Artmoreorless: The Early Performances of Asco
A black hole lies at the centre of a photograph. Looking like a gaping wound, brown water appears to trickle from its obscured bowels onto a pile of organic debris before gathering into a fetid pool littered with scraps of plastic and other detritus. Slouching elegantly with their hands in pockets, four figures surround the hole while staring blithely at the camera. Behind them a familiar landscape—of decaying, industrial infrastructure—provides the backdrop to nondescript, overlooked urban terrain.
Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk, Patssi Valdez, and Willie F. Herrón are the figures occupying this particular frame, individuals who came of age in what Arthur C. Danto describes as the “era of revulsion.”1 After meeting at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles during the late 1960s, they began working together under the name Asco—the Spanish word for nausea or disgust—to produce conceptual performances that unfolded between the street and the printed document.2 For the work described above, the aptly titled Asshole Mural (1975), the precise function and location of the hole in the photograph are unclear and less significant perhaps than Asco’s artistic and political responses to such elusive spaces, which eschew direct engagement with identity politics in favour of a politics and practice more difficult to parse, yet still involved with identity. Borrowing an expression from the artists themselves, performance scholar Amelia Jones has used the term “Artmoreorless” to describe the strategically slippery and multifaceted practice of this intermedia collective. Throughout their fifteen years of collective practice, Asco’s work both commented on their exclusion from regimes of representation and embraced a “space between,” which they carved out for themselves in actions, as in 1972 when Gamboa, Gronk, and Herrón spray painted their signatures on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), effectively appropriating the structure as their own giant readymade in an unsanctioned gesture.3 Nearly forty years later, LACMA’s 2011 retrospective of this complex collective’s output, Elite of the Obscure (curated by C. Ondine Chavoya and Rita Gonzalez), raised a number of questions about exhibiting performance-based and ephemeral works, as well as the institutionalization of DIY practices.
Like many DIY artist collectives operating adjacent to the circuits of object-oriented production and reception, Asco created works that were difficult to categorize according to the most commonly recognized mediums for art-making. While it can be argued that the sheer range of what they produced—which includes performances, slideshows, drawings, paintings, and ephemera—implies that Asco’s work cannot be discussed vis-à-vis medium-specific histories, I would like to argue that obscuring Asco’s contributions to the medium of performance in favour of exhibiting the multimedia breadth of their work, as the LACMA retrospective did, fails to capture the nuances in their variegated strategies toward performance and in the questions of representation that their work critically raises. Looking back on Asco’s early projects, one finds at least two distinct forms of performance: one that engages the body and the urban landscape of 1970s Los Angeles and another that engages the image and its networks of distribution. A third, less clearly defined typology combines the two, comprising both live performance and purposefully circulated documentation. Although a dominant discourse within performance art stresses the importance of a live encounter, Asco’s approach to conceptual performance complicates the primacy of liveness that this argument presumes.4 I will analyze the three typologies of Asco’s early performances to explore how the collective differently articulates political and social critique through live and media performance, respectively. Moreover, I will consider questions that arise from this analysis, such as “What kinds of challenges did Asco’s split focus on live and media performance pose for the curators of Elite of the Obscure?” and “How did the exhibition’s conceptual framework and methods of display respond to these challenges?”
Taking a multifaceted approach to performance, Asco staged interventions in meaningful sites, including contested urban spaces such as East LA’s main commercial thoroughfare—Whittier Boulevard (the site of a series of repressive crackdowns on Chicano youth in the wake of the Chicano Moratorium Riot in 1970)—as well as in performance spaces specifically designed for the camera.5 In some cases, Asco distributed documentation of their carefully orchestrated scenarios via mail-art circuits, while other performances took the form of unsolicited media interventions. Asco’s activities in the margins were perhaps a function of both exile and activism, and the collective used the exclusion of Chicano artists from mainstream exhibition venues in Los Angeles to their advantage. Its members chose to create interventions within their own neighbourhoods instead of seeking institutional validation, enacting a physical and conceptual space for the direct engagement of localized social concerns such as police brutality, drugs, gang violence, and discriminatory urban planning practices. To this end, the collective deployed the power of printed matter, conversation, and rumour, circulating their genre-bending brand of performance art through mail art and popular media channels alike.
The Chicano Body and the City
The body plays a specific and central role for Asco in agitating the urban landscape of Los Angeles. Unlike body artists such as Chris Burden and Carolee Schneemann who use their bodies to consistently refer to the endurance, vulnerability, and limitations of the corporeal form, Asco brought the body into play as a means for drawing attention to space, and vice versa. In other words, Asco’s members interested themselves less in the body as a sensuous physical form and more in the social relations that a body’s presence could elicit. In their early performances, the group would stage disruptions in busy urban areas dressed in elaborate costumes that combined the aesthetics of glitter rock with bastardized versions of Chicano symbols and religious iconography. For Stations of the Cross (1971), the collective’s first public performance, Asco hijacked the format of a traditional Mexican Las Posadas processional to enact a protest against the Vietnam War. On December 24, the last day of the nine-day Las Posadas celebration, Gamboa, Gronk, and Herrón paraded down Whittier Boulevard in white face paint, resembling demented biblical figures, lugging a fifteen-foot cross crudely fashioned out of cardboard and craft paint behind them.6 The trio amassed a crowd of onlookers who followed the artists’ processional down East LA’s main shopping artery toward their final destination: an army recruiting office. There, the collective conducted a five-minute silent vigil to protest the high Chicano death rate in Vietnam. After a moment of silence, Gamboa, Gronk, and Herrón blocked the door with the crucifix and then ran away. Their outlandish costumes and disruptive street tactics in Stations of the Cross appear comical, but, in fact, the intervention responded seriously to an increasing urgency surrounding the effects of the Vietnam War on Chicano communities in Los Angeles and the escalating circumscription of free speech and movement in East Los Angeles during that time. Writing about this period in an article commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium, collective member Gamboa recalled how East L.A. was placed under excessive police control during the next few years in a manner that closely resembled a military occupation. Chicano youths were routinely rounded up, harassed, beaten and arrested, without regard to their constitutional rights. I had firm beliefs regarding my activist role as an American citizen who sought change from my cultural perspective. Being shot at by numerous riot police strengthened my sense of purpose.7
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About the Author
Jesi Khadivi is a curator and writer based in Berlin. She is Director of Research and Exhibitions at carlier l gebauer and Editor-at-Large of the annual bilingual journal Sur. In her spare time she translates from German under the collective pseudonym Textual Bikini.