In the series of essays that make up English Is Broken Here, Coco Fusco concentrates on examining the work of Latino/a performance artists born in the U.S., and the themes of “otherness” and culture clash. Performers such as Andres Serrano, Laura Aguilar, and Fusco’s longtime collaborator, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, are held up to the light for close consideration.
In the essay targeting her collaboration with Gomez-Pena, Fusco details a performance done in public venues (museums, municipal buildings) where she and Gomez-Pena created a living exhibit, posing as “specimens” of a fictional indigenous tribe. They displayed themselves in a cage, with dress and talismans gleaned from Pan-Latino/a and popular culture. Her commentary on the experience, on being the observed ”other,” and what she saw as the fascination of the predominately Anglo audience as observer, underscored the themes of objectification and the blurring of public and private.
I had mixed feeling in reading about this performance. On the one hand, I think it was a bold and important artistic move to skewer the dominant culture's idea of 'preservation' and 'curation ,' to challenge it as no more than a kind of pandering to that culture's fascination with they perceive as the 'exotic' indigenous. Never mind that in many cases these exhibits are only possible as a direct result of colonialism, genocidal practices, and grave robbing. How different is Fusco's and Gomez-Pena's living exhibit behind bars and the guided tours held on the the rez, or in barrios, in farm worker camps?
I wonder to what extent the audience fully grasped that under the rubric of "Latino," there exists hundreds of complex societies, with a heterogeneity of language, practices, rituals. I'm concerned that the work may only engender the knee-jerk, superficial shudder of guilt in primarily white, middle-class audience.
In the post-performance discussions of Housekeeper's Diary, the audience comments range from some middle-class people's expression of discomfort, or their own lack of knowledge as to how to even treat their own maids in a more real, humane way. But there are also comments about what is the vitality and vibrancy of working people — comments about the inherent dignity they sense, despite an external objectification. This, to me is the kind of dialogue and engagement I find most satisfying as a performer.
While those points of divergence are significant, I felt I had read something that will challenge me to keep thinking about the political context of performance. One last reservation with this book was Fusco’s tendency to make referential comments to different artists, without always placing them in context. This can make for a limited appreciation of the the work as a whole, as well as perpetuate an unfortunate tendency of performance artists conversing amongst themselves. (Particularly since Fusco plumbs the legacy of imperialism, colonialism in her work, it strikes me as odd that she gears her writing to the art intelligentsia. ) It is a challenge, however, worth the effort of cross-referencing and research for the reader.