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"Gomez-Pena, you are trapped in between the currents of the global and the concrete. Make up your mind!"
(Soundbed by Tha Mexakinz, scratched & mixed with 1950s boleros)
In the last three years of the 20th century I stopped writing essays altogether. I concentrated mainly on performance and film scripts, spoken word poetry, and chronicles of my performance adventures. Why? The formidable changes generated by the cult of globalization and virtual capitalism created an unprecedented philosophical vertigo in me and my Chicano flota. This condition worsened due to the sudden socialization of digital technologies and the backlash against humanistic concerns and identity politics. We were entering a new, terrifying era. All our ideological parameters and political certainties were crisscrossing under our feet. Suddenly, binary models of understanding the world were no longer functional--us/them, right/wrong, progressive/reactionary, local/global, Third World/First World, alternative/mainstream, center/periphery, etc.--were constantly shifting fault lines in an ever-fluctuating landscape. It felt as if we were drunk in the middle of an extremely long 8.5 earthquake. For a few years, all we could do was mumble in our existential drunken stupor, and clumsily express our inability to assume simplistic positionalities or to unconditionally embrace a cause. All we could do was raise questions, myriad impertinent questions.
I must say that at least our skepticism was proactive, almost militant. As Chicanos, we had no delusions about one day becoming part of the new virtual capitalist project. As politicized artists, neither suicide nor taking up arms were viable options for us. What we did instead was to immerse ourselves in the epicenter of the millennial earthquake, in hopes of understanding its causes and nature through direct artistic praxis. This bipolar condition of ranchero nihilism and proactive humanism became the very substance of our performance work. We performed constantly and everywhere we could: from the streets to chic museums, from community centers to international festivals. The stage became both the ultimate battlefield and the ground zero of the search for clarity.
To complicate things even more, the alternative art world, our main base of operations and transgressions, was crumbling all around us due to funding cuts and rampant gentrification engendered by the virtual "gold rush." Our desperate colleagues, especially those not protected by academia or an established position in the commercial art world, were trying to figure out ways to reinvent themselves and cross over with dignity into other realms: film, TV, publicity, computer design, digital arts, the new global art world, you name it. Some did. Others were lucky to still find a place in the overpopulated and highly competitive realm of academia. Many others gave up.
During those trepidatious years (1996-1999), my close collaborators and I undertook various "crossover" adventures with different degrees of success. We created a "lowrider/Spanglish" opera; participated in some experiments for cable TV, staged populist performance extravaganzas camouflaged as "ethno-techno raves," and "political peep shows" and designed a couple of performative Websites. I also decided to return to radio journalism, this time as commentator for All Things Considered (NPR). Why did we go through all this trouble? We had no other option. We were definitely not willing to accept the omnipresent lethargy, much less sing along with the hip new dot.com mantra. We wanted to force ourselves to be "present" at the crossroads of change (what a corny term, que no?) as cultural witnesses and social actors, to literally walk on the debris of the world as it crumbled in front of and around us. Luckily, this "presence" kept us both politicized and outraged.
Now the waters seem to be settling down a bit, just a bit, and I am coming out of my perplexity. As the year 2000 unfolds, I have decided to begin writing a hybrid text (part essay, part chronicle, and part performance text) on the new "global" culture, and what I perceive to be its main risks and contradictions, artistic and pop cultural products, major philosophical trends and political dilemmas. Hopefully, my bifocal perspective as a border artist (with one foot on the benign side of globalization and another on the dark side) will make this text interesting enough to my colleagues in the U.S. Since they have been exposed much longer to the effects of savage capitalism and new technologies, they are culturally better equipped than my Mexican carnales to deal with the profound paradigm shift. However, they seem a bit more spiritually and politically lost.
Inevitably, I am prone to miss the target here and there. As a performance exercise, I am attempting to observe a new world with new eyes, as if my motorboat were reaching the shore of the mainland for the first time--not because I feel like a macho explorer on assignment for the Discovery Channel, but instead because I feel like the survivor of a shipwreck. Besides, I have finally accepted my condition as an orphan of globalization, and it is from this new position that I must speak, write, and perform.
As I embark on this conceptual journey, I haven't the least idea where it will take me or when exactly it will end. All I know is that I am willing to walk alone in the spooky forest of millennial nihilism in the hope of finding some clarity at the end, even if this clarity ends up blinding me. I am sure that in this journey I will come across many distorted images of myself, projections perhaps of what I wish I could understand. And that's also fine, for I am unapologetically assuming the contradictory voice of an artist/theoretician, and while writing this text I will exercise the same intellectual freedoms that my radical performance work has granted me. To finish this introduction I must say that I will try very hard to not pass judgment on what I see, as much as this is possible for a politicized performance artist who for 20 years has been an active member of a culture of resistance (Chicanismo), and whose identity, heart, and liver are as bruised as mine for dancing in the trenches of the cultural wars.
Track #1: The Dark Side of Globalization
(Soundbed by DJ Dara, sampling mariachi musak, '80s Banghra, and Rai)
Originally drafted in the late '80s, Phase One of the much-touted project of globalization has now been thoroughly completed: macro-economic communities such as the European Union and NAFTA have replaced the "dated" functions of the nation state. Politicians are now "trading partners," and their religious dictum is called transnational "free trade" ("free" meaning that it benefits only those who have the power to determine its terms). The "information superhighway," the Internet, e-commerce, cable TV, and "smart" tourism have ideologically narrowed the world and the word. Effectively, "the world" is now "at our fingertips," or at least that's how we're invited to (mis)perceive it so long as we are members of that elite micro-minority which stands on the benign side of globalization. The dark side of this project, however, is implacable. Entire Third World countries have become sweatshops, quaint bordellos, and entertainment parks for the First World; and for the inhabitants of the Southern Hemisphere the only options for participation in the "global" economy are as passive consumers of "global" trash, or providers of cheap labor or materia prima. Those excluded from these "options" are forced to become part of a transnational economy of crime (sex, drug and organs trafficking, child labor, kidnappings, fayuca [smuggled goods], etc.). Many will cross the border North in search of the source of the rainbow, only to find racial hatred and inhumane working conditions.
Now that humanistic concerns are perceived as passe, U.S., European, and Asian corporations and governments are no longer accountable to anyone. The "global" goal is to add several zeros to their accounts by simply pressing a button. It is savage capitalism at its most efficient and diabolical: virtual operators discreetly trading capital, products, weapons, and hollow dreams; and starving or killing their inconsequential victims in the ether of virtual space, a parallel "world" devoid of ethical or ideological implications, of tears and blood. It's economic-darwinism.com. Only the digitally fit will survive. In this virtual panorama, the plight of the victims--whether the newly arrived immigrants and the homeless of the U.S., the embasucados of Colombia, or the starving children of Africa--is a mere nuisance. Delete. As the new American law states, "one strike and you're out." Delete. Compassion and philanthropy aren't part of the "global" agenda. In fact, governments and corporations (increasingly more intertwined with and indistinguishable from one another) have effectively designed a high-tech prison industrial complex to keep the excluded from bothering us and at the same time to make money off of them. In the U.S., not coincidentally, the prison population is disproportionately black and Latino. This mega-industry has an intricately symbiotic relationship with other equally macabre "industries" such as law enforcement, the border patrol, gun manufacturers, the courts, and of course, the media, where "bad guys," cops, lawyers, and judges all get to have their own TV shows and entertain America.
New subtle forms of "ethnic cleansing" are yet to be baptized. The "cyber gold rush" has displaced entire communities in the main U.S. cities. These communities happen to be the most disenfranchised, fragile, and ethnically "different," meaning those existing south of the much-touted "digital divide." Entire blocks are seized by real estate corporations, rents skyrocket overnight, and immigrant families, working-class people of color, street eccentrics, and artists are forced out …