I appreciate Anthony Romero’s reading of my blog post about ASCO and “the foreigner” on this blog yesterday. I am glad that Romero asked these questions so that I can explain what I mean when I talk about the foreigner as “kitsch“ and how I relate that to the work of Asco..
Romero has some question about the role of the foriegner in my post. By foreigner I don’t mean just any “non-white” person. I am for example, a foreigner. I came to this country as a teenager and was met by an incredibly amount of violence and hostility, from other kids as well as teachers and other adults. What people objected to was my strange clothes and haircut. They said I was a “faggot.” I didn’t even know what that meant, but I gathered from the vehemence of their reaction that it was someone powerful, something threatening. My own thinking about not just foreigner but art was largely shaped by this violent experience. That is perhaps why something like queer studies to me has very wide relevance to understanding not just gay people but the status of foreigners.
As I note in my post, for me the “foreigner” does not have to do with citizenship but something else. In my original post I wrote:
“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.”
But really “foreigner” doesn’t have to mean even that; it could mean just about any figure that “troubles,” that does not smoothly blend into an easy version of reality. Once at a party a linguist came up to me and said she had been observing my accent and apparently my accent followed the same pattern as children of immigrants that she had been studying. Her theory was that the accent suggested a kind of resistence to assimilation. I don’t know if that’s true, but it makes a good metaphor for what I’m trying to get at: the metaphorical accent – or noise – that refuses to take its place in society, but calls attention to itself as unassimilated sound. But like I said, this accent can be read widely and metaphorically.
It’s also important to note in my “myth of origins” that it was the hair and clothing that got me in trouble as much as my accent. In other words, the realm of kitsch.
I always say, “the Foreigner is kitsch.” In American culture, the foreigner is often made into a ridiculous “version” of a real person (ie an All-American Person). This is one way our culture has of dealing with this troubling foreigness: our culture makes the foreigner into a ridiculous, flawed version. Not something that resists appropropriation (as in the cool linguist’s model); but something that fails to become “natural.”
My “favorite” example is the guy in “That 70s Show.” It’s unclear if he’s European or Latin but he is distinctly foreign. He’s also very gay-ish (in a stereotypical way: he’s lispy and affeminate), but typically he’s also hyper masculine, always looking for sex That is to say: there’s a violence in his foreigness. The show deals with this by making him ridiculous. But there’s that threat as well.
Another way of dealing with the foreign is to situate foreigners in the past – what I call authenticity kitsch – and identify the foreign with customs, food, traditions. As long as the foreigner is associated with these, he or she becomes quaint, of the past (that is not to say that customs are worthless, they are often quite beautiful).
There are of course tons of other methods, but these these are some that are relevant to the way I think about art, and to the way I think about Asco’s art in particular.
This jives very well with my experiences in America, and –sadly – particularly in the poetry world. Over and over again, I’ve been accused of cheating somehow, of being ridiculous, of being “too masculine” (or too opinionated). Once when I raised an innocent question to a famous Bay Area experimental writer, she told me she did not want to be in dialogue with me because I was “from someplace different” than her. Just the other day I was at a party and the spouse of a professor told me that Scandinavians are “inhuman” because we don’t have “feelings.”
It seems that Romero thinks I endorse this idea of the foreigner as kitsch. I am reacting to a portrayal of the foreigner. One way to oppose such a portrayal would be to correct it, to work toward more “human” portrayals of foreigners. But I think the “human” isn’t such a wonderful ideal, based as it is on the exclusion of the “inhuman”; and I think there is a power in the unassimilatable, the “inhuman” of the foreign. It’s that dynamic that I think Asco does a great job exploring; and I am interested in this dynamic as well, exploring it in my writing.
Anthony observes that by calling the foreigner “kitsch,” I dehumanize the foreigner and make them “thing-like.” I would say that I am not the one calling foreigners kitsch; the foreigner is already defined as a kitsch figure in our culture.
But I am interested in this portrayal. I’m interested in kitsch. We have to go through all kinds of contortions to create an illusory “interiority” – some internal essence – to define ourselves as human. In these portrayals, the foreigner is not human; he or she is thing-like. Kitsch. A foreigner has no soul.
That’s what interests me about kitsch and art and the foreigner. Clearly a lot of people who are of foreign descent do their best to get a soul, to become human. But for every “human” there’s always the inhuman, other. So I don’t love the idea of being human. And I think the idea of “interiority” as the highest value is a sham. I prefer atmospherics (for example asco, nausea) to interiority.
On the other hand, I don’t want to accept an easy “inhuman” label either; I am not interested in merely reproducing that guy from “That 70s Show.” Kitsch and art for me open up zones where the human and inhuman, the US and the foreigner can be troubled. I take the word “troubled” (I think, if I remember correctly) from Julia Kristeva’s writing on abjection: the abject as that which troubles boundaries.
I hope my previous post shows how all of this comes into really wonderful play in Asco’s “social surrealism”: with their masks, their fake stills, their play on Mexican ethnic customs and art; with their name “asco” which seems to be the vomit of artist, spectator and society (ie the place where they come together is a site of abjection, of repulsion but also a coming-together); and its deformations of popular culture.
Gronk (one of the leading Asco members): “A lot of Latino artists went back in history for imagery. We wanted to stay in the present and find our imagery as urban artists and produce a body of work out of our sense of displacement. Latin imagery had a strong input, but we also had Albert Camus, Daffy Duck and movies like Devil Girls from Mars.”
Gamboa (another leader artist in the collective) wrote that Asco was both “attracted and apalled by the glitter and gangrene of urban reality.” He’s said Asco was “El Camino Surrealism.” El Camino is of course both Spanish and a kitsch product (an outdated car).
A lot of Asco’s imagery and ideas come from B-movies, comics etc: The traditional realm of “kitsch.” They are very upfront about this and it’s obvious from their many “no films’ (fake film stills). But they also drew inspiration from news footage and “high art” (conceptualism, which Asco felt was racist). Their art is tasteless, but it’s tasteless in an interesting way that sabotaging this kind of distinction between high and low which I absolutely believe has not disappeared (and which is often ethnically motivated). So when Anthony says that to call Asco “kitsch” is to demean them, I feel he’s reiterating a denigration which I don’t subscribe to and I think Asco members clearly rejected. They were inspired by kitsch – comics, b-movies, telenovelas etc.
One more thing about kitsch: any art can become kitsch. It moves around. That’s why people are scared of it (of having their art turn into the next kitsch, making it worthless). But that’s why it makes such a promising zone of experimentation: it’s mobile. Once you enter into kitsch zone high becomes low, foreigner becomes “us”, not by becoming a naturalized but by assuming a place while wearing a mask. That’s why I’m interested in kitsch as a zone of exploration in my own work, and why Asco has been a great inspiration for me.
A couple of more things…
I would say that Romero’s statement that Asco has an “activist tendency” is both true and false. It’s true that a lot of their art made interesting political interventions – such as when they sent a fake (kitsch?) photograph of a dead chicano guy lying in the street to news sources (which published it), or when they dressed up in crucifixion type gear and blocked the draft office in their neighborhood. But I don’t think the “activist” label is entirely right because as the photograph example shows they were not often programmatic about their politics. They seemed more interested in images than in setting up a clear political agenda; they were explicitly at odds with the more traditionally, explicitly “activist” Chicano artists of the time (and the greater Chicano movement, even as it was part of it, this is well documented).
So when Romero writes:
“The plight of the Chicano movement is not some isolated “Foreign” experiment. It is a social movement against violence, oppression, and unnecessary death, during a time in which other American collectives were also publicly struggling for their livelihood.”
He may be right about the Chicano movement, but not necessarily about Asco. I definitely think that Asco was precisely about a “foreign experiment.” This is exactly how I read their work, and I don’t think that is to criticize them or to demean them. I think this is a very profound, very political form “experiment.”
I do think Romero is totally on the spot when he writes:“Foreigner means not from here. Here being the pace of the main subject, the one speaking, the one in an ultimate position of power.” Do we really want to just become that un-foreigner? That person in power? Or do we want to trouble that position? That person? That structure of dealing with difference?
I think this is where we get at the heart of the matter.
Since this blog doesn’t allow “comments”, I’ll post a link to it from Montevidayo.com, and I welcome people who want to join in the discussion to meet me there!
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….