An exhibit showcasing the Chicano arts collective ASCO, which was active in Los Angeles throughout most of the 1970s and 80s, is currently touring the North American continent. Unfortunately, it won’t be coming to Indiana any time soon, so I have had to make due with the thick catalog from the show, “Asco: Elite of the Obscure.” Fortunately it’s a beautiful book. Asco’s artwork ties into a lot of my ongoing pet concerns – kitsch, the foreigner, the “as if” artwork – in dynamic and interesting ways, so I thought I would share some thoughts on this arts movement. But most importantly, the images are utterly beautiful and hilarious. I can’t help myself: I’m fascinated, I keep thinking about these images, this movement, which may seem very far removed from my own life in Indiana, but yet seems very relevant to me.
The name “ASCO” is itself interesting. To begin with, like the famous forbearer “Dada,” it is a foreign word (it’s Spanish, meaning nausea) that is both strange and catchy. It “works” in English as a kind of brand name (I’m gonna get som Asco at the corner store? Have you gotten the latest Asco yet?), but the Spanish adds a layer of obscurity, of a sense of something hidden. This combination of the kitschy and the hidden is in many ways emblematic of a foreigner aesthetic. I’m using the word “foreigner” to conveniently include here both actual immigrants and ethnic minorities. I know there’s a difference but there’s also a similarity: a presence that troubles the dream of homogeneity.
In U.S. culture – whether “high” or “low” – the foreigner is often a figure of kitsch: s/he is a fake version of the real thing (“the American”), lacking the interiority of the American Subject. That is, the foreigner is thing-like. S/he has no soul. In this regard foreigners are a lot like Art. Everything we touch becomes art.
Ethnic or minority or immigrant cultures are often very conservative in trying to avoid this kitsch label, insisting on a kind of authenticity of their culture. America often finds that very attractive as well: “the old world” of authenticity as opposed to the modern America. This is another form of kitsch, “authenticity kitsch.”
[Some Swedish kitsch...]
A while back I got in a heated discussion with a Latino poet who claimed the Latina writer Sandy Florian was not a Latina writer because she did not “write about the Latina experience.” Her writing was too “experimental” – ie it called attention to itself as artifice, rather than (as his own poetry) seeking to document the stuff of the Latin “experience” (whether food, customs, family traditions). In other words, art gets in the way to this “documenting.” Authenticity becomes a conservative aesthetic. Ethnicity becomes an aesthetic. Paradoxically, all things aesthetic are of course artifice.
In this insistence on art that “documents” the “real thing,” this conservative aesthetic reminds me quite a bit of the discussions in “Performance Art” where it seems to me (I admit it, I’m not an expert in this field) important that the real art is the performance, not the “documentation.” Sometimes I’ve come across these spats in performance art discussions where people get accused of turning the “documentation” into the artwork.
For example, Joseph Beuys was often accused of this. And that definitely seems true. My favorite work by Beuys is his long-running series of photographs “Arena: Where would I have got if I had been intelligent,” which consists of photographs of art objects, regular objects and performances by Beuys. Except, the divisions are immediately blurred. The montage of photographs of artistic relics/souvenirs from the performances renders any object he might put in the show into a relic; the montage sets up an equal sign of sorts; it tells us: these are photographs of relics. Everything is a relic, a souvenir. The art cannot be contained.
Likewise, it’s not clear if all the pictures of Beuys himself are from actual performances, or if any picture with him is a performance, if his life is a performance. The “cut” between photographs are too far apart to be “sutured” together into a montage. Art has redefined itself, redefined “life,” There is no longer an “outside.” There’s an atmosphere that leaks out surrounding everything, turning everything into Art.
Conducted at the same roughly the same time, the ASCO artworks play with a similar dynamic in their “No Films,” which consist of fake film stills from non-existent movies, starring “bario stars,” an ethnic version of the “superstars” of Jack Smith (whose film stills from the 1960s is probably the most direct predecessor of ASCO’s work) and Andy Warhol. This connection suggests another important connection: that between the foreigner and the homosexual, between the immigrant and the queer.
As modernist poet and constant immigrant (from Russia to Finland and later Lithuania) Henry Parland put it in his diary: “I am always a foreigner, no matter where I go.” To be a foreigner is to be a kind of drag version of the native, the foreigner introduces Art into every dimension of life. Some people – such as the Latino poet who could not find the “Latina experience” in Sandy Florian’s work – would try to deny that the reified ‘immigrant experience’ is itself kitsch, made up of costumes, objects, food, customs, a recognizable cast of characters, etc. Others, such as ASCO, would use it to produce their Art.
What strikes me in these would-be B-movie promotional stills is the use of cheap trinkets, the kitsch: disco-aliens with platform boots attack a bum with a huge fake axe, a woman is taped to a wall, a dolls is burning. These trinkets and human figures are posed around very mundane parts of Los Angeles; but their make-up, their trinkets both call attention to the mundane Los Angeles and turn it into something ridiculously glamorous, a kind of kitsch glamour. In this way it seems to opposite of the Hollywood idea of Los Angeles: The ultra-rich heart of spectacle culture that can create every exotic locale within its studios. Here the shitty glamour brings the “studio” out into Los Angeles, which finally becomes visible… as Art.
The other thing is that this shitty glamour is actually circuited to ethnicity. You can see this connection very explicitly if you look at some of ASCO’s artwork – such as “Stations of the Cross,” where they dressed up in Day-of-the-Dead-inspired garbs and carried a cross to the draft station used to sign up Chicanos for the Vietnam War. Once you’ve become aware of the political and ethnic dimensions of that protest, you can see the connection between the kitsch and the ethnic-inspired matter in the No Movies.
Let me return to the name ASCO, the name with its dual meaning of kitsch-brand and foreign, obscure word. Who was afflicted by this “nausea”? When asked in 1983 where the name came from, Gronk (one of the members) said:
“That was generally the reaction to a lot of the work that we were doing, when we first started doing work, is people would say, refer to our work as giving them, “Uuhllhh!” asco. So we said, “That’s a nice title,” so we applied it to ourselves. A lot of the stuff early on was like real bloody and used a lot of different things, like dead birds and bones, and anything we could get our hands on. So the reaction by the community, or by different people that would see the work, was that it was giving them nausea. We liked the word.”
So in this definition, their artwork is named after the reception, after the effect their art has on people. But this is not the only explanation the group has given for its name. As C.Ondine Chavoya and Rita Gonzalez point out in their article “Asco and the Politics of Revulsion,” another member, Harry Gamboa noted very early on: “Last year at this time I was very active in the affairs of my community. I was deeply bothered and disgusted with the condition of my community and the Mexican American people. I learned to distrust and dislike everything that was pro-establishment.” Along the same line, Gronk also said “a lot of our friends were coming back in body bags and were dying, and we were seeing a whole generation come back that weren’t alive anymore. And in a sense that gave us nausea… that is Asco, in a way.” The group also stated that they were “attracted and appalled by the glitter and gangrene of urban reality.”
What I love about all these definitions – seemingly seeping out of a very basic yet foreign word – is the contradictions: the nausea is a negative response to the artwork which is a negative response to the political realities and or the kitschy “glitter,” which may be a disease in itself. In Julia Kristeva’s famous definition of “abjecting” as vomiting out the abject in order to maintain the self. “The abject” is that which troubles boundaries. And here the nausea is both in the viewer and the artist, both inside the artists and outside of them. The glitter, the kitsch is the disease is both a source of fascination and nausea. Asco doesn’t expel the kitsch, they harbor it, they are fascinated by it; this fascination doesn’t heal, it seems to permeate.
Like the element of the un-sutured montage, the nauseating atmosphere of Asco’s work permeates the city of Los Angeles, blurring boundaries between inside and outside, fantasy and reality, Los Angeles and “Los Angeles.” Perhaps the most strikingly political aspect of this aesthetic can be seen in the stunning photograph “Decoy”. The group sent this picture of an apparently dead man in the middle of a street in Los Angeles to newspapers and news shows as evidence of another Chicano riot gone awry, and these news-outlets promptly broadcast it as evidence.
And this is where I feel like a lot of my concerns in this essay come together: the anxiety about proper documentation is totally undermined by the very beautiful fake documentation, the ethnic “document” becomes the imaginary trace of violence, the nausea pervades everything – from the disenfranchised Chicano artists to the corporate news shows. Glitter and gangrene, glitter and gangrene….