Liz Heard
Hemispheric Institute
3rd Annual Encuentro Lima, Peru
Seminar Course Project
Interview with Nao Bustamante

 

Performance and video artist Nao Bustamante grew up in California's agricultural center, the San Joaquin Valley, and she spent a lot of her free time watching old Hollywood films and listening to recordings from Broadway musicals. Like many young people, she discovered in these popular forms a reflection of her own queer desires and an escape from a culturally isolated environment. As a young adult, Bustamante moved to San Fransisco, where she earned a BFA and an MFA in New Genres from the San Francisco Art Institute. Working out of her home-base, the Mission District, she began to synthesize popular and avant-garde art forms, including performance art, video, pop music, dance, and digital art. She has collaborated extensively with artists like Coco Fusco (Stuff), D.L. Alvarez, Chico MacMurtrie, Tracy Rhodes, and the experimental dance group Osseus Labyrint, and she has performed internationally, in Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and the Americas. Currently she lives in Troy, New York, where she teaches performance practice at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She continues to travel, perform, and follow her own creative impulses, working at present with her pop music bands and on video projects.


The following interview concerns Bustamante's sharp-witted performance work, America the Beautiful, as presented at the Third Annual Encuentro of the Hemispheric Institute of Politics and Performance in Lima, Peru. America the Beautiful mixes theatre, performance art, and circus in a kind of recombinant, inverted Drag. Bustamante begins her performance-dressed in knit cap, sweat pants, sweatshirt, and sneakers-by setting the stage with a step-ladder, a 1960s-style portable record player, and a few props. A much larger ladder, around twenty feet high, stands in the shadows up stage. In a casual transition from performer as self to performer as character, Bustamante undresses and wraps her voluminous waist and thighs in transparent packaging tape, meanwhile playing and replaying a vintage 78 recording: a sermon on the "perfect body, the spiritual body." She sits on a step-ladder, puts on a hyperbolic blonde wig, dusts her face abundantly in gold powder, and spews a bottle of hairspray onto the wig and into the theater's atmosphere. Changing the LP on her record player to Someday My Prince Will Come, she climbs to the top of the step-ladder, and, balancing precariously, dons a pair of high heeled sandals. With one shoe on, she plucks the other shoe from the ladder rung below her, and using the shoe to knock the phonograph needle back to the beginning of the record, sends a nerve-racking screech over the phonograph speakers. She smiles deliriously, puts on the second shoe, and then accomplishes the remarkable if ridiculous feat of tying her ankle straps while perched on an eighteen-inch square surface. Bustamante cavorts with seeming insouciance, but she risks a real and very apparent danger of falling.


By the time Bustamante climbs the tall ladder, smiling theatrically and performing absurd "tricks" while chancing an even more dangerous fall, she has fully captured the audience's attention. At the top, Bustamante balances on her belly across the ladder top and mimes swimming, she lights a firecracker and watches it fizzle out, she sits up and smokes a cigarette with overstated panache. Her comic appearance is transformed by circus-style lighting: a follow-spot casts Bustamante's elongated shadow, smoking elegantly and framed in a circle of white light on the dark backstage curtain. Bustamante does not allow such dramatic idealization to go unmarked. She carefully reverses her position at the ladder top and, with her hand, makes a shadow dog barking in the spotlight. After descending the ladder, Bustamante accepts a bouquet of roses and demands endless rounds of applause. When the audience finally refuses to applaud anymore, she eats her roses in a fit of spite and vomits them up again, barely concealed by the backstage curtain. Recovering her obligingly "feminine" demeanor, Bustamante ends the performance with a rendition of the U.S. national anthem, played seductively on an array of bottles. She punctuates the melody with flirtatious finger cymbals, performs fellatio on a bottle, and mouths "I love you" to the audience. Following this finale, Bustamante takes her "real" bow (see interview): she moves to center stage, cuts the packaging tape off her body, removes her wig, and, leaving her costume and her character behind, departs the stage.


Conventions of nationalism, gender, sexuality, romantic love, popular culture, performance, and the stage itself are all lampooned in America the Beautiful. It is a wickedly sharp critique, but the performer does not indulge in the usual safety net of critical and verbal distance; she literally puts her own, untrained and vulnerable body at risk. Although Bustamante's work is difficult to classify or characterize, she might best be described as a political provocateur and a cultural critic in the tradition of the female clown. Furthermore, her humor reads, at least to this viewer, as queer and, more specifically, as lesbian. Working from the outer edge of the heterosexual expectations and pressures, the lesbian comic does not simply satirize the hommo-social, she perverts it to her own pleasure in a kind of serious play: Bustamante, for instance, seduces her audience into a shared risk, a thrill that involves politically charged humor, danger, and erotic display all at once.


It is interesting that the Third Encunetro included performances by several other artists of this tradition, including mime Denise Stoklos (Brazil) and political cabaret artists Jesusa Rodríguez and Liliana Felipe (Mexico). This lesbian comedic sensibility has little to do politically circumscribed notions of lesbian identity or with avowed sexual preference. It may, indeed, be performed by women who identify with and/or practice heterosexuality, bisexuality, intersexuality, or transexuality. However, the particular approach to femininity, sexuality, and the female body that sets such female clowns apart expresses a kind of outsider perspective that is common among lesbians, rare among women of other sexual sensibilities, and non-existent among those that are raised male, at least in contemporary Western culture. Relatively unhampered by heterosexual ideals of femininity , these performers value simultaneously the grotesque and the beautiful, the ordinary and the sublime. Their bodies display profound contrasts (Stoklos's distorted facial mask set against her elegant, flowing mimetic gestures), embody delicate absurdities (Bustamante's virtuosic yet "untrained" act of donning high heeled sandals while standing, naked, on a stepladder), and take boisterous pleasure without shame (Felipe's unabashedly raucous piano playing). Like these performers, Bustamante takes full advantage of the body's range of power as she explores the collective U.S. subconscious, the relationship of technology and perception, and the precarious nature of gender identity in America the Beautiful.

 


This interview refers to Nao Bustamante's performance of America the Beautiful on July 10, 2002, at Casa Yuyachkani in Lima, Peru. The work was presented as part of the Third Encuentro of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. The interview also refers to the discussion, facilitated by José Muñoz, that followed that performance. The record player mentioned is a small,1960s-vintage portable LP record player that Bustamante used in her performance. During the interview, which took place in a hotel room, Bustamante used the record player as a table for her coffee cup.

Liz: Actually that was one of the things that I was really interested in, is this record player, and the music. I wondered where you found this record player, is there a personal attachment you have to it, or to that kind of record player?


Nao: Well, I have a lot of record players at home, and this is the one I tour with because it's the smallest one that plays 78 records. And it was given to me by one of my best friends, who's a great artist, D.L. Alvarez, so I'm attached to it. When he moved to New York he gave me this record player. So I really love it, but that's about as far as the significance goes for the record player. I collect 78 records and different sort of thrift shop records, a habit that developed, being a poor artist collecting material, finding entertainment. And also, when I was growing up I was just very into musicals, and old movies, and I still am, and so enjoying the history of old records has always been part of my enjoyment of life. It seeps into my artistic practice that way. And I also think the records are like - I had talked before about them being a sort of historical narrative or framework for the development of the ideas we have as a society around gender, around femininity. So I think about that, the cross between popular music and our personal psychoses that we share collectively, those kinds of things.


Liz: I'm really interested in this kind of technology, older technologies as well as newer technologies. I also have this love of older popular music. Two of the songs you played- "Maybelline" is one of my all-time favorites…


Nao: It's a great song.


Liz: Yes. And also, "Some Day…"- what was the title of that?


Nao: "Some Day My Prince Will Come."


Liz: Yeah, a long title…and I wonder if you know if that version is the one used in the Disney animation film?


Nao: I believe that's the original Disney animation version.


Liz: It sounded like it to me.


Nao: I haven't done the research but I believe that it is, just from hearing it and seeing the cartoon.


Liz: Right. That's fabulous. It's one of those songs that I think has all this stuff about gender and love and eroticism and romance stuffed into it.


Nao: It's so classic. It's so part of the myth, right? It's so part of the collective myth, and now, you know, world-wide. For a while I was really interested in the ideas behind romanticism. I did a little research about that and myths around romanticism, and I think some of my work broke down along those lines, trying to break down those ideas; see where they come from, see how they're constructed and not necessarily natural. And not that I buy into them any less, or that I have any more control over myself in relationship to those constructions, but I guess its just sort of another layer of seeing the world, right?
And also, as far as the records: I don't always work with records but I found them to be a great tool for touring and improvisation because you had less technical requirements if you were handling all the music from the stage itself. And this funny sort of DJ culture we live in now, where I'm DJ-ing my own performance, but in such an anti-DJ sort of way: letting the records run out, letting them start over, letting them skip, you know, abusing the records. It's not an anti-DJ thing at all. I mean I'm up there playing the records; I'm enjoying it, I'm doing it. But I think it connects into that whole notion, like you were saying, in more absurd lines, and also it adds to the playfulness on stage.
And people don't hear records like that anymore, they don't hear them played on a record player. You know they might buy a CD of them burned or something, but people just don't hear these records anymore. And the records are… some of them are completely broken and I just re-tape them


Liz: (laughs)


Nao: so the grooves don't match, you know…and that kind of thing.


Liz: That's wonderful, that the wear and tear is not …is just part of the performance. What about the sound of the skipping, when the needle comes to the end, goes over and over… I really like that.


Nao: I think the cyclical thing is really important. Just the metaphor of the groove, and the cycle, and the circle, and the record going round and round…and that's sort of the metaphor in psychology of us playing our tapes over and over. And I think I emphasize that visually with the hairspray section where I move my arm in a circle and spray and spray and spray. So I think that that's a point where maybe it gets a little heavy-handed in terms of emphasizing the cycle.


Liz: Right…and for me a feeling of being stuck, you know, not a cycle that moves on.…this persistance…


Nao: Absolutely. A cycle that won't end. I think for that character, she's there always. She's never going to be able to move out of that dynamic with the audience, or with herself. It's not a piece where the character becomes somehow empowered at the end. It's a piece where she stays in her disillusionment and her bitterness and her state of desire.


Liz: Yes.


Nao: In that way she's like these mythical gods or sub-humans or something where they have their role that they're always playing: they're always pushing the rock up or they're always trying this… So I think of her as…she can evolve within her space but its not like she's going to have a revelation.


Liz: She's not going to transcend that space.


Nao: No. That's my job.


Liz: (laughs) Right.


Nao: That's why at the end I just cut the tape off and take everything off and leave it on the stage, Because it's my way of leaving that character on stage and leaving her as a vestment, adornment, something that we can play with but that's not something we want to live in. And that part of the work evolved because I would do the piece and then I'd go back backstage and cut off the tape and have that whole experience backstage. And then people who were close to me who would run backstage and see me doing that would say, "Wow, that is so interesting, this whole cutting off the tape aspect." So I decided to use that part, somewhat as a real bow to the audience, and then leave the whole bowing out of it.


Liz: I liked that, and I liked that pile of tape and the wig that you left there in that mess on stage.
Hmmm, things I was thinking about. You know, one thing that just floated up in my mind as I was thinking about that piece-you talk about how playful it is, and it's one of my favorite things about the piece, but in some ways it was reminding me…well, right now I'm reading-I'm going to put some theory in-


Nao: (laughs) That's all right.


Liz: The Interpretation of Dreams by Freud, and he's talking about specific dreams that are often repeated (at least in his culture and I think are still in contemporary U.S. culture) of being naked, but naked and unembarrassed, and falling, and stairway dreams that have to do with anxiety sometimes. And of course Freud thinks everything goes back to early childhood. Is there any part of childhood in for you in this?


Nao: Well, it's interesting, I had someone come up to me after the show and say that what they enjoyed most was that they felt like they were watching a child that was totally committed to what they were doing, in that way that children can totally focus and commit to some absurd task.


Liz: Right.


Nao: and complete it and be…


Liz: thrilled with it.


Nao: Yeah, full of enjoyment about it. And I had to agree with them, in essence of the work. Well, I don't know…I guess a lot of what I'm talking about of course was developed in my early childhood, you know watching the old movies, sort of buying into the ideas of romanticism and femininity and enjoying it. I mean I look at women now, and even though I'm very feminine in a way, I don't feel like a man or a woman. And I often feel like a drag queen when I dress up. And I really admire women who seem to have learned the traits of womanhood that to me like the classic traits, like throwing your head back when you laugh or those kinds of things that you associate with seeing a beautiful woman. I really enjoy women who have grown up. I have this…


Liz: (laughing) Who have grown up?


Nao: Yeah, who have grown up, women who embody that type of full-grown womanhood. But it's interesting because I don't feel like I've ever done it. I just don't. I would like… it's not like I'm some crazy…It's not even like...I mean I have a lot of recognition around gender-bending and all of the politics around gender, but it's not even like I'm engaged in some sort of rebellion around, "I should have been born this or born that." I just feel like myself; I just feel like this being. I don't have it so much: that association of being a woman or a man. I feel very complicated into myself. And I feel like I can play a lot of different roles as I need to meet the energy of each situation. So going back to the question of is this rooted in my childhood, well, I would suppose so, you know, just because I think everything must be.


Liz: everything must be…But, you know, I think…(First of all, that's how I see you-the way you just described in terms of gender-feminine but also some complicated configuration that is fairly fluid between the genders.) Now, your piece is entitled America the Beautiful, and I read it in one way as a reading of this American character, and American-I'm trying not to use that word "American"… "U.S.-ian," or whatever you might call it-anxiety. What it means to be a citizen of a country in the world that is sort of at the apex of power, economic power, political power...


Nao: I think that the woman in each country, the female, the feminine, is in a way a symbol of the loot that has been taken. I think that she's still the symbol of that which has been stolen, and that which has been pillaged. She's both the vessel for male aggression, and she's also the prize; so she's that which is adorned and that which carries the race on. So there's a lot of roles that women play that I'm not particularly comfortable in playing, nor do I play them, but so I do think of… There is a critique in there about the feminine, and it's not so much a critique of the feminine as a critique of the kinds of hoops and loops that women normally have to jump through in order to be accepted, in order to gain love and trust. Or what women think they have to do, and that becomes a larger symbol, a socio-political symbol. I think that the piece extends beyond the issues of sexuality and femininity and into these types of roles. For me, the piece-because I'm in a different place now and it's felt like it was developed so long ago, I'm trying to find the new work, the new space, and it's really difficult. Because that piece was so organic and…


Liz: You're trying to find the new space in this piece or…


Nao: In a new piece. I've done a lot of smaller pieces and installations. And large works, too. But that piece just feels like it was the most organic, seminal work that I've developed so far, which is why I presented it here. It's both the piece that is the seminal work and also the work that drags you down. It's the work that is the weight around your neck. The metaphor of work as your children holds true: both your pride and your joy.


Liz: (laughing) You think its time to kick this one out of the nest?


Nao: Oh yeah! Well now that I've done it here it might have a new, a little spurt left in it, one last life. But also the law of averages-I don't want to keep doing it because the law of averages… You know, I'm going to fall at some point if I keep doing it. And I really feel that every time I do it. I feel like at some point you're going to fall. And especially here I felt like that. That ladder was not so easy to work on.


Liz: I've been on top of a lot of shifty ladders…it's scary as hell.
So do you have any ideas for your next work?


Nao: I'm working on some videos that have been on the back shelf for a while that are video-art type videos. One is a mini-series about artists in an art colony, called Skowhegan. And one is a sort of a soap opera that I shot in Havana with a collaborator, Mads Lynnerup. So I'm going to try to finish that. I have a couple bands. I'm working on stage shows for bands which is really fun, like my pop music. I enjoy that a lot. It's the most free space that I have. It's the most enjoyable, creative, flowing space that I have to work with. And I've been doing some different installation-type pieces. I think that there's this moment after I finished my big tour with that piece [America the Beautiful] and then my big tour with Stuff with Coco Fusco where I think I wanted to move away from the stage space, that very focused place of voyeurism, exhibitionism. And move to a place of directing, a place of crafting in a different space. But when I get back on the stage and back in that space, I realize also that there's something there that's really strong and powerful for me. And that I can't really dismiss it and ignore it, and that I shouldn't turn my back on it, because it's a type of gift. It's a natural fluidity, a comfortability with being there. And it's so interesting because I do move into, I do create an altered state for myself, and I think that's…


Liz: When you're on stage?

Nao: When I'm on stage. And so I think that that is pretty interesting, to be able to move in that space. So I guess, maybe I'll eventually be able to come back to that place and create another full-length work around that.


Liz: But you want to get away from it for a while?


Nao: Well, the limitations around that are really strict. I mean this work is a critique on that whole space. So then the next work…where do you go after you do that critique on that space of theatre? And the other problem is that the way that I approach making my work isn't necessarily from the point of view…like I don't have a very good work ethic… I don't have the type of drive that other colleagues of mine have where they say, "I have to create a full-length stage piece once a year and get it booked." I've never worked that way. Things sort of develop; I try things out, all of a sudden I have piece. And if I'm lucky people will see it and someone will book me.


Liz: Right.


Nao: That's just the way I've always worked, and I've never been focused on reaching a pinnacle. I decided that a long time ago, when I was a really young artist, in my twenties. I said I'm just going to let things develop as they develop, because I saw so many artists scrambling around me.


Liz: So, to forego that professional drive and…


Nao: Well, I have professional drive to some extent, you know, we all do. But in terms of staying on some type of schedule in order to reach some type of level by a certain age-I've determined that as an artistic practice that it's more important for me to develop on my own terms, in my own time, in my own space. And if that means every five years I create some work that to me has resonance and power, and then I play a lot in between the spaces, then that's what it means. If it means that I create three interesting pieces every year then that's what it means. But I've slowed down a lot now that I've gotten older, When I was in my twenties I was performing five times a month and just trying out stuff all over. But then at a certain point, the payoff changes. Like the kind of experiences you need, where you're developing yourself.
So I guess the short answer would be that I'm not really sure where the next thing is going to show up or develop.

July 13, 2002: Lima, Peru