Tilman Baumgaertel on Thu, 28 May 1998 17:11:04 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Interview w/ Roberto Sifuentes and Guillermo Gomez-Pena

The following interview with Mexican-american perfomance artists Roberto
Sifuentes and Guillermo Gomez-Pena has been sitting on my hard digsk for quite
some time now. It was conducted at last year's ars electronica,gand for many
moons I have been trying to get in touch with Roberto or Guillermo to have my
transcript approved as I usually do with my interviews.

So if anybody knows how to reach one of them, or if you, Roberto or Guillermo,
are on this list, please get in touch, I need more info. The others remember
that this interview is not yet "approved".



>>Tilman Baumgaertel, Hornstr. 3, 10963 Berlin, Germany
Tel./Fax. 030-2170962, email: baum@snafu.de<<<


The Border Patrol in Cyberspace

Tilman Baumgaertel: Tell me about your Net project

Roberto Sifuentes: We've created a kind of techno-
confessional on the WorldWideWeb where people can
come and confess their intercultural cyber sins to us. It's a
form survey that asks questions about people's tolerance for
other cultures, tolerance to other languages, it asks people
about the hegemony of the internet...

Guillermo Gomez-Pena: ...and why english is the lingua
franca of the internet.

Sifuentes: So the questionnaire is broken up into several
sections about arts, immigration issues, intercultural
experiences. There's also a "graffitti" page which functions
as an instant bulletin board where people can post and have
discussions and spray paint the site, so to speak. We also
invite people to send us images, sounds and texts about
their imagined Mexican or Chicano of the 90s.

GGP: Basically we want to bring a Chicano-Mexican
sensibility to cyberspace. We see ourselves (these words
might not be translatable) as web bags. That's a pun on wet
back, which is derogative for Mexicans. We see ourself as
kind of immigrants in cyberspace. We also see ourselves as
coyotes, as smugglers of ideas, because we do believe that
there is a border control in cyberspace and that the internet
is a somewhat culturally, socially, racially specific space.

Q: What kind of reactions do you get?

GGP: Whenever someone confesses to us during a live
performance, there is a moral implication, a moral contract.
They look into our eyes, we look into their eyes. Their
voice is being recorded, and they know that; therefore they
tend to be a bit more careful, a bit more sensitive. But once
you get onto the internet, there is total anonymity and
people can impersonate other identities: men can become
women, whites can become blacks, young people can
become older etc. So there are zero moral indications, and
people can really engage in an exercise of imagination, of
extreme fear and desire. And that's when it gets really

?: Can you give some examples of the confessions that you

RS: We ask questions of the internet users. For example: If
you had a gang member covered in tattoos, or an Native
American in full regalia, or a Mexican macho dressed as a
postmodern Zorro in a gallery what fantasy would you have
them perform for you. And People answer us: "I would
want the Zorro to sling me over his shoulder, stick a
chicken up his ass and run around yelling: Bob Dole is a
homosexual." Or they write things like: "I would have the
cholo tattoo the Native American with cave drawings." - "I
would like the Mexican to rip my clothes off with a
machete, so I can bath in chili ancho sauce in order for him
to wrap me in a warm tortilla, so at the end he can eat me
with a shot of tequila."

Q: Do you feel personally hurt by such derogative

RS: It is very disturbing. Of course, many comments like
these have been personally directed towards me. I feel that
it is very revealing of the psyche of America. It is a
barometer of the intolerance of other cultures. So I feel
anger, which keeps me going and which reinforces that we
have to do this kind of experiments and this type of work.

Q: The myth is that internet users are typically well-
educated academics in their twenties and thirties. You
wouldn't expect this kind of comments coming from them...

GGP: In fact, we do appeal to as many communities as we
can. In our live performances, we appeal audiences that
don't have access to the internet, and also through our
telephone confessional. So in fact we are not just talking to
academia. The constituencies we are engaging with in
dialogue are multiple. Sadly, most of the stereotypes seem
to remain similar.

RS: But you are right, it is very disturbing given the
demographic breakdown of the internet which is, you
know, white male liberal academic intellectuals, these
supposedly tolerant and liberal minded people - that these
are the responses coming from them.

Q: But aren't asking for it? Aren't you producing these
stereotypes, when you ask such questions?

GGP: Not really. We want people to hang themselves.
Currently there is a national denial about the state of race
relations and racism in the United States. In fact there is a
backlash, and people are unwilling to discuss these issues
in public forums, and that that is one of the reasons why we
decide to bring the darkest zones of the subconscious to
these internet questionnaire, where people are as free as
possible and linguistically unpoliced, and they can be as
sincere or insensitive or direct as they want to be, and there
will be no moral repercussions. So in fact we are creating
an extreme reverse anthropology.

RS: This is important, because when we started this
project, the internet was seen as sorft of the last frontier,
the final refuge where issues about race relations don't have
to be discussed, where race doesn't matter - as a strategy of
avoidance. So it was important for us to venture out into

the internet, and when we first "arrive there", we started
getting responses back like: "There goes the virtual 'barrio',
there goes the neighborhood. The mexicans have arrived."
Literally, people send us mails like that.

GGP: And also a lot of metaphors connected with: the
Mexicans seen as a virus, seen as a fly, or as a disease,
contaminating the purity of cyberspace. With "CyberVato",
the piece doesn't really get completed in cyberspace. The
website is just an instrument to attain information that
would be impossible to attain through fieldwork. What we
have done with this webpage, is create an incredible survey
of American psyches. We have tapped into American
psyches and fears in regards to Otherness, to immigration
and to people coming from the south. And when we gather
this information, we process it and create these composite
identities, these Mexican Frankensteins that later on we
involve or reinterpreting through our performance.

?: So waht are these perfomances like?

GGP: The true completion of the piece takes place in the
live performance. That is when we are able to "reproduce"
or reinterpret these ethno-cyborgs created by the collective
imagination of the net users. When people get to see their
own innern monsters and their own innern demons - that is
where some kind of purging takes place. And then a
process of reflexivity gets triggered, which might
eventually lead to a betterment of consciousness.

?: Do you think that if more people have access to the net,
that there will be more diversity on the net? Or will it add
to the seperation between different social groups?

RS: I don't think that the nature of the internet is such that
people don't stay in their own area. I guess it is more fluid.
You often find things that are unexpected. People find our
website, because they navigate their way through the net.

GGP: What is very disturbing to us -  at least in the
electronic arts community -  is how deeply desized the
debates have been up until now. I know that in the last
years, people from the feminist community, cultural critics
and people from "Third World Countries" have been
allowed to the tables of discussion. But it is not enough,
and there is only a handful of voices. And still discussion
about priviledge, power, access are not entirely adressed
the way they should be. In the entire chicano arts
community might not be more than twenty artists who have
access to the discussions.

?: How is the situation in Mexico? Is online-access easily
avalable, or is it a privilege?

GGP: It's an uncredible priviledge. Only people in the
upper classes, or people affliated with big corporations or
government institutions who really can afford to buy a
computer, and the servers are incredibly expensive. Also,
the telephone company makes sure that only the major
cities can connect to the net.

Let me just give you one example: Subcommandante
Marcos, the leader of the Zapatistas, is a techno whizz. He
sends his legendary poetic press releases directly from the
djungle, and a group of canadian liberals post these
messages to one of the Zapatista website. So he has a direct
contact to the international intellectual community.
However, the mexican telephone company impedes that
people who live in the country side and have access to
computers plug into the net. So, unless you live in Mexico
City, you don't have access to what the Zapatistas are
saying on the net.

?: Do you think that the internet could be a means for
artists in the so-called Third World to circumnavigate
around the traditional art system that excludes them?

RS: Yeah, it is happening and growing more and more.
People are using the internet to communicate in ways that
were impossible before to gain access to the works of other
artists. It helps us out too, because the two of us live on
different coasts, so our collaboration is often conducted via
the internet. But of course, it is merely a tool. It can't ever
substitute human interaction, the exchange of ideas across
the table, people getting together and making work

?: At a festival like ars electronica, do you feel excluded?

GGP: Artists like Roberto and I are insiders and outsiders
at the same time. But we benefit from this condition of
being partial insiders. In fact, I might say, for us the art
world is a laboratory to develop radical ideas. But once you
have developed these ideas, the true objective is to step
outside of the art world, and into politically meaningful
territories, into the media, education, direct political action,
or other realms of social activity. But I still treasure the art
world, because in the 90ies it is one of the few places
where radical thinking and radical esthetic behavior can
take place. It is extremely important for us to partially
operate within the art world.

Netprojects by the Sifuentes and Gomez-Pena:

Mexterminator II


The Dangerous Border Game
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