DOC/UNDOC: Transgress, Transcend, Transform

Printed Matters

DOC/UNDOC: Transgress, Transcend, Transform

By Jennifer A. González April 2, 2015

From artists' monographs to beach reads, "Printed Matters" offers a monthly take by a rotating group of contributors on visual art through the printed word.

In 2007, five collaborators, including myself, came together with the intention of creating one 21st-century artists' book in a limited edition of 65, in addition to 15 artists' books in a high/low tech case with sound and lights, and 50 more stand-alone books. This seven-year collaboration resulted in a trans-media book published in September 2014 by Moving Parts Press of Santa Cruz.

This interactive work explores the book as performance art, and invites each participant to heal themselves with fetishes and antidotes to paranoia, racism, cultural loneliness, formalist aesthetics, and political despair. It is a border kit to face the uncertainty of future crossings.

DOC/UNDOC Documendado/Undocumented Ars Shamánica Performática features performance scripts by Guillermo Gómez-Peña interpreted visually by myself, an experimental video by Gustavo Vazquez and Gómez-Peña, and sound art by Zachary Watkins, and an essay situating it all historically, culturally, and politically by art historian Jennifer González, a version of which is presented below. To learn more, visit – Felicia Rice


DOC/UNDOC collaborators: rear (left to right): Felicia Rice, Zachary Watkins, Jennifer González, Guillermo Gómez-Peña; front: Gustavo Vazquez.

What does it mean to be documented or undocumented? How do these terms work across borders and boundaries such as those that exist between nations and languages? What are the forms of policing and regulation that maintain such categories out of fear, cultural difference, or economic domination? What parts of our lives are documented and what parts remain undocumented? These are the questions that underlie the decidedly shrewd, collaborative, and experimental artwork-in-a-box by Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Gustavo Vazquez, Felicia Rice, and Zachary Watkins. In a contemporary gesture toward the Wagnerian “total work of art” or gesamtkunstwerk, the project combines the fine art of the printed book with sound, video, and a playful kit of objects to explore and to heal what might be seen as the cultural, social, and historical rifts that exist between the United States and Mexico. The idea is to invite viewers into an intimate space of engagement that addresses all of the senses: tactile, olfactory, aural, and visual. Although it is a contemporary work of art, the aluminum case has an antique feel, with hand-wrought hinges and knobs. Opening it, we are exposed to the treasures within, unfolding a triptych to reveal ourselves reflected in mirrors. As we move through the various sound elements and explore the objects housed in individual niches, we are drawn in by curiosity. Even the sense of taste (including bad taste) is leveraged in a playful way, but the broader social concerns are deadly serious. How can we see this artwork as part of a longer tradition of conceptual art, religious reliquaries, indigenous medicine practices, and camp theatricality? How do these diverse histories invite a peculiar cohesion in the final product?

As a work of contemporary art, it is possible to read DOC/UNDOC as situated squarely within a long tradition of experimental, conceptual portable-art practice. For example, Marcel Duchamp’s Boite-en-Valise [Box in a Suitcase] (1948) contained miniature versions of the artist’s most famous works of art, materializing the idea of a private museum-in-box and serving as a monument to the importance of its maker. The Boite-en-Valise unfolds into a triptych-like display that includes replicas of paintings glued to poster boards and miniature sculptures in carefully constructed niches, inviting an interpretive oscillation between the case of a traveling salesman and a religious altar.

DOC/UNDOC aluminum traveling case for apprentice shamans. 

Inspired by such projects, Fluxus artists of the 1960s in Europe and the United States built elaborate “flux boxes” or “fluxkits” that contained found and fabricated objects as well as “event scores” that invited participants to perform specific actions with the objects, or with each other. Fluxkits leveraged the colorful aesthetic of commercially marketed board games that were popular at the time, and included participation by sound artists like John Cage whose compositional scores included all manner of materials and unconventional actions on the part of performers and audience alike.

DOC/UNDOC echoes this history of conceptual and experimental art but equally invites us to consider older histories of colonialism, religion, and indigenous practices. Reference to these histories can be found in the work of Chicana artist Amalia Mesa-Bains in her room-sized installation Curiositas: The Cabinet (1990) and more recently in the Cabinet of Curiosities (2013) by Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro that serves as a kind of archive of images and objects culled from his cinematic productions. Both art projects invite us to think back to the 16th and 17th centuries, a period of contact, contagion, and domination in the Americas, as Spain’s dual Catholic and economic missions were played out on the bodies of the local inhabitants. It was a time in which cabinets of curiosity were created in Europe to house the strange and marvelous objects of the new world, and when taxonomies of plants, animals, and humans were created, so that every specimen could find its proper place in the hierarchies of “natural” law. Institutionally powerful, the church was nevertheless in competition with this emerging discourse of science, on the one hand, and more ancient systems of belief on the other. The material world was thus a battleground of contested meanings in which gold and silver reliquaries containing the skin and bones of Christian saints vied for importance alongside indigenous amulets and traditional ritual practices. For believers of both persuasions, the objects were not merely inherited signs of the past but sources of power in the present. To touch them was to participate in a communication with a divine source of existence, their proximity guaranteeing an opportunity to be enveloped by an aura through which the believer might be protected from the forces of evil, both internal and external. The decorative metal box can thus be read as a reliquary case through which divine power works via contact and religious belief, or as the medicine case of a nomadic shaman through which healing takes place via the sympathetic magic of contagion, and transformation.

DOC/UNDOC aluminum traveling case showing altar and cabinet of curiosities.

Ultimately, we are invited to take up the role of supplicant or nomadic shaman ourselves, to transform ourselves into new subjects using the costumes and objects offered to us. Religious altars generally invite reflection on interior life. A vanity mirror invites reflection on our exterior, embodied self. Emphasizing this duality, the project traces the ongoing tension of navigating a world of politics and appearance, racism and immigration, self and other, psychic states and physical states. In this way, the triptych echoes the vanity table of a private boudoir or theatrical dressing room, enclosing the subject in a visual space of ideal or surreal projected images. Here, the small, round vanity mirrors echo the rear-view mirrors on a car, surrounded in fur with neon green fringe. Lipstick, wrestling masks, love talismans, amulets, rattles, teeth, breath mints, paper money, eyeliner, and vials containing grains of corn invite us to participate in private acts of self-adornment, ritual offerings, and genuflection. A loose-leaf title page reads as a kind of event score stating in the imperative: “open, explore, empty, choose, reimagine, collaborate, scan, show, decipher, create.” Such instructions are qualified by a subtext that instructs: “open your mind,” “touch everything,” “empty your heart,” “embrace difference.” Permission is granted for experimentation, engagement, and enactment. Unlike most works of art that cannot be touched, this one yearns to be caressed, pressed, unpacked, and disassembled for the sake of initiating personal and cultural transgressions and transcendence.

If the talismans that surround the book are not merely toys, but rather tools for transcendence, then the printed book, by master printmaker Felicia Rice, can be seen as the scripture. With a deliberately camp aesthetic, and a sensuous appeal, the ruby vinyl cover and the soft, faux ocelot pelt covering the pages of the printed book suggest a tactility of “bad taste” that is nevertheless sumptuous and inviting. Layers of rich color, creative typography, and textured images break traditional boundaries of book page design, bleeding off the edge. In a quietly radical gesture for the world of book arts and printmaking, the floating images break the rules of marginal precision and free the pages from traditional frames. Each page of the book is a visual interpretation of the writings of Gómez-Peña. using hand-drawn images of found objects, some taken directly from the personal collection of the performance artist. Rice’s sketches are enlarged, etched, and printed in multiple colors, endowing the pages with a rough-hewn quality that belies their careful refinement. A visual pantheon of Bengal tigers and low-rider cars, madonnas and shrunken heads, punctuates the text on the page and implies the complex mysteries and tensions that emerge after centuries of intermixing cultures, religions, desires, and fears.
DOC/UNDOC aluminum traveling case showing cabinet of curiosities.

Aural and video elements are equally important in the gesamtkunstwerk effect of DOC/UNDOC. A complex soundscape is triggered when the aluminum lid lifts, echoing the uncanny animism of a music box that suddenly comes to life. If we are attentive, we find discreetly distributed buttons that can be pushed to trigger even more elaborate recordings by sound artist Zachary Watkins, which evoke the streets of Oaxaca, Mexico—the internal sense of breath, the romantic tunes of a troubadour, the heartbeats of love or fear, the tremulous vibrations of birdsong, the raucous rhythms of a fiesta or a lullaby. Joining these are the voices of Gómez-Peña and videographer Gustavo Vazquez offering instructions for how to interface with the artwork, adding bits of conversation, performance texts, and elements of poetry. Watkins also brings in mechanical and artificial sounds to mix, blend, and extend into many different tracks that seem endless. Because we initiate the music ourselves, a symphony of self-selection emerges; each track can be repeated or combined to create a new sound score each time the box is opened. The complete track can also be found on a compact disk included inside the book cover.

Filmmaker and videographer Gustavo Vazquez also collaborated with Gómez-Peña on a series of short videos that develop a repertoire of performances exploring what might be thought of as a genealogy of Mexican and Chicano subjectivity, as they interface with the history of film, video, and performance art. These vignettes sometimes take the form of an homage to important performance artists of the last fifty years such as Melquiades Herrera, Roy Varra, and Marina Abramovic, for example, offering a tongue-in-cheek revision in a Mex-Chicano idiom. Some of the videos emphasize the camera “eye” in relation to the body of the performer who stretches out a hand to stroke it, or the camera becomes a tool for “shooting” and the performer’s response erupts in a threatening duet–duel of looking and talking back to the lens, shot-reverse-shot. Short clips of classic Mexican film and television, as well as alarmist and racist representations of ancient Aztecs, are interspersed with autobiographical, intimate revelations about the difficulty of explaining “performance art.” Visually central is the flesh of Gómez-Peña’s virile, tattooed, and aging body that becomes the surface for self-manipulated plays with “high-tech” devices, or the surface projection of cultural and gender stereotypes and their unraveling.

Performing is a way of dreaming when we are awake, imagining ourselves crossing a variety of cultural borders that are not always clearly delineated but that have both psychological and political impacts. Gómez-Peña’s description of his performance practice as a form of cultural healing invites us to read the work in this way. He explores the condition of cross-cultural identifications and cross-border migrations. At a moment in history when human migration has never been greater, when transnational existence is becoming commonplace, and when economic, social, and political systems cannot adequately support their populations, Gómez-Peña’s ruminations on the status of so-called “illegal aliens” are particularly urgent and timely. His text explores not merely the broader social framework of U.S.-Mexico relations and their impact on immigrant populations, it also explores the psychological effect of repeated encounters with racism, cultural misunderstanding, and stereotypes that require a shifting identity that must be performed and reperformed for both others and oneself. His personal confessions and fears reveal a subject who must navigate a web of social identifications that are both political and intimate, writing,

 “Pero, if only I had had the guts to join the Zapatistas for good,
the guts to fight the border patrol with my bare hands,
the guts to tell my family I am truly sorry for all the pain
my sudden departure caused them 25 years ago,
when I was young & handsome
still had no audience whatsoever.
But I was a coward.
I ended up making a life-long performance piece
to justify my original departure, el pecado original.”

He also invites us to consider the risks and real conditions of performance in a racist country like the United States. Humor belies the critical engagement with the visual and political conditions of stereotyping. Prodding his audience to think about how second-class status in the United States influences so much of the Mexican American or Chicano experience, he also reveals that even performance art is a dangerous space from which to speak.

You know, locos, some racist called us at the hotel last night.
Said he was going to “smash our greasy heads in” and hung up.
Sounded as if he was serious
and I have a reason to believe he is here tonight.
(I scream)
House lights, please!!
(House lights come up. I look around the audience)
Can you please stand up and identify yourself?
Are you willing to discuss it?
Or are you ready to smash my greasy head in after the show?
(Long pause)
Hey, you’re watching me and I’m watching you.
There’s no theatrical border between us.
It’s called performance art.
Don’t you wish to exchange places before you attack me?
Come on, wouldn’t you love to be here,
right here on this stage, burning Vato,
”standing at the epicenter of the Great American earthquake?”
No one responds. There is tension in the air. I continue to ad lib:
Come on, the audience is waiting for you to make up your mind.
It’s exciting & dangerous down here.
Don’t you wish to be Mexican for a few minutes?
Because…I don’t.
At the moment I hate it. It’s a huge burden.

Imagine the history of the Aztec empire jam-packed in my DNA,
10,000-year-old genes from three continents
swimming in my boiling blood,
500 years of colonial history in my aching throat.
Qué hueva! I’d rather be…French,
or something kinkier like…like…
a Mormon hairstylist from Southern Utah,
a butcher from Vladivostok who believes in alien abduction,
a white supremacist from Montana
who dreams of becoming a Mexican performance artist…”

At this point in my harangue,
Miguel Algarin walks up to me and says:
“GP, you’ve made your point. Let’s move on!”

“Sorry, loco,” I answer,
“I was confronting my deepest fears the only way I know.”
(I scream for a blackout a few times and it does not come)
Blackout please!
OK, Mexican blackout!
(I cover my eyes with my hands)

DOC/UNDOC is an effort to see what is repressed, to unearth what is buried, to reach into the interior, psychic state of radical unbelonging in order to grasp the intricate, violent workings of the world that have resulted in this uneven, unequal, and unjust conjuncture. “Is there still time for dreaming, for reinventing ourselves… Is there enough time to stop the war, another war… Is there enough time to return to a homeland, a stolen homeland…?”


Felicia Rice is a book artist, typographer, letterpress printer, publisher, and educator. She has collaborated with visual artists, performing artists and writers under the Moving Parts Press imprint since 1977. Work from the Press has been included in exhibitions from AIGA Annual Book Shows in New York and Frankfurt to the Victoria & Albert Museum. Her books are held in numerous collections including Stanford University, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the Bodleian Library, Oxford. She has been the recipient of multiple awards, including the Rydell Visual Arts Fellowship, and grants from the NEA, CAC and the French Ministry of Culture.

Comments ShowHide

Related Content