restricted access The Economy of Performance: Gomez-Pena's New World Border
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The Economy of Performance:
Gómez-peña’s New World Border

None of Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s achievements fits comfortably within the category of literature. He is primarily known in the art community for his work on border cultural life; this work presently includes performance art, videos, CDs, books, and sites on the Internet, as well as theoretical articles and interviews. Gómez-Peña deterritorializes his production in several categories simultaneously, expanding the concept of the border to interrogate academic disciplines as well as linguistic, social, and epistemological domains. His boundary crossing, rather than marginalizing his creation, has enabled him in some ways to “crossover,” reaching larger audiences and achieving a relatively high degree of recognition in several fields. His work has been recognized by literary critics such as Homi Bhabha; he has been invited as lecturer or artist-in-residence at many college campuses; he has performed at such elite cultural institutions as the Smithsonian and Whitney Museums and received many grants, including the MacArthur Genius Award. As a performer of border identities, Gómez-Peña can occupy multiple sites and no particular site at the same time; this can be a very useful, tactical approach to the artist’s aesthetic and political projects. At the same time, this dislocation raises important questions about the line [End Page 24] between performance and text, self and community, subversive and commercial uses of art, and the positions we might assume to critique this kind of work.

A hybrid identity is also a slippery one; it allows a person to mutate, to slide between cultures, languages, and histories, assuming a marginal identity like the trickster, a complex emblem of cultural otherness. The elusiveness of this figure enables the border artist to avoid definition and, perhaps, also to escape criticism. However, in order to examine border identity, we must in some ways fix it, for, as Peggy Phelan puts it, “identity is perceptible only through a relation to an other—it is a form of both resisting and claiming the other, declaring the boundary where the self diverges from and merges with the other” (13). 1 Boundaries are inherent to the definition of subject positions, and a border identity is no exception. Gómez-Peña must inevitably participate in the activity that he is critiquing in order to make his critique. In assuming an evaluative stance and situating Gómez-Peña’s work in terms of a particular discipline, I am in a similar situation as I read against the interdisciplinarity of his work in order to evaluate what happens when his performance is textualized. How does it function as literature, an aesthetic experience defined by reading words and images on the page? Reading Gómez-Peña’s text in terms of its rhetorical techniques will also lead us to consider how it works in relation to the political project he proposes; in particular, his construction of a border identity—an identity that he does not simply declare but deploys in his work.

In a well-known essay from 1988, Gómez-Peña claims his own “borderness” (opposing it to “internationalism”) and defines his art as a way to “reveal and subvert” mechanisms of mythification of Chicano/Mexican/Anglo identities that “generate semantic interference and obstruct the intercultural dialogue” (“Documented” 132). This early essay calls attention to the need for exchange, and part of the artist’s act is to make us aware of the channels for communication. In contrast, in New World Border, he describes “borderness” this way:

The presence of the hybrid denounces the faults, prejudices and fears manufactured by the self-proclaimed center, and threatens the very raison d’etre of any monoculture, official or not. It reminds us that we are not the product of just one [End Page 25] culture: that we have multiple and transitional identities: that we contain a multiplicity of voices and selves, some of which may even be contradictory. And it tells us that there is nothing wrong with contradiction.

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In this recent statement, border identity is based on hybridity and contradiction, and the aim of border art is not...