Dear Curator, Producer, Arts Presenter: Think twice before inviting this performance artist to your institution. His new work might be overtly political and too sexually explicit for these times. Remember: this is post-9/11 America, the Bush era, and these are extremely delicate times. Sincerely, The Artist, USA, 2005. Is self-censorship inevitable in the age of Bush?
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Dear Curator, Producer, Arts Presenter,
Think twice before inviting this performance artist to your institution. His new work might be overtly political and too sexually explicit for these times. He might challenge-even "offend"-your audience. If you insist on inviting him, make sure that your board members approve, and that the local community is prepared. We don't want to ruffle the feathers of our donors or the media. Remember: this is post-9/11 America, the Bush era, and these are extremely delicate times.
People ask me all the time: Is La Pocha Nostra (my performance troupe) being censored in the USA? Where? By whom? What form does this new censorship take? Tired of silence and diplomacy, with my heart aching and my political consciousness swelling, I now choose to speak. I won't name names. My objective is neither to denounce, nor to add to the ever-growing inventory of incidents of artistic censorship, but to attempt to map out the abruptly changed sociocultural landscape that U.S. performance artists currently inhabit, and explain how these new conditions are transforming my own artistic practice.
This may be one of the most difficult subjects I have ever grappled with. As a child in Mexico, I heard adults whispering about blacklists and those who named names. My older brother, Carlos, was involved in the 1968 movimiento estudiantil, and several friends of his disappeared for good. During my formative years in Latin America, censorship was indistinguishable from political repression, and often resulted in the imprisonment, displacement, exile, or death of "dissident" intellectuals and artists.
In the 1970s, many Latin American artists ended up migrating to the U.S. and Europe in search of the freedom we couldn't find in our homelands. When I moved to California in 1978, I found a very different situation. Artists and intellectuals simply didn't matter. The media treated our art either as an exotic new trend or a human interest story, and the political class didn't pay attention to us, which gave us an illusion of freedom. As artists, we rejoiced in our mythical condition of liberty, our celebrated "American freedom."
It used to be that I would don my Mexican wrestling mask and my prosthetic "low-rider suit," paint my chest with the words "Don't Discover Me," and climb into the metaphorical combatant's ring to wrestle with social complacency, artistic stagnation, and, not least, my own personal demons (New World Border, 1992). I developed a reputation as an iconoclast by engaging in symbolic acts of transgression that explored and exposed sources of racism and nationalism. Coco Fusco and I exhibited ourselves inside a gilded cage, dressed as fictitious "Indians," to protest the quincentennial celebrations of Columbus's arrival in the Western hemisphere (Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit…, 1992-93). Roberto Sifuentes and I crucified ourselves in full mariachi regalia to protest immigration policy (The Cruci-fiction Project, 1994), and posed as "end-of-the-century saints" inside Plexiglass boxes to receive racist confessions from guilt-ridden audience members (Temple of Confessions, 1994-95). I ventured into pirate radio (1991-97) and pirate TV in my "Naftaztec" persona (Naftaztec TV, 1994). I became good at organizing ephemeral communities of like-minded rebel artists. I advised activists on how to use performance art strategies to enhance their political actions. I used the art world as a base of operations.
In 20 years of touring the U...