This Is What I Want Festival 2015
THIS IS WHAT I WANT (TIWIW) is an annual festival of performances about (queer) desire, based in the Bay Area. Artistically directed by Tessa Wills, TIWIW captures and inspires a field of art and activity that lies at the intersection of sex and performance practice. It explores desire as a force through organizing, curating and commissioning intellectual and artistic work. The work we present inspires audiences, readers and listeners to get curious about desire as a thread running through the foundations of our culture, capitalist economy and interpersonal relationships. The Bay Area has a unique history of creating permissions and cultural game changers in the fields of sexuality and performance. THIS IS WHAT I WANT represents a new wave on fertile ground. This year marks the sixth year of the festival, which has been making cutting edge fierce risky work, attracting international attention for shows at a production quality high above our punching weight.
THIS IS WHAT I WANT 2015 features three powerful artists revealing hidden desires, unheard voices and invisible body parts. One of the three artists, Cristina Victor, sat down with co-curator crystal am nelson to discuss ass, Miami vs. San Francisco, and the potential for failure to be a good thing.
crystal am nelson: I understand you’re from Miami. What prompted you to move to the Bay Area?
Cristina Victor: That is right, born and raised in the 305. A broken heart had me wandering when I decided to leave New York after living there for 3 years. I had no real trajectory other than to just go as far away as my meager means could take me. You know, the kind of impulsive shit you do when you have nothing to lose. I briefly lived in a beach town in north San Diego before packing my stuff and heading to San Francisco, even though I had never been to the Bay before and to be honest I was quite ignorant of its history or art scene. But the minute I first drove across the Bay, I was instantly enchanted. Best impulsive decision I’ve ever made.
I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of weeks in Miami, steeped in the local art scene there. There was so much compelling and exciting work happening there, and I got the sense that the community was mutually supportive. How would you say Miami’s art scene compares to the Bay Area’s?
Both scenes have similar struggles but could not be more different. Rising rent prices, rapid gentrification, a tight knit community and both cities are known for the transience and beauty. To be honest, I haven’t lived in Miami for over 10 years and when I lived there, I felt like more of a witness to the growth, not a contributor. Miami’s scene is definitely growing and while great work is exhibited all year by long standing local pioneers of the scene I have the privilege of knowing, Miami Art Basel is a core fuel to the growth of which I have mixed feelings about. There is this build up all year round to this bombastic event where everything happens at once and then everyone crashes and settles ‘til it all starts again. Like hurricane season!
In the Bay, there is a long history of diverse bohemian communities and the vibe is slow and steady. Although many exhibitions spaces are endangered if not relocating or closing altogether due to the absurd rent crisis, there is still this mutual sense of perseverance and inclusivity that I identify with. My grad school experience at the San Francisco Art Institute really helped me integrate into the Bay Area art scene almost instantly. I think it was also a matter of timing and where I was with my work. Performance is incredibly embraced here which certainly works for me. I would love to see if both communities can work together some how.
Miami’s culture is definitely infused throughout your work, so much so that you created a persona named Miami who you performed for three years. Tell me more about that. How did Miami come to life?
She was a composite with many ingredients.
The “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” question I kept having to answer once I moved out here really perplexed me. I had dealt with some of this in New York but not to this extent. The not passing, the otherness. What perplexed me even more were the responses to my being from Miami. Some how, Will Smith’s Welcome to Miami song and excerpts from Scarface seemed to be the common references people felt compelled to perform at me. This got me thinking, if other people’s perceptions of my home town were totally based on stereotypical constructions produced by mass media, then how do I define my Miami? That’s when I got performative about it; it was the only way to address this. I personally feel humor is a powerful coping mechanism for many places with a colonial history, and Cubans of all generations are quite versed in this. It’s no news that Miami has been known to be the biggest Cuban (and Caribbean) exile community in the country. My family is a part of that. The entertainment media there is produced to cater to this audience and my single mom worked for the Univision television network for almost 20 years, I grew up immersed in this. I spent a lot of time behind the scenes of staple variety and talk shows at the channel, including the recently cancelled Sabado Gigante. I was always fascinated with the weird dynamic of the women on the show and the host. They remained silent, yet hyper-sexualized and very embellished and on the periphery. Sofia Vergara started that way! I witnessed my mom navigate these very patriarchal spaces as best she could professionally. It was often hard to witness and understand but I admired her own performance through it. I also used a lot of my mother’s mannerisms and clothing for the character. She’s a big ingredient.
Having real distance from Miami also made me really see how special a place it is culturally and how unique of an upbringing I endured there. I’m pretty nostalgic and because of this, I can’t help but source my practice with the Miami that was, not so much the Miami that is now.
Also, I was just straight up irritated with the fact that I could not for the life of me find decent Cuban food in the Bay! Still can’t! So, I thought it would be a good premise for a video series that mimicked what I knew.
And now you’re in the process of laying Miami to rest, so to speak? How does that feel, after spending three years with this project, to bring to final closure?
Miami allowed me to experiment a lot! Video production, costume design, culinary event coordinating and hosting, public engagement, indecent proposals, booty shaking contests, bass parties, cafecito pop-ups, and even a telenovela themed restaurant. She was my ticket to realizing any crazy idea I had. She gave me license to call myself an artist y con ganas! She also gave me a chance to play with displaying my sexuality. But I had to kill her off. I had to lay her to rest before I resented her. I was starting to feel like what I imagine a typecasted, washed up, token actor feels like. A one trick pony with many hidden talents going to waste. I’m excited to explore and display new projects she showed me the path to. She surfaces here and there anyway. Bicho malo nunca muere.
Although you’re bringing Miami to a close, your body of work and your current projects still deal with Cuban and Latin@ diasporic identity through the lenses of humor and kitsch, though the history of the diaspora, the Cuban diaspora specifically, is often couched in narratives of tragedy and loss. How do you negotiate these tensions in your work?
The elder generation of Cubans I grew up with were so affected by nostalgia and longing for a place that is no longer available to them, yet it’s idealized in their memory. It’s a sensibility that is both rich and paralyzing. I sincerely feel like I inherited a lot of that weight and have always felt obligated to speak about it which is partly why so much of my work has been identity based. But in trying to tell their story, it has led me to play with telling mine.
One of my favorite essays is by Garcia Lorca, “The Play and Theory of Duende”. The word duende fascinates and comforts me, so much so that I have it tattooed on my chest. It is riddled with contradiction. It is one of the most difficult words to translate but it basically encompasses the beauty and pain that is life, simultaneously expressed through performance, typically flamenco. This expression should create a sense of overwhelming suspension in all of it for the spectator, which to me means arriving to a space of pure empathy that other means of communication fail to do. That’s some serious power to me and I strive to tap into it every time.
I love contradiction. Every story has many tucked within it. Ultimately its about choosing the ingredients but also allowing room for the unexpected to happen. I need to feel a little vulnerable in my work because that’s where I feel the invitation for dialogue can reside.
And now that relations between the U.S. and Cuba are dramatically improving with the possibility of travel directly from the States to Cuba immanent, how do you think that will impact your work, if at all? Do you think you’ll visit or spend extended time in Cuba?
I have no idea how it will impact my work but I’m going to find out. I have several people in my life who are absolutely opposed to me going to Cuba, but after focusing my studies as an academic and artist for over 11 years on Latin American/Caribbean/Cuban identity and history, it is now absolutely a goal for me to spend time there this year, starting with my family’s native cities of Havana and Sagua La Grande. My family endured so much hardship before leaving: torture, incarceration, theft, basically totally stripped of everything and anything they had. That trauma runs very deep. As a Cuban-American artist, I want to be part of the conversation and future of the changes to come and I know many other 1st and 2nd generation Cubans who feel the same. I am very affected and tied to a place that is so charged and linked to my identity and art practice yet is forbidden to my access. I’m tired of it. My gut tells me it’s time to go—smell it, walk in it, breathe it, dance with it. The urge surpasses the politics of the past and present despite my deep empathy for my family and others who suffered due to the Castro Regime. But I honestly see going and acquainting myself with Cuba now as a potential healing for them and myself. I’m cautious yet excited for the talk of change. Es hora.
Let’s talk about the project you’re doing for this year’s This Is What I Want festival. Your performance is titled ASS Capital. Where did you come up with such a great title?
ASS Capital just seems so appropriate right now. Midway through the Miami project I knew I needed to make a project about ass. Ass was once this thing that was celebrated only within certain ethnic subcultures but I find it curious that pop culture has embraced this as a fad?! Yet, the fad is really bringing people of color to the spotlight, in complicated ways of course. Just feels like a charged avenue to talk about race and identity and the feminine body in the contemporary moment. I didn’t know how or what, but once I was approached about proposing for this festival, it seemed just right to make it about ass.
Tell me what Ass Capital is about and how did you come develop this performance? How much of it is related to your extended work as Miami?
I’ve witnessed the power of ass ever since I could remember. My mom…I was always very aware of her sexuality. The attention she got, how men expressed it to her unabashedly and how she negotiated all of it. She knew how to work it. Luckily, I inherited her asset but it took me a while to figure out what to do with it.
Recently, as I was researching for this project, I asked her how she became so self aware and comfortable in her body, particularly with her ass in mind. She told me that while she and her sister and my grandmother, America, were in Mexico for several months while they waited to transition to Miami from Cuba, she remembers that abuela wore culottes unlike most of the women who wore long skirts then. This and her figure attracted attention that somehow really affected my mother. She said men would go far out of their way to celebrate my grandmother’s figure and even approach her with marriage proposals. My grandmother was not a very empowered woman, but somehow this read as power to my mother and she chose to exercise this allure intentionally as a woman herself later in life.
With the Miami project, I played with embodying all of this as part of the character, and of course including the 90s Miami Booty Base culture I know and love. Many people thought the project was just about my ass, which is fine and hilarious as well because I realized, everyone took away what they wanted from the performances. I’m not responsible for what resonates just as long as something resonates. I did however realize that my ass was in some ways the face of Miami el personaje. It was how I passed as “Latina” or Cuban even. I had to ask myself, if my ass could talk, what would it say about itself, about love, about others, about sex… about me?
I’ve been curious to work in a theatrical stage setting and to script my performance which is not something I typically do, but I’m channeling my inner John Leguizamo. The TEDtalk framework appeases my need of appropriating and ties together the media research and sourcing.
When I first read your proposal, it brought to mind the work of Jack Halberstam, particularly his book The Queer Art of Failure. Ass Capital specifically reminds me of how, despite common desires for racialized and gendered bodies or their constituent parts to somehow be transparent or knowable because of their hypervisibility. We constantly see in popular culture that certain bodies are continuously expected to perform their otherness, yet these bodies consistently remain elusive and opaque. They fail to proffer the meanings imposed upon them. This failure, though, becomes a space of possibility. Thoughts? Does this resonate with your intentions behind the work?
Absolutely. Failure is fertile. That was the hardest and most valuable lesson I have learned as an artist so far. Failure is not only okay, it is so loaded with potential. I think performance requires that you become acquainted with that lesson almost immediately. You gotta be nimble.
Once I killed Miami off, I was comfortable with saying that the project was about failure. Because I was in grad school while developing the project, I got so much feedback about what the project could be more of or never quite measured up to be. Artists said it wasn’t weird enough. Academics told me it wasn’t enough of a critique and were very uncomfortable by the cultural appropriation. Others were disappointed I didn’t pursue having a real cooking show because I was so “funny” with my Spanglish and dancing and outfits.
With ASS Capital, I felt it was a sweet little opportunity to poke fun at how absurd it is that women’s bodies are fragmented and displayed. But how this in particular relates to bodies of color with an auto ethnographic twist of course. I am particularly critical of celebrities of color who are capitalizing on this fad and are not using their fame responsibly, just perpetuating archaic stereotypes established in the 40s by the Good Neighbor Policy era….ahem, cough, cough…J.Lo!
Lets be real. Ass signifies otherness to the media, but it seems that this is only ok to celebrate when talking about otherness when it’s hyper-sexualized. Just like there is a spectrum to sexuality and cultural identity, I feel there is a spectrum to talking about ass….
And then there’s desire. Your work is thoroughly imbued with a politics of desire that are intimately tied to your own identity or rather how you self-identify, the multiple positions you inhabit across various spaces: geographic, linguistic, occupational…How do you see desire operating in your life and practice?
I had the privilege of growing up in a community and culture that allowed for immediate, often explosive expression of one’s desires. I don’t want to unlearn that, couldn’t even if I tried. For a long time I felt like I had to tone myself down though. Exploring performance helped me channel that and gave me a space to really think critically about desire, as well as construct the display of desire with my own rules. I’m 34 and as I get older, I’m finding it even more exciting to explore how my desires change and how they affect and fuel my work. I now have the privilege of living in a community that embraces and celebrates non-normative lifestyles, this only means possibilities and more learning and more making. Desire guides what I consume, how I love, what I research and make work about…it leads me to fail and accomplish…its fucking everything.