Theatre gains from representation a sense not available to mere art: A note on Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West

Premiering in 1992 in Minneapolis and thereafter, until 1994, presented in Madrid, London and Washington Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West, a performance by Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña, is theatre gaining from representation something which is not available to mere art. Coco Fusco reflects on the piece’s failure relative to its intention in “The Other History of Intercultural Performance” that the two performers intended “to create a satirical commentary on Western concepts of the exotic, primitive Other” and yet had instead to confront “two unexpected realities in the course of developing this piece: (1) a substantial portion of the public believed that our fictional identities are real ones; and (2) a substantial number of intellectuals, artists, and cultural bureaucrats have sought to deflect attention from the substance of our experiment to the ‘moral implications’ of our dissimulation, or in their words, our ‘misinforming the public’ about who we are.” She continues that the latter reaction to the work bespeaks the investment of those intellectuals, artists, and cultural bureaucrats in “positivist notions of ‘truth’ and depoliticized, ahistorical notions of ‘civilization.'” She offers in the essay a ‘reverse ethnography’ of the performance, insofar as it entailed interactions with the public which, she hopes, will “suggest the culturally specific nature of their tendency toward the literal and moral interpretation,” by inference, the wrong one. [Coco Fusco, “The Other History of Intercultural Performance,” 1993, pp. 266-280 in Re:direction, op. cit., pp. 266-267]

In a golden cage were displayed two natives of Guatinu, an Amerindian island in the Gulf of Mexico overlooked for five centuries. Wearing theatrically over-the-top costumes, Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña, performed tasks traditional for Guatinauis in return for a small fee placed in a donation box at the front of the cage. The female danced, to rap music; the male told folktales, in nonsense language; and together the two posed for photographs with visitors. Their performance also involved the participation of ‘zoo guards’ to whom visitors could speak and questions could be addressed, since the natives did not understand them. The guards’ additional role was to take the Guatinauis to the toilet, on leashes, and feed them, sandwiches and fruit. Fusco writes that at the Whitney Museum in New York sex was added to the spectacle: “a peek at authentic Guatinaui genitals” cost $5.[Ibid., p. 268] The venues for the show included Covent Garden, London, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Minneapolis, the Australian Museum of Natural History in Sydney and the Field Museum of Chicago. The ‘programme’ was on two “didactic” panels: one offered a chronology of the exhibition of non-Western peoples; the other an Encyclopaedia Britannica entry, showing Guatinu’s location in the Gulf of Mexico, on a fake map.

Fusco’s essay focuses on the artists’ intention, placing the performance in the context present, by implication, in the chronology of native exhibitions, and the anthropological assumptions underlying them, as well as drawing out from these ‘general’ assumptions their ethnic and historic specificity. The essay serves this purpose well. Where it falters is at what went wrong, why audiences didn’t get it and why the guardians of public taste criticised the artists for their deceit. In other words, Fusco idealises the work and misses something quite essential, even while stating:

We did not anticipate that our self-conscious commentary on this practice could be believable. We underestimated public faith in museums as bastions of truth […] Consistently from city to city, more than half our of our visitors believed our fiction and thought we were ‘real’ […] [Ibid., p. 274]

What it seems Fusco doesn’t see is her overestimation of the effectiveness of ‘self-conscious commentary’ as a strategy. She doesn’t, it appears, acknowledge that the performance works according to a logic of irony, not of humour: it creates the exclusion by which it suffers. Understanding the work, or not believing in what is seen, two natives in a golden cage, relies on being privy to an intention, an artistic intention as well as a politico-theoretical, or ideological, intention, which is deliberately withheld. Recognition is withheld and the audience in response make their own substitutions and compensations. The absence opened by the canceled untruth, which is intended in criticism of “positivist notions of ‘truth’ and depoliticized, ahistorical notions of ‘civilization'” comes to be filled with the fiction of the Other, however racist and fetishistic, the work was supposed to satirise. This is not a failure of consciousness on the part of the audience but the failure of self-consciousness on the part of the artists. What is in excess of the art, the particular work of art, actually appears in the representation, a supplementary zone of effectiveness, a virtual and theatrical sense that the work cannot arrogate back to itself, from which it can not recuperate as socially and historically aware critique.