The two co-founding artistic directors of the hugely influential performance collective La Pocha Nostra were artists-in-residence at York University’s fourth annual Summer Institute in Theatre Studies, which ran June 15 to 27.
Guillermo Gómez-Peña, described as “among the most significant of late-20th-century performance artists" by New York City’s Village Voice, and Roberto Sifuentes, professor of performance at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and former artistic director of New York’s Trinity/La MaMa Performing Arts Program, led the intensive workshop.
Right: Guillermo Gómez-Peña
During their residency, they worked with graduate students to develop an original performance which was showcased on Saturday in the Accolade East Building at York’s Keele campus. Gómez-Peña and Sifuentes performed as part of the open public exhibit.
Founded in 1993, La Pocha Nostra is an ever-morphing trans-disciplinary arts organization based in San Francisco, with branches in many other cities and countries. Positioning themselves as collaborators with “rebel artists” around the world, members of La Pocha Nostra seek to erase the “dangerous” borders between art and politics, practice and theory, and art and spectator.
A Spanglish neologism, “pocha nostra” is loosely translated to mean “our impurities” or the “cartel of cultural bastards”. The group describes its installation performances as living museums. The performers decorate themselves as “ethno-cyborgs” that are one-quarter stereotype, one-quarter audience projection, one-quarter esthetic artifact and one-quarter unpredictable personal or social monster. La Pocha Nostra audiences are invited to observe, interact and participate in a wide and wild variety of activities, from dressing and posing the performers like dolls to leashing them like animals or pointing weapons at them.
Left: Robert Sifuentes
“The Summer Institute brings prominent international theatre artists and scholars to campus each year to work with graduate students to give them an intensive experience of applied research and praxis,” said Professor Lisa Wolford Wylam, the director of York’s master’s and doctoral programs in theatre studies. “Given that our theatre studies MA/PhD areas of specialization include post-colonial theatre and performance studies, bringing Pocha Nostra artists made perfect sense. And having had the opportunity to see Gómez-Peña and Sifuentes work with graduate students at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth some years ago, I knew it would be a fabulous experience for our students.”
Wolford Wylam has a long history with the company, including working as a dramaturge and assistant director on La Pocha Nostra shows in the late 1990s and editing the manuscript for Gómez-Peña’s book Dangerous Border Crossers, to which she contributed an interview and an afterword. Wolford Wylam’s Theatre Department colleague Professor Laura Levin is the editor of Conversations Across the Border, a collection of interviews with Gómez-Peña slated for publication by Seagull Press.
Among the many remarkable La Pocha Nostra shows Wolford Wylam has participated in and witnessed as an audience member, The Mexterminator, a piece presented in San Francisco to commemorate the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, stands out in her mind.
“It was a large-scale production, for which they’d transformed an enormous warehouse into a post-apocalyptic environment inhabited by hybrid border creatures. The atmosphere was electric, like a rave, and audience members were completely uninhibited in the ways they interacted with the artists,” she said. “There was even an ‘ethnic makeover booth’ where gallery visitors could transform themselves into a ‘romantic Indian princess’ or a ‘militant Black Panther’ complete with bad afro wig and blackface makeup. And people went for it. I couldn’t believe it, but they went for it without shame or hesitation.”
Left: Lisa Wolford Wylam
Such extreme, experimental and interactive performances have brought the company an international following and made La Pocha Nostra a legendary name in the worlds of performance studies and conceptual art.
The graduate students participating in the Summer Institute come from both the Faculty of Fine Arts and the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. Wolford Wylam gave seminars on Pocha Nostra’s work to prepare them for the artists’ arrival.
While at York, Gómez-Peña and Sifuentes road-tested the final manuscript for their new book Radical Performance Pedagogy: Exercises for Rebel Artists and Border Crossers (forthcoming from Routledge Press in 2011). They led improvisations and exercises with the students that encouraged them to explore their expressivity and develop their own iconic performance personae through physical games and tableaux.
“The students had an amazing time,” said Wolford Wylam. “They hung out with the artists in the evenings and spent the mornings scouring thrift stores for props and costume elements to enhance their adventures in pop culture archeology.”
Previous topics and guests of York’s Summer Institute in Theatre Studies include The Greek Theatre, directed by Regina Kapetankis of the National Theatre of Greece, and Brecht: Theory in Practice with Johanna Schall, a leading German director and granddaughter of Bertolt Brecht, and Politics in Black African Theatre, directed by Nigerian playwright and educator Femi Osofisan.