Gagged: An Interview with Marcel Alcalá

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Gagged: An Interview with Marcel Alcalá

By Nat Marcus May 22, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


A very particular tone of dissent runs through the works of Los Angeles–based artist and poet Marcel Alcalá. To face the precarity of our present day and the psychic freight it offloads onto queer, POC, and undocumented people, Alcalá stages critiques that are in turn humorous and no-bullshit. Whether he uses gravity and grace, or absolute absurdity, his works are somehow full of lightness. Like the jester or court fool, he manages to play while discussing utterly serious notions of systemic violence or global warming, and in doing so, is also able to jest about his own position as an artist and a voice of criticism.

Alcalá’s sensitivity to the act of voicing is, to no surprise, felt through his poetry; in one text titled “HOPE,” from his 2017 performance DESIRE (Feelings Common Felt), he writes, “What one lives for in troubled times. Consistent with states of darkness but unveiling the beauty in colored bodies. Colored souls.” Of course, he also plays upon the myth of the poet as a transcendent voice—as one of the actors in Alcalá’s performing_non_conformity (2015) recites in a Santa Monica parking lot, “Private institutions are so complicated…quinoa…I’m a writer. Ideas just come to me. Privileged.”

Marcel Alcalá. performing_non_conformity, 2015; video documentation of performance; 31:18. Video: Priscilla Brinshot, Kristel Brinshot, Andrew Wardlaw.

Whether it’s organizing poetry readings in McDonald’s for his McPoems series, painting the walls of a white cube gallery brown, or directing performances in Hollywood gas stations, Alcalá’s dual gag/protest is also directed towards the standard workings of today’s art world. At a certain point, distinguishing the protocol of this world from the world at large is irrelevant—they both operate with a flagrant thirst for profit. The comedy Alcalá is most aware of is that we are expected to blanket the violence with silence.

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Nat Marcus: How do you think absurdity or comedy allows you to articulate critique?

Marcel Alcalá: When I was twelve years old, my brother took me to an opening of John Waters at the Orange County Museum of Art and asked me to get John’s autograph. When I came up to him to ask, John gasped and responded, “Why didn’t you come yesterday, that’s when I was doing autographs?”, signed his name, and went off to talk to Traci Lords. This experience fucked me up, in a good way, I like to think, and influenced the way I was going to approach art.

The idea of performing the “clown” came to me post-college, living at my parents’ house in Santa Ana. It was a weird time confronting and discovering who I was as an artist post-art school. You know, the idea just started as lies posted on my Instagram, saying that I had a job as a clown. And then, as it can happen with Instagram, I started getting paid to perform as a clown. I never expected anything. It was just a critique, and then it became a persona to act out self-expression. These days were also when I became extremely critical of the interaction of art and social media. The selfie always gets more likes, you know.

So, as a form of release, the “clown” became my way of being critical of notions of artistic hierarchies, whiteness, and the supernatural element of an archetype deeply rooted in our history.  

NM: These hierarchies often seem to involve issues of what is deemed “tasteful” or “skillful,” how the selection is made, and how value or worth is bestowed on one artwork or artist versus another. In the case of performing_non_conformity, this is staged as a debate about the taste of a plain versus “chocolate” / “sprinkled” / “mixed” donut.

MA: The history of different types of clowns in England is a history of class. We have the white-face “Pierrot” clown, considered the ideal, whom I play as the director of the piece—manipulative and bossy. We have the “contra-Auguste” who strives to be Pierrot, and the “Auguste,” also known as the dirty, trashy clown. With performing_non_conformity I wanted to enact this history in real time, and later edit it to become “something more.”

As the director of the piece, I play the white-face clown who, in its position of power, already becomes problematic. The other performers play “Auguste,” the type I relate to more. They were given monologues and moments to improvise—the only major decision was to perform to the camera, which is something we all do anyways.

Taste is the true gag. I learned from that piece that how you define artistic skill is honestly a realization of what you stand for and what you don’t. I got to poke fun at that idea naively, and learned that it’s okay to do so. Honestly, I like both plain and sprinkled doughnuts.

NM: There’s also so much multi-leveled wordplay: at one point, one of the actors says they “walk the streets documented,” which to me suggests both the documentation of the piece, and also notions of visibility of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and the larger apparatus of state surveillance.

MA: Right, “walk the streets documented” is a text I wrote for performing_non_conformity, which in itself is only a documentation of the actual piece. In a way, the recorded version doesn't even speak to the actual experience of its live, embodied element. We are walking paintings, really just existing in our very limiting bodysuit.

NM: And in turn, your 2D work seems to pictorialize your current state of being. Many of the pastel “doodles” you did at  Simon Thiébaut’s Parkingstone residency in Paris feature your trademark hybrid-gender figures walking around the quays or having sex next to charcuterie plates, with French words and phrases often floating around the frame—my favorite being “Le Visa!”. Why do you always refer to these works as “doodles” rather than “drawings”?

MA: I think everyone can relate to a doodle, which sounds super cute and inclusive. It’s just so “art-educated” to have the discussion of what the medium is. That convo isn't as important to me with these works. They came very much from a self-care moment in my life—making them truly brings me joy. I feel more like an artist creating these pieces. People can always call them what they want; it’s probably easier to just call them artworks. Doesn’t doodle just sound so fucking cute?!

NM: How did your poetry develop in relation to the visual art?

MA: It took me years to realize that I was a poet. Post-school, during the creation of my clown archetype, I started to write more. Poetry and performance go hand in hand for me. The visual attracts, and the words cause reflection and understanding. The body is a work, our voice gives context and relation to how we maneuver our brief time here on this plane.

Marcel Alcalá. Marcel Alcalá @ McPoems, 2014; poetry reading; 12:09.

NM: It also doesn’t seem so necessary to separate your poetry from your visual art—the title of your 2017 exhibition, Black Blood. Black Tar Truth. White Lies., bears the force of a fragment, of lyric.

MA: For that show, I wanted to talk about the white cube. Why not the brown cube? It’s a very simple idea I wanted to see in the gallery, while poking fun at my bank debt, the oil spills in California, and global warming, to name a few issues. I’m cynical at times. Hysteria is how I deal with these harsh realities.

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