A dark and crowded Digital Arts and New Media (DANM) room suddenly grew quiet and attentive as a bare chested person with long black and gray hair entered and faced the surrounding audience center stage. Performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña began to chant, spraying bright red clouds of paint into the air.
“My name is Princess G,” Gómez-Peña said to the crowd. “I mean, Guillermo Gómez-Peña … I am 59, believe it or not. I don’t remember if I am a man or a woman … a performance artist or a poet … if I work for organized crime or the art world … What difference does it make?”
DOC/UNDOC: Documentado/Undocumented suggests no difference.
The exhibition is a collaboration between five artists including Gómez-Peña. DOC/UNDOC questions notions of identity, in all of its manifestations — gender, sexuality and mixed culture — but through the lens of the Latino in the United States.
Displaying at the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery, the interactive exhibition is made up of video, painting, critical commentary, found-objects, live performances and a letterpress, accordion-style book. All of the items housed in the exhibit promote the idea that the identity is ever-changing and influenced by both political and cultural surroundings.
“Self-transformation is not just elective. It’s survival,” said book artist and DANM program manager Felicia Rice, who printed Gómez-Peña’s performance texts onto the book DOC/UNDOC. Critical commentary by history of art and visual culture professor Jennifer Gonzalez can also be found in the book.
The deluxe edition of the book lives in an aluminum box containing video by film and digital media professor Gustavo Vazquez, sound art by UCSC lecturer Zachary Watkins and a “cabinet of curiosities,” including Mexican wrestling masks and “ritual objects.”
Describing itself as “a toolbox for self-transformation,” the interactive set invites participants to immerse themselves in a new dimension and reshape their identity.
“The journey we’re inviting you to join us on resolves and embraces difference,” Rice said. “It invites you to change yourself, embrace your own difference, embrace the transformation that you experience, and in doing that, embrace others at the same time.”
A Ken doll sits on a shelf of the Sesnon wearing a mariachi suit, alongside another which sits, legs crossed, wearing a luchador mask. Turn to the right of the shelf and face the gaze of a tattooed Latina woman painted on velvet. Her tattoos are done in the traditional Americana or “sailor” style, but depict both American and Mexican iconography.
The dolls and the painting represent a personal identity nonetheless influenced by the government-imposed identity of “alien,” “illegal,” “undocumented” or “other.” They suggest that a label like “undocumented,” as much as “immigrant,” comes to be inherited, consciously or unconsciously, into the fundamental Latino identity. It is now a mixture of both traditional heritage and first world politics.
“If I ask a gringo who is Agustín Lara, it’s outside of their context, so they will flunk my test,” Vazquez said. “Obviously, they will ask me, ‘Who’s Beethoven?’ The funny thing about mestizos and new immigrants is that we know both. So who’s documentado? We’re trying to provoke these kinds of questions to the mainstream culture because it dominates only from the vantage point of money and weapons. But is that really knowledge?”
Through the performance outside of the exhibit, Gómez-Peña suggested that the politically active Latino voice remains unheard, silenced and unable to take power. The artist took out a megaphone and tried desperately to speak into it. After attempting for a long minute, Gómez-Peña gave up and began to weep.
Despite consistent attempts at reshaping our imposed political sphere, the Latino immigrant remains powerless. DOC/UNDOC reminds us to think critically of our surroundings and in doing so, we can bring to light our closeted strength.
“We look at and analyze the Western, the history of colonization and the process of colonizing, [ultimately] reversing [that] power,” Vazquez said. “That’s why the title is DOC/UNDOC. ‘Documentado’ en Español means to be well-informed. ‘Undocumented’ in English is perceived as, ‘If I don’t have those stinking papers, I don’t count.’ It’s a value system.”
Vazquez said the project connects to a visually literate generation, a fast-paced culture with an “MTV syndrome,” that works more with illusion than with the tactile. By being interactive, the audience is engaging with the art not only visually, but physically as well.
“In many ways, the project speaks of a tangible, body experience,” Vazquez said. “[The project] speaks about the times we’re in as artists, trying to create objects and how we relate to them physically. It’s not everything mental. It’s not just the brain, but how does the body connect to the illusion.”
Rice said DOC/UNDOC will allow spectators to transform and come to terms with a fluid sense of identity. She hopes audience members come out of the exhibition feeling like artists themselves.
“The production is challenging you to put together something new,” Rice said. “We came together and put together something new for us, now you take what you see here and run with it and see where it takes you.”
DOC/UNDOC is free and open to the public at the Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery and will remain open until Dec. 6.