Reading Response – Fusco “The Other History”

*Posted on behalf of Esmaa

In the text The Other History of Intercultural Performance, author Coco Fusco investigates the history of public performance in relation to her collaborative performance, with artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena. This collaboration involved both Fusco and Gomez-Pena performing the role of noble savages inside of a golden cage. Fusco reflects upon her original intent, the audience’s reactions, the outcomes, and her afterthought throughout the text. Fusco claims their initial intent was to produce a satirical commentary on Western understandings of the exotic, primitive Other. She notes that while producing this performance, they were challenged with two unanticipated issues. The first issue, was that a considerable amount of the public believed that their fictitious identities were their real ones. The second issue, was that a considerable number of artists, intellectuals, and cultural bureaucrats tried to divert attention from the substance of their experiment to the “moral implication” of them misinforming the public of who they really are. Fusco states further, that one of the underlying purposes of this experiment was to investigate the boundaries of the “happy multiculturalism” which she believes prevails in cultural institutions. (145) Additionally, they wanted to “respond to the formalist and cultural relativists who reject the proposition that racial difference is absolutely fundamental to aesthetic interpretation.” (145) Fusco illustrates that the original execution of the work involved living in a golden cage for three days, posing as undiscovered Amerindians from an island in the Gulf of Mexico, which had been disregarded by Europeans for over five centuries. The piece involved performing what they claimed “traditional tasks” ranging from creating voodoo dolls and lifting weights to watching television and working on a laptop. Additionally, Fusco would dance to rap music while Gomez-Pena would tell Amerindian stories to viewers in a fake language.

Fusco contrasts her experience performing as a noble savage, to the experiences of people throughout history who have been put on display because of their difference, otherness, or indigenousness. She makes note of Western’s obsession with Otherness, as she explains that their performance focused on the “zero degree” of intercultural relations to try to distinguish a point of origin for the discourse that connects “discovery” and “Otherness.” Fusco states, “we worked within disciplines that blur distinctions between the art object and the body (performance), between fantasy and reality (live spectacle), and between history and dramatic reenactment (the diorama).” (148) I believe this performance was important because although it was interactive within the public, it focused more on how people interacted with the so called savages, than what the savages did in the cage. I think Fusco and Gomez-Pena made great use of the public sphere. Moreover, I think this is important to think about in relation to discourses surrounding Otherness and difference. What I found to be most provoking about the work, was the intention of Fusco and Gomez-Pena, who claimed they wanted to produce a shocking encounter. This encounter involved audiences having to self-reflect in response to what they were seeing, assisted by written information and informative zoo guards. I believe the process of self-reflection is extremely important in relation to issues of difference. I would like the class discussion to focus on whether or not Fusco and Gomez-Pena were successful in producing a productive discourse surrounding the question of Otherness.

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