamble with creating performances unlike anything that has come before.
In the artifact piece and the artifact piece revisited, I became interested in cultural inheritance and the effectiveness of variation upon that inheritance. Evans maintains that the Artifact Piece was both a seminal work and “has a continuing presence in writing about contemporary Native art in journals, books, textbooks, and online encyclopedias” (66). I think the centrality of a work, to some extent, justifies the impulse to repeat and vary it. Presumably the variations of gender, specific tribal wear, and text in Artifact Piece: Revisited would be more noticeable, meaningful and effective to an audience both familiar with the prior work and willing to accept it as a “canonical text”—a work central to a shared cultural heritage and capable of accommodating new, relevant meanings.
Comparing “revivals” in performance art and theater is interesting; a preponderance of the work actors do is on texts that have been performed before. What is the line that separates a repeatable work and a work that belongs exclusively to its time, and how does that line shift depending on audience and context? Few would question a new production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, but a revival of the 1970 Peter Brook production might be suitable only for academics and students. Most importantly, how do artists actually shape the cultural commons that audiences are willing to accept as “canonical”—works that can accommodate new variations in meaning while also harkening back to historical meanings?
This weeks assignment has made think back to the “Road Weeps”. When we walked into the space we were greeted with a museum. We saw history living in front of us. A painful history.
Are “normal” museums accurate? Or just gross representations of what has happened?
How does it change when a real body sweats in front of us. Is that not truer to the human experience?
I was shocked and a little upset after seeing this video. But after I assessing what’s saw, I realized how thought provoking and challenging this exhibit was. Some might argue that the couple in the cage is not; I’m not even sure myself. It’s a satire nonetheless, at one point I found myself think of South Park when I watched it. Well anyways, the representation of ingenious people’s in the cage was a more glorified one of that in real life. Being stripped of ones own freedoms and being made a spectical, is one of the lowest forms of humiliation. So, for this to be taken on as a job, as a political statement of past and present as a retelling of these stories is brave, but very graphic. Makes me question those of power who watch and laugh.
I’m interested in how we approach museums. Evans speaks of the “[construction] of historical memory through [museum-goers’] uncritical consumption of museum practices.” (68) Do we go to learn something, or to affirm our own knowledge. People spend much of our days telling stories, and affirming our presence in the world. So, when we come to a museum, how much do we carry our own status with us? One woman in The Couple in the Cage remarked, quite offhandedly, “I wish I were a child so i could ask questions that made me sound silly.” Aren’t we learning about things throughout our entire life? Especially at museums. The preoccupation with not sounding silly, stupid, uninformed, prevents us from actually asking questions, and results in the aforesaid “uncritical consumption.” The American spirit as embodied in the educational system, the commercial model, and the entrepreneurial mindset of Americans cultivates a perspective of oneupsmanship as opposed to curiosity.
The American model of education seems to focus on the textual. We have textbooks, we takes tests to assess our knowledge, and we write essays. Very little is experiential/kinaesthetic, visual, or aural. Sheet music is a Western conceit; in many other civilizations, melodies are taught by rote. It is not a matter of “getting it right/wrong” and therefore feeling stupid or accomplished, but one of osmosis and integration,. In this way, museums, which can be largely visual, are not easily digestable to many Americans. Evans remarks that “indigenous peoples in the Americas have been indoctrinated into text-based knowledge transmission as the form preferred by colonizing forces” (70). This is what makes theatre and performance so alien and confusing, especially considering the many, varied reactions to The Couple in the Cage. Text is literally black-wand-white. Performance is nuanced. Re: Cage, people don’t know whether it is a joke or not, and if it is, or if it’s a critique, how then should they take it? As if they’re asking, “give me a simple answer. Am I bad or am I good? Do I cry or do I laugh? Is this real or is this fake?” Lord challenges in a similar way, melding the idea of her own persona with that of the stereotyped “multiple traditional patterns” (79).
Lord’s Artifact Piece, Revisited prompts a close examination, as it blends performance with textual and visual presentation. This made people more closely examine the artifacts near her. How do we present performance, ANY performance, in a way that provokes an audience to more closely examine their lives or their own existence? Text exists in neither time nor place. Performance exists in both. Evans notes that Lord’s performance made spectators tie with genocide and funerals (83). How does observing something in the present transport us to another time? How does a performance resonate with “universal” concepts or images that cross physical barriers? How do we make an audience ask themselves the real questions? One spectator of The Couple in the Cage remarked, on one of the performer’s investigation of the TV, “Something about that [TV] fascinates him, but I’m sure he has no idea what that is.” This comment actually reflects the spectators own subliminal experience of examining the museum piece. But does the spectator ever realize this irony and ask himself this question? Probably not…
In both cases of displaying native peoples (the seemingly dead bodies and the couple in the cage) ring with a level of satire that is both humorous and saddening. The humor, on my part of being neither spectator nor participant, comes from the news and observations of people who legitimately believed that these were legitimate pieces of historical art rather than commentary of the objectification, purposeful distance, and fascination with aboriginal peoples. I laughed out loud several times in both cases: the information panel in Peña’s piece that addressed the absence of a ring on his finger as well as the wearing of fashionable sunglasses in the couple in the cage. Both were effective examples of satire because, while they made me laugh at first, I had to inquire as to why I was laughing. In that laugh I found a distance within myself from the pain and suffering forced by a removed wedding band and alcohol problem. A distance from the stares of those around me because I don’t look like them. A distance from the constant presence of ignorant public attitude. That’s where the sadness came in: I wished for the people who sipped wine as they passed or laughed and taunted the couple in the cage had the same frame as I do. I am sad because they don’t know it is satire and asking them to reflect on their own ignorance and bias. I thought for a split second, “should the satire have been more obvious?” Then I looked at the bedazzled flat brim worn by the woman in the cage and realized that it really didn’t have to be.
Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:
You are commenting using your WordPress.com account.
( Log Out /
You are commenting using your Google account.
( Log Out /
You are commenting using your Twitter account.
( Log Out /
You are commenting using your Facebook account.
( Log Out /
Connecting to %s
Notify me of new comments via email.
Notify me of new posts via email.