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.
Mala : What role does the idea of “safety” play in structuring your performance in such a way?
Irina : I am not sure either one of us really believe in “safety”.
Nico: It’s interesting because in some ways people seem to think that going to a performance should be safe, comfortable. But in reality, for many people, a performance that is supposed to be “entertainment,” can be psychologically upsetting.
For instance, seeing a white performer in blackface.
Irina: And UNSAFE for us and for future performers and audience, particularly of people of color, particularly queer people of color…and so on.
We recognize where the need for “safety” comes from. We understand why people reach for this in our communities. And, at this point, at least as performers, producers etc. I think that a number of us feel it has not worked.
Nico: We never pretend to say that our work is entertainment. Instead, we want to invite those moments of discomfort and sit with them, allow them to become a part of the performance itself and deal with political and social implications
Even when we as artists and performers think we are just telling a story, we are also asking someone to listen and interpret that story. You never know what an audience is taking away from a performance.
Irina: It has been years of being the only person of color in white academic spaces, for example, where I just start to wonder when I see an all poc crew on stage, what are the white audience members doing with our stories? I think often they are using it to expand their “world”, become educated and then what? What happens with us or to our world? Nothing. Because often times, there weren’t enough of us there in the room.
Nico: Asking them to participate is a way to get immediate feedback and actually have an exchange and in a best case scenario, invite the audience to create the narrative with you.
Nico: And it also deals with an idea that has interested me for a long time around who is an artist or performer and who is authorized to get on a stage.
Irina: We are both definitely interested in “who gets to speak/who gets to create/peform” and then somehow performs this kinda one poc narrative.
Mala: How does your piece look at immigration detention differently?
Irina : We think that Scenes Unseen will look at immigration detention differently because it involves and speaks to people’s/performers direct experiences and lives. We are not invested in getting caught up in how the media and politics wanna spin “immigration”. All of the people in the show have varied experiences whether firsthand, the threat of or come from families that experiences silenced threats and thus inherited the code of silence as a way to deal with immigration and crossing. We see and want to make visible the connections between the ways our bodies are policed now and were in 1931 at La Placita and in 1872 during the Page Act etc.
Mala: Would you say the piece challenges some of immigration activism currently happening?
Irina : So yes and no. Yes, because several of the performers consider themselves activists in some way, I think. I also think that all of us are invested in movement and building whether or not we use any certain word to define ourselves such as activist etc. So, in this way I think we represent a good gamut of what a loosely defined “community” looks like. We don’t all know each other, we are linked and I am sure we don’t agree on everything.
Mala : And how does the piece touch on the ways gender is read and used in immigrant detention settings?
Irina: In 2007, a person who was close to me died in a hospital bed due to HIV related complications of Kaposi’s Sarcoma. She was a transwoman and documented but she died in a bed alone because nurses would not touch her body. They would not turn her over to help her wounds breath on her back. Within a few months Victoria Arellano died in a similar manner. Except she was chained.
When it came time to grieve, I really felt that personally, probably more than ever, I needed a public space with friends and community to grieve and it wasn’t there.
It happened to be that Ellvira Arellano was deported the same week Victoria died, and those events took precedence over Victoria’s.
They could have been joined but they were not.
No one believed that Elvira’s vigil should have been canceled but rather joined.
Mainstream media doesn’t care about how transgendered and queer bodies migrate and what kinds of similarities there actually are.
Victoria and Elvira were both women, they were both undocumented and
ironically or not so ironically the main vigil was held in held in la Placita
which is where the 1931 raid took place and where my grandmother went to elementary school.
Mala : So this is also personal to you?
Irina: Yes. Even though, yes i am documented and born here pero I grew up hearing from my grandmother that we could be snatched at any time.
It took me years to figure out what exactly she meant.
Nico: For me, I think about the ways that I have been encouraged to forget my family’s immigration history and how that influences why I want to support the stories of Scenes Unseen being told. My father went through craziness to get to the US, but in the end all that matters is that myself and my siblings are US citizens now who should reap the rewards of citizenship. If we forget the stories or don’t fight to have them told today then we are complicit.
Mala: Right so how the place of citizenship gets gotten to is erased? The narrative shifts from struggle to only the ‘happy’,successful ending?
Nico: Yes, exactly.
Mala : And how does that shift happen?
Nico: I think that there is that American Dream, manifest destiny narrative that says if you can just make it over, then you can start over and be a new person. I think that really appealed to my father in a lot of ways. It hasn’t been until now that he is older that he tells the stories of all he went through to get to the US, rather than focusing on the “happy ending.”
Mala: Hmm and why do you think that happened?
Nico : Partially, I think it is because I want to hear those stories and ask for them.
But also, I think that he has the emotional ability to deal with the stories now that so much time has passed. He is really able to be reflective. We don’t have to make up stories, cuz they happen all the time. We just need to know them and it’s especially important for first generation here to ask for and about those stories from our elders.
Mala: It seems to me that part of this project is about reclaiming co-option, invisibility, like you said earlier Irina, unweaving.
Irina: yes, definitely and there is so much more to be done with this form. It doesn’t take much reweaving I think to figure out where we are all connected. I have gone through several different including journalistic approaches to visualizing and discussing and what I found
is that even in a lot of supposed feminist spaces my experience wasn’t “immigrant” enough for them or they had a certain quota for how many people could speak. I don’t think i made the cut, so in the end my voice was cut out . I think that if we are made to be separate by these kinds of terms, documented/undocumented or first generation versus second generation and so forth, then there is success at separating and silencing us further.
You can help make sure that the voices of Scenes/Unseen are not silenced. Irina and Nico are seeking funding via Kickstarter.