For a moment, it was hard to distinguish reality from performance.
Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Michèle Ceballos Michot walk through a door in a wall of windows and onto a concrete porch at the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership. Gómez-Peña lights a cigarette. Michot lifts a pickaxe and places the handle behind her neck, begins a series of stretches, then eases the pick down her neck, the point of it pressing a line into her skin.
It turns out it was just a pre-performance warm-up. But with an international reputation for performance art that precedes them both by miles, it’s easy to believe otherwise – or at least want to. A short while later, the plenary “Art and Borders,” began, one of several sessions on the first full day of the “With/Out Borders” conference hosted by the Arcus Center.
Michot begins a dance routine, a stand of tall trees glowing in afternoon sunlight framed in the glass wall behind her. She powders herself, then grabs a handful of powder and lets it sift through her fingers and into her mouth. After tip-toeing around the stage area, and sprawling out on her stomach, gasping, she enters the crowd, climbing over chairs and falling into the arms of a man whose face turns pink with blushing, places her behind in another man’s lap, reaching down to pick up his Starbucks drink, and takes a sip.
No one is off limits. All of the 100 or so in attendance are living props, it seems, characters in this improvised dance. There are no borders.
Meanwhile, Gómez-Peña, dressed in all black, eyes behind sunglasses, a black line drawn across his face, reads from a poem, the moving prose deriding the treatment of immigrants (“We shape your desire while we contract our services to postpone the real expulsion”) recognize the borders we put around ourselves (“We are equally scared of one another”) and realize the healing, paradigm shifting, immense power of art to break down those borders (“You just can’t take our art away).”
Later, Gómez-Peña and Adriana Garriga-Lopez, K’s Arcus Center chair and assistant professor of anthropology, participate in a question and answer session, the format of which, again, breaks through the borders of what is considered normal.
Gómez-Peña wears a dog collar attached to a chain that Garriga-Lopez is holding. She queries him on his motivations for performance art and what he hopes it achieves.
“How do you view the body?” Garriga-Lopez asks.
“The performance artist sees the body as a landscape, a map, an architectural artifact, mythological creature, text,” Gómez-Peña says.
“Do you see yourself as a poet, or a dancer, or a performance artist, or an activist? Or are all those things the same thing?” Garriga-Lopez asks.
She tugs at the chain.
“Are you choking me?” Gómez-Peña says. “I am this and that and everything in between.”
“What are you like in your personal life?” Garriga-Lopez asks.
“When I’m on stage, I’m more warrior-like, more Indian shaman, a little more queer, more deliberate and outrageous. And off-stage, I am just another perplexed mediocre human being.”
Perhaps. But like the start of his performance, it’s hard to tell.
Learn more about Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Michèle Ceballos Michot at www.pochanostra.com.