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The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center hosted “CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality” at the Smithsonian’s historic Arts and Industries Building Saturday and Sunday, May 28–29, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Featuring the works of more than 40 artists, scholars and performers, “CrossLines” exhibited array of art installations, live performances and interactive maker spaces.
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis said, “We had a “poetry listening salon” with an iPad station set up with the video as well as several audio poems–by Juan Felipe Herrera, Arlene Biala, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Brandon Som, and Tarfia Faizullah. Response was great; 12,000 people came through the event, and a lot of people sat in the salon and used the station.”
At the de-installation of the exhibit, Lawrence sent this picture of Clement Hanami and Sojin KIm checking out the video by Arturo Romo-Santillano of a poem of mine, “Hell to Eternity: The Movie Version.”
Clement Hanami and Sojin Kim
Blacktop Ecologies: Los Angeles Poetry and Poetics was a one-day symposium of writers active in Los Angeles November 21, 2014. (“Though largely drawn from the interaction of poetry and teaching, the poets range from highly experimental, even “conceptual,” writers of lyric, narrative and political poetry, as well as translation and performance writing. There is no “subject” for the symposium — it is not concerned with Los Angeles or even its poetical history — but a snapshot of poets in Los Angeles today, how they think and make their work. Each poet will make a short presentation of their recent thinking and read selections of their work; each “lane” will be followed by a question and answer (for passenger loading only) period.”)
Brian did the work. Thanks Brian Kim Stefans.
“As gentrification sweeps the city, Sesshu Foster has quietly become the poet laureate of a vanishing neighborhood”
Amy Uyematsu is a third-generation Japanese-American poet and teacher from Los Angeles. She has published three previous poetry collections: 30 Miles from J-Town (Story Line Press, 1992), Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain (Story Line Press, 1997), and Stone Bow Prayer (Copper Canyon Press, 2005). Her first book was awarded the 1992 Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize. Amy was a co-editor of the widely-used UCLA Asian American Studies anthology Roots: An Asian American Reader. Her newest book is The Yellow Door (Red Hen Press)
for more on Amy Uyematsu and her new book, the Yellow Door: http://redhen.org/authors/?author_UUID=C7F24721-5D84-6FD8-419B-AF87FF1D6E65
Sesshu Foster has taught composition and literature in East L.A. for 25 years. He’s also taught writing at the University of Iowa, the California Institute for the Arts, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and the University of California, Santa Cruz. His work has been published in The Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry, Language for a New Century: Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond, and State of the Union: 50 Political Poems. One of his last readings at St. Mark’s Poetry Project NYC is Mp3 archived atwww.salon.com and local readings are archived at www.sicklyseason.com.He is currently collaborating with artist Arturo Romo Santillano and other writers on the website, www.ELAguide.org. His most recent books are the novel Atomik Aztex and World Ball Notebook.
Visit his blog, East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines.
for directions and parking: http://avenue50studio.org/about/directions
- “Shipping Manifesto: The Zeppelin Attack Dirigible Sessions”
2. “Shipping Manifesto: Fly the East L.A. Dirigible Air Transport Lines”
3. “Beautification Proposal for the City of Los Angeles and Other Incorporated Cities of Los Angeles County from the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines”
4. “Pollos Rostizados LEAD”
5. “Dr. Eufencio J. Rojas discusses the Publication Filth Saints/ Manifestos/Ballons”
6.“East L.A. Balloon Club Scrapbook”
7. “East L.A. Balloon Club Scrapbook, May 2012”
8. “East L.A. Balloon Club Highlights”
9. “Pollos Rostizados/LEAD” (different video from #4 above)
10. “Overheard at the El Sereno ELADATL Station”
11. “Land Dirigibles of East L.A.”
12. “Zep Diner Menu: Today’s Specials”
13. “The Latest Inventions in Personal Aviation”
14. “Build Your Own Airship: Step by Step”
15. “Zeppelin Attack Dirigible (ZAD)”
16. “Cloud Studies I”
17. “Atmospheres, Explorations in the”
18. “So Our Best Efforts Were Undone (Includes Free Ulysses S. Grant Favorite Recipe for Pancakes)
19. “What is The Purpose of Mystery? (Oscar Zeta Acosta the Man Known as)”
Off-line or in print:
20. “Kraken Destroys Zeppelins”
21. “Interview with Juan Fish (Supposedly”)
22. “Sky City”
One guy showed us his tiny sculptures made of tissue paper, saliva and semen. One guy wrote a novel, the same novel that he kept showing me about a once famous child actor who had been his partner who died of AIDS around 1990, rewriting and revising the same manuscript for twenty years. One guy I’m sure still lives with his aged, infirm mom who he dutifully cares for and still writes noir stories he sends out to unknown on-line publications. One woman, the major poet of the city and basically the poet laureate of the city, died ill and broke out in the desert. One woman wrote brutal hilarious stories about dead-pan sexual relationships that I urged her to publish, but she did not. One woman, I should have called her back immediately, left a message on my phone machine saying she had a manuscript she wanted to show me, but committed suicide. One guy published about fifteen years ago a tiny edition, a few hundred copies, of a little poetry book which nobody saw and no one remembers. Sometimes I see him in Trader Joe’s. Another guy I see around seems like a good guy but never talks about books or poetry, instead he asks for favors, recommendation letters or referrals, or money for some project or other. One guy asked me to write a recommendation letter, and wrote me from the mountains thanking me for helping him get the gig; someone said he was drunk at a gathering, talking shit about my work. There was also the Paraguayan Korean poet, who I pointed out in a recent magazine photo to someone who didn’t recognize her; I said she’d gotten married, and the last time I saw her she was drunk outside Ave. 50 Gallery. A journalist we used to talk with about writing in bars or cafes wrote a cook book; the last time I saw him was with a script writer who wrote a little poetry on the side who had recently returned from Cuba, with a Cuban wife no less (supposedly she was making his life hell), who kept trying to turn the conversation into a lament for the death of Communism, but the journalist and I were talking poetry and how poetry related to the journalist’s cook book. The journalist left the city to become a professor up north. I did not see or hear from him after that, but I had dinner with an interesting poet in the Bay Area who said he was his nephew.
I spent some time today walking on York between Avenue 49 and Avenue
56, the experience illuminated. This is a work in progress, something
I wrote because even though I don’t have the language yet to respond
to the situation, I felt I should respond as best as I could.
To use a term I heard first from my friend Sesshu, the US suffers from
“apartheid imagination.” Chipotle, the burrito restaurant, recently
commissioned artists and writers to design a series of beverage cups–
not one of those commissioned was Latino… this is a place that
serves carnitas, burritos, guacamole! All non-whites are routinely
cropped out of the picture by the apartheid imagination. But the
imagination is flexible–the people who are excluded vary. MTV did a
study that found young people generally feel that racism is caused by
acknowledging and talking about race and that racism can be ended by,
in essence, “not caring” about race. In the case of this particular
form of blindness, other markers are used to designate who will be
excluded by the apartheid imagination. In the case of gentrification
in LA, white and non-white are not the only delineations, although
they still seem to dominate. Class and aspiration can also exclude
someone from existing in this imagination. Immigrants are not seen by
the apartheid imagination, working class people, blue collar workers,
and people who don’t aspire to the gentrified/boutique model of
consumption also are cropped out. People interviewed for articles on
gentrification routinely say things like “it’s so great that young
families are now moving into Highland Park.” when they mean to say
that young affluent families are moving into the neighborhood. This is
the result of wrong perceptions, wrong ideas–the apartheid
imagination is crippling to those who use it, destructive and
degrading to those who it means to exclude. The apartheid imagination
also happens to be the frame through which many gentrifiers seem to
define and construct their dreams.
Walking up and down York, I watched the aesthetics of each restaurant
and vintage shop that has been opened in the last 5 or so years. It
felt a little like walking through two different cities at once:
Highland Park, where I spent my early childhood and have spent almost
a decade as an educator, and York Valley, an offshoot of other cities
defined by niche and boutique business projects. The two cities exist
so distinct from one another that I felt like I was walking alongside
an accordion-fold book of which pages had been torn and replaced with
pages from another story, the oscillation between the two was
rhythmic, uneven and disorienting. The aesthetics of the new
businesses were part of this disorienting rhythm.
What is it that makes an aesthetic choice so divisive? What do the
shared aesthetics of these businesses (The York, Ba, Art Grist, Shop
Class, Hermosillo, Cafe de Leche, Town etc.) mean to their owners?
Their customers? The neighborhood? There is an obvious difference
between the “new” businesses and the established businesses in their
style. I think that the aesthetics, like earth tones and neutral paint
jobs, sans serif, vintage or ironic fonts in signage, and a shared
preference for modernist bareness, are signals to shoppers that these
places are going to be expensive to shop in. They also serve as
markers that connect them to the uniformity of this gentrified world
in other communities like Silverlake, Los Feliz etc.
This is important because maybe many people shop to define themselves–
where they shop is who they become. Because shopping is a statement of
who you are in a consumerist culture, you need to choose correctly to
maintain a particular identity. The aesthetics of signage and
decoration let us know which shop to choose.
Because they aim for exclusivity, the aesthetics may also tell certain
people that this store isn’t for them–that it’s too expensive,
doesn’t offer them what they need, or that they might be entering a
social situation where they could be patronized, objectified or
ignored. Maybe they say to us “You are now entering the Apartheid
I think there’s another layer to these aesthetic choices though. In
many stories I’ve read about gentrification, frontier or pioneer
themes come up. People who are considered gentrifiers have defined
themselves as “urban pioneers” or will insist that Highland Park was a
cultural “wasteland” before they got there. Or, there will be a
tendency for existing residents to be treated as part of the
landscape, “lots of Mexicans”… This mode of thinking draws from a
deep US mythology of the Frontier, where the frontier is the empty
land full of the promise of progress–increased wealth for the
individual and the nation. In fact, the idea of progress can’t exist
without the frontier in the US imagination. On York, the “frontier”
mythology is put into effect–in this case, the uniformity in look and
services these businesses offer act as clear markers… they’re
crystal clear signals that these businesses are not of or for the
existing community and also that they are part of a larger trend of
“progress” because they share an aesthetic and purpose with other
business across gentrified sectors of the city. Their aesthetics mark
them as outposts on the edge of the “frontier” and also tie them back
to more gentrified areas that where the frontier has been “tamed”.
Now, I don’t think the effects of gentrification are the same as the
effects of the US’ colonization and pillage of America, but the
mythology persists and is operationalized in the process of
gentrification–the mythology is obviously alive and a motivating
I walked down York and felt sad to see the social topography of
Highland Park split. One set of businesses out of reach for the
majority of its potential and local clientele and broadcasting the
fact out onto the street. It made me feel disheartened that the
apartheid imagination defined York based on the desires of a few
people rather than the needs of the larger community. That consumerist
“business as self expression” has trumped “business as service.” The
proliferation of vintage stores and boutiques that serve as
expressions and advertisements of their owners’ world view wilted me a
My family came to Northeast LA from Mexico and Arizona about three
generations back. There is also a large community of first generation
or immigrants to the Northeast. To me, it’s not as much how long
you’ve been in any one place, but why you came to the place.
Immigrants and working people have moved to the Eastside because it
was designated to them through racist Federal and local laws that
forbade them from moving into “white” communities. A historic,
national rhetoric of violence, and local acts of discrimination,
intimidation and violence reinforced this apartheid system where
Highland Park and more accurately, the industrial Eastside, (like East
LA and Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights) were created as redlined
ghettos for immigrants and working class people. And though we were
marginalized and routinely pushed out of power, we persisted in place
and built cohesive communities and political presence. We did this in
the face of discrimination and oppression from all levels of
government and mainstream culture. The cities we live in were left
disinvested, abandoned and left unprotected from predatory practices.
Still, art groups formed, civil rights groups made changes, people
worked and survived and built from the core of a community that bases
part of its agency in a specific place.
The threat of gentrification is real because it threatens to disperse
this community cohesion that’s been cultivated over generations by
immigrants and working class people. It threatens our political voice
as working people and people of color because it threatens one of the
things that voice rests on, which is our community cohesion. Whether
we came here in this lifetime or have roots going thousands of years
deep, the power of community is a resource that working people need to
hold on to.
That’s all for now, any thoughts would be great!
Not sure if these links will work:
First mention of it I can find comes from Albie Sachs, in reference to
post-apartheid South Africa http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=10614163030&searchurl=an%3Dalbie%2Bsachs%26amp%3Bkn%3Dspring
Identity in consumerist culture: https://www.adbusters.org/magazine/79/hipster.html
Forbidden White communities:
In a country whose institutions historically fail or deliberately
erase us, community constitutes a central pillar in surviving hetero-
patriarchal white supremacy:
No, it wasn’t a mushroom cult. It’s that we lived in a dome, a
geodesic dome that we called the mushroom. I arrived after it was
built. It was acoustically perfect, had its own atmosphere.
Occasionally clouds would form in the highest lofts of the dome.
I experienced life in perfect remove. People passed by me, and their
words and movements were sparkling and real. I laughed at the
funniness of all of our hinged movements, elbows and knees, jaws
opening and closing. We all moved like funny animals, like wooden
creatures–animated by energy passing through us. Our feelings,
opining, statements, desires all passed through us and my perceptions
of the others passed through me–they were like abstract creatures to
me. At a certain point, I couldn’t really even understand what they
were saying, and I only recognized the timbre of their sounds, the
colored forms of their bodies and my own inner life worming, inching,
cycling, pulsing, firing and shivering.
I remember Eufencio, green always wore green. Straight up East Los
Angeles character, maybe his parents from the San Gabriel Valley
though? We were the only two from LA I thought, maybe I’m wrong. He
knew Liki Renteria, and we both witnessed strange weather–him a
tornado that almost killed him in 1992 and me a frog-rain in April of
that same year.
Our study center was about 120 miles outside of Rancho El Consuelo,
Sonora. No, there was water, little streams with birds, the bosque was
lavendar at night. We were a little ways away from the water. Stupid
people of the east coast United States, they think that the Sonoran
Desert has no water–or they can’t imagine that the desert could be
blister-hot and have water, both still water and flowing water,
lavender water and brown water. Water that reflected clouds and
reflected only blue sky.
Our routine was the same every day. We woke up at 4:30 in the winter
and 3:30 in the summer. There were teams, water team, building team,
vision team, waste team, of course the lazy-ass art team. We worked in
teams until 5:30, when we heated the water and made mesquite and rice
gruel–saffron yellow stuff. That and coffee, always coffee. Ironwood
fire in the darkness was so orange but disappeared in the light when
the sun and heat rose and gradually all you would see of the fire was
black wood and ash, even though you could hear it crackling! Couldn’t
eat too late or you would lose your appetite in the summer heat.
After breakfast, deep silence and Tensegrity practice in the Dome
until 10:00. At 10:00, we got back into teams and worked on our
projects, with Castaneda making rounds. We never ate lunch, only drank
teas from plants around us all day. “Water, Water, Water, Running and
At the sun’s apex, we would begin sweating ceremonies which lasted
until sundown. One hour after sundown, we would light another fire and
begin making dinner. Usually vegetarian, something boiled or roasted
on a comal. Occasionally, we would have someone on the vision team go
out after dark and come back with a few rodents. Kangaroo rats come
out after dark. You throw a stick at them, heavy stick, kill them,
then put it on a stick, singe off the hair over the fire. Then, you
grind the whole body up into a paste, bones and all, really crush it
down. Add it to the gruel or roast it flat on the comal. Luiseño
style. When I got back to LA, even the radicals looked at me all
disgusted when I told them that. Ignorant people are never very clear
on the fact that we are bodies too, and that seeing a small body
crushed and ground is itself a reminder that we are both crystalline
structures and rotting flesh. The rat’s blue crystalline energy
illuminates my structure before moving on, just as its small
pulverized body passes through me. All these thoughts, my achievements
and creations are made of kangaroo rat, coffee and rice, datura, dried
anchos, grilled nopales, mesquite seeds, fire, ash, water, sunlight.
« Selon la célèbre formule de Léon Trotsky, « Louis-Ferdinand Céline est entré dans la grande littérature comme d’autres pénètrent dans leur propre maison. » C’est avec cette même désinvolture qu’Oscar Zeta Acosta semble avoir griffonné deux romans autobiographiques. »
SESSHU FOSTER – extrait de la postface
Traduit de l’anglais (Etats-Unis) par Romain Guillou
Postface inédite de Sesshu Foster
360 pages // 20 euros
ISBN : 979-10-92159-04-2
Diffusion-distribution : Les Belles Lettres
Parution : 22 mai 2014
Leon Trotsky famously remarked, “Louis-Ferdinand Céline walked into great literature as other people walk into their own house.”
Like-wise, Brown Buffalo Oscar Zeta Acosta seems to have casually scribbled two autobiographical novels, Hunter S. Thompson style, that directly became Chicano classics in spite of—and in the face of—academic resistance to shaggy dog Gonzo storytelling. These books (Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, 1972, Revolt of the Cockroach People, 1973) bear their end-of-the-60s/ end-of-a-dream/ end-of-an-era/ time and place ostentatiously. They announced for all to hear, “it’s all over now, Baby Blue,” as the author sauntered out of sight, disappearing off the coast of Mazatlan, Mexico, by some accounts, in 1974.
Never to be seen again.
The books remain. Still shaggy, bruising and barreling down the road Brown Buffalo-style, still announcing the end of the dream, the end of the era, the never-ending but still approaching apocalyptic End. “When the music’s over, turn out the lights,” sang Jim Morrison and the Doors, writhing on the floor of the Whisky a Go Go on Sunset Boulevard. Wasn’t that music over so many lifetimes ago? Who forgot to turn out the lights?
Hunter S. Thompson put Oscar Zeta Acosta in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (that other end-of-the-era, end-of-the-dream book), among others, and pissed off Zeta Acosta by characterizing him as a “300 pound Samoan.” Zeta Acosta threatened to sue, but then he disappeared. The rancorous spirit remained in the air, causing Thompson to try to exorcise the ghost in his May 1977 obituary for Zeta Acosta, “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat.” It was full of Hunter Thompson’s hyperbolic mythologizing: “Oscar was not into serious street-fighting, but he was hell on wheels in a bar brawl. Any combination of a 250 lb Mexican and LSD-25 is a potentially terminal menace for anything it can reach – but when the alleged Mexican is in fact a profoundly angry Chicano lawyer with no fear at all of anything that walks on less than three legs and a de facto suicidal conviction that he will die at the age of 33 – just like Jesus Christ – you have a serious piece of work on your hands. Especially if the bastard is already 33½ years old with a head full of Sandoz acid, a loaded .357 Magnum in his belt, a hatchet-wielding Chicano bodyguard on his elbow at all times, and a disconcerting habit of projectile vomiting geysers of pure blood off the front porch every 30 or 40 minutes, or whenever his malignant ulcer can’t handle any more raw tequila.”
But in 2005 Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes were shot out of a cannon over the valley of Roaring Creek River at his Colorado ranch in 34 fireworks shells, after a blast of red, white and blue. Johnny Depp paid the $2 million fireworks bill. The smoke has long since dispersed over those gentrified Rockies—and probably some ghosts were exorcised—but still the books remain.
What about them?
Honesty counts for a lot. Emotional honesty, sometimes called soul, counts for so much because it’s the unspoken veracity that lends the heft of lived-in truth to a bunch of otherwise unremarkable or merely historical events—that vow of honesty that’s unannounced but kept nonetheless, that matters. It goes on mattering—goes on, after the music is over, after the lights go out, after the authors have left the stage and even after the ghosts come and go, flitting over the shoulders of people reminiscing or gossiping about who did what, who made a splash in the old days.
Oscar Zeta Acosta and Hunter S. Thompson collaborated on the adventures that their books are based on; as friends they were friends together: they wrote their books separately—after, in some sense—living the stories together. In his own books, Oscar Zeta Acosta seems unafraid to feel his feelings—even, or especially the thrill of fear, zipping through the body from throat to anus like a seam fraying apart. He’s baring his soul and bearing witness to the awful weirdness of the times. Anybody can see that, I think.
Even those who come along after those rugged, terrible, ragged years. You can still feel the street heat.
Yesterday I walked across the street to talk to someone who knew Oscar Zeta Acosta during those years, my neighbor, Carlos Montes. Carlos has been a revolutionary activist since the 1960s, a co-founder of the Chicano Brown Berets organization, and as Brown Berets “Minister of Information” Carlos was a leader in the 1968 walkouts where tens of thousands of Chicano students walked out of school and protested educational inequality. Because of these and other activities, Carlos has been a continual target of FBI and police harassment and arrest (see Ben Ehrenreich’s March 2012 Los Angeles Magazine article, “Never Stop Fighting” http://www.lamag.com/features/2012/03/01/never-stop-fighting-11).
Oscar Zeta Acosta was Carlos Montes’s attorney for several years, through 1970, and served as his counsel, fighting various indictments, in particular one for conspiracy to commit arson at the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel speech of then-governor Ronald Reagan. Zeta Acosta, according to Carlos, told him that the evidence against Carlos was prejudicial to the cases of the five other defendants and for their sakes, that Carlos must flee and go underground. With his attorney counseling him to flee, Carlos disappeared from Los Angeles for seven years. During those years, Carlos skipped across the Mexican border (as Zeta Acosta would himself, later) and lived “on the lam,” living on the run. After some time, Carlos returned to the U.S., surreptitiously crossing at El Paso, Texas, where he lived under an assumed name, even while re-engaging in political organizing. Carlos returned to Los Angeles in 1977 to face charges (he was acquitted when it was proven that a police agent was involved in committing the arson). Oscar Zeta Acosta never returned.
Carlos Montes said:
The thing about Oscar was that his presence was very big, he was very big physically, but he was also very outspoken, very big in his personality. He was not your usual uptight lawyer. Young people idolized him, because he had a very big presence. Curly hair, kind of long, tie loose… You know, he was not only confrontational; he could get people to do things.
The first time we met him was at the Church of the Epiphany, where we used to meet at the episcopal church in Lincoln Heights, with Father Luce. That was where we met with the Brown Berets and Eliezer Risco (a Cuban who had worked with the United Farm Workers) who put out La Raza newspaper. The first time we met Zeta Acosta he showed up in a suit and tie and we made fun of him, calling him a ‘sell-out.’ “I’m not a sell-out!” he said. He gave us his card; it said, “Oscar Zeta Acosta,” you know, and underneath his name it said, “Chicano Lawyer,” and remember this was in 1968, and nobody did anything like that then. I mean, a lawyer? “Chicano Lawyer.” So he took off his tie and had a beer with us, and that’s how he won us over.
He might’ve been working with Maldef [the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund] then, at that point, I don’t know. Anyway, he left them to set up a private practice on his own, to pursue more controversial cases, that maybe Maldef didn’t want to pursue. Higher profile cases, police brutality cases, things like that.
I was a student at ELAC (East Los Angeles Community College) and that was where I was politicized. I was vice president of the student government, but at the same time I was working—I was always working. During the Watts riots, I was working as a janitor at Garfield High School and other schools. I used to listen to the other janitors, the black janitors who were from South Central talk about what was going on, arguing, you know, about the Watts riots and the Vietnam War, and this made a big impression on me, hearing them debate whether it was right for people to riot or use violence (“Burn them out, burn, baby, burn—loot those stores,” you know, versus, “No, that’s not right, you can’t be doing that,”) and seeing the Black Power Movement, the Black Panthers and such on TV. That influenced me politically.
In 1968, I remember one case at East L.A. College where we had a demonstration, we took the U.S. flag down and replaced it with the UFW flag. Luis Carrillo was arrested and called Zeta Acosta. He came right down and was very confrontational with the cops. He was very confrontational, not just in the street but in the court room. You know, some lawyers are very intimidated by the trappings of the court, they get timid in front of a judge. Oscar Zeta Acosta was not like that. He was very confrontational and would take it seriously and would take it all the way. All the way to trial or whichever way it would go. And he recruited Ralph Segura and other Chicano lawyers to represent the Chicano Movement. I mean, because to get a lawyer to represent you, that wasn’t easy. That’s one of the things that Zeta Acosta did do.
Zeta Acosta was my lawyer representing me in several cases over the years. He represented me and the Brown Berets against the charge of conspiracy to commit arson against Ronald Reagan, at the Biltmore Hotel downtown. That was the “Biltmore 6.” The L.A. Times smeared us—the headline was, “Rookie Cop Saves the Day,” when it was (undercover LAPD officer) Fernando Sumaya who bought the road flares that they found inside a linen closet at the Biltmore and who brought them into the hotel and who drove us there. They never explained how the other fires in secured areas of the building behind police security were started.
For example, in meetings with white lawyers on the legal team, Neil Herring and other lawyers from maybe the NLG (National Lawyers Guild), Oscar would say things others wouldn’t say. Like he’d bring up the fact that the grand jury that handed down the indictment was all white, and he’d tell them that they should confront that. In that way, he was also very confrontational. He yelled at the lawyers—he was adamant and insistent, saying they had to challenge the indictment, because it was discriminatory, being handed down by an all white jury. Finally he got them to go along with his strategy. When the judge ordered a hearing, Zeta Acosta subpoenaed the judges! So he got these old white judges and put them on the stand! He asked the judges, who do you nominate to be on the grand jury? Well, they nominated their friends, people they knew—so of course the grand juries were all white. The system was totally set up to discriminate against the Chicano community and Zeta Acosta wanted to confront that! He finally got one old judge to admit that he nominated one Mexican American. “Mister Gonzalez.” Mister Gonzalez? Who’s Mister Gonzalez? “How do you know him?” “I know him through my (private) tennis club.” It turns out Mr. Gonzalez was the famous pro tennis player, Pancho Gonzalez. Of course, he never served on the grand jury. But Zeta Acosta pushed the envelope—and he didn’t just push it, he burned it. Anyway, the motion was denied and the case went to trial.
In 1969, after La Nueva Vida rally at ELAC, where we were protesting to get them to teach Chicano Studies, the administration called the county sheriffs, who disrupted the rally and pushed students off the front steps of the school. Afterwards, driving home, I was a half mile from my house when the cops pulled me over to arrest me. Clearly we were targeted, as Brown Berets we were targeted, as Minister of Information of the Brown Berets I felt targeted, sure—by the PDID (Public Disorder Intelligence Division) of the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Dept.), and their Special Operations and Conspiracies Division, which, all they did was spy on people as part of the national repression at that time, the COINTEL program, you know about that? And in particular, two Chicano officers, Lee Ceballos of the PDID and a Sergeant Armas of the SOC, as Chicanos, you know, they had a personal bias against me, they took it personally. One time Sergeant Armas was seated next to me in court and he opened his jacket and leaned in such a way so I could I could see that he had his hand on his pistol. I mean, what the hell was that? They felt we were scum who made the whole community look bad. So, yes, I felt I was targeted, and I kept getting arrested—these cases were piling up against me. In fact, I remember one time I was in the county jail and I picked up the newspaper and that’s when I read that the Biltmore charges, conspiracy to commit arson, had been filed.
But getting back to Oscar and this arrest, these white cops arrested me they said for assault and battery of a police officer. And I said, what assault and battery of a police officer? They charged me with throwing a soda can, maybe an empty soda can at the police at the rally, because some cans and bottles had been thrown, apparently. If that was true, why didn’t they arrest me at the rally? But they arrested me, and not only did they arrest me, but they took the picket signs that I had in my car and they wrote insults on them, like “dirty Mexicans” or whatever, and they vandalized my car, they smashed the Chevrolet insignias on the vehicle, on the steering wheel, maybe because they look vaguely like the UFW eagle. I pled not guilty and at the preliminary hearing, Zeta Acosta came in carrying the picket signs, incensed, you know, complaining to the judge, throwing the signs on the table in the court room, saying that the arresting officers wrote these racial insults on the signs and tore up the car. The judge kept trying to tell Oscar, “This is not the appropriate time or place for such a complaint.” The judge would say things like, “If you want to file a complaint against the police, you have to file it with the police,” etc. But Zeta Acosta kept bringing it up. And when I saw Zeta Acosta throw the signs on the table, I was just thinking, “Go for it, bro!” What other attorney did that?
Of course he yelled at me too. Zeta Acosta’s strategy was always to fight it all, go to trial and fight it all the way. We got into a big confrontation, and he told me—I don’t remember his exact words, but it was something like, “you have to leave.” Because there was no evidence against the other five defendants (in the Biltmore case). Yeah, it was in a meeting with all the defendants—he yelled at me too, that we were all gonna burn because of me. The only evidence was against me, he said. So… He said it was my word against a police officer’s (Fernando Sumaya’s) and who was the jury going to believe? So I had to leave. And I did. I got married in January 1970, and the next weekend I was gone, out of the country, underground, living underground in Mexico and El Paso, and I didn’t come back to L.A. for seven years—until 1977.
Your Art Disgusts Me: Early Asco 1971-75 by Chon Noriega
In the late 1960s, four young Chicano artists in East Los Angeles began collaborating in various combinations, eventually forming an art collective and taking the name Asco — as in ‘me da asco’ or ‘it (your art) disgusts me’. One evening in 1972, three of its members — Harry Gamboa Jr, Gronk (aka Guglio Nicandro) and Willie Herrón III — signed their names to the entrance of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), claiming the public institution as their own private creation and thus making the world’s largest work of Chicano art in the affluent and white mid-Wilshire area of the city. 1 Spray Paint LACMA (1972), sometimes later referred to as Project Pie in De/Face, was conceived in response to a LACMA curator’s dismissive statement that Chicanos made graffiti not art, hence their absence from the gallery walls. In other words, ‘Chicano art’ was a categorical impossibility.
In signing the museum, Asco collapsed the space between graffiti and conceptual art, at once fulfilling the biased thinking that justified their exclusion and refiguring the entire museum as an art object itself, in accordance with the terms of institutional critique that were being developed at the time. Because the signed museum could not possibly fit within the museum gallery walls, it became the objective correlative for that categorical impossibility of Chicano art, the very condition that the institution helped to sustain. With Spray Paint LACMA, Asco made briefly visible the fact that the public mission of the institution — to be representative — was at odds with the aesthetic criteria that determined the curatorial agenda and thus what was installed on the interior walls. The artists understood that their gambit rested on the status the museum would give to their signatures, and whether they would be acknowledged as the signatures of individual artists authoring their work of art, or only as the illicit markings of an invisible social group of Chicano graffiti artists. When LACMA whitewashed Asco’s signatures, it simultaneously removed graffiti and destroyed the world’s largest work of Chicano art, obscuring the inclusive notion of the public that underwrote its existence.
LACMA, as the only major art museum in Los Angeles at the time and thus an arbiter of the emerging LA art scene, had been the object of an earlier critique in Ed Ruscha’s The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965—68). The painting was started one year after LACMA opened and it was first exhibited at the Irving Blum Gallery in January 1968 with theatrical fanfare and staging. The invitation to the opening, sent as a Western Union telegram, announced: ‘Los Angeles Fire Marshall says he will attend. See the most controversial painting to be shown in Los Angeles in our time’. 2 The work itself was exhibited behind a protective velvet rope. Ruscha’s massive painting (it measured 136 by 339 centimetres) has been mostly read as ‘a metaphorical torching of artistic institutions and traditions’, but it did so at the precise moment that Ruscha and other artists associated with the Ferus Gallery were being welcomed into LACMA and other museums. 3
This development can be traced back to the Edward Kienholz exhibition at LACMA in 1966, when Kienholz’s Back Seat Dodge ’38 (1964) became the object of considerable controversy over public funding for pornography and elicited reactions of disgust. These two Los Angeles artists helped set the aesthetic terms for the development of the city as an artistic centre, but did so through a prototypically West Coast interplay of media notoriety, commercial galleries and the art museum. If these artists challenged the museum as a cultural institution, Asco’s Spray Paint LACMA did so in terms of institutional racial exclusion.
Here it is useful to distinguish between the sense of preservation of the ‘public good’ that mobilised the censorship of Kienholz’s Back Seat Dodge ’38 on the one hand, and Asco’s demand to be recognised as artists from a constituent part of the museum’s public on the other. In the former, we see a power struggle over who gets to determine what is allowed for public exhibition: is it the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, who threatened to deny the museum’s funding unless the Kienholz work was removed since they deemed it to be pornography, not art; or is it the museum professionals, whose aesthetic judgment determined that Back Seat Dodge ’38 was art, not pornography (but also determined that Chicanos made graffiti, not art)? In this regard, censorship is not so much an assault on a transcendent ideal (‘art’) as it is an arena within which competing sectors of the professional/managerial class seek or maintain institutional control. The curators claimed expertise, while the supervisors held the purse strings. In the end a compromise was reached that not only maintained both claims, but also secured a public ‘space and voice’ for the LA white male artists associated with the Ferus Gallery: the sculpture would remain on display, but its car door would be closed, thereby obscuring the sex scene depicted inside. The door would, however, be opened upon the request of an adult viewer (only if there were no minors in the gallery). In the case of Asco, in which curatorial judgment is conceptually aligned with rather than juxtaposed to censorious notions of the ‘public good’, we see a détournement of this entire system. It is a détournement that exposes the underlying racial and class dynamics that exclude Chicano artists and that align curatorial judgment with graffiti abatement. Their focus is not on individual racism or the complicity between curators and supervisors, but on the larger system of organised practices that produce racialised subjects, part of what Michel Foucault calls governmentality or the ‘art of government’.
With the exception of Spray Paint LACMA, Asco turned its attention from the museum to the streets, from the art world to a community engaged in social protest. Its origins were activist rather than academic, and for good reason. In the 1960s, East Los Angeles high schools had the highest dropout rates in the nation, while Chicanos counted for a disproportionately high number of the casualties in Vietnam. In March 1968, some ten thousand students walked out of six East Los Angeles high schools, protesting racially biased policies and inadequate public education. For his role as an organiser of the walkouts, Gamboa — who ‘graduated’ from Garfield High School with a 1.1 grade point average — was identified as subversive in US Senate subcommittee hearings on the basis of the Internal Security Act. Speaking later about his time at Garfield High School, he recalls that ‘the environment there was so violent that it was almost like absurdist theatre…. I had seen instances where the police came on campus and beat the shit out of kids’. 4
But if Garfield High School served as a necessary training ground for social protest, it also brought together a number of students who would later become prominent in music, visual art and performance. These students included the members of Asco as well as members of the musical groups Thee Midniters and Los Lobos, and notable performers Cyclona, Mundo Meza, and Humberto Sandoval. While in school, these future artists often took part in various ad hoc collectives and collaborations. In 1969, Gronk wrote Caca-Roaches Have No Friends, a play starring Cyclona, Mundo Meza and Patssi Valdez that was performed in Belvedere Park, where Cyclona’s violently homoerotic ‘cock scene’ stunned and enraged their Eastside Chicano family audience. 5 The mixture of impoverished educational environment, emerging student movement (with a strong arts and expressive culture component), police violence and biased media coverage gave a distinct ‘performative’ character to these self-identified teenage artists — their sense of art was defined not by genre per se, but by its ability to intervene productively within a contested social space.
The members of Asco first came together formally through the invitation of Gamboa, who asked them to work with him on the second volume of Regeneración, a political and literary journal published by veteran activist Francisca Flores and modelled on the radical journal of the same name published in the early 1900s by Mexican revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magón. Flores recruited Gamboa amidst the Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War on 29 August 1970, when a police riot left several people dead, including Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Salazar. As art historian Mario Ontiveros notes, ‘Regeneración provided the group an opportunity to examine publicly and critically “certain dogmatisms” at work in the political and art movement, as well as the dominant culture’. 6 In this regard, the future Asco members helped shift the editorial direction toward what Ontiveros calls ‘an intra-movement, self-reflexive analysis’ while they learned to work together in this critical mode through image and text aimed at multiple audiences. 7 The four artists quickly developed a unique visual style and conceptual approach that contrasted, and even ridiculed, the Mexican-inspired political iconography of the Chicano civil-rights movement (1965—75), while at the same time they were deeply engaged in that movement.
From 1971 to 1975, Asco’s guerilla-style street performances, often involving Humberto Sandoval as an erstwhile fifth member, intervened in a situation overdetermined by police violence, political surveillance, military recruitment and biased news media that structured and regulated social space in the Chicano community. 8 At the same time they challenged the Chicano movement’s nationalist political rhetoric, arguing that it promoted an orthodoxy and corresponding identity that failed to take into account the profound contradictions that actually shaped the lived experience of Chicanos — a group marked by cultural but not structural assimilation and, as a consequence, a group that was quite ‘American’ and yet excluded from or discriminated against by social institutions. Asco staged performances that both commented on and contributed to the mural movement (Walking Mural, 1972; Instant Mural, 1974; Asshole Mural, 1975) and the reclamation of Mexican-based cultural traditions (Día de los Muertos, 1974). During this time, Gronk and Herrón also painted murals that marked innovations in the use of expressive styles and conceptual frameworks, including their Black and White Mural (1973), which depicts the death of Ruben Salazar in relationship to Marcel Carné’s film Les Enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise, 1945) made during the Nazi occupation, as well as to Gronk’s performance persona Pontius Pilate (aka Popcorn), modelled in part after the film’s central character, a mime. 9 What one notices most about this body of work (including subsequent staged performances and conceptual video) is the unrelenting expression of violence outside melodramatic and moral discourses — as a cultural logic, an administrative tactic, a familial ritual and a fact of everyday life.
While Asco’s work engaged art-critical discourses and historical references, and increasingly sought to disrupt the mass media (in part by turning to the international press), in the first instance their work began as ‘an intra-movement, self reflexive analysis’ located within East Los Angeles. Indeed, Asco’s self-naming in Spanish, together with the predominant use of the English language in their artistic production, situates the group within both a linguistic community (the bilingual social space of East Los Angeles) and an interpretive community (a rights-based and nationalist ‘Chicano movement’ then at its height in the United States). If the phrase ‘me da asco’ marks unacceptable behaviour within a linguistic community of Mexican descent, the artists do not sidestep the admonishment by responding in English or by making countervailing aesthetic claims (‘But it’s art!’). Instead, they turn the admonishment into the start of a call and-response interaction that then produces a proper name. ‘Me da asco’ (literally, ‘to me it gives disgust’) produces a response that gives what has been called for: Asco. By naming themselves Asco, the artists refuse the notion that their work falls outside the norms or boundaries for the Mexicandescent community in East Los Angeles. Instead, they reinsert their art within the cultural logic of the community itself, defining their art in formal terms as those practices that self-consciously and critically engage the community’s use of language as a mechanism for self-regulation. If Asco upset traditional social norms for the Mexicandescent community, their work also challenged the more radical political agenda of the Chicano movement, where art played a central but largely illustrative role aimed at community mobilisation. And just as the use of a Spanish-language name located their project within that community, the use of ‘Asco’ as a proper name itself mirrored the self-designation ‘Chicano’, which had previously been a derogatory term within that same community. In both cases, Asco figured its challenge as endogenous, located not within a sense of an authentic or autochthonous culture, but as a troubling presence within the very linguistic and discursive strategies that culture (or social movement) used to define itself as such. In that sense, Asco’s approach — more in terms of style than method — was ‘deconstructive’ in the years before the term itself was introduced into English.
In 1975 Asco’s work appeared in several exhibitions, including ‘Chicanismo en el arte’, a juried selection of young artists at LACMA, organised in cooperation with East Los Angeles College. Asco also had a solo exhibition, ‘Ascozilla’, at California State University in Los Angeles and a joint exhibition, ‘Asco/Los Four’, at the Point Gallery in Santa Monica. That year is often cited as marking the end of the Chicano movement as a social protest movement. ‘By the end of 1975,’ according to Gamboa, ‘Asco had stopped functioning as a mutually supportive core group of four or five artists.’ 10 Over the next decade, the four original artists developed individual careers and engaged in project-specific collaborations, while also contributing to the Eastside punk scene (Herrón not only fronted the band Los Illegals, but also ran the influential Club Vex) and to the development of alternative art spaces (Asco members were among the co-founders of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, or LACE, in 1978) and the emerging arts and performance scene at gay bars (including Teddy Sandoval’s Butch Gardens School of Fine Art). Asco also served as a platform for staged live performance, conceptual video on cable-access television and art exhibitions that involved a new generation of artists, including Barbara Carrasco, Sean Carrillo, Diane Gamboa, Juan Garza, Daniel J. Martinez and Marisela Norte. During this later period, from 1976 to 1987, the expanded Asco became more explicitly engaged with the art world, often through interviews, mail art and performance pieces that staged ludic yet incisive debates with the arts establishment. Through Gamboa’s extensive photo documentation, Asco began to circulate its own history-cum-mythology, while using the trappings of celebrity culture in order to insinuate itself into the mass media. Their signature genre became known as the ‘No Movie’, and consisted of film stills for nonexistent movies, image-text pieces, mail art and media hoaxes. As Gamboa explains, ‘They were designed to create an impression of factuality, giving the viewer information without any of the footnotes’. 11 Or, as Gronk notes, ‘It is projecting the real by rejecting the reel’. 12 Central to this attempt to project the ‘real’ was a political investment in form itself. In this way, the No Movies share affinities with media historian Sheldon Renan’s notion of ‘expanded cinema’, wherein ‘the effect of film may be produced without the use of film at all’. 13 But in contrast to expanded cinema, Asco was not after the mere ‘effect’ of cinema, but rather putting forth a conceptual critique of minorities’ limited access to the capital, technology and social networks required to participate in the mass media. As Gamboa explains, ‘It was sort of like a political protest based on the economics of financing films, and also based on the reality that maybe I only did have five dollars’. 14
In an article on Los Angeles avant-garde film, David E. James argues that ‘the No Movies both precede and exceed Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills’, drawing a sharp contrast between what he sees as Asco’s ‘critical distance’ and ‘communal opposition’ and Sherman’s ‘sentimental nostalgia’ and ‘individual narcissis[m]’. 15 While James offers a useful contrast, one that puts new artworks into play with older concerns about art and its relation to ‘the political system that comes into focus as “Hollywood”’, I question his emphasis on the ‘communal’ versus the ‘individual’ — especially insofar as Asco was always skeptical about notions of identity and community. I would argue instead that Asco and Sherman engage very different modes of oppositionality, particularly in terms of their exhibition and dissemination, and that those differences correspond with the critical reception, canonical status and market value of their respective works. At the same time, however, both Asco and Sherman proceed from marked categories, working within and against the restrictive representation of both women and minorities in Hollywood. The distinction to be drawn here between the No Movies and the Untitled Film Stills (1977—80) has to do with the discursive contexts for their oppositionality. As art historian C. Ondine Chavoya argues in ‘Pseudographic Cinema: Asco’s No Movies’: ‘Insofar as Sherman’s Film Stills are a simulation of overdetermined signifiers, the No Movie is a simulacrum for which there is no original.’ 16 In other words, the Film Stills are staged against the backdrop of a long history of representation, and the No Movies against a history of invisibility.
Writing ten years ago, I raised the issue of the necessity and difficulty of locating Asco within historiographical frameworks of the Chicano movement and the post-1968 avant-garde, especially insofar as these were seen as antithetical projects (which Asco defiantly straddled). I posed two questions with the same answer:
What does the avant-garde look and sound like when it blooms outside the hothouse of the bourgeoisie? What does social protest against racism look and sound like when articulated outside a realist code? For a Chicano workingclass avant-garde group raised in the barrio, assimilated to American mass culture and making discourse the object of its social protest, the answer is simple: it looks like both and neither; and it sounds the same, but different. 17
For its part, Asco theorised its own position vis-à-vis the mainstream and the art world, identifying itself with such terms as ‘the orphans of modernism’, ‘urban exiles’ and ‘celebrities of a phantom culture’. From the start, they were self-made fashionistas, a triumph of style over subsistence, staging countless celebrity shots for which, unlike Andy Warhol’s Superstars or Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, there were neither referents in the culture industry nor a marketplace in the art world.
In 2008, LACMA and its curators developed the museum’s first ‘homegrown’ exhibition of Chicano art, ‘Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement’. 18 While the exhibition featured a younger generation of artists from around the United States working in a conceptual vein, and focused in particular on interventions within urban spaces, the first artwork that one encountered upon entering the exhibition was Spray Paint LACMA. Other photographic and Super-8 works in the exhibition documented Asco’s street performances, media interventions, conceptual cinema (No Movies) and performance murals, while also gesturing toward a broader milieu of self-created celebrity, costume design, performance and music in East Los Angeles in the 1970s. These early works by Asco acknowledge the group’s influence on Chicano conceptual artists who came of age in the 1990s, while also providing a historical framework for Chicano art vis-à-vis the history of the North American avant-garde.
Asco has influenced or provided a point of reference for a new generation of artists and artist groups whose work explores similar issues within public space, including the groups Slanguage (Mario Ybarra, Jr and Juan Capistran) and The Pocho Research Society of Erased and Invisible History (Sandra de la Loza), as well as individual artists such as Arturo Ernesto Romo and Ruben Ochoa. 19 However, while recent work by these younger artists has a genealogical relationship to Asco (and the Chicano movement), its sociohistorical context is radically different. Since the 1990s, the social reform programs that responded to the broader protests of the 1960s and early 1970s have been largely dismantled. Meanwhile, the Latino population has grown from a small minority to, now, a plurality or even a majority in many urban centres, albeit as an increasingly diversified and stratified group. Finally, the cultural landscape is now one defined by global mass media and ‘new technologies’ (a phrase that already sounds quaint), often at the expense of public support for both elite and community-based arts. In short, this new generation operates outside of both a social movement and a viable notion of the public (both of which provided necessary frameworks for Asco’s Spray Paint LACMA) and it does so within the intensified ‘white noise’ of global media and a multiracial, multilinguistic urban street culture. To be sure, much has changed, but then again much has not, which explains Asco’s continuing relevance nearly four decades later. Indeed, Chicano art is still absent from mainstream museums in the United States, and in East Los Angeles the high schools continue to have the same extraordinarily high drop-out rates as they did in the 1960s, for which one is inclined to say ‘me da asco’.
and, from the Los Angeles Review of Books: http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/walking-mural-asco-and-the-ends-of-chicano-art
Walking Mural: Asco and the Ends of Chicano Art by Jim Hinch
August 23rd, 2012
LATE ONE NIGHT in April 1972, three young men from East Los Angeles drove to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in a red Volkswagen Bug. The men parked on a side street, out of sight of museum guards. They stepped from the car and crept through the La Brea Tar Pits toward the museum’s Wilshire Boulevard entrance. Their movements were stealthy but the men decidedly were not. Long haired and barely into their twenties, each was heavily made up and wore an eye-catching assortment of clothes: red dinner coat with tails, green bowler hat, turquoise patent leather shoes and a World War I-era gray suit. They carried cans of black and red spray-paint. Arriving at the entrance, the men proceeded to tag their names — Herrón, Gronkie, Gamboa, Jr. — on the side of a bridge spanning a pond. They did the same thing to the museum’s other entrances. Then they got back into the Volkswagen and drove home. It was 2:00 a.m.
The following morning at eight o’clock, one of the men, Harry Gamboa, Jr., returned to LACMA with his friend Patssi Valdez. Valdez, also heavily made up and dressed in a ruffled pink tank top and tight jeans with jeweled appliqué, posed on the bridge above the graffiti-ed names. She looked coyly to the side. Gamboa snapped her picture. A few hours later, museum attendants whitewashed the names away.
Spraypaint LACMA (Project Pie in De/Face), as this act of proto-street art was named by its perpetrators, was witnessed by exactly no one. But it has gone on to become one of Los Angeles’ most famous graffiti tags. Gamboa’s photograph of it twice has greeted visitors to major traveling museum retrospectives of Chicano art. The most recent of those retrospectives, Asco: Elite of the Obscure, premiered at LACMA late last year. The museum devoted nearly an entire gallery floor to celebrating the four-person East L.A. art collective that, beginning in 1971, single-handedly redefined what it meant to make Chicano art. Spraypaint LACMA is famous because it marks a seminal moment in American art history. Four kids from East L.A. with no art school education showed that Chicano artists, hitherto regarded by the art world as at best ethnic spokespeople, could match or even exceed the intellectual daring of the mainstream art world’s avant-garde.
Asco means disgust or nausea in Spanish. When the four members of Asco — Harry Gamboa, Jr., Gronk (born Gluglio Nicandro), Patssi Valdez and Willie Herrón — tagged LACMA they expressed their own disgust at an arts establishment that had no time for Chicano culture. Hours before Asco’s 2:00 a.m. escapade, Gamboa recalls that a curator at LACMA told him Chicanos “are in gangs; they don’t make art.” Using gang-style graffiti to transform LACMA into the world’s largest piece of Chicano conceptual art was the inspired response to that put-down. Over the next decade and a half Asco would go on to produce some of the most original and provocative works of contemporary art — walking murals, fake monuments, stills from movies that never existed, bogus crime scenes — in the Chicano community or anywhere in America. They made no money and gained almost no recognition. But by word of mouth and gradual scholarly interest they ended up decisively influencing practically every young Chicano artist working today. They told off LACMA, flouted conventions of established Chicano artists, offended almost everyone and wound up at the high table of the very institution that once scorned them.
Or at least that’s how the curators tell it. A “remarkable trajectory,” write C. Ondine Chavoya and Rita Gonzalez in their introduction to the 432-page catalogue for the Asco exhibit. The group’s “provocative and inspiring history…contests the presumably accepted and canonical norms of art history.” That’s true. But the celebration of Asco’s improbable rise sidelines a parallel, less straightforward story about the group’s legacy. Asco members remained rooted in East L.A. and staged most of their art in the community where they grew up, albeit often to hostile or bewildered audiences. Their work only became famous decades later, when scholars and museum curators recognized in their innovative tactics a form of Chicano art the international art world could embrace wholeheartedly. Younger Chicano artists often cite Asco as a decisive influence. But those younger artists mostly direct their work toward the art market, not toward the Mexican American communities once seen as Chicano art’s primary audience. Asco, like many early Chicano artists, saw themselves as vital players in an ethnic political movement. Today their legacy resonates most strongly with an audience of academics and art collectors.
In a recent interview Gamboa told me Asco never intended this sort of abandonment. “We wanted to expand and renew the mix so people could be more effective in their ability to be introduced to a broader audience,” he said. Asco succeeded, but perhaps not as they foresaw. Forty years later, headlining LACMA, the group doesn’t just symbolize a Chicano art movement at long last getting its due. Asco’s embrace by the mainstream art world — the LACMA retrospective made the October, 2011 cover of Artforum, and the exhibit traveled to the Williams College Museum of Art, where it showed from February through July, 2012 — suggests that Chicano art, once a form of politics, the aesthetic wing of a Mexican-American civil rights movement, is now simply another form of art.
LACMA’s Asco retrospective was one of more than 65 exhibits staged across Southern California last year as part of Pacific Standard Time, the landmark effort led by the Getty Foundation to tell the story of Los Angeles’ emergence as a world art capital. Though Los Angeles is arguably the birthplace of Chicano art and remains home to many of the movement’s luminaries, only one group of Chicano artists was awarded a major museum solo show as part of Pacific Standard Time: Asco. The obvious implication of that curatorial decision might be that, as far as the arts establishment is concerned, Chicano art matters most when it turns away from politics and addresses itself to the aesthetic preoccupations of scholars and critics. Forty years ago Chicano artists tried to assert that art exists to teach, to inspire, and to ennoble people the rest of the world wants nothing to do with. The success of Asco is well deserved. But it demonstrates that those early ambitions of the Chicano art movement were never fully realized, and perhaps never will be.
Asco’s story begins in the late 1960s, when four smart, restless, culturally precocious teenagers — Gamboa, Gronk, Valdez and Herrón — met at East L.A.’s James A. Garfield High School. Quite apart from the rich artistic legacy already being forged by Chicanos in the late sixties, the milieu at Garfield alone was enough to prove Gamboa’s snooty LACMA curator wrong. In addition to the pachucos, beauty queens, gang-bangers and low-rider clubs common to many inner-city high schools, Garfield was home to an array of future artists and musicians, including the members of the rock group Los Lobos and performance artists Mundo Meza and Robert Legoretta (later known as Cyclona, his cross-dressing alter-ego). In a recent phone interview Gamboa told me that Chicano teens at the time were “very educated on the dominant culture’s values and icons and media, while maybe the members of the dominant culture felt there was no need to know about Chicanos.” In a 1997 oral history interview conducted by the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, Gronk recalled taking the bus to Santa Monica to watch Ingmar Bergman films. Willie Herrón, an early David Bowie fan, attended gang parties dressed in glitter pants and platform boots. Andy Warhol, Fluxus, Dada, Minimalism, Body Art, performance art — all of these art-world enthusiasms were known in 1960s East L.A., Gamboa told me.
In 1968, Gamboa helped lead the Chicano Blowouts, a mass action in which ten thousand students from five East L.A. high schools walked out for a week and a half to protest substandard school conditions and the disproportionate drafting of Mexican-Americans to fight in Vietnam. Two years later, during a massive East L.A. anti-war street protest known as the Chicano Moratorium, Gamboa was recruited to guest edit a Chicano literary journal called Regeneración. Gamboa asked Gronk, Valdez and Herrón to help him.
Staying up late in the garage behind Herrón’s mother’s house, the four friends, all of whom had pursued art in high school, discovered they shared a common sensibility. Like other Chicano artists, they resented Mexican-Americans’ exclusion from mainstream culture and wanted to make art that addressed the indignities of barrio life. At the same time, unlike their peers, the friends were just as incensed by what they regarded as the conceptual conservatism and crude ethnic stereotyping already hardening into a distinctive Chicano style. “I hated murals,” Patssi Valdez told a magazine interviewer in 1987. “I was sick of them. We’d be driving down the street and I’d say, ‘Gronk! Another mud painting!’” In his Smithsonian oral history Herrón recalled feeling offended by university trained artists using ersatz barrio motifs to bulk up their canvases’ street credibility. “It just seemed contrived,” he said of the work of Los Four, a Los Angeles-based art collective whose members incorporated graffiti and other inner-city tropes into their paintings and murals. In 1974 Los Four became the first group of Chicano artists to exhibit in a major American museum when LACMA staged a retrospective of their work.
The friends’ response was to stage a series of increasingly sophisticated set pieces using Chicano art conventions to mock both the injustice of America and the amateurish Chicano response to it. Accounts differ about just when they began conceiving of themselves as a group called Asco. What’s not in dispute is that the name derived just as much from the disgust the group’s work aroused in Chicano audiences. One by one, Asco took on cherished components of Chicano art — murals, Catholic iconography, Mesoamerican imagery, pachuco style — and travestied them to the point of nihilistic absurdity. The larger aim was to demonstrate the ugliness visited upon Chicano communities by an oppressive dominant culture. But that point was often lost on working-class audiences bewildered or repelled by the avant-garde techniques Asco shoehorned into Chicano art’s stylistic repertoire.
Asco’s first performance took place on Christmas Eve, 1971. Gamboa, Herrón and Gronk marched down East L.A.’s Whittier Boulevard bearing a fifteen-foot-tall cross made of cardboard to a Marine Corps recruiting office. Called Stations of the Cross the piece ostensibly highlighted the unjust sacrifice of Chicanos in Vietnam. More noticeable to passersbys were the anti-Catholic costumes: Herrón dressed as a skull-faced Christ; Gronk as a gay Pontius Pilate sporting an oversized fur purse; Gamboa as a zombie altar boy.
Walking Mural, staged exactly one year later the following Christmas Eve, lampooned Chicano muralists’ presumption that they could immortalize the barrio simply by affixing it to a wall. Returning to Whittier Boulevard, Patssi Valdez strode down the sidewalk in black crêpe, a cardboard halo and an aluminum skull — an anti-Virgin of Guadalupe. Gronk wore green chiffon and blue ornaments — a Christmas tree. Willie Herrón decked himself in a fantastical assemblage of painted cardboard later described by Gamboa, who took the pictures, as “a multi-faced mural that had grown bored with its environment and left.”
In 1973 Asco embarked on a series called No Movies — still photographs from movies that never existed. The No Movies’ stated purpose was to highlight Chicanos’ absence from mainstream American cinema. The images, however — glam-rock muggers axing a man in a suit; a serial killer setting a doll’s head on fire — mostly communicated the degradation of inner-city life. The following year the group had another go at murals when Gronk taped Valdez and an artist named Humberto Sandoval to the wall of a Whittier Boulevard liquor store in a piece called Instant Mural. Anxious passersbys asked Valdez and Sandoval if they needed help.
By that point Asco pieces were becoming directly confrontational. When the Los Four retrospective opened at LACMA that same year, Asco paid a visit. “We costumed to the max,” Herrón recalls in his oral history. “We painted our faces. We hung things from our bodies. And we went to that exhibit like we were going to a costume party or like we were going trick or treating. And we just went…wanting people to see some part of Chicano art that still didn’t exist, that wasn’t in that show that we felt had to be in that show.”
On November 2, 1974, Asco crashed a Day of the Dead celebration at a Boyle Heights cemetery. The celebration was sponsored by Self-Help Graphics, the community art center founded three years previously by activist Catholic nuns. “Costumed to the max” — Valdez in rainbow tissue paper and gold sequins, Herrón as a cardboard tri-plane, Gamboa as “Archangel Blackcloud,” Sandoval as a tank, Gronk as a giant camera — the group burst out of a special delivery envelope just as the nuns were readying Mass. The artists laughed hysterically, danced around and ran away.
In 2007, then-L.A. Weekly writer Daniel Hernandez published a 5,500-word story documenting in gossipy detail the myriad feuds, rivalries and failed love affairs that by 1987 had caused Asco to dissolve. That inglorious end might have been it for the group except that just as Asco was falling apart a small but growing number of graduate students, scholars and curators began championing the group and making them the lead figures in a new, more complicated narrative about Chicano art. In this new assessment Chicano art was not simply the aesthetic wing of a Chicano civil rights movement. Instead, Asco demonstrated that from their earliest days Chicano artists were in full communion with the artistic mainstream and capable of addressing the contemporary art world’s knottiest theoretical preoccupations.
In 2005 critic Josh Kun wrote in a Los Angeles Times Magazine cover story that a new generation of artists in Los Angeles, inspired by Asco, was “actively redefining what it means to make Chicano art in the new millennium.” Kun quoted artists whose critically acclaimed work — flat color paintings of the backs of heads; giant cage-like structures made of rebar — bore no resemblance to the barrio-based art of an earlier generation. Installation artist Ruben Ochoa (whose rebar piece was exhibited at the 2008 Whitney Museum Biennial) told Kun the Chicano tradition sometimes felt like “baggage on our shoulders.” Artist Mario Ybarra, Jr. called Spraypaint LACMA a cherished part of his artistic heritage.
Kun’s article sparked heated debate in the Chicano artistic community, as did a major Chicano art retrospective three years later at LACMA titled, provocatively, Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement. The LACMA retrospective, which opened with Gamboa’s photo of Spraypaint LACMA and traveled throughout the United States and Mexico, explicitly cited Asco as the galvanizing influence on contemporary Chicano art. There were no “mud paintings” and no Mesoamerican imagery in Phantom Sightings. Instead, there was artist Juan Capistran break-dancing on a Carl Andre floor sculpture. Or Los Angeles-based conceptual artist Arturo Ernesto Romo walking from his studio north of downtown to an art gallery five miles away, wearing a rabbit-head mask. The exhibit catalog’s description of contemporary Chicano art could have been an Asco mission statement: “that which privileges conceptual over representative approaches, and articulates social absence rather than cultural essence.”
Asco’s resurgence is generally heralded as a victory for Chicano art, a long-awaited moment of recognition for the full range of Chicano artists’ artistic accomplishments. With Asco reintegrated into the earliest days of Chicano art history, the movement comes into focus as “much more engaging and sophisticated than people give it credit for,” Chon Noriega, director of UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center, told me recently.
And yet even Noriega, who has been championing Asco from the moment he first learned about the group as a film studies graduate student at Stanford University more than 20 years ago, acknowledged that “there’s an upside and a downside” to Asco’s resurgence. “The downside is, it’s a very selective engagement with art being produced by Mexican-descent artists working in the U.S.,” he said. What Noriega means is that focus on Asco risks coming at the expense of the more traditional Chicano artists whose own work Asco once disparaged. “In the 1960s and ‘70s there was a feeling [art] should serve the community,” Noriega said. “But that didn’t mean the artists weren’t in fierce dialogue with their peers around the world.”
Malaquias Montoya, an early Chicano painter and printmaker who went on to teach art and Chicano studies at U.C. Davis, told me in a recent phone interview that it was social-activist goals, not conceptual timidity, that sometimes limited the range of early Chicano art. “Our role was to build community,” Montoya recalled. “If your work is to empower a disenfranchised people, you have to be clear in what you’re saying. They have to look at it and walk away thinking about it rather than wondering what you’re trying to say or miss the point altogether.”
Thirty years ago, Montoya, who continues in retirement to run a non-profit community art center in a farm-worker town near Davis, wrote a controversial essay castigating Chicano artists who had succumbed to the temptations of the art market and forsaken their activist roots. Montoya told me that the reemergence of Asco — whose members he has occasionally joined on academic panels — is simply another sign that the divide he identified in 1980 remains intact. Except that now, instead of curators dismissing Chicanos as gang members, it’s academics and young artists turning their backs on the unglamorous work of community activism. “It’s not a paycheck, but it’s a different type of satisfaction, and it’s very rewarding,” Montoya said of social activist art. “But for some it’s not rewarding enough.”
That shift in priorities comes despite the fact that many of the injustices early Chicano artists labored against remain entrenched in the social imagination of the art world. As the curators of the Phantom Sightings exhibit themselves acknowledged, “four decades after the social movement that first named and debated the term, Chicano art remains a marginalized category within the art world.” At the same time, a recent Pew Hispanic Center analysis of Census data showed that nearly 30 percent of Latinos live in poverty, the highest proportion of any American ethnic group. 40 percent of East L.A. residents have no job. Garfield High School, Asco’s alma mater, scored in the bottom 10 percent on recent California statewide tests. 87 percent of students at the school qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
From this perspective, the downside of Asco’s rise to prominence is not simply that some worthy Chicano artists get ignored, but that the political goals of the older movimiento artists, the artists Asco found naïve, become obscured. Los Angeles-based conceptual artist Sandra de la Loza told me she tries to stay true to the Chicano movement’s radical roots by giving time to community art centers such as Self-Help Graphics even as her work is exhibited internationally. And she pointed to other young artists doing the same, including Mario Ybarra, Jr., whose Slanguage Studio brings classes and exhibits to his hometown of Wilmington, Los Angeles’ gritty port community.
Still, said de la Loza, the reality of the contemporary art market is such that it’s no longer possible to make a living as a muralist, or as a graphic artist teaching kids how to silkscreen politically charged T-shirts. “Chicano artists today who are represented by galleries have to participate and engage in tendencies or questions or ways of working that are in play at the current moment,” de la Loza said. The market seeks “what’s going to be a good investment, what’s new and cutting edge. And Chicano art never had a lot of currency as a market.”
Asco’s Spraypaint LACMA has always been interpreted as a story of insurgent triumph, of outsiders whose brazen wit ultimately forced a big, bad arts institution to sit up and take notice. But that’s only one possible story. Insulted by that snooty curator in 1972, Harry Gamboa could have walked away, still knowing that his path, making art for an embattled community, was one of integrity. Instead, the members of Asco returned to the museum, unable to let the slight go. Gamboa told me that over the years he carefully documented everything Asco did, then packaged the photos in envelopes and mailed them off to as many art world luminaries as he could think of. He didn’t get many replies. Instead, when the Asco costumes came off, Gamboa went back to his day job — driving an RTD bus. A few miles west LACMA beckoned.
When the museum finally called, it wasn’t because the art world at last had opened itself to the insurgent energy of a restive Chicano community. It was because scholars and curators had discovered in Asco a group of Chicano artists they could readily identify with. At its creative peak, Asco created works of genuinely unsettling artistic brilliance. But few places in this world are less unsettling than the clean, well-lighted space of an art museum gallery. The institution brought the unruly graffiti taggers inside and domesticated them. The art world appropriated them — or, perhaps more accurately, that world became more cosmopolitan and incorporated them. In either case, a new generation of Latino artists, attuned by their professors to the conceptual preoccupations of a fickle art market, followed Asco’s lead.
Near the close of our interview I asked Gamboa who Asco’s audience was — that is, to whom the group had envisioned themselves speaking. Gamboa replied: “To some extent I believe some of the most elaborate poems have been written and inserted into a bottle and tossed into the sea.” Whether Gamboa meant Asco was speaking to everyone, or to no one, I’m not sure. What I do know is that plenty of people in places like East Los Angeles still desperately need to hear from artists like Harry Gamboa, Jr., and Gronk, and Patssi Valdez, and Willie Herrón. East L.A. — and the rest of polyglot America — still need that message in a bottle.