. . . Taking on the Body: Coco Fusco's work
2. Coco Fusco recently came to New Haven to do a reading of her play The Incredible Disappearing Woman which has three live characters and a few characters on video. There is so much I could say about the body and this play. Maybe I will say more on it when I see it, read it, or hear it read again. Right now, though, I want to think about what resonates after her reading in light of a) how I feel about Coco Fusco’s other work, b) what I loved about the story, and c) Coco Fusco’s act of reading her play in a startling hot pink jacket.
a) How I feel about Coco Fusco’s other work, quite simply, is that it is important. To get more complex, I’m disturbed by it but keep coming back. When I think of her, I often think first of a talk I heard her give at Duke a few years back. She showed Couple in the Cage, a documentary video about "Year of the White Bear: Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit . . .", a collaborative performance with Guillermo Gomez-Pena  where they were on display in a cage as "two undiscovered Amerindians" from the island of Guatinau. Here is how Coco Fusco describes the performance in "The Other History of Intercultural Performance", an extremely valuable essay on /reflection on /documentary of the performance which can be found in her book English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas:
Our plan was to live in a golden cage for three days, presenting ourselves as undiscovered Amerindians from an island in the Gulf of Mexico that had somehow been overlooked by Europeans for five centuries. We called our homeland Guatinau, and ourselves Guatinauis. We performed our "traditional tasks," which ranged from sewing voodoo dolls and lifting weights to watching television and working on a laptop computer. A donation box in front of the cage indicated that, for a small fee, I would dance (to rap music), Guillermo would tell authentic Amerindian stories (in a nonsensical language), and we would pose for Polaroids with visitors. Two "zoo guards" would be on hand to speak with visitors (since we could not understand them), take us to the bathroom on leashes, and feed us sandwiches and fruit. At the Whitney Museum in New York we added sex to our spectacle, offering a peek at authentic Guatinaui male genitals for $5 (39.)
I want to write about my feelings about the piece, but I’m having a hard time finding the language to describe the way the piece was documented or why it hit me so hard. Part of what the video documents is the reactions of people looking on. What is unbelievable to me is the belief of the spectators in the spectacle they perceived.
So many of them believed they were looking at two undiscovered Amerindians who were being displayed in a cage. What I am trying to figure out is where this is ridiculous to me. Do I really believe that it is ridiculous to think that someone might be displaying people of color in cages in this day? I mean, do I think we are so far beyond that history that no one would believe this was something other than a comment on that practice of old? Or is it the nature of the performance that I find unbelievable. From the language to the music to the dance to the costumes to the cage to the fact of the performance, the performance doesn't appear to be about fooling the audience into believing what they are seeing. It seems to be about using extremes to make people take a second look at their/our every day lives.
What is it that these people on the video see when they think what they are being told is going on is really what is going on? Do they see the hair weave and faux leopard skin clothes as ‘instant globalization’? What do they hope to hear in Gomez-Pena's story or see in Fusco's dance? For what purpose do onlookers believe someone has brought these two people to them in a cage? There was also something much more disturbing to me, however, than the question of belief. There was one scene which was an art world event at the Whitney, so people knew they were interacting with art, engaging with a comment on our culture(s). On the video (by Fusco and Paula Heredia), I watched people feed Fusco and Gomez-Pena bananas, take pictures with them, and pay for Gomez-Pena to expose his genitalia.
I felt about that like I do about Yoko Ono’s "Cut Piece". I am thrilled by the bravery it took Ono to invite audience members to cut away her clothes in "Cut Piece", but I am disturbed that people actually did it.  I feel the same way about the Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s solo piece (that I can’t find described anywhere on the web—hope I get this right) where he was in a bag laying on an elevator floor until someone came to his rescue. That one hits me right in the gut. People stepped over him, people went so far as to look inside the bag and then kick or ignore him, but it took a long time for anyone to come to his rescue, even to do so much as call 911. Why? How?
And I feel a related way about Nao Bustamante’s "Indigurrito", where she strapped on a vegetarian tortilla (as a dildo) and invited white men to take a bite of the burrito after confessing their sins as a Columbus Day performance. I think this was a bold, funny performance and understand the action as not only a funny, fun action, but also a comment on the way Latinas (or maybe specifically Chicanas) are appreciated when they are sexualized or giving you food or being oppressed, but not when having self-determination about what it means to be who they are making whatever art they want to make. Maybe calling out the art world while feeding people an edible dildo makes it, well, easier to swallow. This is the way she began the performance: This year I was told any artist of color must complete a performance based on 500 years of oppression in order to get funding . . . I don’t know about you, but that makes me cry as hard as it makes me laugh. Isn’t that the way these things really go?
It’s hard for me to imagine having my body on display like any of these performers have, though, even to make a point, especially knowing that it won’t just be a point. People will actually come play with you if you invite them to. And some of it may have to do with wanting to be an obedient audience member. Some of it may have to do with needing to identify with the performer. But some of it, I am convinced, is about some white people wanting to make colored people act out this fantasy and be a part of it.
As some of you know, my collaborative partner and husband Keith attempted to sell his Blackness on eBay this summer. Now, this marketed Blackness had more to do with the way Blackness is conceived of than it had to do with howit is perceived (ie: on the body). Still, the body was in question. Most of the messages he received in response were fun, but I am surprised (but why?) by how much fun people some had with the project. Many people seemed to be engaging in the "laughing to keep from crying" way, no doubt, and no one sent anything nasty our way, but sometimes there was a lightness to the response that really gave me pause. How can you, I would think to myself while reading the emails of some white respondents, stand to play so hard with this, enjoy this so much in front of us, when you understand how serious this is, even though we are making fun and inviting you to join?
Part of what struck me about Fusco’s talk (and part of what strikes me about her essay in English is Broken Here) is that she talked about the difference between her response to being exposed to all kinds of scrutiny and interactions and the way Gomez-Pena dealt with it. Fusco writes:
Gomez-Pena found the experience of being continually objectified more difficult to tolerate than I did. By the end of our first three days in Madrid, we began to realize not only that people’s assumptions about us were based upon gender stereotypes, but that my experiences as a woman had prepared me to shield myself psychologically from the violence of public objectification. (57.)
I don’t know what saddens me more, the depression Gomez-Pena had to experience to bring us this priceless information through the performance and its documentation or the fact that going through the experience didn’t register so heavily on Fusco’s scales because she is a woman.
I feel like letting this be the last word but I can’t stop writing before I say something about seeing Nao Bustamante and Coco Fusco perform Stuff. According to the statement on Offbeat: "The work takes a look at how fear and desire for food, nurturing, and erotic pleasure are intertwined with American perceptions of Latin women, and how society contends with its' mixed fascination for their cultural otherness." This is how Fusco describes it on the MoMA site:
[Stuff] deals with how tourism, which I call the "underbelly of globalization," affects Latin women in countries that are very close to the United States, the Caribbean, and Mexico. And we kind of go through, section by section, different kinds of culture tourism, indigenous-oriented tourism, new age, spiritual tourism, and we get to, finally, sex tourism. And there, the sociological material that we drew from for the script [came] from the interviews that I had done in Cuba and all these sex tourist language books that we bought, which are like Berlitz guides, but instead of saying, "How do I get a taxi?" and "Where is the bank?", it's like "Roll over and get the whip" and "Are you married?" and "If you're married, are you into having an open relationship?" [These phrases are used by tourists] who want to have sexual partners in Asia and Latin America and anywhere else they decide to go.
. . . part of the performance is a dialogue in which we bring on a male member of the audience and train him, using phrases from the guide books, on how to pick up a Cuban girl in Spanish. And he gets his Spanish lesson on stage and it's very very funny. And presenters always say, "What if people don't want to do it?" I've never had trouble getting a guy up there. I don't know if it means that I have some special talent, or that they're just really eager, but it's never ever been a problem.
I saw this performance at Duke and people came because they knew at least Fusco’s work, if not also Bustamante’s and many of us had already heard them speak about their work at this point. I don’t know what we were expecting, given these facts. But many of us were surprised by how theatrical Stuff was. I mean, it was like a play. Although it had many audience participation parts, there wasn’t the kind of opportunity to watch people play into like "Year of the White Bear" or "Mexarcane International".
Now, I am one of those people who came wanting to see something like that, not knowing how I could since I and most of us were "in the know." I had an interesting discussion with my local crew of artist-intellectuals (all Black, Latino, and/or Chinese) about going to this performance, what our expectations and desires were around it, and how and where these were and were not fulfilled. Interestingly, the photographs used to promote this performance were not images from the performance, but rather were from another project by Bustamante and Fusco called "Paquita y Chata Se Arrebatan". About these images, Fusco says:
I wanted to deal with the issue of Latin women's sexuality. I had been doing some research on the reemergence of prostitution or sex tourism in Cuba that has escalated since 1993 to become, at this point, probably the most [or one of the most] significant source of income for women under 25. I did a lot of interviews with women involved in the business, with men who were involved as pimps, with men who were involved also as prostitutes (although gay prostitution is not as big a deal in Cuba as it is on some of the other islands in the Caribbean or in Brazil). And it was based on those experiences that Nao and I started to think about the history of this representation of the Latina as oversexed, as a sex pot.
I have a hard time finding images from Stuff on the web.
My favorite parts, after a long reflection, were when Nao Bustamante did a solo sound piece using her body as we had our eyes closed which was a reflection on new age spiritualism and when Coco Fusco did a solo performance of setting the table as audio played of her speaking about her relationship to food and serving friends or boyfriends as a Latina woman.
Bustamante's performance moved me because it made me think in a focused way about what it means to be in the same room with a person, during a performance in particular. Closing my eyes, I was clear that I was in the present moment. I could still tell Nao Bustamante was right there in front of me. I was also aware that if I opened my eyes, I could see her, but I wanted to experience the performance as I was asked to experience it. I was moved by the sounds she made and the comment about 'our' desire to get sprititual in a trendy way. I also liked that this was a point when I was asked to just think and listen and not look. Since we had been set up to look at Paquita and Chata and since Coco Fusco and Nao Bustamante are so attractive, I liked that we were to also think and listen and reflect with our eyes closed and experience being in this live environment without looking at them or one another. While this by no means took the body out of the performance, it did get us to engage with reflect on the body in a different way.
Fusco's performance got me because it was so personal and I really appreciated hearing and seeing such a personal act in the middle of this story about all these other characters. I also related to the story in a personal way. It made my brain stretch to think about setting the table alongside prostitution. And the action itself was also beautiful and intense. I really felt like I was looking at her at home. I felt the desire up there and almost felt like I was looking at myself. This is because of the action and because we are around the same height and color and I have worn my hair like she does. (In fact, at the talk earlier that day, a friend of mine passed me by and went up to tap Coco Fusco on the shoulder, thinking she was tapping me.) I think of this part of the performance often when friends are coming over and I'm cooking. Or when I'm cleaning up quickly before a party. I think of what I must look like alone, hoping to make others happy and have to ask myself what all this is connected to. I have to ask myself what the urgency in my actions is about.
I’m not sure how to end this section of writing. I do feel the need to say that I am still trying to digest what we artists who identified with Fusco and Bustamante expected from Stuff and whether we were disappointed to get a play about culture tourism instead of the sex pots the promo flyers promised . What is it that we black artists expect from other black artists, particularly those who are performance artists? What kind of interaction would I hope to have with another black artist doing these kinds of performances? What kinds of interactions do I, as a black artist who sometimes performs, want or expect from other black artists or artists of color? This is a set of questions I began asking myself when I first saw Coco Fusco perform and that is only one of the reasons why her work hits me so hard.
More to come.
 Gomez-Pena has an accent over the o and a tilde over the n. I don’t have keys that allow that to happen and don’t want to perpetuate bad spelling, so please take note. You will also note that the footnotes are numbered according to the entire piece Mental Notes I’ve Been Taking on the Body, rather than just to the section you are now reading. Hence, we started on footnote #3.
 These performances also remind me of a friend who once said he would like to be tied up in bed by his lover, to give him complete control over his body and know he would be made love to ever-so-gently by him. I’m reading the desire in this statement and in these performances as a desire to trust people to be good to you even when they have permission / increased ability to harm you. And maybe it is also a desire to prove that your suspicions about them are wrong. I’m disappointed when, in response, people say: "OK. I can harm you? Bet." Why don’t they say, "But I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to participate in this scene in a racist, sexist, violent way. I’m most interested and most heavily invested in respecting humanity. Yours and my own." instead?
copyright Mendi Lewis Obadike 2002