Published in KPBS On Air Magazine August 1990
The cramped, little studio-office says it all — in multiple media and in two languages. There are piles of yellowed newspapers in English and Spanish, racks of audio and video tapes. The bookshelves are methodically and bilingually tagged: Art Magazines/Revistas de Arte, Border Works/Chicano Literatura y Arte. A skinny strand of smoke climbs out of the overstuffed ashtray. The Mac is humming, the phone is ringing. The artist is in.
Guillermo Gómez-Peña pushes back from one of three crowded desks in his Sushi Gallery office and apologizes for not being a better host. As always, he has just arrived, and is just about to leave. Keeping “one foot on each side of the border,” the interdisciplinary artist spends about 60% of his time on the road. “I’m replicating the migratory history of my people,” he says. He grew up in Mexico City , works in San Diego and Tijuana . “I’m a migrant intellectual. My work is about migration, being territorialized. It’s about cartography, about being always on the move. I have to live my art.”
Defining Gómez-Peña’s art is not easy. Using the border as his artistic laboratory, he is a radio commentator who produces “audio art,” a print journalist, a poet, a performance artist who’s appeared internationally and on film, co-editor of a bilingual, multimedia arts magazine (La Linea Quebrada/The Broken Line). All his work is multicultural, political, experimental and concerned with border issues. His searing, funny, thought-provoking audio essays can be heard on “Crossroads,” National Public Radio’s multicultural newsmagazine (Sundays at 4:00 on KPBS-FM).
To the casual observer, Gómez-Peña’s artistic range may seem extremely broad, but he considers his work to be concentrated and focused. “The drastic separation between journalism and art doesn’t exist in Mexico ,” he explains. “In Mexico , poets and performance artists are involved in newspapers, in radio — the so-called New Journalism that came out of the 1985 earthquake. We think of the journalist as analytical. The artist is more fractured, frantic; he speaks with a multiplicity of voices. I’m always looking for the space in-between, where I can be a social chronicler. I intertwine quotes, poetry, memory and commentary. I’m always walking back and forth.”
For one so constantly on the move, Gómez-Peña is relaxed when he speaks, but direct and intense. He is also funny, and rather erudite. His English is impeccable, despite the heavy accent and the fact that he has learned the language informally in his scant twelve years in this country. “My job is language,” he says. “My work immerses me in language. My art and my journalism is about language. I have to take seriously the words.” In his audio essays, beautifully written and produced, Gómez-Peña sometimes talks about his personal experiences, as in “Busted Seven Times,” a discussion of his “Chicanization” and his nasty interactions with U.S. policemen because he “looked suspicious,” which is to say, suspiciously Mexican. “Can you tell a drug dealer from a performance artist? A repo man from a Latino journalist? Are you sure?”
He helped to found a collective called the Border Arts Workshop in 1985, but split off from them last year over philosophical differences: “Some of them felt it was still important to work regionally. But I thought there should be a shift to more international links.” As always, Gómez-Peña is true to his word. His current collaborations are bicoastal or binational. His focus on “borderization” (rather than “internationalism”) keeps him searching for new models of collaboration.
He’s also looking for new ways of making radio. “The Latino community comes from a very oral culture; it still looks at the world through radio. What we need on both sides of the border is a very contemporary radio that speaks to the times. This includes larger formats, radio novellas, multi-lingual hybrid poetry.” Longer works for “Crossroads” are already underway. “Norte-Sur,” a half-hour audio portrait of how pop culture reflects North-South relations, was co-produced with Coco Fusco, a Cuban-American writer from New York . The next major undertaking is a trilogy called “1992,” a series of performance radio pieces — “sound art” — with multiple characters, elaborate engineering and layers of sound. Part one, commissioned by the Los Angeles Arts Festival, will be linked with a live performance event in September.
In a 1988 piece in L.A. Weekly, Gómez-Peña wrote: “I live smack in the fissure between two worlds, in the infected wound.” Now, he says, “the healing process of the border must begin.”
©1990 Patté Productions Inc.