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  • Gómez-Peña on Illness, the Human Body, Performance, and Quantum Physicsa psychomagic script for a hard recovery
  • Gómez-Peña Guillermo (bio) and Elaine Katzenberger


The details of his situation were fuzzy and the report was secondhand, but it seemed that my friend Guillermo Gómez-Peña was in some kind of serious health crisis. When I was able to get through to his family in Mexico City the news was daunting — GGP had contracted a viral infection that had initially completely paralyzed him, and though he had recovered some movement and was apparently responding well to medical interventions, there was a possibility he’d be left permanently disabled and in severe pain for the rest of his life.

Distressed and deeply worried, I thought about what this could mean for Guillermo, not just personally, but artistically too. Twelve years earlier, he’d suffered through another potentially life- changing health crisis, and I remembered that slow recovery and his tentative reentry back into performance life. Like many of his friends I wondered if the long years of relentless touring and performing had taken too much of a toll on his body, and I worried that this time there might not be a full recovery. I knew he had to be worrying about this for himself, too...

I crossed my fingers and kept track of his progress via updates from family and friends, and then just before Christmas 2012 I received a note:

Elenita, finally I got some literary clarity after weeks of mental confusion due to the medicines. I am organizing my notes as a New Year Confession, and I wonder candidly if you will have some time in the next week to look it over if I send it to you. I need some feedback. Guillermo

This was excellent news: Guillermo was feeling well enough to create something, using what he was going through as his material. I agreed immediately to help in any way I could.

Guillermo explained that his text had been pulled together from various sources: short entries in his journal, notes on paper napkins, half-remembered random thoughts and insights. He felt [End Page 149]

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Figure 1.

Not Joseph Beuys. Gómez-Peña’s last photo before his health crisis, posing for Jen Cohen in his San Francisco studio as a broken shaman. A premonition? April 2012. (Photo by Jen Cohen,

[End Page 150]

unsure of its value or quality — one of the most troubling aspects of his illness was the difficulty he was having with his memory, which made writing particularly strenuous. But he dearly wanted to send out his annual New Year’s missive to friends and colleagues, and to take that opportunity to tell everyone what had been going on. We had just a few days to work on it.

As I read through the text, I realized that this was not just a diary of illness and recovery, but rather, it was evidence of a larger artistic and philosophical struggle. Faced with the possibility of permanent neurological damage that could drastically inhibit his ability to make art, Guillermo had decided to transform that very question into a performance. In making the commitment to reclaim the ability to write through the practice of writing, no matter how awkward it was, he had decided it was possible to perform his own healing, and to heal himself through a performance. He would imagine himself healed, and he would perform his healing for an audience of one, an art practice founded and grounded in enforced isolation and inactivity. He would write his way out of the sickroom.

The response to his New Year’s email was overwhelming, and a few weeks later, when Guillermo was well enough to travel back home to San Francisco, we got together to talk about developing the text and its potential to speak to larger issues of art, illness, recovery, and the discovery of new practices. What follows has been further edited and reworked, but it retains that first missive almost in its entirety, and its you-are-there immediacy has been...


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pp. 149-162
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