Week 1

Think about N’gugi Wa Thiong’o’s assertion that the invisible is often made visible through performance.  Using specific examples from the film Couple In A Cage, reflect upon one or two theatrical elements that Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Coco Fusco employ to show how colonialism, as a system of domination, depends on performance to sustain it.  

Couple in A Cage shows how art can challenge assumptions and reveal people’s true selves in a matter of seconds. Both Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Peña’s use of traditional indigenous symbols alongside modern ones and the role of the “guards” help to illuminate the performance aspects of colonialism.

Firstly, the use of traditional symbols mixed with modern ones. Fusco and Gomez-Peña dressed in traditional indigenous outfits, but with modern additions. Both actors wore modern shoes (Fusco wore Converse, a recognizable brand, and Gomez-Peña’s shoes were nondescript, though modern) and sunglasses. Fusco also wore a modern baseball cap sideways, which also served the purpose of disguising her wig. And much of the spectacle surrounding the actors was due to the juxtaposition of two people in “barbarian” outfits–headdresses, grass skirts, chest plates, shell beads, and animal skins–interacting with items from a “civilized” world: table settings, a television, and a boombox. This interaction produced a performance of modern activities with pre-modern people, an entertaining sight for many of the patrons. It felt as if the modern symbols cheapened the traditional ones, to the point where the audience felt comfortable observing, reacting, and dehumanizing the people wearing them.

But more importantly, having the two “guards” beside the cage really enforced the point of Fusco and Gomez-Peña’s piece. As the liaison between the “Guatinauis” and the “civilized” audience, they set the tone for the types of interactions the audience felt were appropriate. Most likely, if the guards were not present, the audience would not feel comfortable with the piece. But since people of assumed authority acted normal, so did the patrons. In fact, the guards’ enthusiasm for the whole event led many attendees to question whether the guards were the artists behind the project, rather than Fusco and Gomez-Peña. This trust and deference to the guards makes Gomez-Peña and Fusco’s final image much more striking: when the Guatinauis lead the guards away on chains, the power relations are reversed. The audience is left in confusion, causing them to question the performance, the performers, and the nature of their interactions with it.

One thought on “Week 1

  1. Hi Allie,

    There are two (and maybe more) theatrical devices here you point out which undermine the stated premise of the piece and allow viewers to understand it as critique and satire. The anachronisms that belie the story of an “untouched” people who agree to be exhibited are everywhere are very apparent and contest the logic of the narrative. But because the framing devices (the cage, the natural history museum which was invented to possess and exhibit the lives of “primitives” in order to affirm colonial domination of other lands) are both familiar and alienating, we give over to that authority even when we can plainly view contradictions.

    The role of the “guide” which will come up again and again during this class, is also a powerful theatrical device. A guide who is assumed to be in the employ of an institution is given a great deal of consideration, for he or she frames our experience and literally moves us through what we see as she or her narrates our experience. There are markers we use to trust the guide’s reliability, and we trust that the narrative she or he contributes to is objective and in our best interests. Again, you are right – the moment that the roles are reversed at the end, this point is enacted rather than told to us — and it is disturbing because it undermines our trust and contradicts the roles of the institution. It also questions just who is being put on exhibition. And as we see from the documentary, the way in which these conditions allow forms of spectatorship to be viewed again undermines the power of the colonial spectatorial gaze that still persists in art and natural history museums because those institutions had a part in constructing it.

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