(Version for print and download)"(Mexicans) are simple people. They are happy with the little they got... They are not ambitious and complex like us. They don't need all this technology to communicate. Sometimes I just feel like going down there & living among them." [Anonymous confession in the web]
THE VIRTUAL BARRIO @ THE OTHER FRONTIER
(or the Chicano interneta)
by Guillermo Gómez-Peña
(An earlier version originally appeared in the book "Clicking In: Hot Links to a Digital Culture, edited by artist Lynn Hershman, Bay Press, 1996. This version is considerably different. Besides rewriting certain sections and elaborating in certain points, I have asked several theorists and artists including Pedro Meyer, Joanna Frueh, Richard Scheckner, Francis Pisani, and others to "respond" to my ideas.
My colleagues have pointed at various contradictions: i.e.. Mexican artist Pedro Meyer and Le Mond journalist Francis Pisani pointed out to me that I criticize the role of "victims" that Latinos assume regarding high-technology and yet, I often assume myself the "tone" and positionality of a victim. Meyer also noted that "it was strange that I chose to write the text in English since criticize the use of English as lingua franca in the net." I have chosen to not "correct" my "contradictions". Instead I have incorporated the objections to the internal debate of the text.
I wish to express to the reader that this text, like most of my theoretical texts, suffers from an acute crises of literary identity; partly, because, it reflects my ever shifting positionalities as a Mexicano/Chicano interdisciplinary artist and writer living and working in between two countries and many communities; but also because the text attempts to describe fast-changing realities, and fluctuating cultural attitudes. As of now, I am still not sure of which might be the ideal format to articulate these ideas: a "personal" chronicle(as in the first two sections); a theoretical essay capable of containing contradictory voices (an anathema in academia), or an activist manifesto-like narrative(as in the last part).
I constantly shift from "I" to "we", and the "we", means at different times "my main collaborator Roberto Sifuentes and I"; "my (techno-art) colleagues and I"; "all Chicanos in the net" or "all outsiders/insiders in the net". The "we" is clearly contextual and temporary. I am fully aware of the risks of the use of "we", yet I cannot escape the following predicament: " We" all criticize the problems of a "master narrative" in the 90's and yet, "we" all wish to belong to a community larger than our immediate tribe of collaborators. How to solve this, I still don't know.
Responses from readers and internet users to this version of the text will find their way into future versions. Comenzamos!).
I: Fighting my own endemic "tecnofobia"
I venture into the terra ignota of cyberlandia, without documents, a map or an invitation at hand. In doing so, I become a sort of virus, the cyber-version of the Mexican fly: irritating, inescapable, and hopefully, highly contagious.
My "lowrider" laptop is decorated with a 3-D decal of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, the spiritual queen of Spanish-speaking America. It's like a traveling altar, an office and a literary bank, all in one. Since I spend 70% of the year on the road, it is (besides my phone card of course), my main means to keep in touch with my agent, editors and performance collaborators spread throughout many cities in the U.S and Mexico. The month before a major performance project, most of the technical preparations, last minute negotiations and calendar changes, take place in the mysterious territory of cyber-space. Unwillingly, I have become a techno-artist and an information superhighway bandido.
I use the term "unwillingly" because, like most Mexican artists, my relationship with digital technology and personal computers is defined by paradoxes and contradictions: I don't quite understand them, yet I am seduced by them; I don't want to know how they work; but I love how they look and what they do; I criticize my colleagues who are acritically immersed in las nuevas tecnolog’as, yet I silently envy them. I resent the fact that I am constantly told that as a "Latino", I am supposedly "culturally handicapped" or somehow unfit to handle high-technology; yet once I have the apparatus right in front of me, I am tempted and uncontrollably propelled to work against it; to question it, expose it, subvert it, and/or imbued it with humor, radical politics and linguas polutas such as Spanglish and Franglé.
Contradiction prevails. Two years ago, my collaborator Cybervato Roberto Sifuentes and I bullied ourselves into the hegemonic "space" of the net, and once we were generously adopted by various communities (Arts Wire, Chicle and Latino net, among others) we suddenly started to lose interest in maintaining ongoing conversations with phantasmagoric beings we had never met in person(and that I must say is a Mexican cultural prejudice: if I don't know you in person, I don't really care to converse with you). Then we started sending a series of poetic/activist "techno-placas" in Spanglish. In these short communiquŽs we raised some tough questions regarding access, identity politics and language. Since at the time we didn't quite know where to post them in order to get the maximum response; and the responses were sporadic and unfocused, our interest began to dim. And it was only through the gracious persistence of our techno-colleagues that we decided to remain seated at the virtual table, so to speak.
Today, despite the fact that Roberto and I spend a lot of time in front of our laptops (when we are not touring, he is in New York, and I'm in San Francisco or Mexico City) conceptualizing performance projects which incorporate new technologies or re-designing our web site, every time we are invited to participate in a public discussion around art and technology, we tend to emphasize its shortcomings and overstate our skepticism. Why? I can only speak for myself. Perhaps I have some computer traumas, or suffer from endemic digital fibrosis.
Confieso: I've been utilizing computers since 88; however, during the first 5 years, I used my old Mac as a glorified typewriter. During those years I probably deleted accidentally here and there over 300 pages of original texts which I hadn't backed up in discs, and thus was forced to rewrite them by memory (Some of these "reconstructed texts" appeared on my first book "Warrior for Gringostroika", Greywolf Press, 1994). The thick and confusing "user friendly" manuals fell many times from my impatient hands. As a result of this, I spent many desperate nights cursing the mischievous gods of cyber-space, and dialing promising "hot lines" which rarely answered, or if they answered, they provided me with complicated instructions in computer Esperanto I was unable to follow.
My bittersweet relationship to technology dates back to my formative years in the highly politicized ambiance of Mexico City in the 70's. As a young self-proclaimed "radical artist", I was full of ideological dogmas: for me, high-technology was intrinsically dehumanizing (enajenante in Spanish), and it was mostly used as a means to control "us" -little techno-illiterate people, politically. My critique of technology overlapped with my critique of capitalism. To me, "capitalists" were rootless(and faceless) corporate men who utilized mass media to advertise their useless electronic gadgets. They sold us unnecessary apparatuses which kept us both, eternally in debt(as a country and as individuals) and conveniently distracted from "the truly important matters of life". Of course, these "important matters" included sex, music, spirituality and "revolution" California style (meaning, en abstracto y bien fashionable ). As a child of contradiction, besides being a rabid "anti-technology artist," I owned a little datsun; and listened to my favorite U.S. and British rock groups in my Panasonic importado, often while meditating or making love as a means to "liberate myself" from capitalist socialization. My favorite clothes, books, posters and albums, had all been made by "capitalists" with the help of technology ; but for some obscure reason, that seemed perfectly logical and acceptable to me.
Luckily, my family never lost their magical thinking and sense of humor round technology. My parents were easily seduced by refurbished and slightly dated American and Japanese electronic goods. We bought them as fayuca (contraband) in Tepito neighborhood, and they occupied an important place in the decoration of our "modern" middle-class home. Our huge color TV set for example, was decorated as to perform the double function of entertainment unit and involuntary postmodern altar - with nostalgic photos of relatives, paper flowers, and assorted figurines all around it; and so was the humongous equipo de sonido, next to it, with an amph, an 8-track recorder, 2 record players and at least 15 speakers which played all day long a syncretic array of music including Mexican composer Agustin Lara, Los Panchos (of course with Eddie Gorme), Sinatra, Esquivel, and Eartha Kit. Cumbias, followed Italian operas and rock & roll alternated with racheras. (In this sense, my father was my first involuntary instructor of postmodern thought). Though I was sure that with the scary arrival of the first microwave oven to our traditional kitchen, our delicious daily meals were going to turn overnight into sleazy fast food, soon my mother realized that el microondas was only good to re-heat cold coffee and soups. The point was to own it, and to display it prominently as yet another sign of modernidad. (At the time, in Mexico, modernity was perceived as synonymous with U.S. technology and pop culture). When I moved North to California(and therefore into the future), I would often buy cheesy electronic trinkets for my family (I didn't qualify them as "cheesy" by then). During vacations, to go back to visit my Mexico City family with such presents ipso facto turned me into an emissary of both prosperity and modernity. Once I bought an electric ionizador for grandma. She put it in the middle of her bedroom altar, and kept it there - unplugged of course, for months. When I next saw her, she told me: "Mijito, since you gave me that thing (still unplugged), I truly can breath much better." And she probably did. Things like televisions, short wave radios and microwave ovens; and later on ionizers, walkmans, crappie calculadoras, digital watches and video cameras, were seen by my family and friends as alta tecnologia (high technology), and their function was as much pragmatic as it was social, ritual, sentimental, symbolic and aesthetic.
It is no coincidence then that in my early performance work (1979-1990), chafa (cheap) technology performed ritual and aesthetic functions as well. Verbigratia: For years, I used TV monitors as centerpieces for my "video-altars" on stage. Fog machines, strobe lights and gobos, megaphones and voice filters have remained since then, trademark elements in my "low-tech/high-tech" performances. By the early 90's, I sarcastically baptized my aesthetic practice, "Aztec high-tech art", and when I teamed with "Cyber Vato" Roberto Sifuentes, we decided that what we were doing was "techno-razcuache art". In a glossary of "borderismos" which dates back to 94, we defined it as "a new aesthetic that fuses performance art, epic rap poetry, interactive television, experimental radio and computer art; but with a Chicanoccentric perspective and an sleazoide bent."
II: Mythical Differences
The mythology goes like this. Mexicans (and by extension other Latinos) can't handle high technology. Caught between a pre-industrial past and an imposed modernity, we continue to be manual beings; Homo Faber per excellence; imaginative artisans (not technicians); and our understanding of the world is strictly political, poetical or metaphysical at best, but certainly not scientific or technological. Furthermore, we are perceived as sentimentalist and passionate creatures (meaning irrational); and when we decide to step out of our anthropological realm, and utilize high technology in our art (most of the time we are not even interested), we are meant to naively repeat what others - mainly Anglos and Europeans - have already done much better.
We, Latinos, often feed this mythology, by overstating our "romantic nature" and humanistic stances; and/or by assuming the romantic role of colonial victims of technology. We are always ready to point out the fact that social and personal relations in the US, the strange land of the future, are totally mediated/distorted by faxes, phones, computers, and other technologies we are not even aware of; that the overabundance of information technology in everyday life is responsible for the US's social handicaps, sexual neurosis and cultural crisis.
It is precisely our lack of access to these goods what makes us overstate our differences? "We", in the contrary, socialize profusely, negotiate information ritually and sensually; and remain in touch with our (still intact?) primeval selves. The mythology continues to unfold: Since our families and communities are not exposed to the "daily dehumanizating effects of high technology" we are somehow untouched by postmodern "illnesses" such as despair, fragmentation or nihilism. "Our" problems are mainly political not personal or psychological. This simplistic and extremely problematic binary world view portrays Mexico and Mexicans, as technologically underdeveloped, yet culturally and spiritually superior; and the US as exactly the opposite.
Reality is much more complicated and ridden with contradictions: The average Anglo American does not understand new technologies either; people of color and women in the U.S. don't have "equal access" say to cyberspace. Furthermore, American culture has always led the most radical (and often childish) movements against its own technological development and back to nature (in the 90's, American ludites tend to be much more purist and intolerant than their Mexican counterparts). Meanwhile, the average urban Mexican (more than 70% of all Mexicans live in large cities) exposed to world transculture on a daily basis is already afflicted in varying degrees with the same "First World" existential malaises allegedly produced by high technology and advanced capitalism. In fact the new generations of Mexicans, including my hip generación - Mex nephews and my 8 year - old fully bicultural son, are completely immersed in and defined by MTV, personal computers, Nintendo, video games and virtual reality (even if they don't own a computer). In fact I would go as far as to say that in contemporary Mexico, generational borders can be determined by the degree of familiarity with high technology and by cyber-literacy. Far from being the rrrroomantic pre-industrial paradise of the American imagination, the Mexico of the 90's, is already a virtual nation whose cohesiveness and fluctuating boundaries are largely provided by transnational pop culture, television, tourism, free market (a dysfunctional version of course), and yes, the internet.
But life in the ranchero global village is ridden with epic contradictions: Despite all this, still very few people South of the border are on line, and those who are wired, tend to belong to the upper and upper middle classes, and are mostly related to corporate or managerial metiers. The Zapatista phenomenon is a famous exception to the rule. Techno-performance artist extraordinaire Subcomandante Marcos has been communicating with the "outside world" through extremely popular web pages sponsored and designed by US and Canadian radical scholars (it is still a mystery to me how his communiqués get from the jungle village of "La Realidad" in Northern Chiapas, which still (as of 1997) has no electricity, to his web pages literally overnight). However, these web pages are more known outside of Mexico for a simple reason: Telmex, the Mexican Telephone company, makes it practically impossible for anyone living outside the main Mexican cities to use the net, arguing that there are simply not enough lines to handle both telephone and internet users.
Every time my colleagues and I have attempted to create some kind of binational dialogue via digital technologies (ie. link Los Angeles to Mexico City through satellite video-telephone), we are faced with a myriad complications. In Mexico, the few artists with ongoing "access" to high technologies who are interested in this kind of transnational techno-dialogue, with a few exceptions, tend to be socially privileged, politically uninformed and aesthetically uninteresting. [*1] And the funding sources down there willing to fund this type of project are clearly interested in controlling who is part of the experiment.
"Rebecca (Solnit) thinks America on-line is like K-Mart and keeps getting lost in the aisles somewhere between press-on-nails and flash-sessions. This morning aol fell asleep while I was forwarding your text to my brother (the Anglo-Sandinista one) and it disappeared. Maybe it's like a combination of K-Mart and the Argentinean military. What with all this disappearing, loco?." [Excerpt from an E-mail]
III: Cyber-migras & "Webbacks"
Roberto and I arrived late to the debate, along with a dozen other Chicano experimental artists.
At the time, we were shocked by the benign or quiet (not naive) ethnocentrism permeating the debates around art and digital technology, specially in California. The master narrative was either the utopian and dated language of Western democratic values or a bizarre form of new age anti-corporate/corporate jargon; the unquestioned lingua franca was of course English, "the official language of science, information and international communications" [*2] ; and the theoretical vocabulary utilized by both the critics and apologists of cyberspace was hyper-specialized (a combination of esperantic "software" talk; revamped post-structuralist theory - hadn't we already overcome post-structuralism in the early 90's? - and nouvelle psychoanalysis), and largely de-politicized (i.e. Post colonial theory and the border paradigm were conveniently overlooked). If Chicanos, Mexicans and other "people of color" didn't participate enough in the net, it was solely because of lack of information or interest, (not money or "access"). The unspoken assumption was that our true interests were "grassroots" (and by grassroots I mean, the streets in the barrio and our ethnic-based community institutions), representational or oral (as if these concerns couldn't exist in virtual space). In other words, we were to remain painting murals, tagging, plotting revolutions in rowdy cafes, reciting oral poetry and dancing salsa or quebradita. (Some colleagues believe that the mere fact that Roberto and I and a handful of other Chicanos are now temporarily sitting at the cybertable is already a huge political victory. Others more cynical believe that the reason why we get invited to the great rave of consciousness is to bring some Tex-Mex galore and tequila to an otherwise fairly puritan fiesta. Hopefully not).
When we began to dialogue with US artists working with new technologies, we were also perplexed by the fact that when referring to "cyber-space" or "the net", they spoke of a politically neutral/race-less/gender-less and classless "territory" which provided us all with "equal access", and unlimited possibilities of participation, interaction and belonging, specially "belonging" (in a time in which no one feels that they "belong" anywhere). [*3] Yet there was never any mention of the physical and social loneliness, or the fear of the "real world" which propels so many people to get on line, stay "there" and pretend they are having "meaningful" experiences of "communication" or "discovery" (two very American obsessions). To many of them, the thought of exchanging identities in the net and impersonating other genders, races or ages, without real (social or physical) consecuences seemed extremely appealing and liberating, and by no means, superficial or escapist. [*4]
The utopian rhetoric around digital technologies, specially the one coming out of California, reminded Roberto and I of a sanitized version of the pioneer and frontier mentalities of the Old West, and also of the early century futurist cult to the speed, size and beauty of epic technology(airplanes, trains, factories, etc.) Given the existing compassion fatigue regarding political art and art dealing with matters of race and gender, it was hard not to see this feel-good phylosophy (or rather theosophy) as an attractive exit from the acute social and racial crisis afflicting the U.S.
Like the pre-multi-culti art world of the early 80's, the new high-tech art world assumed an unquestionable "center", and drew a dramatic digital border. And "on the other side" , there lived all the techno-illiterate artists, along with most women, Chicanos, Afro-Americans and Native Americans in the US and Canada, not to mention the artists living in so called "Third World" countries. Given the nature of this hegemonic cartography, those of us "Illegal aliens" living South of the digital border were forced to assume once again the unpleasant but necessary roles of webbacks, cyber-aliens, digital viruses, techno-pirates, and virtual coyotes (smugglers). "In the barrios of resistance, contemporary versions of the old kilombos, every block has a secret community center. There, the runaway youths called Robo-Raza II or "floating greasers" publish anarchist laser-Xerox magazines, edit experimental home videos on police brutality (yes, police brutality still exists) and broadcast pirate radio and TV interventions like this one over the most popular programs...
These clandestine centers are constantly raided, but Robo-Raza II just moves the action to the garage next door. Those who get "white-listed" can no longer get jobs in the "Mall of Oblivion". And those who get caught in fraganti, are sent to rehabilitation clinics where they are subjected to instant socialization through em-pedagogic videos (from the Spanish verb emperor, meaning to force someone to drink, and the Mayan noun agogic, o sea, a man without a self, like many of you).
- From "The New Word Border", City Lights, 1996
IV: Chicano virtual reality
Perhaps our first truly "high-tech" project which contributed to the politicization of the debates around new technologies was a performance designed for cable TV with the obscure title of "Naftaztec: Pirate Cyber-TV for A.D. 2000".
On Thanksgiving Day, 1994, the evening news of over 3.5 million American households was interrupted by two "post-Nafta cyber-Aztec TV pirates", transmitting their bizarre views on American culture "directly from their underground vato-bunker, somewhere between New York, Miami and Los Angeles".
In actuality, what the viewers were witnessing was an experiment of interactive multilingual television via satellite. Roberto and I had teamed with filmmakers Adrienne Jenik, Philip Dwja and Branda Miller (from I-Ear Studio at Rennselear Polytechnic) to broadcast a simulacrum of a pirate TV intervention to hundreds of cable television stations across the country. The stationsâ program directors had agreed to "play along" (which is unthinkable say in PBS), and advertised the time slot under a fictional title.
For an hour and a half, the "information super-highway banditos" encouraged the perplexed viewers to call in and "respond" to the broadcast, which was a strange blend of radical politics, autobiographical material, and parodies of traditional TV formats gone bananas. The style was very much like MTV, with five hand-held cameras in constant motion. During the broadcast, we demonstrated a "Chicano virtual reality machine" which "could turn personal and collective memories into video footage ipso-facto" and "a virtual reality bandanna", which could "allow Anglos to experience first hand the psychological sensation of racism". We also received "live reports" via Picture Tel (video telephone) from the Electronic Cafe in Los Angeles. We spoke in English, Spanglish, Franglé, French, and a robo-language invented by us; and encouraged our viewers "to be intelligent, poetical, and performative" in their response. During the live broadcast, sometimes it would appear that the TV station was struggling to regain the airwaves, but we managed to maintain control.
The performance was transmitted over computer networks as well, via "M-Bone", and those watching in cyberspace could interact with us, and with one another, by posting written and visual comments. We received dozens of phone calls and computer messages.
One constant thread in most responses we received had to do with the fact that the viewers (and the M-Bone users) were amazed by how technically and visually sophisticated and "un-folksy" the program was, given the fact (though not always overtly stated) that it had been created by "Mexicans". Many others, clearly pissed by our arrogance ("2 Mexicans live on national television broadcasting uncensored material"), made reference to the fact that we should leave immediately the high-tech simulated space we created "illegally" and return to our "pyramid-infested past". The total cost of the project (including the rental of satellite time) I believe was under $7000, and to our surprise, it received the prize of "best experimental video" at the San Antonio Cine Festival.
V: Ethno-Cyborgs & "Artificial Savages"
The current debates about the body and its relation to the new technologies have polarized tremendoulsy the experimental arts community and particularly the performance art milieu. There are those in the "machine art" movement who advocate the total dissapearance of the human body and its replacement with computer or mechanical robotics; others believe that the body, though obsolete, can still remain in the center of the art event, but that new technology can equipe it with prosthetic (perceptual and physical) extensions. A visceral reaction to these proposals can be found in the artists of "apocalypse culture" who have adopted a radical ludite stance: to reclaim the body primitive as a site for pleasure and pain, and "return" (so they claim) to a sort of neotribal paganism, very much in the western tradition of anarchist "drop out" culture. What Roberto and I are trying to do is explore other options: to politicize technology, imbuide it with humor, and linguas polutas; to use it as a means to enhance the interactivity between performers and live audiences who unknowingly become vougers/tourists; and to gather cultural, and political information of a very unique confessional nature, which will then be reinterpreted by and expressed through our "primitive", political and erotic bodies. What the live audience ends up experiencing is a sort of visualization of their own post-colonial demons and racist mirages.
Our most recent "techno-diorama" project, titled "El Mexterminator I" first premiered in Mexico City in March, of 95 under the working title of "The Museum of Frozen Identity". Since then, different versions in progress have been performed in the US., Spain, Italy, Austria, Canada, England and Wales. In this project, Roberto and I utilize the visitors' (both physical and virtual visitors, that is) responses and "confessions" to design visual and performative representations of "the new mythical Mexican and Chicano of the '90's". In other words, the actual Internet responses become the basis for the creation of a series of "ethno-cyborgs," co-created (or rather "co-imagined") collaboratively with thousands of anonymous Net-users. Unlike our previous diorama projects, the idea now is to cede our will to the internet users (and to the gallery visitors when we are able to have the necessary technology available at the performance site) in determining the nature and content of the "living dioramas", including how we should dress; what music we must listen to and, most important, what kind of ritualized actions we should engage in and what type of interaction we are to have with the audience. What we do as performance artists then is to "embody" this information, re- interpret it, and stylize it. In this sense, the "ethnocyborgs" and "artificial savages" incarnate profound fears and desires of contemporary Americans regarding the Latino "other", immigrants and people of color, and function as mirrors for the (real and virtual) visitors to see the reflections of their own psychological and cultural monsters.
These performances always involve some form of physical interactivity with the audience. Visitors to the galley space are encouraged "to interact with the live specimens" in various modes: they can feed us, touch us, attempt to engage us in a conversation, handle our props ("at their own risk"), point replicas of weapons at us ("to experience the feeling of shooting at a live Mexican"), and ocasionally, they are invited to "alter our identity" by changing our make-up and costumes, and even "replace us for a short period of time". Lately, we are setting up "Identity make -over booths" where audience members undergo "instant" identity changes through special effects make-up and costumes. Whenever we can, we try to set up a bar inside the space to "carnivalize" the experience even more. When this happens, the behaviour of the audience changes dramatically as they become less inhibited through the ingestion of tropical cocktails.
The complete version of "Mexterminator I" premiered in early 98 during the "commemoration" of the Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty *7) It parodied an end-of-the-century "Museum of Experimental Ethnography", incorporating several "ethno-cyborgs" reflective of America's problematic relationship with cultural otherness in the 90's (i.e. the Chicano as an "endangered species", the "Mad Mex" super criminal, the exotic "Cultural transvestite", La Zapatista stripper, etc.)
VI: 1st Draft of a Manifesto: Remapping Cyberspace
In the past years, many theoreticians of color, feminists and activist artist have finally crossed the digital border without documents. This recent diaspora has forced the debates to become more complex and interesting. But since "we" (as of now, the "we" is still blurry, unspecific and ever-changing) don't wish to reproduce the unpleasant mistakes of the "cultural wars" (1988-1993), nor do we wish to harass the brokers, impresarios and curators of cyberspace as to elicit a new backlash, our strategies and priorities are now quite different:
"We" are no longer trying to persuade anyone that we are worthy of inclusion (we now know very well that we are either temporary insiders or insiders/outsiders at the same time). Nor are "we" fighting for the same funding (since serious funding no longer exists - specially for politicized experimental art), and the computer tycoons we all thought would eventually become progressive philantropists are just oversized teenagers with no political understanding of culture whatsoever.
These concerns seem to have echoes throughout Latin America, Asia, Africa and many so called "Third World" communities within the so called "First World".
- For the moment, what "we" (cyber-immigrants) desire is:
- to "politicize" the debate;
- to re-map the hegemonic cartography of cyberspace;
- to develop a multicentric theoretical understanding of the (cultural, political and aesthetic) possibilities of new technologies;
- to exchange a different sort of information (mythopoetical, activist, performative, imagistic);
- and to hopefully do all this with humor, inventiveness and intelligence.
- Chicano artists in particular wish to "brownify" virtual space; to "spanglishize the net", and "infect" the linguas francas.
With the increasing availability of new technologies in "our" communities, the notion of "community art" and "political" or politicized art is changing dramatically. Now the goals, as defined by activist artists and theoreticians, are to find innovative grassroots applications to new technologies(i.e.. to help the Latino youth literally exchange their weapons for computers and video cameras), and to link all community centers and artist collectives through the internet. Artist-made CD-roms and web pages can perform an extremely vital educational function: they can function as community "memory banks" ("encyclopedias chicanicas" so to speak), sites for encounter, dialogue, complicity, and exchange; as well as virtual bases of operation and action for trans/border grassroots projects.
To attain all this, the many virtual communities must get used to a new cultural presence-the webback (el nuevo virus virtual); a new sensibility; and many new languages spoken in the net. As for myself, hopefully one day I won't have to write in English in order to have a voice in the new centers of international power.
San Francisco, Califas
July of 1997
APPENDIX: SELECTION OF RESPONSES TO THE TEXT
(Please feel free to edit them)
*1. - Pedro Meyer: "I find several things wrong with this sentence. It is not only in Mexico that this is the case. It is the world over that high technologies are a matter reserved for the privileged. This is true since time began. Only that today the high technologies are electronic, and belong to the digital world. In the past it was other materials that were the subject of scarcity and thus privilege, for example at the time of the Mexican muralist movement in the forties, it meant access to certain walls on which to paint. It's obvious that there were more painters than there were walls available on which to paint. So not everyone who wanted to, could paint on such walls, at least not on "important" walls of public buildings. Going back further in time, the Aztecs gave the artists in their society a very special place in which to develop their skills, and again that was a matter of privilege. So it's disingenuous to consider that art when associated with privilege is necessarily diminished in it's stature. One can find countless instances throughout the history of art, where privilege was never very far from the great masterpieces that were created... The observation that the (Mexican) artists associated with new technologies, are politically uninformed or aesthetically uninteresting, responds more than anything to a populist interpretation by a number of people in the world of culture who have taken it upon themselves to dismiss new technologies as a if it were a symbol of status to be a technophobe. By taking on such a negative attitude, in reality what they are doing is covering up their own shortcomings and ignorance of what new technologies truly have to offer. What better way to deal with such limitations than to dismiss them outright. One would also have to factor in how reactionary and lacking in courage, such attacks against any changes really are. A true artist thrives in the explorations of all that there is new. To live on the cutting edge and trying to make sense of it all, is no task for the weak of heart. It's always easier to stay within the comfort of the known, than to risk failure in the process of trying what is not yet under control. To say that the outcome is for the most part 'uninteresting' is to assume that the aesthetic choices already had an opportunity to work themselves out. New forms require a period, sometimes quite prolonged, of incubation. If we observe a beautiful person, do we acknowledge that that same person at one time was only a fetus with little or no resemblance to that future beautiful presence? And in the end, who does the judging? Are we conscious that such "aesthetic choices" of beauty are if nothing else just part of a set of cultural expressions of value and not universal truths?"
*2 - Why then,- several colleagues, including Meyer and Pisani, asked me, did I choose to write this text in English? First, because I only know two languages, and Spanish speaking users in the net are still a micro-minority. How else could a Mexican communicate with say an African, a Hindu and a German? How else would you, whoever you are, be reading this text right now? And second, because in order to fight a hegemonic model I strongly believe we need to know and speak the language of hegemonic control and hegemonic exchange of information.
*3. - Joana Frueh: "I do not want to exchange my sex, and my genders are many. I am abundant in identities in my daily, intimate, and professional lives. My identities merge in variant combinations, then supersede each other as they operate according to the integrity of a single human being who is not a fragment or a figment of her own or someone else's imagination. People make up stories about themselves and others all the time. Narration-as-imagination can be fun, and dangerous, in real space.
I am not cyber-efficient, not a cyber-aficionado - I want soul-inseparable-from-the-body in front of me, arm in mine, in my bed. I feel affection for people in the flesh, for facing the source of a voice as it eases or lurches out of a body and touches me all over mine; I want to hear whether a voice resonates deeply, from a diaphragm, or thinly, from chest or throat. I want to participate in emotional upheavals, withdrawals, magnetics when I am part of a group's or individual's physical energy. I want Eros - rich and joyous connectedness - as close as I can get it, and that demands touching, sensibly and sensually. I see no other way to build the body of love.
Over the summer I read a lot of Sade. In "The 12 Days of Sodom", one of his funniest yet most somber novels, I met the expert whore and storyteller Mme. Duclos. She is radiant and brilliant, and she confidently displays her exceptionally beautiful buttocks. She is one of the few characters who leaves the isolated, impenetrable, and lugubrious Chateau de Silling alive. Silling is the gothic castle par excellence. It is the site of fascinating and grisly debauchery. The four protagonist debauchees, all men, do not victimize Duclos, for to their eyes, ears, minds, and bodies, she is splendid.
Duclos is forty-eight and so was I when I read "120 Days...". I identify with her, despite my problems with Sade and the ones I imagine Duclos to have with him, too, in a chapter I'll soon write for my new book "Monster/Beauty: Paradox of Pleasure". There I will inhabit her. As I walk home from my neighborhood park, I AM her. This is the identity exchange of a literary and art fetishist, me, of a Sade fan who adores his and Duclos's unity of body and mind. Mind-incomplete-without-body, Duclos, a pro-porn feminist like me, is one of my erotic identities, virtual as literature, real as a clarification of my needs and pleasures in erotic and aesthetic self-creation.
I like bodies to be high-content and high-context, like art and the erotic. In my experience and to my knowledge, "low-context messages" (John Simmons, "Sade and Cyberspace," in James Brook and Iain A. Boal, ed., "Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information [San Francisco: City Lights, 1995], 146-47) pervade cyberspace. There the human body radically distorts, reduces, and romanticizes into information, through which it may assume a nauseating omnipotence - the authority of disembodiment.
In 1989 Marvin Minsky wrote, "We are entering a new century in which you are connected to the world, to the virtual world. And much more intimately than you are connected to the real world... Our connection with the real world is very thin, and our connection with the artificial world is going to be more intimate and more satisfying than anything that's come before " (Minsky, quoted in "SF Camerawork [Spring-Summer 1993]:4). Eros is very thick and very real, and I do not belong to Minsky's "our"; yet I know how thinness belongs to people's disaffection from daily and seismic figurative slaps-in-the-face and kicks-in-the-butt. Writing in 1989 from his position as Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab, Minsky says, "If it was possible, I would have myself downloaded" (Minsky, in "Is the Body Obsolete? A Forum," "Whole Earth Review" [Summer 1989]: 37). This is no way to court intimacy with aging or racialized bodies, for many people would choose to be an easy body, attractive and unproblematic in terms of normative social standards.
I do imagine that some people would choose "bodies" of terror; but one can be a cultural terrorist monster/beauty - in her body of origin. This requires creativity and courage.
Disembodiment inhibits Eros, which is both material and incorporeal. Eros propels people into physicality and sociality; Eros has physical and social consequences. Interactivity is not erotic connectedness, whose profusion occurs in the high-context plenitude of prosaic reality."
MONSTER/BEAUTY, PERFORMING LIKE A FLORIBUNDA
*4 - Many feminist colleagues have expressed to me the fact that for women "exchanging genders" in the net can be both "liberating" and transgressive.
© Text: Guillermo Gómez-Peña
Published on the net by the House of World Cultures, Berlin, in the context of the forum "Cultural Exchange via Internet - Opportunities and Strategies", started 12 October 1998 (open end), organized by Gerhard Haupt.
Chapter VI: 1st Draft of a Manifesto: Remapping Cyberspace, has been published also as a posting to the debate.