Often when attending a performance, the role of the audience is as a passive witness. Their role is to observe and in some sense accept what is placed before them. Rarely is it a challenging space. Often there is an expectation of being catered to, of being told a story and walking away with new knowledge, but not a new experience. Scenes Unseen, an interactive, multimedia production produced by Irina Contreras and Nico Dacumos, slated to premiere at the National Queer Arts Festival on June 4, 2011 at the African American Arts & Culture Complex (in San Francisco), wants to change all that. They have created a work that touches on some of various intersections among immigration, detention, race, sexuality and gender. Irina & Nico were gracious enough to chat with me about the project, how it came to be, and why they chose to format the performance in a way that confronts not just the audience, but the performers as well.
Mala : What is Scenes Unseen about and who are the performers in this piece?
Irina : Scenes Unseen involves several narratives in which people have had to choose certain aspects of their identity such as within detention centers, immigration processing units, jails and many others over the course of history and today. In 2007, a woman named Victoria Arellano died in the San Pedro Detention Center. This incident as well as the response to the event led to the creation of Scenes Unseen. Nico’s poem, Hasta la Victoria, read in the beginning of the kickstarter video is based on for written for Victoria.
One act features Kristina Wong and Ms Barbie Q performing as themselves but looking at how they have engaged with their identities when they have entered spaces as women of color performers. Another act features choreography by Cherry Galette, texts and performance by Bamby Salcedo and Nenu that touch upon the 1931 Placita Raid in LA, the vigil for Victoria Arellano in 2007 and the physical act of crossing among other things. Byron Jose, an artist born in Guatemala, is doing a performance that looks at his own personal story while weaving what it’s like to work with people that call themselves “immigration activists”. He chose the place of the airplane since that is how so many people are deported to Guatemala in particular. Diego Gomez and Amitis Motevalli AKA the Sandninja are also performing and are a little different in that we have chosen them because they both are incredibly articulate in their ability to improv within the public that attends performance. And those are just a few of our performers!
Nico: Overall, the idea of using specific physical spaces fits into our ideas of interactive theater and finding ways to engage and challenge an audience by getting them out of their seats and having them “play” with us.
The audience will be led through many different parts of the theater, including the foyer, the parking lot, the backstage ramp and the theater proper. Part of how audience engagement has come up is in terms of thinking of what happens when we as artists try to challenge audiences or other things we see as oppressive. Oftentimes, a performance that is supposed to challenge, say, white fetishization, just results in more fetishization by white audiences.
Mala : So how do you challenge that second level of fetishization?
Irina & Nico : One possible way is to address is directly while it is happening in the performance by physically interacting with the audience.
Irina: I think its important to reflect upon it later, but also in the moment.
Nico: Another way is through structuring your performance in such a way that you are not just a brown queer performer that can be looked at and enjoyed, but a real live person that is talking to the audience and asking them to participate in the performance.
Irina: We recognize that we are only human and we will often interact in ways that fall into the ways we were socialized but we do also believe based on previous experiences working to further develop ourselves as people, performers, writer, teachers etc. that we have to challenge these norms more proactively.