Inland Empire: Live Art LA/LA

Astrid Hadad: I Am Made in Mexico, 2018, at the Mayan Theater. Courtesy REDCAT. Photo Vanessa Crocini

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On January 11, Astrid Hadad, a Mexican cabaret performer, entered the stage of the Mayan Theater in downtown Los Angeles, balancing a pole over her shoulders with paper cut-outs of male figures on either end. Her dress looked like an ancient temple, and the faces and contours of the figures echoed the over-the-top décor of the venue, a 1927 movie palace (restored and converted into a nightclub in 1990) with cast concrete reliefs mimicking Mayan glyphs. A versatile cabaret performer, Hadad sang and danced in successive extreme costumes, often with hats that towered several feet over her head, and did bilingual stand-up routines between numbers. “It’s good to be in a country that’s now empire, like Rome, or Aztecs,” Hadad said after her first song. “The Aztecs were the gringo imperialists of their time. . . . In less than two hundred years, they built an empire of exploitation and terror.”

Hadad’s performance was the festive opener for “Live Art LA/LA,” a ten-day series of performances organized by REDCAT for the second edition of Getty Institute’s Pacific Standard Time. Her allusions to empires past and present, in North America and elsewhere, poked at the questions around the slash of “LA/LA,” which the performance festival took from the title of this iteration of PST. One LA is Los Angeles; the other is Latin America. After PST’s first edition in 2011, which focused on the history of contemporary art in Southern California, the doubling of LAs could be seen as a geographic expansion that locates Los Angeles in Latin American territory, or vice versa: the slash as a seam where two worlds touch. Yet at most of the eighty exhibitions produced with support from the Getty Foundation, from “Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas” at the J. Paul Getty Museum to “Below the Underground: Renegade Art and Action in 1990s Mexico” at the Armory Center for the Arts, the focus on remote places and times had a distancing effect: the slash as a dividing line. The here-and-now encounters of “Live Art LA/LA,” like Hadad’s performance, made difference negotiable, offering reminders that boundaries are always shifting.

Like PST itself, “Live Art LA/LA” was organized through an invitation to local institutions that yielded a diverse range of offerings. Many of the works were elaborate, thought-provoking multimedia performances, like Tijuana, presented by Mexican theater company Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol, in which Gabino Rodriguez performed an extended monologue about a man’s social experiment of moving from Mexico City to Tijuana to work at a minimum wage job. Aided by props, projections, and music, Rodriguez sang, pantomimed, and mimicked voices to tell the story and budget details. At the other end of the spectrum were less impressive efforts, like Cuerpos Unidos, a series of unfortunately amateurish interventions in the Laura Aguilar exhibition at the Vincent Price Art Museum.

REDCAT hosted several kinds of events. There was a raucous political cabaret in the lobby by Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani, from Peru. Ligia Lewis’s minor matter (2017) employed colored lights and well-timed blackouts to dramatize the athleticism of the choreography, which had the three dancers scaling the walls and each other’s bodies. The gallery at REDCAT hosted a suite of short pieces scored in New York in the 1970s by Chile-born artist Sylvia Palacios Whitman. Her tightly focused performance actions traced the ephemeral push and pull between materials and space. Whitman, spry at 76, executed several of the maneuvers herself. Wearing a bushy gray tail, she pulled a bubbling teapot of dry ice around on a little wagon. She arranged over a dozen doll-like bundles of newspapers in an arcane pattern. Other pieces—including a hypnotic game of tension and collaboration, like cat’s cradle but with rope instead of string and bodies instead of fingers—were carried out by young apprentices. The highlight of REDCAT’s home program was Durango 66, by Mexican performance group Teatro L ínea de Sombra in a parking garage below the Disney Theater. Construction vehicles moved in a slow circular dance, spreading dirt around the garage’s floor, before a dump truck deposited a mound of dirt on which the performers ritualistically reenacted a 1966 leftist student occupation of a mountain near the city of Durango in northern Mexico. Then the ropes marking the performance area were lifted, and audience members were invited to go further into the garage, where performers told them about the historical context of the piece, including the subsequent suppression of student activism, using dioramas and tabletop installations to illustrate their stories.

The history presented in Durango 66 raised troubling questions about power and violence in the maintenance of the Pax Americana in the Western Hemisphere. It also gave some perspective on the limits of ticketed theater. While PST exhibitions like “Memories of Underdevelopment: Art and the Decolonial Turn in Latin America, 1960-1985” at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the aforementioned “Below the Underground” recalled artists’ participation in mass demonstrations and small-scale public interventions, projects of that sort were (unsurprisingly) absent from the “Live Art LA/LA” program. If the slash in “LA/LA” is a dividing line after all, then for most of the program it maintained the conventional boundary between audience and performer. But a few works extended beyond institutional walls and engaged the texture of the city. Carmina Escobar’s FIESTA PERPETUA! at Echo Park Lake, had the experimental vocalist singing and whooping on a raft on the lake, amplifying her voice with a plywood megaphone whose shape alluded to the sound systems at outdoor dance shells. A forty-piece brass band of youths from an LA Oaxacan community paraded around the lake’s perimeter, weaving around onlookers as an insistent immigrant presence.

Nao Bustamante’s Teach Me Spanish/Enséñame al Español (2017–) is a project involving face-to-face encounters with accidental audiences. Like many second- and third-generation Latin American immigrants, Bustamante feels some embarrassment about not being fluent in Spanish. For this iteration of the project, she set up a booth at Westlake/MacArthur Park Market and invited passersby to make flash cards to teach her new words and help her practice. An aide gathered attention by shouting into the microphone, in Spanish, “What a shame, the poor girl’s mother never taught her Spanish!”—his tone half gossipy grandma, half carnival barker. As a white onlooker with high school Spanish, I didn’t have much to contribute and didn’t hang around long, but it was nonetheless touching to see curious parties approach Bustamante and offer assistance. Issues of audience were also evoked by Opavivará—the Brazilian collective that does performative actions in public spaces—or rather, by my failure to find them. After encountering their work in São Paulo in 2016, I was curious to see what they would do in LA. But the schedule of their appearances came late, and turned out to be unreliable. I’d like to think that this was intentional: a maneuver to evade the professional art audience and ensure that any encounters with the work were fresh and unexpected. If that’s the case, then I imagine that those events, like Bustamante’s appearance in the park, offered an opportunity to experience and reconsider the relationship between Los Angeles and Latin America in real time—to see the slash in LA/LA as a way to measure and weigh one against the other, to balance points of perspective in the present.