Tuesday, April 02, 2002

Coco Fusco Reading in a Startling Hot Pink Jacket

Mental Notes I’ve Been Taking on the Body: Coco Fusco Reading The Incredible Disappearing Woman (in a Startling Hot Pink Jacket)

2. b) On Fusco's resume, the play is described in this way: "THE INCREDIBLE DISAPPEARING WOMAN A multimedia performance for three actresses about women, sex and death in the US- Mexico border region. Commissioned by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. Currently in pre-production, slated to open and begin an international tour in 2002."

Note that I don’t have a script in front of me and I saw this reading over a month ago. [5] I don’t know names or other important details. I know what stuck with me: We are in a gallery where there is to be a diorama of the performance piece by an artist who, twenty years earlier, played in front of an audience an audio tape of what he said was the sound of him having sex with the corpse of a Mexican woman. [6] The play is a conversation between three women who work in the gallery space either to clean it or work security. Each woman has a story to tell that relates to the diorama.

Hearing Fusco read I kept thinking of the Toi Derricotte poem, "On the Turning Up of Unidentified Black Female Corpses." [7] Think on this:

. . . Does anybody
know this woman? Will anyone come forth? Silence

like a backwave rushes into that field
where, just a week before, four other black girls
had been found. The gritty image hangs in the air
just a few seconds, but it strikes me,

a black woman, there is a question being asked
about my life. How can I
protect myself? Even if I lock my doors,
walk only in the light, someone wants me dead.

(I keep wanting to write something else after this fragment of a poem, but feel, at the same time, that nothing else should go there. "wants me dead" are the last words of this paragraph, but if I were to point to some idea that should be thought in relation to that paragraph, it might be: "As I read Derricotte's poem, I got the sickening feeling that something wanted me dead and as Fusco read her play, I got that same feeling." )

What I loved about the story is the way it makes characters whose lives are undervalued on both an institutional level and an interpersonal level loom large on our stage because they are ‘live’ (in relation to the video characters representing the artist of the diorama, the museum officials, and the museum going public) and because we spend time listening to their stories. I think what Fusco achieves here is part of what I have been saying I want: a way to make what gets deemed small take up a lot of space and a way to make our interior lives speak to and through the public realm without the decharacterization Laura Riding warned us about. [See "H*h"]

What I haven’t said yet and what it is important that I say is that each woman is a Latina woman. I am tempted to add "of color" because these distinctions are important to me, but realize that I am perhaps projecting. Maybe they aren’t all of color. Maybe they are but maybe Fusco’s point is not that they are "of color" but rather that they are Latinas or that they are of the class they are (two were working class and one was middle class, or came from the middle class) or that they, specifically, know what it is to be expendable. I am including this thought process of mine, though, because my point in writing down these notes is to explore how these things resonate with me.

The idea of being "of color" or "not white" brings with it a layer of meaning signifying that the characters face certain challenges to their dignity and to their person that ‘woman’ and ‘Latina’ alone don’t necessarily indicate for me. I write all of this, however, because I recognize that I don’t know what kinds of challenges white Latinas face as white Latinas or, more specifically, whether the story told in Fusco’s play is more likely to be about women of color than it is to be about other (white) Latina women.

Later, I will have more to say about whether I am reading this story or reading into it. Later, I will have more to say about why I feel compelled discuss the race(s) of the characters beyond ‘Latina’. Later, I will have more to say about how adding this kind of race to the discussion of the characters isn’t just or necessarily about adding color to their bodies. I’ll tell you more of what I’m thinking about invoking the non-whiteness of a character as a way of ascribing a certain set of positions in relationships (within a history of colonialism / slavery) to her people.

Right now, however, I need to say that the fact that the only body on stage at this reading was Fusco’s meant two things. One was that I could and had to fill in for myself what the characters looked like and who their people were and what that had to do with what happened to them. The other was that I could and did end up reading Coco Fusco’s body in that space.

c) Which brings me to Coco Fusco’s act of reading her play in a startling hot pink jacket. I think part of why I want to think about the women in the play as ‘of color’ is because I am interested in Coco Fusco as a woman of color. What I mean is that I am interested in 1) the ways in which her critiques of the art world or a certain kind of capitalist project regarding globalization are informed by her experience of living in her body and as a member of communities and 2) the way that that experience is connected to mine because our bodies signify in similar ways and we are in the same and different communities where the people’s bodies signify in the same and different ways. Thinking about this hot pink jacket, however, which zipped up the front and was nylon and had a stick up collar that was almost as wide as her shoulders, I am led to think of the body in a different way right now.

I must note that I am wary of going in this direction, precisely because Coco Fusco is a woman of color. If SWEAT wasn’t a place where I had made up my mind to think about notions of blackness and womanness and the roles they play in the making and reading of art, then I don’t think I’d go into what she was wearing here at all, because the fear would be that my conversation would be moving from the important ideas about politics and form into the unimportant (read: girly) ideas about fashion and beauty. But because this is a place for me to think about how I read art texts and how other people read them and what our bodies have to do with that and what the reading says about me and what is possible for me as an artist, I'm going to go ahead and do my thing.

Now, I'm focusing on the jacket, not just because it was fashionable. I later noticed that Fusco was also wearing very stylish pants and shoes, but the jacket it is significant to me because it called attention to itself. Right now I am thinking of reading Karla Holloway's writing about her grandmother's injunctions against wearing red and of a conversation I once had with Jessie Carney Smith about the fact that Fisk wouldn't hire Zora Neale Hurston because she wore a red dress to the interview and of the number of times things went wrong for Clare Kendry in a red dress. Hot pink is not red, of course. Maybe hot pink and red signify differently. And anyway, I was not thinking about disaster.

This talk was at Yale. That means nothing, in particular. Only I was thinking about the fact that being in the academy has made me want to wear dark colors more often. Bright colors have almost disappeared from my closet. I remember once, during my first year of grad school, I came to class wearing bright purple. During the break, all these people had things to say to me about the brightness of the color. Now, what they said was all good. People of color who were a little farther along in the program came up and joked that they were glad to see someone not afraid of 'color' walk through the door. People of all backgrounds laughed with me about how people in my program had a reputation for wearing all black. But it was all too much for me. I didn't want to be that visible. I just wanted to come to class and talk about Space and Location. I wondered whether coming in with all this 'color' was a distraction from what my brain was doing. I decided not to wear those colors until I could be sure. (I've not worn them often.) But I digress. This is not about me. [8]

The audience was there to see "Coco Fusco". She knew they (we) were going to be looking at her. And she is, after all, an artist. Isn't that part of the fun of going to see artists seeing how their aesthetics get mapped onto their bodies? Why, as an artist, pretend that people who know you or have come to find out about you aren't interested in looking (at you, your choices)?

I am thinking about this partly because I recently gave a talk at Williams College about my work in net art. I'm rather comfortable giving talks. I don't remember what I wore, but I remember choosing something that looked and felt good, but was relatively conservative -- which is my general teaching aesthetic. I had a very strange moment, though, when I presented a clip from The Sour Thunder. In The Sour Thunder, I was playing a character, wearing wide-legged pants and a sheer, wide-armed midriff shirt. All of a sudden it seemed very strange to have two of me in front of these people, one in a gray suit jacket, the other in a white midriff. Did the appearance of me in a midriff undercut my authority as a presenter? Did the appearance of me in a gray suit jacket undercut my authority as an artist? Was this a double-bind situation? Or is there power in being able to stake claim to more than one style of presentation and still have a unified, broad reach in aesthetics and intellectual discourse?

There was something very right about Coco Fusco's hot pink jacket, which was stylish and in the lectern light, gave her a semi-natural glow. What was striking to me is that the color accented what might be said about the style: that it was meant to make the watcher think about beauty. But this is interesting to me not as a distraction from the play, but as a something to be considered alongside it.

Before reading the play, Fusco gave a brief discussion about her research on the performance artist who made the audio piece about having sex with a corpse. At one moment, she looked at our faces and made a comment about how morbid this was. She smiled and told us that she could stand to do this work because she used to be a goth girl. This self-interruption made me think again about aesthetics, about pleasure, about the desire to follow certain threads. When she said she thought she should make this guy who wanted to make art about having sex with a dead Latina woman talk to her because she made art in which she played dead Latina women, I know it was an attempt to lighten up the mood in the lecture hall. But I also took it as a reminder that the best art, like the best politics, is wrapped up in the pleasure of following our fascinations as caring people in the world. This act has also got me thinking on adornment as a way of claiming one's own body and the right to redirect the gaze directed at it.

With hope for peace,
Mendi Lewis Obadike

[5] Ok. Interestingly, I realized as I was writing that I do in fact, have the script to this play in Fusco’s newest book: the bodies that were not ours and other writings (which you should run out and get right away and I should read cover to cover instead of dipping in for the things I already know are in there). However, I didn’t change what I wrote because I think the reach (in trying to remember whether we had the information about race and trying to figure out what having it or not having it meant for me) was good for my thinking and might be good for yours, too. Here are Coco Fusco’s notes on the live characters:

Magaly Valdes a middle-class Chilean in her 40s, fair skinned, dark hair, medium height, thin.
Chela Flores a working-class Nortena in her late 30s, buxom, mestiza, lots of layered hair and make-up.
Dolores Zepeda a working-class Salvadoran in her 50s, mestiza, small build, heavy set.

Interestingly, while I now know that Dolores and Chela are mestiza and Magaly is fair-skinned, I'm still not sure what to make of Magaly. I mean, I know that she is light, and coupled with the information that she is middle-class, that information given might be enough to make me read her as white. Somehow, though, I don't. Because fair-skinned is a color not a race, and even that color term can mean different things. And while Magaly does operate with a level of privilege among the women and in relation to the gallery that might be ascribed to the whiteness of her character, there is a certain something else written in her character that I associate with being a woman of color. What is it? I think it is a sort of knowledge about the way the institution sees them. If Dolores and Chela are sometimes something of a mystery to Magaly, what is not a mystery is the way the gallery is going to respond in to them. What I don't know is whether this the kind of knowledge that comes with being 'of color' or whether this is the kind of knowledge that comes with having any identity that gets discredited. By the time I get to this understanding, however, I'm wrapped up in the story. I'm excited about the places the story takes my mind, but I'm too far gone (into the story) to think about categories.

[6] This part of the play is based on an actual event. When I learned about this action in a History of Performance Art class, it made me sick. Whether the artist actually had sex with the corpse of a Mexican woman or just wanted people to think that he had, he was using 'a Mexican woman' as something one could use however he wanted. I was watching younger students (of color or just tan? Sometimes it's hard to tell) try to express their discomfort about the piece and what sickened me is that the felt the need to qualify their own statements, as if they were working towards understanding the project as art and away from their disgust and outrage on behalf of human beings.

As a student who was, by this time, also a teacher, I became even more wary of a 'higher education' that made us feel like the goal was to get away from our feelings about how people ought to be treated. What good is an institution (of art or higher learning) if it only presents work that is 'shocking' or 'important' but doesn't take us somewhere useful as humans on the planet? I suppose part of what is so important to me about this play is that it is not only about women whose lives are devalued for different reasons, but also because it is also about institutions. It is about and to and within the art world as an institution or set of institutions that can see or not see us.

[7] This poem appears in The Vintage Book of African American Poetry edited by Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton.

[8] Yes it is. Don't sleep.

copyright Mendi Lewis Obadike 2002

note: january 30, 2007: This post is preceded by other, related posts, entitled: "Mental Notes I’ve Been Taking on the Body: Writing vs. Speaking" and "Taking on the Body: Coco Fusco's Work"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mendi

Thank you so much for your writings. I have been working my way through SWEAT and am continually moved by the patience and care and precision with which you explore the process of coming to know what you know.

much respect

12:41 PM, April 18, 2007  
Blogger Mendi O. said...

Thank you for this note, Ian. I'd love to know more about you and what you think about other parts of this blog.

1:16 PM, April 18, 2007  
Anonymous Jose Torres tama said...

Miss Mendi O,

This is performance artist Jose Torres Tama coming to you through cyber spacio from Leipzig, Germany. I was looking for some information on Rhodessa Jones, whom I just saw at New World Theater giving a keynote, and your blog came up. I know Rhodessa for sometime, and I have had the honor of having her perform at my performance salon recently in New Orleans.

Anyway, lady, it is great to read your writings. I also got caught up in reading about Coco Fusco, whose writings I greatly respect.

Where are you these days? We last saw each other in Philly for the social research conference in 2002 I think. Since, I survived the great flood of New Orleans after Katrina. I married the woman I escaped with on a stolen school bus three days after the storm, and we have a fifteen year old baby boy named Darius Amancio Torres-Copeland. He is an Ecuadorian-Irish-German-Latino Gringo hybrid baby of the new millennium!

Hello to you an Keith.


Jose Torres Tama

10:16 PM, May 28, 2008  

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