El Mexterminator and Cyber Vato, adorned in chrome leg braces, crampons, and Indian headdresses, don’t stand a chance of getting a table at Balthazar, but that won’t stop them from trying. This Thursday, in the second day of a siege of the sidewalks of New York (which began Tuesday), the two Latino “ethno-cyborgs” will move from the Spring Street bistro to the National Museum of the American Indian to Ellis Island and then to a Chelsea nightclub, hatching guerrilla theater “street interventions” for unsuspecting crowds. At each site, performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña (El Mexterminator) and partner Roberto Sifuentes (Cyber Vato) will strike poses or be led around on leashes by their coconspirator, La Cultural Transvestite (Sara Shelton Mann). The symbolic tableaux vivants “are meant to shatter the sense of the familiar,” says Gómez-Peña, even in New York, the capital of sidewalk intervention.
If the three performers look like a fractured mess of identities and concepts, that’s precisely the point. Gómez-Peña and Sifuentes, in their Mad Mexstyle regalia, are walking flame wars: El Mexterminator and Cyber Vato are actually collaborations with their audience, composites developed from impressions, anxieties, and desires about Chicanos collected for over two years during the duo’s museum performances and, most exhaustively, over the Net at their site, Temple of Confessions. From more than 5000 responses, many overtly sexual or violent (“I love to fuck hot Nogales whores”), Gómez-Peña and Sifuentes have distilled a potent mix of types: gangster (vato), loafer, Catholic acolyte, and sexual conquistador. The particular art of Gómez-Peña, a MacArthur Fellowship winner and NPR contributor, is febrile hybridization, from his rapid-fire, recombinant verbal style to his cultural Frankenstein’s monsters.
Gómez-Peña and Sifuentes will also be on display in “Techno-Museo de Etnografía Interactiva,” at El Museo del Barrio, beginning June 9 (during the Museum Mile Festival), sponsored by the public arts presenter Creative Time. The exhibition–interactive in the old-school, precomputer sense–is Gómez-Peña’s newest phantasmagoria about a second U.S.-Mexican War, set in the near future, “where the Mexicans won, Spanglish is the official language, and a multiracial junta is ruling the U.S.,” says Gómez-Peña. The show features “Mexicanabilia” artifacts from the “conflict”: a mariachi Ken doll, Bart Simpson wearing a serape, NAFTA-label wine bottles, and the bones of anthropologists (“Caucasian anthropologists,” Gómez-Peña adds with a flourish). Gómez-Peña and Sifuentes stand on platforms in “living dioramas” while cheesy Mexican B movies are projected behind them. Audience members are invited to touch, talk to, or manipulate the two characters as they see fit. Viewers are even encouraged to point fake guns at them to “experience shooting at live Mexicans like a super-ranchero Nintendo game,” says Gómez-Peña. “It’s retro sci-fi.”
With all the prefixes sewn into Gómez-Peña’s speech, it can be difficult to figure out just what noun they actually qualify, but the exuberant Gómez-Peña relishes supersaturating ideas with meaning. The “cyber” and “techno” elements are a case in point. Computers are to Gómez-Peña’s work what food is to Karen Finley’s: one of many incendiary elements for electrifying the performance. His ethno-cyborgs fall closer to the kitsch of Toxic Avenger than the machines cooked up by the computer science department at MIT; the moniker is really about pushing people’s buttons. “For us, the great challenge in the beginning was to overcome the mythology that Mexicans were not interested in technology–that they were more ‘manual’ beings like muralists or activists,” says Gómez-Peña. “In our attempt to oppose that mythology, we overtake those personas as ‘webbacks’ ” by venturing onto the Net with the Temple site.
The Net is the logical extension of Gómez-Peña and Sifuentes’s established conduits. Back on Thanksgiving 1994, they convinced regional television stations across the country to air a pseudopirate TV intervention called El Naftazteca. For an hour and a half on over 400 evening news slots, the pair played banditos that had stormed the stations, teaching “Spanish lessons for xenophobic Americans” and demoing “Chicano technology,” such as a “VR bandanna that lets whites experience racism,” recalls Gómez-Peña. Irate and seriously befuddled viewers called in, and the responses were then broadcast live.
But if rattling people is Gómez-Peña’s gift, he’s keenly aware of the need for performance art to move beyond shock value. It’s a result of what he calls the “compassion fatigue” of American audiences. “By 1992 and especially after the quincentennial debates [about] Columbus, there was a big backlash against politically informed art, and it made a lot of radical artists redefine their strategies because audiences were tired,” he says. “The in-your-face performance art was no longer operative, and so [we] started creating a space for ambiguity so that audiences didn’t feel like they were being attacked.”
Driven to keep exposing themselves to new audiences, Gómez-Peña and Sifuentes have turned migratory, staging their work in places as unlikely as Montana and the Deep South.Gómez-Peña hopes that the grab bag of symbols represented in El Mexterminator and Cyber Vato will liberate not only his audiences but himself as an artist, spurring the possibility of a new Chicano aesthetic. “Before, Chicano types were limited to magic realists, revolutionaries, and campesino actors–the menu of options is very reduced and we’re just trying to defy all categories,” he says. “I’m just a professional troublemaker on the road.”
Signal and Noise