<Book Review>
Exercises for Rebel Artists: Radical Performance Pedagogy
Gómez-Peña, Guillermo & Roberto Sifuentes
[London and New York: Routledge, 2011. (238 pp.) ]

Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuente’s Exercises for Rebel Artists: Radical Performance Pedagogy distills some of the renowned La Pocha Nostra teachings to a methodological handbook meant to incite communities of radical performance and generate spaces for borderless transgressions. After thirteen years of globally testing their pedagogy and collaborating with various intellectuals, artists, and curators, these two vatos locos and pedagogical nomads offer their method as an insertion into the field of performance pedagogy. Gómez-Peña, driven by his reassessment of identity and community in an era of globalization and the possibilities of teaching La Pocha’s radical aesthetics in academia, posits the exercises as opportunities for experimenting with the links of performance, everyday life, and the civic realm. The Pocha classroom/workshop space, envisioned in the book through a series of exercises and illustrations, followed by a letter and conversation, is intended to serve as a demilitarized zone where a highly charged political space(s) meets borderless utopia for radical re-envisionings. The Pocha method is a masterpiece because it is in a permanent process of reinvention, adapting in each cultural context.

This methodological text serves as a blueprint for those who want to develop Pocha Nostra style workshops in their own artist communities and/or universities. This audience is constituted by a cosmology of intergenerational rebels, including but not limited to, the “immigrant, outsider, deterritorialized, robo-shamanic, and queer loc@” (xiv). Gómez-Peña and Sifuentes foreground the construction of the workshop as a site to create temporary communities of rebel artists, noting how to cast a convocatoria (call for participants), how to identify and prepare as de-institutionalized a space as feasible, and some notes to workshop participants. Words to avoid include, “chinga tu madre, Derrida, horny, liminal, personal is political, and shamanic” (33). The book contains exercises in five parts with poignant photographic images, illustrations generated by previous workshops, and anatomical sketches. Inspired by the 12-day summer sessions that began in Oaxaca in 2005, the sections build towards a public salon for intervening in specific locales.

The hostile environment the participants and maestros entered into for the first workshop during teacher’s union strikes in Oaxaca, accompanied by intense government repression, set the tone for this text and the Spirit of all Pocha workshops. In Gómez-Peña’s 2006 erudite “Letter from Oaxaca,” he describes this world in transnational flux where 50,000 citizens had gathered to support the teachers (216). Intrepid as to what, if any audience their final salon would bring, as they responded to the politics all around, they persisted, creating a bizarre sanctuary for freedom. Hundreds of Oaxacans attended the salon, calling upon the cultural haven of performance. There was no better time to be there.

Each exercise in the method draws upon moments and needs created in environments such as what they found in Oaxaca. In Part One, participants run blind through two corridors of peers, learning to be alert witnesses and trust the group space. In Part Two, participants undertake conceptual frameworks, including the “poetic exquisite corpse” where they poetically map a rhetorical statement. One such utterance was, “I make art to avoid mental institutions” (227). In Part Three, participants develop their “prop and costume installations,” challenged to go beyond social and psychological realism in the creation of their performance persona (107). They also create “human altars” in a postmodern and post-colonial project of interpreting group inspirations onto one body (116). Part Three also includes the “guerilla interventions into multiples spaces (indoors/outdoors)” (120). As a participant in their radical summer school in 2011 in San Francisco, California, we sauntered off the Mexican party bus in full persona onto the 16th Street Mission BART station, after being sent off by our fearless leader with, “Go fuck with them!” We were confronted by a band of Latino evangelical Christians who then proceeded with an attempt at exorcising our souls, while voyeuristic San Francisco policemen documented profusely on their iPhones. In these spaces, participants are alerted to the total world being created and lines blur. In Part Four, similar to a musical jam, “jam sessions” are ignited where the full limits of personas are explored (137-49). In Part Five, the “ultimate jam session” is enacted for a public audience, where personas create conversations in response to other bodies and architecture (150). The public performance is an invitation into the Pocha universe.

While the book is concise and thoroughly accessible, there is something to be said for having experienced the teachings first-hand before attempting to create your own Pocha environment. This is not necessarily a critique, but rather an encouragement to really know the Pocha aesthetic before embarking on constructing a workshop. Some of the exercises, however, taken on their own can be very useful in multiple pedagogical settings. As a tool of reflection and creation, the maestros have created an enviable condensation of their beloved nomadic project. Now that I teach an introduction to performance studies class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I have my students reading and using this text, performing guerilla interventions in the free speech zones on campus as part of one of the class sessions. As Gómez-Peña once told me, “we need to be everywhere.” True to form, Exercises for Rebel Artists is an open invitation and a guide for plunging into the abyss of radical, queer, polysemantic, and multi-bordered worlds that is La Pocha Nostra. There is no turning back, but those who dare to venture will not come out unchanged.

     — Reviewed by Brittany D. Chávez, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License..