Performance artist, actress and activist Violeta Luna, 43, was born in Mexico City. She moved to San Francisco in 2006, where she is part of the performance collective La Pocha Nostra and Secos y Mojados. Her works explore the relationships among theater, performance art and community engagement. Luna combines creative elements (music, ritual actions, performances, videos) in order to compose multidimensional and playful spaces that deal with and reflect her concepts on immigration, politics, identity, gender and sexuality. Luna’s use of her body gives a solid platform where such discourse can accrue. Her interdisciplinary works often need the engagement of the audience to come alive. In the interview that follows, we discussed how the use of her body, social-political position and participation of the audience contribute in the investigation she calls “performative theater.”
Kosovo 2.0: The body as a political statement?
Violeta Luna: For me, the body is central to my practice. I consider it to be a territory, a space for the expressive work on ideas of identity, politics and gender issues. The female body is always marginalized, and I feel embodied art is the best place to reflect these issues. Being a Mexican woman in the U.S. adds yet another dimension to this issue, because the Mexican body in the U.S. is stereotyped as a working body, as a criminal body, as an illegal body. The body is a political site. For me, this is of high importance.
I am not a mainstream artist, and because I am part of the immigrant community, I try to reflect more on these political and social issues. I feel that when I came here, my body and work became more conscious about political issues related to being “the other.” I feel that performance art or live art is a language that female artists, for example in Latin America, use to express themselves because it is a big container space in which you can explore and search the body as a metaphor.
K2.0: Your work “Mapa Corpo” directly engaged the audience. The performance involved you being injected with acupuncture needles, all of which had flags of the U.S. and Great Britain. Through the performance, you invite the audience to remove the needles (flags). Was this intended as another form of colonization, or was giving the viewers the flag-removing power to be considered handing them the power of the de-colonizer or freedom provider?
Luna: It is an interesting reflection, especially because that piece was our answer to the war that the U.S. started with Iraq. The piece is divided in three parts: the colonization of the body (which is very important that the audience knows about), the second part is the exhibition of the body, and the third part the de-colonization. It is a participatory performance where the audience joins in the process. The piece is not just about the body; the body is at the center. But it is also in relation to images and video that are projected during the performance, helping to create a connection between these elements in the gallery.
Some audience members prefer to stay away from the body, they observe the performance through live video. This is, for me, very interesting because the distance from the body shows a kind of mapping of who wants to engage and who doesn’t want to take responsibility or be a part of the ritual. This adds another layer to the context, as any audience member has the possibility to participate or be passive or indifferent, all of which has an impact on the piece.
The diversity of the audience, be it cultural or ethnic, and their participation with the performance also adds different layers to the context of the dramaturgy. For me, it’s important to make the audience question colonization as a subject and as an object, too. It has happened that someone from the audience has taken out an acupuncture needle and taken it with them, which is a very poetic reaction.
The performance is a space to rebel in many levels, while it also considers the colonizers more directly because of the presence of the female body, which is the home or the land, a land that, of course, is not a male but a female body.
Participating in the work can mean both that the audience takes the place of the colonizer but also of the de-colonizer. Through this ritual, it was important to us that the audience realizes their contribution, especially in the de-colonization process of the body. The passiveness or the actions taken by the audience are of equal importance in the reflection process regarding their ability to realize their position, and I think that was the initial idea.
K2.0: In “NK 603: Accion for Performer & e-Maiz [e-corn]” you use the female body to project your concerns and ideas about the gen/tech contamination of the corn in Mexico. Is the female body to be taken as a the body of the worker and the feeder?
Luna: It’s not the case. The conflict for me was to talk about a very important Mexican issue, because corn is not just food for us but also the center of our culture. Our culture is sustained mostly by the women, who are not only the biological feeders but also the feeder of cultural memory and tradition.
Sometimes in society, women’s bodies are just objects looked upon as workers, as mothers, but in a very passive way. For me, women that cross the border are incredibly powerful. In Mexico, they are the ones who are fighting against violence; many of the activists fighting for the environment are women. It is about realizing there are other responsibilities in life that have made women’s bodies break from their traditional socio-cultural position into the activist’s body. The women’s bodies are more sustainable as activist bodies because of their cultural importance.
K2.0: You work a lot with the concepts of the other, a concept widely explored by contemporary female artists. Is it because unconsciously the female body is considered the other, and, as such, to substantiate the female body in society?
Luna I don’t work with only the female body as the other; I work with the other as an immigrant, the other as an artist. I think I tried to address this element more specifically with my piece “Body Parted,” where I worked with another nonperformer person. There the principal thing was the immigrant body. In this case, for me it was important that the work not only deal with my body as an artist, but also with the body of an immigrant and in this case a seamstress woman. The work was done in collaboration with the women’s collective “Colectiva de Mujeres,” which is a group of immigrant women. Concentrating on the rigid immigration laws that the U.S. has for Latinos and other communities, it was not only about questioning the system but to show and question the position of the other.
When you talk about “the other” it is like talking about diversity, giving that diversity a voice and an impact on this system. Considering otherness more like a relationship, it’s putting it in equal position to its opposite. To accept that you are the other is not what I want; accepting the position of the other, in a way, is another form of colonization.
K2.0: Would this be one of the reasons you are involved with “Colectiva de Mujeres,” the group of immigrant women?
Luna: Yes. When I moved to the U.S., I felt a responsibility to work with women in this situation. Colectiva de Mujeres is a place where they help women who have immigrated to the U.S. find jobs and help them with documentation. I started first with some theatrical classes and techniques to help them with their self-esteem. In the process, they expressed a will to do more theater projects, and this, for me, was important. It meant I would be more involved and create some sort of context for them. To me they are very powerful women, they are in a very vulnerable position but they always are looking for survival methods to deal with their situation.
So through the work with the collective I am trying to give migrant women a platform for their voice and action through the process of performance and expression. It was, in a way, a difficult process for them to forget their everyday struggles and yet express them and their place in society in a very direct way.
K2.0: What about the work “Frida” (named after Frida Kahlo de Rivera, a Mexican painter, best-known for her self-portrait paintings)? How does that work deal with the diversity of the issues that you reference through your performances?
Luna: This was the first time I started to work in such a format, creating a platform as a museum’s diorama. The audience was able to participate with different elements that I had placed on a table. The idea was that I am in the platform to become a sort of museum specimen in a scene surrounded by different objects and dressed as Frida Kahlo. Through the performance, I started to deconstruct the image of Frida. I see Frida as a hybrid person, because she very much represents the Mexican culture. This was very much projected in her clothing and actions, as in the performance she reveals different identities that talk about religion, sexuality and culture through what she wears. So by deconstructing her image, I talk about the different layers and issues that affect Mexican society itself.
I always talk about the here and there (U.S. and Mexico) because when you live in this in-between, it presents itself as a reference point. Here, Frida is a very iconic figure that represents the Mexican body both as the Virgen de Guadalupe (Virgin Mary, as dark Madonna with indigenous roots in the Aztec deity Tonatzin) and through this space of religious syncretism, the narrative of Frida subjectifies bi-nacionality, bisexuality, bi-ideology, bi-conciosness, etc., addressed from this in-between space. In the here and there, you can be either/or. But what is more poignant is the in-between, and this is the space I wanted to reflect in this work. The work puts forward that idea of living in this in-between which is neither here nor there.
In this work, the audience is invited to play with the objects that are in the platform or in the stage. While I perform, the audience can interfere by placing objects in different contexts and therefore adding action to the piece. It’s interesting because most of the time, these actions have the tendency to play with the idea of stereotyping — stereotyping the other by means of its cultural background. This is important for my work because the dramaturgy of the piece is created then and there. I chose elements that are very specific, like, for example, a cow heart, the Mexican flag, steel nails, Catholic symbols, etc. These elements have their own narrative as they are, so when you add the body and the actions of the audience, the narrative shifts constantly, and for me, this is the spirit of Frida. It’s more of an installation really, because all the elements are part of Frida and during the performance the audience helps in the deconstruction of her image.
K2.0: In a few words, tell us what does it means to be a Mexican artist in California?
Luna: It means to be more present in a space of diversity, to be more political, to struggle to make your voice heard. It means understanding more concretely the concept of otherness from where one can create a space for activism. It means knowing that diversity is not just a part of a spectacle, but also a living and working frame for a creative and functioning open body.