MacArthur Park is always a scene, bustling and dense with people crossing streets at angles and cop cars whizzing by. It’s especially busy at the plaza outside the Metro station, one stop away from Downtown proper, where vendors sit under colored awnings daily, selling T-shirts, phone cases, or sneakers. Last Wednesday, Los Angeles-based artist Nao Bustamante was sitting there learning Spanish. She sat under a red awning, her table covered with Spanish phrasebooks, flash cards, and buttons that read, “I can teach you Spanish” or “Enseñame Español, por favor” (Teach me Spanish, please). I pinned the latter to my shirt as Bustamante explained that she had been trying to learn the language for decades. Her Mexican-American parents did not teach her—they’d been ostracized for their own accents as school children and wanted to spare her, but other relatives faulted her for cultural ignorance. This project was a way for her to work through the shame of losing her mother tongue, a feeling she knew other Angelenos share. (My own shame is different: as a white woman who has long lived in a Salvadoran neighborhood, my failure to learn even basic Spanish feels like an entitled kind of ignorance.)
Bustamante set up her booth as part of the weeklong “Live LA/LA” performance festival, which served as the culmination of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA and was organized by the CalArts-run REDCAT Theater. PST: LA/LA, the massive, Getty Foundation–funded effort to showcase Latin American, Chicanx, and Latinx artists, began in September and resulted in over a hundred special programs and exhibitions across Southern California.
The woman who arrived at Bustamante’s booth soon after I did, a Spanish-speaking passerby, took the teacher’s chair across from the artist and launched into an intense conversation that quickly became tear-filled. I understood none of it, but they were still talking, and crying, when I left. Bustamante would have many such interactions, and 75 new flashcards, by day’s end.
The emotional chords her performance struck are not, however, what made it so good. It was how seamlessly it functioned in its environment and how concisely it carved out common ground between the diverse range of people in this city who experience language anxiety.
Exactly six years ago, in January 2012, the first PST performance festival played out across the region. That time, the Getty gave funds to institutions to explore SoCal’s art history. The effort often felt boosterish and self-congratulatory and, the week of the festival, barely anything else of import went on. This time around was different. Galleries scheduled openings and conflicting, non-PST performances. The quip about L.A.’s art provincialism has always been “we only care for our own,” and perhaps the overlapping programming was an unfortunate outgrowth of this mindset. But it also had another, more edifying effect. It showed how well this politically charged programming fit with everything else; going from a Robert Irwin opening to a Mesoamerican sci-fi opera felt about right. Local relevance was probably the festival’s greatest strength: nearly every performance made specific sense here, in a place that used to be Mexico and where 40 percent of inhabitants speak Spanish at home.
This year’s festival began on Thursday, January 11, with I am Made in Mexico, a performance by Mexico City-based artist Astrid Hadad. The “art diva,” as REDCAT’s press release referred to her, took the stage at the Mayan Theater, an extravagant 1927 building with hieroglyphs on the lobby walls and a replicated Aztec calendar stone for a chandelier. The theater, a large place, sold out with Hadad fans, who were unfamiliar to me—it was not a typical L.A. art world crowd. As has become her signature move since she began adapting cabaret techniques and altering traditional music in the 1980s, she changed her costume for each new song. Sometimes men in black would run on stage and change her dress right there. Other times she would sidle off, going sideways since her unwieldy dresses allowed limited movement. In a silver dress shaped like a pyramid and paired with a pharaoh-worthy headdress she sang about colonization and exploitation. She also wore a dress covered by colored skulls, and did four encores, a new costume for each. “Colonial critique, it turns out, can be wickedly glam,” wrote Carolina Miranda, covering the show for the Los Angeles Times.
When the Getty first announced that it would focus on Latin America in its second major PST (a smaller architecture effort took place in 2013), the news was met with apprehension by some, since major institutions had long marginalized Latin American, Latinx, and Chicanx artists. The Getty held a workshop to train local institutions to borrow from Latin American ones, since many never had. How would an influx of funding and a few workshops alone remedy this local lack of awareness?
Curators Bill Kelley and Pilar Tompkins Rivas, artist Ken Gonzales-Day, and others co-wrote a letter to the Getty, expressing their concern that new excitement over Latin American scholarship could distract museums from artists who already had a presence in Los Angeles. Brett Schultz and Francisco Cordero-Oceguera, Mexico City gallerists who opened a temporary L.A. space, called Ruberta, in collaboration with four other Mexico galleries, found the “cultural export” of Latin American art to U.S. institutions almost cliché and repetitive, as they explained in October on the Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles podcast. It seemed to Schultz that PST shows were “still trying to force these younger artists’ practices into a clear framework that’s not necessarily theirs and it’s one that’s a little bit overused.”
Certainly, the Getty had trouble marketing the effort without trafficking in stereotypical spectacle and vagueness: “There will be a chained man inside a pyramid,” “There will be love,” “There will be art,” read banners hung city-wide. But the performances that marked PST’s last stretch were fleeting, often site-specific, and thus thankfully less bogged down by such framing.
The Mexican collective Teatro Línea de Sombra staged Durango 66 underneath the Broad Museum on a gritty stretch of closed-off street. They paid tribute to the 1966 student uprising in the Mexican state of Durango and contemplated more recent murders there by moving red dirt with backhoes and inviting the whole audience into a cavernous backstage, where actors on many small sets told stories about politics and the region’s history.
Back at the Mayan, on January 18, artists Ruben Martinez and Raquel Gutierrez hosted a variety show. Alice Bag, the Chicana punk rocker who made her first splash in the 1990s, sang about the many streets named after men (“I want a street named Dolores Huerta”). La Chica Boom screened a video comparing masturbation with the desire to fly. Cheech Marin made uncomfortable jokes about his younger wife, Russian-born pianist Natasha Marin, as she accompanied him; he met her right off the Greyhound from St. Petersburg, he said; the only problem was she didn’t speak English (she spoke Spanish).
But the Mayan invites a mix of good and bad taste. On Saturday, a group of performers brought together by Peruvian-American artist Mariel Carranza rolled and sang and climbed over each other in Los Angeles Historic State Park while an anti-abortion protest played out across the way. Later that evening, at the Broad, Mexico City artist Naomi Rincón Gallardo performed The Formaldehyde Trip, a sci-fi tribute to murdered human-rights activist Bety Cariño. Gallardo wore a headdress and sang alongside her collaborators, moving back and forth between English and Spanish as a fantasia of intentionally weird, well-composed video footage played out behind her. It was all primordial and futuristic.
Gallardo’s is the first in a two-year series of performances at the Broad called “En Cuatro Patas,” curated by artists Nao Bustamante and Xandra Ibarra and featuring feminist Latinx artists. Also, MOCA announced Thursday morning that Bryan Barcena, who researched and helped organize its PST shows, is now assistant curator and manager of publications. If the baby steps taken during PST: LA/LA do eventually grow into more mature strides, then the conclusion of PST this past week will also mark the start of an exciting new chapter in the region’s art ecosystem.