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Revelations on the teachings of La Pocha Nostra

The performance residency at Museo de Arte Moderno with La Pocha Nostra, Ciudad de Mexico, 2018.

Pictured: Celestina Cardona-Billington and Ricardo Gomez ain the live performance for the Guillermo Gomez Peña retrospective at Museo de Arte Moderno.

In a 2012 manifesto, La Pocha Nostra describes itself as "an ever-morphing trans-disciplinary arts organization." This is an apt title, as the troupe is made up of over sixty members worldwide, with core members taking on a number of roles that range from pedagogue to historian. They have traveled the world to teach workshops at a variety of institutions, and to perform at international festivals. The members are held together by a shared core philosophy; that identity is a power canvas for deconstruction, and that performance is integral to activism: "we strive to eradicate myths of purity and dissolve borders surrounding culture, ethnicity, gender, language, power, and métier." (From the manifesto.)

At the center of the troupe is Guillermo Gomez Peña, a charismatic leader with distinctive vision. He is arguably most famous in the art-world for his 1992 collaboration with Coco Fusco, "The Couple in the Cage," for which the two artists locked themselves in a cage and were displayed as a mysterious and eroticized indigenous people. See below:

"The Couple in the Cage," by Guillermo Gomez Peña & Coco Fusco.

I first encountered the Mexican performance-art troupe via their book, "Exercises for Rebel Artists: Radical Performance Pedagogy." It was required reading for a course on performance and social activism that I'd taken in 2016. The book and its teachings came to me at exactly the right moment. I was taking many risks in the development of my practice--I'd left the strict theatre conservatory I was in so that I could experiment beyond the confines of the backstage power dynamics, traditional narratives, and easy aesthetics that I had found prevalent in Texas' theatre scene. The departure was liberating, but I found myself a little lost without the structure of rehearsals.

Pocha "Family Reunion" 2003, SF.

La Pocha Nostra's book offered me detailed exercises for creating, teaching, and producing. There was also an advice section, from which one line in particular really struck me: "Work against formulas. If your art becomes too easy to recreate, you're on the wrong path."

After spending years studying Campbell for narrative and Stanislavski for performance, the idea of working against formula was exciting. And La Pocha Nostra's exercises provided me with a starting point from which to begin exploring beyond convention.

The Residency

I joined the group's Facebook page in late 2017, and by March I was at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City.

The residency had about 20 participants who came from all over the world to participate. There were people from Europe, South America, and across North America. Many were late-stage career artists with well established practices in their respective cities. I was amongst the youngest in the group, though a duo from San Francisco were both a year my junior. The backgrounds varied--there was a diverse mix of curators, researches, dancers, actors and graduate students who were now all looking to performance art as a means of broadening their practice.

The workshop sessions were intensives, full days were spent in the rehearsal space.

The Culminating Performance

"The Body of Christ" was a segment in the performance exhibition at the Museo de Arte Moderno. Featuring Lilian Rivero, Ricardo Gomez, and myself--we challenged the audience to consider the sexualization and fallibility of Christ's image. A radical question in the Catholic nation of Mexico, the performance left onlookers gasping.

Final Thoughts

In workshop, Gomez-Peña reinforced the idea of mix-matching imagery to create dynamic aesthetics. He encouraged participants to utilize cultural reflexivity to inform our performances. In urging even further, he suggested that we challenge audience's perceptions of our bodies by creating distortions of pre-existing visual paradigms. This residency offered me tools to continue to explore new performance possibilities; the psychic and the visceral being most principal among them.


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