In Defense of Extreme Difference: Some Thoughts on Peripheries, Cannibalism, La Pocha Nostra, and the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics’ 8th Encuentro
Last week I had the privilege of attending an artistic/activist/academic conference I didn’t know could exist in the hyper-fragmented world we live in. Unlike most conferences I’ve attended, the Hemispheric Institute’s eight-day smorgasbord here in São Paulo invigorated as much as it exhausted me. Beyond lectures and roundtables, the conference also offered teach-ins and work groups in addition to the intense schedule of the performances themselves. Actually, in my work group we even created our own performances. For me the conference was an experience in “extreme culture”—a term used by Guillermo Gómez-Peña, one of the artists who epitomizes the border-defying, periphery-prizing spirit of the Hemi (as it is affectionately called). I think poets of the Montevidayan variety, in particular, stake a claim in the extremities and peripheries being celebrated at the Hemi Encuentro. It’s one of those art spaces where people constantly use the word “poetics” without ever mentioning poets or poetry.
Maybe &Now would be US poetry’s equivalent to the Hemi Encuentro, except without what I consider to be one of the latter’s extreme aspects: its ambitiously politicized continental scope, as reflected in how much the event tends to provincialize the US. While the talks were translated from or into Portuguese, Spanish, and English, the performances conducted in Portuguese or Spanish were left untranslated. My work group, where I talked about horse bestiality as an expression of gender, was in Portuguese. This marginalization of the lingua franca, I think, partly reflects a commitment to countering US-American hegemony. People at the conference were very conscious about the imposition of the term “performance” as a US-American export.
Yet, I think the inherent radicalness of much contemporary performance art—or arte accíon as some Latin Americans call it—provides organic reasons for the Hemi’s decentering of the US. Such an anti-colonial impulse, I’d argue, is vital to the making of provocative art, or art that resists being boxed in and made legible as mere representation, seeking a process and practice-based disorientation of bodies instead of the identity politics being viciously co-opted by the state/market (see Craig Santos Perez on the White House’s selection of inaugural poet Richard Blanco). This spirit of provocation is what made the Hemi Encuentro encouraging to me as a young poet. At least three of the performances I saw would’ve been prohibited or censored in the US. In the most daring of all, by Gómez-Peña’s collective La Pocha Nostra, a dead goat was suspended in the air, male genitalia was tugged on a chain, a pig’s head was defaced (allowing the face to be worn as a mask), and feathers were carefully stabbed into the veins of a performer’s forehead so that they could swell and bleed. All of this made for a spectacle overloaded with imperialist signifiers, including gun-toting agents and sweeping anthems, as in this earlier version of “Corpo Insurrecto: Psycho-magic Actions for a World Gone Wrong”:
There’s a voracity to La Pocha Nostra that recalls the cannibalist movement of Brazilian modernism and its inspiration in the ritual of the Tupinambá tribe. If anthropophagic modernismo stopped short of the grotesque, however, La Pocha Nostra resituates the body as the medium through which the colonizer’s power is devoured and repurposed. The performance I saw stylized violence much in the way we tend to appreciate on this blog; I was instantly reminded of Johannes and Joyelle’s pageantry and plays. As spectacle rather than critique, “Corpo Insurrecto” amplifies various cultures of violence, bringing them to bear on Latino/a bodies in a kind of post-national feverdream. The group’s website speaks to just how this full-on cannibalization is part and parcel of their visionary politics, creating “a total universe capable of containing our extreme difference.”
How does poetry fit into this intensification of difference? Already relegated to the fringes, poetry is maybe by default primed to dismantle the horrific hierarchies enforced by our species. My favorite poets, past and present, reach beyond human-centeredness as the bedrock of a colonialism whose logics continue to safeguard the reproduction of white, capitalist, heterosexist, able-bodied humanism. If poetry’s obscurity thus nurtures swaths of shadowy space for anti-authoritarianism, today it also shares with performance artists like La Pocha Nostra a susceptibility to wounded, bleeding, dying bodies. Because poetry and performance are as adept as ever at erupting the body as source, they carry out an unwitting assault from the margins, undermining the linearity and classifications of Western thought, generating utopias and dystopias precisely where they can’t be packaged. The (un)death of both forms—the blips they barely make on the cultural radar—feeds their hunger to resurrect and insurrect, to turn the corpse into an art-weapon.
As in Suely Rolnik’s opening lecture at the Hemi Encuentro, here the Tupinambá might again prove instructive as our continental forbearers. Despite the efforts of the Jesuits, the tribe refused to give up cannibalism as a way of incorporating and appropriating their enemies’ strengths. While the tribesman responsible for an enemy’s capture was isolated and prohibited from cannibalism, he too was considered transformed by the ritual, going so far as to changing his own name. By eating and becoming the other, the Tupinambá thus remained loyal to the possibility of an occult, visceral transmission, or a borderless and total rupture of consciousness: they made death, transformation, and rebirth flux through and beyond identity’s grasp, just as art can.