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DOC/UNDOC — Part 4/6, “Ambiguous, Unclassifiable, Undefinable Identity”

During Fall Semester, 2015, University of Utah graduate students in SPAN6900-2 Analyzing Texts: Form and Content visited Rare Books. During the third and final session with Rare Books, the students were introduced to late 20th century/early 21st century fine press and artists’ books. The session ended with the premiere viewing of our copy of DOC/UNDOC Documentado/Undocumented Ars Shamánica Performática, purchased in September. Student response was so strong that managing curator Luise Poulton, in her typical, over-enthusiastic way, exclaimed, “You should post your thoughts on Open Book!” Prof. Isabel Dulfano, in her own enthusiastic way, immediately took up the suggestion and made this a new assignment, right then and there. Bless the beleaguered grad students! Rare Books is pleased to present these responses, one post at a time.

From Dallas Fawson

Doc/Undoc photo courtesy of Moving Press Parts

In the Rare Books Classroom at the J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah, our Spanish 6900 class had the pleasure of experiencing DOC/UNDOC: Documentado/Undocumented Ars Shamánica Performática (2014), a multi-genre work of art which is the ultimate expression of the central theme of Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s collective body of work: crossing borders. This theme is central to the piece, an unclassifiable combination of artists’ books, performance art videos, underground music, and what the collaborators have called “a traveling case for apprentice shamans,” a heavy container which includes a plethora of objects such as a mirror, a Luchador mask, a comb, and the dried foot of an iguana. With this work, Gómez-Peña and the various artists with whom he collaborated have created a piece of art which crosses both thematic and aesthetic borders, and in that way challenges notions of genre, authorship, and the relationship between a work of art and its spectator.

Given his mixed ancestry and current country of residence, it is unsurprising that the idea of crossing borders has permeated Gómez-Peña’s artistic world. As a Mexican residing in the United States, Gómez-Peña has literally and symbolically crossed borders: his mixture of Spanish and Indigenous blood, as well as his decision to reside in the United States, have given him a flexible identity which is typical of Chicanos, people of Mexican descent residing in the United States. I believe that, in many ways, Documentado/Undocumented serves as an elaborate metaphor for this unclassifiable identity.

Due to the fact that he is a performance artist, it is unsurprising that the theme of crossing borders exists not only in Gómez-Peña’s writing, but also on his own body in the form of tattoos. On the DVD which forms part of Documentado/Undocumented, the viewer has several opportunities to glimpse the artist’s heavily tattooed torso. On one half of his chest, we see a man with a European style hat and mustache; on the other, a skull. And connecting these two images is a crucifix intertwined with snakes. This symbol is useful in two ways: first, it serves as an intriguing artistic representation of the mixture of heritages which make up Gómez-Peña’s identity. The European imagery, such as the mustached man with the hat, contrasts with the Indigenous Mexican symbolism found in the skull. Furthermore, the snake-entwined crucifix which joins these two images can be seen as a symbol for the mixture of Indigenous beliefs and European Catholicism which help to define the identities of many Mexicans today, and in this way showcases Gómez-Peña’s mixed heritage.

This complex tattoo also reveals the way in which Gómez-Peña has crossed borders with his art. Rather than limiting himself to a single genre, Gómez-Peña writes poetry, collaborates with visual artists, and even creates visceral performances using his own body to push artistic boundaries- that is, to cross borders. In fact, Documentado/Undocumented itself is not exclusively a work by Guillermo Gómez-Peña, but rather a collaboration with several other artists, such as Felicia Rice, who designed the artists’ books which form part of the collection. In this way, the work not only pushes the boundaries of art, but also of artistry: what exactly is Documentado/Undocumented, and who should receive credit for it? I believe the work is meant to be ambiguous and undefinable, and therefore serve as a metaphor for the mixed identity of Guillermo Gómez-Peña and other Chicanos, who do not necessarily have a single culture with which they identify.

This artistic border crossing is present in every aspect of Documentado/Undocumented, including the title, which contains a dual binary: the juxtaposition of being documented and undocumented, and the mixture of the English and Spanish languages, two presences which reflect the reality of many Mexicans living in the United States. In spite of the various references to European and Mexican culture, however, it should be noted that Gómez-Peña does not limit himself artistically to these influences. One fascinating aspect of the work is the soundtrack which accompanies it, which includes aggressive, underground musical genres, such as death metal and electro-industrial. Although this may seem arbitrary, it is important to realize that these are genres which also push artistic boundaries. Electro-industrial, for example, is an eclectic genre which mixes elements of heavy metal, electronic dance music, and hip-hop style production. By including these disparate elements, it is a genre which defies classification.

The inclusion of such polarizing musical genres serves at least two purposes. First, it further pushes the boundaries of genres: not only does Documentado/Undocumented include a soundtrack, something which is already atypical of artists’ books, but one containing genres of extreme music with limited audiences. Secondly, it prevents complacence from the audience. In his writing, Gómez-Peña makes it clear that he wants to push people from all sides of the political and social spectrum. In fact, one of the poems included in the work directly addresses the ways in which he is able to offend both liberal and conservative audiences, something which he presents as an artistic obligation on his part. By pushing boundaries from every direction, Gómez-Peña and his collaborators insure that no one will walk away from the work unmoved.

It is important to discuss a final way in which Gómez-Peña and the other artists who worked on this project have crossed borders, and that is with respect to the relationship between a work of art and its spectators. Rather than something which is meant to be admired from afar, the “traveling case for apprentice shamans” is meant to be heavily interacted with. In one of the videos which is included with the set, Gómez-Peña expresses his desire for the spectators to leave some of their sweat and oils behind on the objects included in the case. This desire demonstrates another way in which the artists have crossed borders: rather than the common view that works of art are meant to be perfectly preserved, interaction with this piece is not only possible, but encouraged. This element, which in my opinion is what truly makes Documentado/Undocumented unique, is a final symbol of how Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Felicia Rice and the other collaborators have created an indefinable work of art which crosses aesthetic and thematic borders.


“Doc/Undoc | Art | UC Santa Cruz.” Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
Gómez-Peña, Guillermo, et al. DOC/UNDOC: Documentado/Undocumented Ars Shamánica
Performática. Santa Cruz, CA: Moving Parts Press, 2014.

Coming soon: Julia Menendez Jardon
Source: Rare Books (OpenBook) Blog

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