Interview with Jose Torres Tama
". . . a satirical and ominous vision
of a techno-pop U.S. TV culture."
New Orleans, Louisiana
The following interview with performance and visual artist Jose Tama Torres was conducted for In Motion Magazine by Nic Paget-Clarke over a period of a couple of months in 1996. It started in San Diego at the close of a U.S./Canada/Mexico tour and then continued by phone, fax and email. In addition the text of the performance of We Are Patriots with Dark Faces as performed in San Diego is on a separate linked document.
In Motion Magazine: Would you describe your work?
Jose Tama Torres: My current performance work has evolved from my studies as a visual artist and installation artist; my studies in pantomime and improvisational theatre; my studies in poetry and creative writing; and my research in advertising and media sociology. All these influences come together like a choreographed car-crash in We Are Patriots With Dark Faces. There are even traces of my martial arts training in the physical gestures that I make to dramatize certain passages.
In Patriots, I take the audience on a journey through the labyrinth of corporate doublespeak language and familiar slogans that sell democracy and the American dream. I question the Burger King motto that states have it your way because who can really have it their way in our society? I explore how freedom in our society is directly related to our purchase power. I serve up a satirical and ominous vision of a techno-pop U.S. TV culture, manipulated by commercials that urge you to just do it. And what does NIKE mean by such a bold command?
My subject matter is the technological democracy and the false empowerment of TV sound bytes, and I present it all in a low tech manner. I talk technology while delivering the performance as a sort of talk show ritual enacted with a character that is part Santero shaman, part sardonic poet, and part stand-up comedian. The few props that I use are placed upon a small table, which is adorned like the altar of a Catholic priest. As part of the show, I light twelve Santeria candles placed in a semi-circle. The candles cordon off the sort of sacred space from where I deliver the performance. There is no usage of video, slides, or any technological equipment other than whatever lighting possibilities the theater can offer. I do use a wireless microphone to enhance my voice and to manipulate the sound of my voice for the creation of the various characters I play.
My poems and monologues weave a dark and sinister narrative in which we encounter Mickey Mouse, the energizer rabbit, and a myriad other symbols from our collective television psyche. It's a media saturated adventure much like the trip taken by Alice in Alice in Wonderland, although this journey would be entitled Alice in Electric Televisionland. I am Alice. I am the master of ceremonies. I am the jokester. I am the walrus. (laughs) I am the warrior with a dark face in an electric Gringo-land trying to be all I can be. This is a bilingual Big Mac Attack comedy drama for North America. It's a descent into the Hades of an American Chevrolet evening. It's painful and it's very funny.
My work is loaded with text -- sardonic, nasty, sexual, and poetic text. It's peppered with double-entendres and one liners that drop like a rock, as the Chevy add proclaims. It's a smorgasbord of language, a sort of verbal collage My writing is influenced by poets, performance artist, and rock-n-rollers. The writing in Patriots is influenced by Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean surrealist poet, as it is by Jim Morrison of the Doors. It reverberates with the technological word play found in the work of Laurie Anderson, a multi-media performance artist extraordinaire, and the heavy angst of Cesar Vallejo, a heady surrealist poet from Peru. The poetry is packed with fantastic metaphors and surrealist imagery inspired by Garcia Lorca, the Spanish playwright and poet.
Patriots is an insane fusion of styles, which are all part of my experience as an immigrant with Latino roots transplanted in the U.S. I have absorbed contemporary American pop culture and rock-n-roll like a Bounty sponge -- I am the quicker picker upper. I picked up the English language at the age of seven and ran with it, until I realized that I had forgotten my native tongue, Spanish, for I was born in Ecuador, South America. I was raised in New York City and in Jersey City, New Jersey, and I live in exile close to the Equator in New Orleans. It's been an interesting leap of geographical terrain. I've lived in New Orleans a dozen years, and I have matured as an artist here, developing my artistic vision and experimenting with various mediums.
My particular work is certainly not traditional theatre, and the narrative voice in my text is non-linear. I compose my works in what I refer to as movements, and these movements are like vignettes, made up of either a straight forward monologue or a series of poems. As I've been touring around the country, this work has been presented under the genre of performance art. I consider myself a performance artist sometimes for a lack of a better definition. I have come to this phenomenon of performance art from the dramatization of poems on stage. This is often defined as the spoken word.
In fact, my very first actions on stage were at open mike poetry readings in the smoky back room of a restaurant called The Beaten Path in Hoboken, New Jersey. I remember one reading, in particular, from the many Wednesday nights designated for poetic outbursts. I had read a few poems, and the surprise of the night came when this older poet took the stage. He was a disheveled lanky old gent, wiry and worn with great stature. He looked like a cross between Moses and an eccentric college professor. He was a man of verse from the beat poet school, probably in his fifties, and he delivered his poems with rhythmic intensity. He performed his poems. He had them memorized, and they poured out of him effortlessly. He left the crowd and other poets, myself included, mesmerized. From that moment on, I never walked on stage with poems on paper again.
The performance by that poet transformed me. This was sometime around 1980. I was twenty years old, and I was in art school majoring in the visual arts and minoring in creative writing. When I think about it, I realize what a profound moment this was in my artistic awakening. I never imagined that this was all part of a road that would lead me to becoming a performance artist, but I do remember having this intrinsic belief, even then at such a young age, in the power of the spoken word. And this beat poet exemplified all that was powerful in the dramatization of poetry. Those readings that I did back then, nervous as all hell, were my baby steps towards the genre of performance art.
Performance art is being defined and redefined as we speak. It's fried and refried, half-freak show, half-political scream. It's the bastard offspring from the tortured relationship between theatre and happenings in galleries. It's a hybrid child in the wilderness of the art world at the end of the Twentieth Century. It's an orphan art form ridiculed and glorified simultaneously, as it reinvents itself at the beginning of a new millennium called the future. Performance art is a train wreck of many art disciplines. I believe it's the most exciting art genre that exists today. At it's grandest level, it can be an act of cultural terrorism.
For many artists, it is the only forum for creating discourse on the difficult issues of our time. For many artists of color, women artists, and gay artists, it has become the vehicle by which a unique personal perspective and voice has been made public, voices that otherwise might not have had any other forum for expression -- voices from the battlefront of forgotten America. And these voices use the spoken word, poems, and prose in their work to explore serious themes. They have created some of the most powerful works of social criticism in the performance art field.
Some of these artists have dealt with social themes in a poetic way and some have constructed in-your-face performances that confront racism, sexual harassment, and AIDS. I find myself somewhere in between the poetic approach and the guerrilla attack. It's ultimately up to the individual artist to choose a strategy for delivery and a weapon for the battle. My weapon is the word, and my strategy is drama and comedy.
In Motion Magazine: How have your travels effected your work?
Jose Tama Torres: I have been very fortunate lately, as I have had a great opportunity to tour Patriots on an international level. I have performed in New York at Performance Space 122; Hartford, Connecticut at Real Art Ways; San Diego at the Centro Cultural De La Raza; New Orleans at the Contemporary Arts Center; in the 1995 Cleveland Performance Art Festival; and Canada at the Waterloo Buskers' Festival. In addition, I have performed in Mexico a number of times at El Lugar Del Nopal in Tijuana; X'Teresa Center for Alternative Art in Mexico City; and El Centro Cultural Los Talleres in Coayacan.
And of course, the performance changes in each place, especially when I perform in Mexico, since the percentage of Spanish and English in the text changes. Even though Patriots is a bilingual piece, it has been written with a greater percentage of English for the English speaking audiences of the U.S. The original equation was something like eighty percent in English and twenty percent in Spanish. In the performances for Mexico, I have gone to great pains to translate more of the text into Spanish and to write new material that makes Patriots more accessible to a Latino audience.
Writing more in Spanish has been a great creative leap for me as an artist. I've been able to connect with the Latino poet in me, who has waited patiently for my Spanish language reawakening. My poetic strength in the Spanish language has increased tremendously because of the creative pressure to connect with the Mexican public. My last trip to Mexico was in January of this year to perform at Los Talleres, the oldest and most prestigious alternative art center in Mexico. It was the third time I was performing in Mexico over a four month period. The Spanish material for these shows increased to fifty percent.
When I performed at X'Teresa's Performance Festival last year in October, it marked the first time I was presenting Patriots in a Spanish speaking country. It was a great honor to have been invited to this festival in Mexico City, one of the major art capitals of the world, but I was incredibly nervous, concerned with the translation of the work. Was Patriots, which deals with corporate America doublespeak language and its influences on the minority cultures of the U.S., going to translate?
In order to research Mexican TV culture ahead of time, I asked the director of the center, Lorena Wolffer, to video tape some Mexican TV commercials for me. I was able to use slogans from these commercials, which sell everything from Coca-Cola to the national lottery, to create a new and improved narrative for the Spanish speaking performance art audience and convey my ideas on the selling of democracy to the culturally hip of the great Tenochtitlan, the original Aztec name for what is now Mexico City. The percentage of material in Spanish for that performance increased to thirty-five percent.
A lot of the English was understood since a good percentage of the audience that attended the festival was a bilingual college crowd. This crowd was quite young, mostly in their twenties. It was incredible to see such enthusiasm and interest in performance art from such a young Mexican public. This is quite the opposite from the alternative theatre crowd in the U.S. which is usually much older. The average nightly attendance numbered in the two-hundred and fifty plus area.
So the work is in constant change, and the cultural references also vary as I perform in different parts of the United States. In San Diego, I incorporated a good deal of Spanish and Spanglish, which was very well received by the Chicano audience. In fact, the audiences at the Centro were the best I have experienced anywhere. They understood everything and were into the show wholeheartedly and emotionally. Patriots is a work that bilingual audiences can greatly appreciate because there is a lot of sardonic humor and word play in both Spanish and English.
In Motion Magazine: At what point did political satire become a major part of your work?
Jose Tama Torres: Political satire became a major part of my work when I became a member of an improvisational theatre group in New Orleans called Theatre Shmeatre. The year was 1987, and this troupe had been formed by a director of improvisational theatre from Montreal. His name escapes me, but he was a master of improv with a razor sharp wit. His work had a heavy and heady political bent.
All the shows we performed were loaded with political satire. Working with this ensemble was like being part of the original Saturday Night Live crew. We targeted everything: local politics, the art scene, the local police, the pseudo bohemians, etc. Everything was fair game and the more political the better. Each show had a general theme, and the group performed weekly at Cafe Brasil, the premiere eclectic bohemian artsy gathering place on the outskirts of the French Quarter. One show, that sticks out in my mind, was entitled Night of the Born Again Christians and as the title suggests the joke was on those born again fanatics we love to hate.
The work that I did with Theatre Shmeatre has had tremendous influence on my current approach to performance. Through the improv shows, I discovered and developed my skills as a writer of satire. I work on my performance scripts and text much like we developed our shows back then. I begin with a formal script that I have penned but in the process of rehearsals I make revisions, as I allow myself to improvise. Sometimes I rewrite entire sections through stage improvisation. This process helps me keep the work and the words fresh, alive with the spontaneity that comes with free form improvisation. Major sections of Patriots have been written this way.
Patriots has been a major breakthrough for me artistically because all my skills as a poet and as a satirist writer have come together unlike anytime before. The humor in some movements is edgy and irreverent. It's definitely satire, and it's definitely political. When I think satire, I immediately think of the English master of satire Jonathan Swift and his classic epic Gulliver's Travels. This is satire at it's best: critical, dark, and funny. My motto has always been comedy is cruel.
In Motion Magazine: What is the relationship between your performance work and visual arts work?
Jose Tama Torres: The Patriots piece is interesting because it's the performance equivalent of a series of mixed media drawings and installation work entitled The Calendar Series, which was created a few years ago. The thematic concern of this work was also the media and it's power to impact our lives, and how the media circus transforms serious political events into live mini-soaps for our viewing pleasure. The media has the power to sensationalize all it touches, and it could render the gravity of a situation into a meaningless sideshow.
The entire exhibit was set up like an installation, and it was first exhibited at the Bienville Gallery in New Orleans back in 1991. Twelve main drawings, vertical in size (24"x64"), outlined the months of the year. The exhibit was subtitled 1990: The Year in Pictures, and each month covered a different topic that had been big news during that time period in the evolution of 1990, the first year of the last decade in the Twentieth Century. As you walked into the gallery, you walked into a life size art calendar with somber images of our time -- no pretty pictures on this calendar, just the America we love in all it's twilight zone madness and social decay.
I executed the drawings in charcoal and black and white pastels on heavy duty Arches paper. They were set in deep shadow box frames made of wood. Above each meticulously drafted calendar grid was an expressionistic figurative drawing that depicted certain hot political themes. For example, the January drawing was a rendering of the National Rifle Association president and his wife proudly displaying his and hers rifles. I based this composition on the famous American Gothic painting, which portrays the classic Euro-American puritan elderly couple with pitchforks in hand. My portrait pictured the new armed lovers of contemporary American society, happy to bear arms and ready to kill. This drawing was entitled Mama and Papa Gun, and it commented on our development from an agricultural society to an arsenal culture.
Other works dealt with abortion, censorship, the crumbling dollar, inner city violence, and the Gulf War. The month of February was entitled Mickey Mouse Mandala, and the image of our most beloved rodent looked rather ghostly floating on a circular form, which symbolically represented a half-dollar coin. The faded Mickey Mouse portrait was inspired by the crucifixion story of Christ's face left on the veil. I pull a lot of material from my Catholic background, and in this piece, Mickey is the graven image of our undulated worship. When I refer to Mickey Mouse in Patriots, I bless myself with the sign of the cross so as not to take his name in vain. At one point, I say, Ohh Mickey, I love what you do for me, and I use the Toyota slogan to give praise to Mickey. Mickey Mouse is our Christ, and Disneyland our heaven on earth. (laughs)
I did a lot of research on contemporary American pop culture, as I was making The Calendar Series, and much of this was put to performance use when I developed Patriots. Someday I would like to organize an exhibit of The Calendar Series with performances of Patriots in a multi-disciplinary arts center that can facilitate the exhibit and the performance. I think this would be very effective, and it would bring these two mediums, in which I work, together for the first time.
I hope to merge the performance more with my visual arts in the future through the creation of installations and environments in which I can enact performances. Even though this hasn't happened yet, I conceptually approach the performance stage with the eyes of a painter. By this I mean that I see the actual stage as a three dimensional picture plane, and I try to bring all my understanding of composition and lighting to the performance. I see the theatre space as a shadow box, much like the theatrical shadow boxes created by Joseph Cornell. So in effect as the performer, I am a live art sculpture moving through space and time of the black box theatre. I am the focus of the composition, and I have to generate visual stimulation. This is where good lighting helps to create visual drama, and the theatre lights become your palette. We often forget that great painting has profound drama.
In Motion Magazine: What is it like to survive as an artist, particularly with the NEA cuts and the "Republican Revolution?"
Jose Tama Torres: To be an artist in today's society is a definite challenge, especially in the shadow of a crumbling NEA. The money for the support of art institutions is drying up. The art world is in a crisis, and the alternative art centers are getting hit the hardest. Who will suffer? Everyone involved with the arts; administrators and artists alike. The less established artists will suffer even more because it's a tough time to be an emerging artist.
To an artist like myself, it means the performance gigs are getting harder to come by. The alternative theatre centers across the country, which present performance art are dealing with forty to fifty percent cutbacks in their operating budgets. Some art administrators are getting pink slips. This is the status of the non-profit art centers hoy en dia (today).
So here we are, citizens of the greatest super power in the history of the world, and the arts are threatened. Let's tell the world that there is certainly no place for critical intellectual art activity in America today. Especially if it comes from perverted artists types whose works criticize and undermine the puritanical fabric of our America, the beautiful. That's the rhetoric espoused by good ole boys in government like Jesse Helms, who have attacked the NEA and turned it into a wounded hound. Helms has turned art censorship into a personal crusade. He is quite the performance artist himself on a righteous mission to protect the American public from subversive and decadent art. He claims he stands for decency. It certainly has gained him re-election in his home state as Bible-belt conservatives give him their support. He'll scare the art center pants off you so art supporters beware because Jesse is on the job.
Don't' you just love that Republican Revolution? When I first heard this term, I thought, you have to admire those Republican Party advisors because they know how to get to their clients. I look at the Republican Party leaders and I think, oohh yeah, these guys are rebels. I'm sure each one of them has a huge Che Guevara poster framed, proudly on display in their offices. Republican Revolution, this is the best oxymoron in political talk today. They stand for everything that is the status quo. This is the definitive party of exclusion that represents the white male patriarchy.
Republican Revolution, this is doublespeak at its best. Look at the candidates that have been running as Republicans, spearheading this so called revolution; Pete Wilson of California, Pat Buchanan of the Beltway, and David Duke of Louisiana, among others. These are only a few of the new breed of Republican disciples preaching hate and talking fear. This is the new breed of revolutionaries rising across the political landscape.
The scary thing is that these Republican rebels have played the fear tactic, ace in the hole, quite well with white conservative Americans. Artists as well as people of color, women, and gays are seen as a threat to our great society. The new Republican platform of preying on fear of the cultural other is a shameful scheme used over and over throughout history to pit and divide communities against each other for political gain. McCarthy and the red scare comes to mind. Senator McCarthy exploited fear of communism and led the government and the country on a national witch hunt for communists. Interestingly enough, artists, writers, Hollywood producers, and other creative individuals were accused of being dissidents and communist sympathizers. They were labeled commies and their lives were ruined.
Hitler's political machine attacked the Jews and blamed them for everything that was wrong with Germany in the 1930's, and it worked. Pete Wilson blames Mexican illegals and Mexican culture in general for everything that is wrong with California. How ironic, since California was part of Mexico a little more than a century ago.
Once California belonged to Mexico and its land to Mexicans; and a horde of tattered feverish Americans poured in. And such was their hunger for land that they took the land...and they guarded with guns the land they had stolen...Then, with time, the squatters were no longer squatters but owners. -- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
This passage from Steinbeck's classic novel was used in an article from a TIME Magazine (November 21, 1994) report on the passing of Proposition 187 in California. It clearly depicts how ownership of the land shifted -- how the land was just taken. Obviously Pete Wilson needs to be given a history lesson and be reminded of who owned California before his Anglo ancestors. His rhetoric like the rhetoric of other extremists in the Republican camp is about taking back America. Taking it back from whom? From Latinos, from African Americans, from Asians, from feminists, from gays, and from artists that represent the America that has been on the margins of society throughout the history of this country anyway.
America is headed for some serious social explosions with the policies of these revolutionaries. Their attack on the arts and artists reflects a bigger picture. It shows a lack of tolerance for diverse perspectives and ideas. It truly goes against the credos of inclusion that this country was founded on. It's 1996, do you know where your country is headed? Tolerance is the key, and the Republican rebels of today don't seem to tolerate much that is not in accord with their homogenized viewpoint. Oddly enough, as we approach the new millennium, America is looking more and more medieval.
Our responsibility as artist and intellectuals is greater now more than ever. As the AIDS slogan says, silence equals death. We need to point out the Pharisees who are leading the country into a fascist abyss. We need to point out the racist, the hate mongers, and the white male patriarchs, who are threatened by the changing complexion of America. As a political artist, I am more inspired to make sure that my voice is heard, and this is not an ego thing. Like many artists, my antennas are up and on, and if I see a crash coming, I have a responsibility to alert others. So artists have to be incredibly inventive to survive and make their ideas known. It's going to be an interesting ride into the future, as the dependency on the art world will lessen.
In Motion Magazine: How is democracy in the U.S.?
Jose Tama Torres: Democracy is a vigilant process. It has to be continually watched. Democracy requires passion, everyday passion to be upheld. A government by the people and for the people was established here two-hundred and twenty years ago. The people that the founding fathers were talking about back then were the sons and daughter of the revolution, people of British descent. And who are the people now? Who are the people that have to hold the government accountable in contemporary America for practicing the declarations of our Constitution? All of the people and people of color more than others since so many of the advances made during the Civil Rights Movement are under attack. Programs to develop education in lower class communities are being dismantled.
A great experiment was founded on these shores that is not going on in many places, and it has been the inspiration for many revolutions since. In Patriots, the opening movement speaks of this very issue: Because choice is the issue here. Freedom of choice -- that most precious inalienable right secured for us like a divine gift by our founding forefathers. Choice, absolutely synonymous with being (head shifts from right to left after each letter is repeated) A A. M M. E E. R R. I I. C C. A A. N N.
Individual freedom and freedom of choice is synonymous with America. The founding fathers created the constitution, outlining freedom and justice for all, while they were living contradictory lives as owners of slaves. If they were enlightened enough to write of such ideals, they had to realize their personal shortcomings in practicing such laws. They had to be tortured men, and maybe this is the reason for such historical contradictions in this country's practice of Democracy. It's as if this country was born with the original sin of its founding fathers, and by this I mean that since its painful birth, this country has had difficulty in practicing what it preaches. So we need to keep one eye open as we sleep because fascist forces are breeding and growing in America today. It's getting late in the midnight hour of the Twentieth century. Do you know where your country is?
In Motion Magazine: Lastly, would you like to say something about New Orleans?
Jose Tama Torres: New Orleans has been very, very good to me. I've lived a dozen years in this sub-tropical swampland. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who is the literary godfather of a writing style described as Magical Realism, has called it the Northern most point of the Caribbean. New Orleans is the Macondo of the United States. Macondo is the fictional city of Garcia Marquez's epic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude and much like New Orleans, it is a Confederacy of Dunces with fantastic eccentric characters. Its locals describe New Orleans as Babylon by the Mississippi, the Big Easy, and the City that Care Forgot.
New Orleans is magical and mysterious, and writers, painters, poets, actors, dancers, musicians and creative folks of all colors from all parts of the U.S. and the world come here. Many creative souls are born here. It is the birthplace of Jazz, indeed, but like in the past, its creative sons and daughters usually need to go north or west to make a living and receive due recognition. Its most famous musical son Louis Armstrong left for Chicago to become a legend. At present, Harry Connick Jr., the Neville Brothers, Dr. John and others in the music business have had to follow similar routes to achieve recognition in their time.
New Orleans does not have the resources to support its artistic talent. It is a provincial metropolis with all the vices that a big city can offer, but without the creative industry of Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. It is a small art Mecca so artists can create here without any pressure. Although this can be very helpful for the development of work, it can also be detrimental for the exposure of work. The Contemporary Art Center and the New Orleans Museum of Art are major institutions, but the art audiences are still small and rather fragmented. It has grown considerably since I first arrived in 1984, but it pales in comparison to other cities. Sometimes I think that the intrinsic party nature of this town, its laissez-faire attitude, keeps it from being a more important intellectual center.
Over all, I cannot thank New Orleans enough because it has been the place where I have matured as an artist. I have experimented with various mediums and I discovered the performer within me right here. I owe my artistic life to this city. It is my spiritual home. I have always felt that I have lived in New Orleans before. And living here as a Latino has been comfortable because New Orleans was once the capital of the Spanish owned territories in this area. It has Spanish roots and it continues to be a city with a Latin nature.