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A performance by Coco Fusco and Nao Bustamante
The Drama Theatre, Dunedin College of Education Saturday August 9th.
Brought to NZ by the Otago Polytechnic School of Art with the support of Creative NZ.

What it is to perform is rarely explored in theatrical contexts without self-referentiality fast becoming tedious, or moving performance itself outside traditional configurations of actor and audience. Brecht wrote that the theatre's function is to both instruct and entertain, neither one without the other. In its derivation from Latin, "entertainment" means to "hold between". Performances which succeed in making theatrical illusion visible while still managing to keep the audience 'in there' are, in my experience, rare. I am not speaking here simply of the suspension of disbelief but of creating instances where performance itself is harnessed as a radical tool in the creation of new ways of seeing and the embodiment of new ways of doing. It is this precarious and finely attuned sense of balance that Nao Bustamante and Coco Fusco provide in their collaborative work, Stuff.

Stuff was one of the most enjoyable, thought provoking, intelligently constructed and tightly performed pieces of work I have seen all year. Personal stories, travel and tourism are the raw material of this work which looks at "the cultural myths that link Latin women and food to the erotic in the Western popular imagination" (programme notes). As background to the performance, Fusco and Bustamante write:

"A year ago, we decided to create a performance that dealt with Latin women, food and sex. We started from our own stories. Nao is from an immigrant farm worker family that was involved in the Chicano political struggles of the 1960's and 1970's. She grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of California, a region that at one time produced more fruit and vegetables than any other in the world. Coco's family is from Cuba, a country that gained a reputation in the 1950's as an international whorehouse, and which, in response to its present economic crisis, has reverted to sex tourism as a strategy of survival. In the course of writing STUFF Coco travelled to Cuba to interview women in this burgeoning industry. Then we both went to Chiapas, the centre of indigenist culture tourism in Mexico, and the site of the 1994 Zapatista insurrection. We spent several weeks in conversation with women and children whose livelihoods are linked to their daily contact with foreigners" (programme notes).

On entering the theatre, other audience members and I were handed squares of coloured card - an event which could only have been interpreted as a forewarning of impending audience interaction. The strong of heart took up seating toward the front and the cautious, with whom I was numbered, gravitated to safer regions. The stage was set as an open space of play with the "stuff" of performance displayed everywhere - a rack of costumes, several polystyrene heads embellished with wigs, boxes of make-up, hair accessories and a few hand mirrors. A video screen, suspended at the back wall, hung like an oversized painting above a dining table where places were set for four. The table was covered by a gaudy flowered cloth and overlayed with plastic. There was a playful intimacy generated by the staging, complimented well by the pre-school feeling of the venue itself, with its cluster-together seating and brightly coloured cushions.

The work opened with an exchange of postcards between Fusco and Bustamante, who were seated in the open "dressing rooms" at either side of the main stage area. The relaying of travel stories from places around the globe served to introduce multiculturalism, tourism and travel as concerns. The fourth wall principle was dismantled from the beginning of the evening with both performers taking prolonged glances from postcard to audience at regular intervals. Performative space was established not as a place to create illusion, but a chance to meet "eye to eye". The postcards presented snapshot perspectives on lives and realities from Elsewhere. Trumps are handed to the stage when the last card reads current time and date, this reflecting the questions "Where is Elsewhere ?", " Who are the Others ?" and "For Whom ?", directly back at the audience. These questions were partcularly pertinent for a touring production, where connections to the specific content of the work may not resonate immediately for an audience thinking about a local or national (ie, New Zealand) context.

The placement and presence of the audience was mediated by the tele-present head of 'Triple E' - the evening tour guide for "Travel Tasters", which, we were told, was a company marketing package tours for the "authentic" Latin experience. Audience members were positioned through the performance as both tourists (consumers of indigenous culture) and participants in a live studio event (consumers of media culture). Thus, the audience was made complicit in a performance structured as a promotional display for a tour company, the representation of which resembled life with the kind of accuracy that only fiction ever affords. Our guides for the evening, Blanca (Coco Fusco) and Rosa (Nao Bustamante), performed samples of the range of services the company offers. The live action was spliced by sales pitches and new product introductions from Triple-E. The distinction between live and mediated presence was highlighted further by the frame freezing of Triple E's sycophantic smile into grotesque heavenward glances, making him resemble an air hostess caught mid-stream on an in-flight safety demonstration.

Audience-interactivity was a structural motif, and there was no escape, no matter where you were sitting. People where chosen at random from the display of cards, or by the pull of Nao's elbow during one seat clambering episode. Selected audience members were invited to partake in a meal, ritual or hear exotic legends. The audience's bi-lingual ability was tested through request to translate a variety of dialogue refrains after which four qualifiers were invited onstage for a rumba lesson. The contestants were then whittled down to one lucky young white boy who was given a crash course in Spanish, sufficient for him to attempt to bed a Latino girl while still respecting cultural difference. For the really adventurous, Travel Tasters were offered the full "Aphrophrenetic" experience, complete with flares, bangles and plenty of hip gyration. Appropriate to appropriation itself, we finished the evening in grand karaoke finale.

Refusal to provide spectacle or conform to type becomes the driving logic of Stuff. At the heart of the performance was the desire for an Authentic Other (spiritual, sexual, mythical) as explored in the send-up of rites and rituals. The mythicising of the Other in the figure of the goddess was subverted by her realistic depiction as a working class woman, just as themes of extravagence and feasting were subverted by a sparse use of very raw ingredients. The abject and the erotic are seen coupled together in the chopping, spitting and spewing of ceremonial foodstuffs, or through the brandishing of knives in a self-conscious display of ethnic ritualistic dance. The incongruities between text and display thus worked to force the audience to read meaning from between the gaps and spaces of representation. The work turned Brecht's concept of culinary theatre on its head, making the audience as tourist complicit in the consumption of a spectacle packaged as entertainment.

Stuff not only disrupted the physical spaces between performers and audience, but it also interrogated the boundaries of fantasy and imagination. Communal desires were cunningly elicited through the enactment of a survey, taken by Bustamante as representative for a "well known" San Fran sex toy distributer. And if you've never questioned what your preference would be between a waxy skinned english cucumber, the ready-plastic coated variety, or a prostrate and/or g-spot stimulating gourd, is an interesting exercise. On the relationship between western appetites for sex and daily consumer practice, Fusco and Bustamante write: "If food here serves as a metaphor for sex, then eating represents consumption in its crudest form. We are dealing with how cultural consumption in our current moment involves the trafficking of that which is most dear to us all - our identities, our myths and our bodies" (programme notes).

Communication in performance work is a dynamic process, involving complex stimulations of sense and sign. Work which demands interactivity is as idiosyncratic as the makeup of any particular audience on any given night, this greatly increasing the risk of "losing the audience", or compromising content. However, there is no obscurity as to the issues Stuff addresses; the politic of the work is as succinct as its presentation. This attests not only to the skills that Coco Fusco and Nao Bustamante bring to performance, but to the intellectual rigour that has gone into the research, scripting, and compilation of the material. Through engagement with the act of performance and the positioning of an audience as complicit in this act, Stuff critiques what it is to perform the identity of an Other, making it an important and readable work for any cultural context.

Olivia Lory Kay
16 August 1997