UC Santa Barbara -- May 5, 2003
I'd like to thank Michelle Habell-Pallan for inviting me to speak at UC Santa Barbara today. I'd also like to thank Toni Orozco for giving me the opportunity to address this class.
After I had agreed to do this Michelle emailed me a list of really tough questions having to do with Chicano art and music and difficult theoretical questions she thought I might address. Is there such a thing as a Chicana/o aesthetic? Could I define it?
When I began to consider whether there was something that could be called a Chicano aesthetic, I began to go over the things in my mind I recognized as undoubtedly Chicana/o in nature. I thought of the art of Los Four, Gilbert Lujan, Carlos Almaraz, Frank Romero and Gilbert de la Rocha -- whose son Zack became a founder of "Rage Against the Machine."
I also thought of the many Chicana artists all over Aztlan whose work I know and cherish like Yreina Cervantez, Carmen Lomas Garza, Linda Gamboa and Patssi Valdez.
I thought of musicians like Carlos Santana, Los Lobos and Quetzal and the legendary Lalo Guerrero with whom I had the great honor of traveling to Paris in 1998 to document a concert.
I thought of San Juan Bautista and the Teatro Campesino, the Royal Chicano Air Force and Culture Clash. I even thought of the group I belonged to and toured with from 1982-1984, ASCO. After considering all of these contributions to the history of Chicano art and culture I still felt as if something was missing.
So is there a Chicana/o aesthetic? I don't know, you tell me.
What about Gerardo Velazquez and his band? In 1981 Gerardo was majoring in physics at Cal State LA and was also the leader of the band "Nervous Gender." They were a synth punk noise band with nazi imagery and a lot of anger. Is that Chicano music?
In 1979 Joey Arias the drag performer from NY appeared as backup singer alongside Klaus Nomi on Saturday Night Live with David Bowie. He went to Cathedral High School just northeast of downtown LA. Is his drag show Chicano performance art?
What about the Plugz whose alternately speeded up and slowed down version of La Bamba takes the Mexican standard to new heights of teen angst and rocker rebellion?
Raphael Ortiz, the piano smasher, founded El Museo del Barrio in 1969 that continues to this day. He is of Puerto Rican descent. Does that mean he is not allowed to participate in Chicano themed exhibitions?
Rudy Perez' ethnic identity is such a non-issue that when researching this lecture I was unable to discover his ethnic background. That pleased me no end. I was thrilled.
Once you begin to define people by race you have opened a Pandora's Box. It is the stickiest of wickets and fraught with possibilities for misunderstanding and worse. Identity politics is for bureaucrats and census takers not artists.
In 1980 Willie Herrón and Joe Suquette opened a punk club at Self-Help Graphics and Art on the former Brooklyn Avenue in East LA. Every other week the second floor hall normally rented for weddings and quinceañeras became the VEX. The opening of the club signaled a new era in Los Angeles music and an even greater, more symbolic era in cultural relations.
With Chicano musicians from East LA already an integral part of the burgeoning punk scene, once the VEX opened, musicians from all over the city came to East LA to play as well. The circle was complete. With the imprimatur of Sister Karen Boccalero, Willie and Joe had done what no one since has been able to do. They seamlessly integrated Chicano and the larger, more public culture, with utter simplicity and ease.
My theory for the secret of their success is simple. Race doesn't matter. If you are a punk musician you need a punk band and a punk band needs a punk club. Willie and Joe were there to fill that void. Art and Commerce have a natural symbiotic as well as antagonistic relationship but in the end it all works out when the artists are left to create at will.
I began to consider the artists that I personally admired. The artists whose work had changed my life or my mind or maybe just my mood; but had done it in a profound and important way.
At the top of that list are people like Alice Armendariz and Maceo Hernandez. I first met Alice Armendariz in the ninth grade. I attended Bishop John J. Cantwell High School in Montebello, California. In order to complete the requirements I needed to take a language and I chose French. There were only a few others interested in French at my all-boys school and the class at the all-girls school across the street was not yet full either. The administration decided that it would be more efficient to combine the French classes into one. So, in collaboration with the all-girls school across the street, (Catholics believe in convenient segregation) I walked the short distance to Sacred Heart of Mary to study French.
I must admit I remember nearly every word of French and almost nothing of the other students, save for one. One stood out from the others. She wore short skirts (uniform plaid) and Elton John sunglasses, lots of makeup and danced around whenever she felt like it. She wrote me notes about clubs in Hollywood that even admitted gays! Can you believe it? She opened my mind to a world outside of East LA and Montebello, California. Her name was Alice and she was exciting and fun and creative.
In contrast, I spent most of my time trying not to get beat up. She was older than I was and taller too, especially in six inch platform tennis shoes. After two years she graduated. French was cancelled the following year for lack of students.
Two years later, after meeting Therese Covarrubias and embarking upon a journey of debauchery and mayhem from which I am still recovering, I was reading a magazine called "Punk Rock Stars." Inside was a photo that caught my eye. Sprawled on the hood of a car in the Licorice Pizza parking lot on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California was Alice Armendariz dressed in black lingerie; it seemed shocking at the time, but shortly after, both Cyndi Lauper and Madonna would make underwear as outerwear commonplace. Alice was already setting the trends that trendsetters would follow.
Now her name was Alice Bag and she was the lead singer of a punk band called "The Bags." We saw them often and faithfully like good punk fans should. They wrote songs that were political and catchy. They received airplay on a fledgling new radio station called KROQ that was both AM and FM so we could listen to Alice as we drove around Hollywood in Therese's yellow 1971 Pinto. Their hit single was "Survive" and we did. I think the flip side was "We Don't Need the English" and we didn't.
The soundtrack of my youth was a mixture of American and English Punk Rock and music played on the radio, sold in stores and featured in magazines by people I went to school with. With today's tightly controlled media distribution systems it is hard to imagine the person sitting next to you making a record today and having it at Tower Records tomorrow but that is what it was like.
Punk was ours. It was Alice's and Therese's and mine. We owned it. People paid money to go to clubs to hear Alice and Theresa sing. They wrote about them in magazines from Paris to Pacoima.
Soon Therese joined a band called "The Brat" and they played gigs in the same clubs as "Blondie" and the "Ramones." They opened for the "Gears" and "X" and, yes, even "Adam Ant." They recorded an EP and it was played on KROQ and they were on Rodney on the ROQ on Sunday night. In my wildest dreams I never imagined that young people from the lower economic stratum of the city would ever be heard on the most cutting edge radio station in town; and not just any city, Los Angeles, California. Pardon me, La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula, as it was originally known.
East LA has been maligned by the media so often, even I forget how great it is. But at that time and in that place I felt like a part of the city I was born in. I believed in its promise and I held true to the belief that we could participate in its culture. We could contribute and we could be recognized for our achievements on any playing field. No handicaps, no side entrances, no compromises. But history is brutal to youth.
Maceo Hernandez was born and raised in East LA. He first learned the art of Taiko, a type of Japanese drumming, in the Buddhist Temples of Los Angeles. There he was discovered by the world famous Ondekoza Taiko School of Japan. When he was fourteen he asked his mother Barbara for permission to go Japan to study with the internationally known Taiko academy there. He left everything and everyone he knew to go to another country thousands of miles away and follow his calling, and his calling was Taiko.
The Ondekoza School is well known and recognized as one of the best in the world and little Maceo Hernandez from East Los Angeles, California was the only non-Japanese student there. He mastered the instrument and is recognized as a star Taiko drummer to this day. Eventually he moved back to Los Angeles; his contributions to Taiko are lasting and sincere.
In Japanese culture the older one is, the more one is revered. In addition the artist is at the top of a long column of vertical social organization. That is why Geishas are such a dichotomy. Are they courtesans or consummate artists? They need to be skilled in poetry, music, singing and conversation. So in Japanese culture, if an artist is at the top of the social organization, then an older artist is in an even smaller, more elite group. Unfortunately Japanese culture is also very male oriented so it is harder for a Japanese woman to break out of that mold. The yoke of prevailing attitudes is heavy. But I have always believed that the best parts of life come out of nowhere, hit you by surprise and leave like the wind. You have to be open to those moments. Soon you will begin to realize that life can be magic because art is magic.
I had the opportunity once to experience what it felt like to be a Japanese Living National Treasure, just for a moment. I used to have a coffeehouse in downtown LA called Troy Café and we were always doing shows of one kind or another. Across the street on San Pedro was the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. My good friend and co-conspirator Ginger Holguin was the director of the theater there. So when we needed something portable like a light or an extension cord, some speakers, a riser, or a full set borrowed from a play, she was more than happy to oblige. They were always returned just in time to be used for the purpose for which they were originally intended.
One Friday night I needed a riser which is essentially a long box made of plywood and painted black for people to stand on to be a little higher that the rest. Like the back row of a choir. So when I was returning it on Saturday afternoon I entered as I always did through the artist's entrance that led directly to the backstage area. I carried it over my shoulder, so my visibility was limited, but I walked carefully and took my time. There was some activity in the area backstage and I saw several people made up in elaborate Japanese kabuki type make-up.
I thought I had better slip in and out as quietly as possible so I decided to ignore them and figured they would probably ignore me. Sort of like, I'm just a worker, nothing to see here, folks. But as I entered the backstage area I noticed that all activity came to a standstill. As I moved through the room they stopped their conversations and what they were doing and stood up. Men and women alike turned towards me and began to bow. I had never been to Japan at that time so I figured shite, now I have to bow. But I've got this huge thing over my shoulder can't they see that? What silly people these Japanese are. I've got a huge black box on my shoulder eight feet long, ten inches high and twelve inches wide.
Why are they making me do this? Don't they know I have a café to run? And then as I was about to spin around and put it down and start bowing I noticed they were also looking at something behind me. I passed through the room and when I had arrived at a safe place I put the riser down and looked behind me. An old man had quietly followed me through the door. I said to Ginger, "Who is that?" She said "shhhhh" and she herself turned and bowed. I thought, "Oh my gawd not Ginger too!"
Then she took me aside and explained that he was one of the few "Living National Treasures" of the Kabuki in Japan. So revered was his position in the theater and in society that people stand in hushed silence as he passes through a room even thousands of miles from Tokyo. So I said thanks for the lesson in cultural diplomacy and headed back to Troy. I had a café to run.
The stage at Troy saw many performers from "Las Tres" to "CHOLITA!" from "Culture Clash" to "Calvin Johnson" and one of the most important people ever to grace the stage was my late father-in-law Al Hansen. In 1976 he moved from Europe to Los Angeles to live for several years, with his daughter, my future wife Bibbe Hansen. Soon after arriving he met Brendan Mullen of the soon-to-be Masque and he also met a group of artists he admired greatly called ASCO.
He told his daughter about them and she promptly filed that information away like she always does for retrieval at some later date. You tell me something and it's forgotten. I always thought that I would make a great spy because I couldn't tell the enemy anything. I don't remember anything. On the other hand if they believe in coercive methods of interrogation I could be in big trouble because I really don't remember anything.
After returning to Europe, Al visited California in 1994 to meet his new great-grandson Aubrey in San Francisco. He lectured at San Francisco Art Institute at the invitation of Tony Labat (a great professor) and he appeared at Café Troy in a few performances that he had premiered in Italy and Germany at several European performance festivals.
Al and I used to spend hours talking about art. He knew my history and I was learning his. He was always about inclusion when it came to artists. He liked to throw the doors wide open. He was always fighting for the inclusion of women in art events and was always the first to notice the lack of women. Part of me thinks it was because he loved women so much and he loved being around them but I also sincerely believe he was a feminist and his life and work proved this many times over.
There are milestones in any history like 9/11. Art history has its own milestones. Some we recognize immediately but others we realize were defining moments later on. The Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich was one such milestone. A group of artists including Tristan Tzara, Emmy Hennings and Hugo Ball came together and laid the foundations of Performance Art. They dressed in funny costumes made of paper and read poems made of sounds like this,
If it sounds familiar that's because David Byrne of the Talking Heads used those very words known as a "sound poem" as the lyrics to the song "I Zimbra" on the album "Fear of Music." When the album debuted in 1979 the reviewer in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner was so uninformed he stated that the lyrics were probably some obscure African dialect. Sitting there in East LA I was proud to know the true origin of the lyrics and grateful to the celebrated East LA artist Gronk.
Gronk introduced me to the sound poetry of Hugo Ball when he showed me a book called "Dada" by Robert Motherwell. It changed my life and remains an influence to this day. For a couple of years I spent a lot of time with Gronk we went to the movies three or four times a week. We saw hundreds of films together. I don't think any other man on the planet has spent more time in a darkened room with him and not had sex. But who knows?
The first movie we saw together was a double bill of two films by the often-overlooked Marco Ferreri titled "La Grand Bouffe" and "The Ape Woman." "The Ape Woman" starred Annie Girardot and Ugo Tognazzi and is about a beautiful French lady who one day starts to grow hair all over her body. There began my fascination with European cinema. I bet you thought I was going to say hairy women.
Another one of my favorite directors is the late Jacques Demy. His "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" is his most famous work but I have a special place for "Desmoiselles de Rochefort."
Jacques Demy was married to Agnes Varda another of the great European New Wave film directors. One day Gronk said to me, "They are making a movie about East LA Murals and they are going to follow Willie and me."
I said, "Great who is the director?" and he said "Agnes Varda." You can imagine how thrilled Gronk was, how snooty he became and how honored I felt knowing that Agnes Varda's cameras would be rolling in my little corner of the world. The film was released in 1980 and is called Murs Murs which means Walls Walls. Try to see it if you get a chance, but don't look for it at Plaza de la Raza. Maybe one of you will sponsor a Varda retrospective here at UCSB and she could come and speak about her work, her time in East LA and her late husband. I don't think she would mind, after all it is up to us to continue the work for those that are not here anymore but whose contributions are valuable and important.
Sometimes great artists, like great works of art, are not recognized in their day. But this should never preclude you from conceiving, making or appreciating the work whether it is a poem or a song or a book or a movie. The one thing that the punk aesthetic shared across all continents was what has become known as DIY or do-it-yourself.
The DIY aesthetic states simply, don't wait for anyone else to give you permission to do something just do it. I wish I could say that without everyone thinking "swoosh" but I'll debunk the great swoosh in another lecture. For now your feet are safe or in peril depending on how you look at it. DIY has come to symbolize music created outside the boundaries of large multinational corporations. (DIY aesthetic: Art isn't just for rich kids. Beck producing and selling his own 4-track tapes, Al making collages out of cigarette butts and candy wrappers)
So, this guy goes around painting stuff and acting kinda weird. He has some friends who are painters and they exchange artworks the way artists often do. But he doesn't sell much. He falls in love with a prostitute eats some paint out of the tube, cuts off his ear and finally shoots himself in the stomach when he can't bear the pain anymore. This is ironic because shooting yourself in the stomach is a very slow and painful way to die but two days later he does. In his lifetime he sold only one painting for the equivalent of about sixty dollars. Exactly one hundred years later Vincent Van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" comes up at auction and guess what? The hammer falls at seventy-nine million dollars. His contemporaries failed to recognize a brilliant artist in their midst. The paintings were in galleries. They were for sale. It wasn't like he lived in a cave.
Some people confuse an angry attitude or limited production values with DIY. You could have piles of money and say to yourself, "I want to make a feature film in 35mm with unknown actors in a completely new style." Very much like Jean Luc Godard, Louis Malle or Spike Jonze whose wife Sofia Coppola illustrated the cover of a book called "Broken Poems" by Mark Gonzales, skater, actor and businessman.
Mark Gonzalez and his friends Ron Chapman, Jason Lee and Rudy Johnson used to come by Troy Café late at night. Their pal Spike Jonze was usually with them videotaping their every move.
One night after I had closed and everyone was gone Mark came by and sat down as I walked around cleaning up and doing the dishes. Sometimes he would talk, sometimes he would just sit. After a long silence during which he sat staring at the stage he asked if it was okay if he skated on the stage. I said, "Sure but you know it's not very big." He shrugged and went to his car. When he returned he had two skateboards. He cleared the stage of amps and guitars and whatever else we had lying around. Then he proceeded to place one skateboard under each foot and then tilted them both so that only one set of wheels was on the ground. Like two big wings on his feet the boards were high in the air and on each board his foot rested easily and without reserve.
Then he began doing a weird dance which I have never seen anyone ever do before or since. He moved gracefully about the stage with a skateboard under each foot and controlled his movements like a ballet dancer. There was nothing jerky or unconscious about it. It was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen. In my mind he entered the pantheon between Nijinsky and Twyla Tharp right next to Rudy Perez.
I remember seeing a Rudy Perez performance where two people with leaf blowers pushed a beach ball around a stage. It was an amazing sight and I'm so glad it was called a dance recital. It completely opened my mind to what dance could be. Years later when my son Beck was videotaped using a leaf blower on stage, I thought that perhaps it was his unspoken homage to Rudy Perez.
Robin Page is associated with Fluxus and Happenings in Europe. In spite of teaching at the Munich Art Academy for over a decade, he has almost been completely written out of Fluxus and Happenings in the US. We'll have to wait for his students to make their mark. A mark is a symbolic event like a milestone. That brings us back to another little known milestone, the Destruction in Art Symposium in London in 1966.
Many people from all over the world traveled to London to break things including Hermann Nitsch, Robin Page, Al Hansen and Yoko Ono. Isn't that amazing? I love smashing things up. In the name of art, what could be better? Musicians love to smash things up, but Pete Townshend of The Who was the first to incorporate it into his act. Like many other rock musicians-Brian Eno, David Byrne, Keith Richards--Pete attended art school, but not too many people know that one of Pete's teachers was Robin Page.
One of the London Destruction In Art Symposium participants from New York was Raphael Ortiz. Raphael was known for taking a sledgehammer to perfectly good pianos. His many performances over the years have impressed audiences the world over including myself. But unfortunately Raphael Ortiz is almost never mentioned in art history classes today and yet the music of the Who, the Destruction in Art Symposium, punk rock and Raphael Ortiz are all linked.
1914 - Duchamp bottle rack
1916 - Dada - In an effort to express their rejection of all aesthetic and social values, the Dada artists often used artistic and literary techniques that were deliberately incomprehensible. They used novel materials like discarded objects found in the streets, and tried methods like tossing dice or flipping coins to determine the outcome of their work. Their theatrical performances were intended to shock the spectators into re-evaluating their current aesthetic values. (Dada 1998 Richter wrote, "Dada not only had no programme, it was against all programmes. Dada's only program was to have no programme and at that moment in history, it was just this that gave the movement its explosive power to unfold in all directions, free of aesthetic or social constraint" (34). And explode and unfold it did, all over Europe and across the Atlantic. (Lenin lived on the same block - Spiegelgasse but Cabaret Voltaire was shut down by the cops all the time like a punk club.)
1916 - Hugo Ball in costume "What we call Dada is foolery, foolery extracted from the emptiness in which all the higher problems are wrapped, a gladiator's gesture, a game played with shabby remnants a public execution of false morality.' (Ball)"
1925 - The Ursonate Dada filled its statements with incoherence because they believed that life itself is incoherent, and played havoc with art because so-called art lovers had lost the concept of art as a game.
1952 - John Cage composes 4' 33
1957 - Cage class - Dick Higgins, Al Hansen, Allan Kaprow, George Brecht, Jackson MacLow and Steve Addis. Visitors to the class were: Chris Wolf, Dick Maxfield, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine.
1958 - Happenings (Fluxus artists make art from picnic garbage, play soccer on stilts, and create a musical score with a toy gun)
1962 - Warhol exhibits portraits of soup cans
1966 - At London's Destruction in Art Symposium, Yoko Ono performs Cut Piece, inviting spectators to cut her clothing off.
1967: Charlotte Moorman is convicted of indecent exposure for playing the cello topless during a performance of Nam June Paik's Opera Sextronique.
1972 - ASCO - LACMA in a political statement
1977 - Sex Pistols, Dada's negation passes into pop.
Now I'd like to play a couple of short cuts from songs that I've made reference to today. The first is La Bamba by the Plugz.
And then I will play a little bit of the performance that caused the most controversy during my tenure at Troy Café - "Chinga Tu Madre" by CHOLITA!
Now I know the question you are all wondering, I wonder what he dreams?
Well, even if you weren't wondering, I will tell you. I dream of the day that Chicano artists are in every field and every medium, music and art and theater and opera and not a single one is identified as a Chicano artist but merely a master.
I dream of the day when classes like this are filled with people of different ethnic backgrounds, the pioneers of a new understanding of culture.
I dream of the day when our accomplishments are bigger than we are and the need for ancient symbols like corn and cactus are behind us and we can fully embrace our experience as a true hybrid of two cultures the European and the Indígena.
And on soft summer days in Hollenbeck Park I sit by the lake and imagine the day when Maceo Hernandez walks into the room and we all rise, turn toward him and bow.
Thank You. It was a pleasure to be here.