PERFORMANCE STUDY: ASCO AND A BRIEF DISCUSSION ON DISPLACEMENT IN LOS ANGELES
Returning home to LA after two years of being away, it's easier to see the changes that are taking place. I lived in this city for eleven years before taking off, so to step back and see it from a new perspective, while at the same time understanding its long history, has been very influential on me. Given that cities in the US are experiencing regeneration after decades of neglect, with the majority who previously preferred suburbs and small towns now showing a preference for the city, every major urban area is going through similar changes. But still, I can't help but to resist some of the change happening in my own city, perhaps because I felt I 'belonged' to the LA that once was.
I mean, I feel so connected to LA that I shed a tear for a few closed shops in my old neighborhood. Seeing a completely vacant storefront of a business that had been around since before I was born really bummed me out. It's like a new type of person has taken over Highland Park, and where I may have been guilty of once being the gentrifier, now I'm pointing the finger at the new people for putting in vintage stores on every block and opening coffee shops where a variety of small businesses once served the community. I feel displaced, not having a sense of home in my own neighborhood, and refusing to support the spike in rent. Regardless, obviously these businesses are serving the new community, otherwise they wouldn't thrive, so maybe it's me who's unable to adapt. In effort to do so however, I asked myself to look at history to see how other people have dealt with this.
Another time LA experienced a huge overhaul was when the freeways were constructed. Neighborhoods were literally cut up. Houses razed. Major streets closed. (And this, actually, was a nation-wide phenomenon as well). Before the late 1970s, suburbs and neighboring counties could only be accessed from the city through major street routes. But once the car took over in the 1950s, LA modeled itself after the success of the first freeway in the world, The Arroy Seco Parkway, which was a small section of what is now California's 110 freeway that connected Los Angeles to neighboring Pasadena. So began a campaign to easily connect the entire city to the outside world that lasted through the late 1970s. As a major side effect of this long construction period, communities were ripped apart, thousands of homes were demolished, and people were displaced. And as one might suspect, a majority of the demolition was of lower income neighborhoods housing minorities.
Towards the end of the freeway construction era in Los Angeles, an artist group of Mexican Americans known as Asco formed, almost in reaction to what was taking place in their neighborhood by Harry Gamboa, Jr., "Gronk" Nicandro, Willie Herrón and Patssi Valdez in Boyle Heights. (Asco means nausea in Spanish). During the freeway construction, Boyle Heights endured the erection of 5 major freeways, with two large interchanges; diving the neighborhood through its center, demolishing thousands of homes and businesses. At the same time, the Vietnam War was taking place, and many residents of Boyle Heights were recruited to join the military. Combine that with the blatant racism against Mexicans in the US during that era, and yeah, Asco had a reason to be pissed.
But what's so great about Asco is that instead of bitching and moaning, they turned their suffering into art. They explored performance art, and brought new takes to old ideas. Playing with the tradition of murals in Mexican culture for example, Asco made live murals with people, and took photographs or recorded their performances. (As seen above). They also adapted traditional Catholic themes, paying homage to their culture, while simultaneously brining awareness to the injustices they collectively endured.
My favorite of these performances is seen above. A take on The Last Supper, where the performers are wearing traditional Dia de Los Muertos costumes (in December around Christmas time, however) in the same location where a riot had broken out a few years prior after rubber bullets were shot by police at a group of protestors demonstrating against the Vietnam War.
Two years earlier, Asco had done a similar performance, replacing the Christmas Parade that was revoked as a result of the riot, with a performance parade entitled, Walking Mural, that took the old parade route, only this time it ended at the US Marine Corps recruiting office. Dressed as the Virgen de Guadalupe, a Christmas Tree and the Holy Trinity, the group made a procession with reference to the Stations of the Cross, carrying a large cross with them through the streets, effectively recruiting people in the neighborhood to march onto the military recruiting office to shut it down. If only for a day, Asco was successful in making art meaningful.
Living in the "Entertainment Capital of the World," Asco also did a series of short-lived performances they called No Movies. These performances consisted of costumes and filmic scenes set up for one or two photographs. The intention was to make images that appeared to be film stills, only there was no actual film associated with the images.
In the early stages of Asco's No Movies, group member, Gamboa, upon realizing the Chicano* artist community was underrepresented at LACMA (the city's only contemporary art museum at the time), approached LACMA's curator to ask him why this was the case. It was reported that the curator's response was, "Chicanos are gang members who don't make fine art," so Asco turned around and played out the stereotype by spray painting their names on the entrances of the museum. In an act of iconoclasm, Gamboa photographed Patssi Valdez posing with the "graffiti." This No Movie was called Spray Paint LACMA, and later became one of their most famous. I found a rather witty description below a slide in, Urban Exile: Collected Writings of Harry Gamboa, Jr, (1998) that said, "All entrances of the museum are spray painted with the names of Herrón, Gamboa and Gronkie, transforming the museum itself into the first work of Chicano art to be exhibited at LACMA."
At a time when Mexicans in America were extremely marginalized, Asco spoke out through performance and imagery to question the status quo. They also disregarded the 'rules' of fine art, paving the way for experimental modes of art, especially with the use of performance, the topics of identity, and the application of still and motion pictures with otherwise fleeting performance work.
More than 30 years later in 2011, ironically, LACMA hosted a large retrospective of Asco's work, which is where I first learned of them, so I guess their resistance finally paid off. I doubt my resistance against the current wave of displacement in Los Angeles will be quite as effective, considering I'm just writing blog posts about it and turning my frustrations into jewelry pieces and hats, but who knows...
*I chose to only use the word Chicano when it was used by the group itself. I was taught that Chicano is a term used to identify oneself as Mexican American, but with a distinction that 'Chicano' connotes oppression. As this term is interpreted in many ways, I opted to not use it in my own right in effort to stay neutral.
Courtney Cady © Bagtazo, 2015