3AM: Your show works round a real story.
CF: The thing that got me going was that five years ago I was in Australia performing another piece and I was talking to all these artists and critics and I was talking to an artist and I was telling him that I'd done a piece about a year before in which I was in a coffin. He said 'Do you like to lay dead? And have you heard of this guy from California who went to Mexico and bought a dead woman and had sex with her as performance art?' I had never heard of this and I thought this was outrageous and appalling and I asked for more details. And he said that he didn't know very many details but there was some allusion to it in some very trashy book about the art world. I asked for the name of the book and then I ran into the bathroom and wrote in on the back of my hand because I didn't want him to know that I was really intrigued by this. Then I went back home and found the allusion. It didn't name the guy but it said that he'd made an audio tape of this thing that he'd wanted to have exhibited in museums. He had gone to this museum director who works in California and he had been horrified and made it known that he would never do it. But he describes the tape in the book. And that was it! Now it turned out that I knew that museum director vaguely so I had to figure out how I was going to approach him twenty years later top talk about this.
Finally, I just sent him an e--mail. He replied saying that he vowed never to mention this guy again and would never do anything to help him in his career because he was so horrified. OK, so he was really affected by this. This guy was from LA, seventies, the body art scene, where all these weirdoes were nailing themselves to cars and shooting themselves and throwing themselves in lockers and doing all sorts of strange things. So I thought I must be able to figure out who he was, someone who knew about this, or had known him and so on. There must be someone who was there who witnessed the confession. So I called people who ran performance art magazines and they all said they remembered this creep but they all vowed never to speak about him. I was getting more and more intrigued the more people refused.
Finally, after several months of this I found a woman who knew the guy, who had been there and who was willing to talk. She gave me all the details and it turned out that all the people who had been witness to his confession were all performance artists who I had known. I had lived in California for a while, about ten years ago I had met them all and no one had ever mentioned this to me. I never heard anything about it until this guy in Australia told me. I thought that this is very weird the way this story got suppressed so all these people who knew about all my work about Mexico and border issues for so long had never mentioned it. Then I started to try and find the guy. And in the middle of all of this there's a big show in Los Angeles at the Contemporary Art Museum about the history of performers of live art and the tape resurfaces for the first time in twenty years.
So I flew down to Los Angeles with a wire on me to make a bootleg copy of the tape. But I honestly couldn't make out what was on that tape. The b I found the guy's e-mail address and wrote to him and wanted him to talk because I wasn't even sure if he'd really done this thing. Maybe he'd just pulled the wool over people's eyes and the whole thing never really happened. So I wrote and he asked me what I wanted to know. I said I would like to know about this piece that you did and if you remember him. He said of course I do. I asked him to describe her and he said no, he didn't want to go any further. It turns out that when he did the confession the people who were there were really shocked. These were very rebellious, very transgressive people but this went too far. So they decided to ostracize him. That was their reaction, they acted almost like a jury. They decided that he had done something hat he couldn't be forgiven for and that his punishment was that he would be silenced. They took a pact of silence. He was really pissed off about this. He went on public radio at that time and after feeling like a pariah for a while he just took off and left the country. According to the story he went to Japan. He's still there as far as I know. He tours in Japan, he tours in Europe, he used to make work but not of this kind. Anyway this was the straw that broke the camel's back because he started to get very angry with me. I started to ask critics who had written about him, art historians, and some of them were friends with him. I was asking them questions - I didn't want to put the guy in prison or anything like that, I said, but I am interested in this piece, in knowing why he went to Mexico and who that woman was. In my mind I wanted to imagine the whole thing from her point of view. Who was she? What would it take for a woman to find herself in that sort of situation? Who would it have happened to? Under what conditions? If she wasn't dead but only looked dead, would she remember? Those were the questions I was asking myself.
3AM: Was she dead?
CF: According to him he was taken to a place - I'm assuming it was a morgue - in Mexico - I'm assuming it's Tequama because he drove there from Los Angeles, and there's only so far you're going to drive and, I'll tell you later, there are a lot of reasons for why it makes sense for this to have happened in a place like Tequama. He didn't buy the body, he actually rented it for an hour. $80 an hour. He was given permission to be alone with the body but he had to promise not to take photographs and that he could only make an audio tape. So as far as I know the only evidence of this that it exists is this audio tape. If you hear it it's full of grinding sounds and the buzz of a fluorescent light, him grunting but who knows - it's very unclear to me what it is.
3AM: So there's no visual evidence.
CF: Nothing that has been published anywhere. To complete his act he goes back to the United States, confesses it and then has a vasectomy. So that was the whole thing. A very very weird guy. So, he got really angry at me for pursuing this and questioning people and also for asking questions about her. He started sending me e--mails saying he was going to send me cease and desist letters - that I didn't have a right to speak about him and talk about his work. So I talked to a lawyer and they said, look - if you don't use his name and you don't reproduce his work, there's nothing he can do. You're allowed to talk about anything you want as long as you don't use anything of his without his permission. And then I found out, as I was doing research, that there was another artist of the time having sex with dead women. He was in Boston!
3AM: What was going on?
CF: This guy had a day job in a morgue and he said he got the idea and he got his wife to come in and photograph it. Very bizarre. But he was riddled with guilt and he had dreams that the women had come back to life and put him on trial and they were all yelling at him in this trial and after that he stopped. He wrote an article about how he would never do it again because he felt bad about what he had done. So I left the guy, this other guy, alone because I really wasn't interested in turning him into a monster or a hero, for the purposes of what I wanted to do because I was wanting to imagine the woman's point of view. In order to do this I had to go to Mexico and try to figure out whose body is up for grabs? It turns out that Tijuana has one of the highest rates of missing persons in the western hemisphere. It's the point where it meets with San Diego, a border crossing point OK, and it's a city that is relatively new city for Mexico full of transients. All these people emigrating from Mexico they go there to cross. Some of them don't make it or some of them that do make it to the USA are deported. And they never leave Tequana. It's a huge city of transience and it's also a big big exchange point for work traffic. Huge. The subterranean economy of the city is all about drugs generating an enormous amount of violence. During Prohibition days in the twenties people used to go there when they wanted to drink because it was right over the border so a tradition began there which has continued since. It's a place for Americans on the border to go to get wasted. There's a huge Navy base over just over on the American side so all the military go over there.
Tijuana is like a model or proto type for all the other border towns. They are basically entertainment centres for the military and for Americans coming over. They're checkpoints for drug traffic and transients. Lot's of women emigrate there trying to get across and they end up either in sex work or working in the or in the casinos. It was the first place to have one. There was a free trade agreement that there's this zone, it started earlier in Tequana, it started in the seventies. So there are lots and lots of women who have no family relations who are there and they go back and forth depending on the job market. They do factory work or being maids or street vending or whatever they have to do and in my view it's probable that it was a woman like that who this could have happened to. She's found dead, we don't know why, according to him she didn't have any wounds so she wasn't shot or anything - but she's found dead. She's in a morgue and the guys in the morgue, they don't make that much money, and they're going to make a little more if they do you a favour but they don't want anyone to know. That sort of thing happens all the time.
So with the help of a women's organisation doing oral histories with women who work in these places to find out what do they speak, where do they come from, what kind of women are they? I wanted to develop characters. In the weeks I found out that it was a typical thing for these women to flirt with the manager to get a better position. They go on all these dates with these men who promise them everything but it usually falls apart. But there are lots of cases of using the date rape drug. Not just in tequana but all along these border towns in order to get girls and then lay them dead. So one of the stories in this is about a girl who works in a factory who dates the manager and him and he gives her the date--rape drug but she wakes up in the middle of it. Another story is about a friend from Chile whose mother was a Union organiser in hospital, a nurse. This was in the seventies. She was tortured several times during the Pinochet dictatorship and one of the tortures there and in other places was to have women prisoners having to play dead while they were being raped. She was told by her torturer that if she didn't talk throughout then they'd let her go. She was told to be dead and they dumped her afterwards and she managed to escape from the compound with her son. They fled to Tijuana. And crossed the border there.
So it's not just Mexicans crossing there. Asians, other Latin Americans cross there. There are guys who charge $400 to get you across. So in the piece different possible scenarios emerge in the storytelling. The date rape drug, catalepsy was another version I did some research about, -- you know, people being buried alive because they looked dead and then they wake up. So one thing was to do the almost hardcore journalism, you know, asking, who could this have happened to , but another thing to think about was what would it be like to be alive when everyone thinks you are dead, to be just an object, not to be seen, not to be recognised, not to be present for people. In that sense, thinking about it in a more metaphorical way, gave me a way to tell the story. As I said, the tape surfaced after twenty years and a friend of mine worked at the museum and he went to a lecture the senior curator was giving to the education department about what they were to tell the public when they got to the tape. Some of the women thought this was creepy and brought up the controversy. The person in charge said that they weren't in the business of making moral judgements here! This is about art not about life. In the piece then, instead of it being the tape that returns the museum does a diorama of the place where the act supposedly took place. But now it's in a gallery and the guy's there at the opening and the curator's going to bring in all the guests and he's going to start his confession all over again.
So in my play or performance piece or whatever you want to call it the return of the guy and his confession is now being witnessed by custodial workers from the museum who sees the manikins representing the dead woman and see something in that that sparks their memories. I wanted to give it a little more of a perverse twist, more than it just being real women coming to mourn for their lost sister. The other part of this that I haven't spoken about is that necrophilia is really a very popular form in pornography. A controversial one but a really popular one. When I found this out I really flipped out. People like to watch it and they not only like to watch it they like to do play dead ritual routines. There are lots and lots and lots of sites. So what you see when you come in is like a studio where a live porn chat room is being shot and simultaneously being put onto the Internet. Now I don't know if you've ever visited any of these sites but when you actually pay and get in it's like a lot of other chats with web cams with multiple perspective. The porn chats are very clearly divisioned so you have a close up shot, a crotch shot, overhead shots, all using different cameras and you the client get to press on which camera you want to see. You can see the action from different perspectives. One thing is that you're paying for the multiple perspective. So there are monitors on stage and it's like you're in a TV studio. You can see the perspective the web viewers, the people on line see.
The other thing that clients get when they log on is that the actions they request are broken down into their smallest parts possible so you pay for a unit. So if you log onto a porn check it's not just one price. It's one price to get in and then it's like a sex worker will work - pay more money and you get the clothes off, more money for this, more money for that. So in what you see there are four players who are logged on. They're not real characters. They come to this arty erotic site where it's not just straight necrophilia. You get stories, confessions, you get acting, dancing, you get a little art too, you get references to this guy and all this. So these four - two of them communicate through internet phones - you hear them on stage - and two of them communicate by typing in their requests which you see on an LED sign - you know, those red signs where the words go across - so throughout the thing we're going through the necrophilia rituals, producing them in response to these various clients. And they change in the middle - they say they don't like it this way, it's too corny that way, change, do it like this, do it like that, -- so its turning the whole thing into a perverse entertainment. I wanted to do it in part to show the mechanics of internet interaction takes away even the most tragic scenes of its tragedy and turns it into entertainment.
I've actually done performances where I've performed online and this long distance viewing makes people react is very different from how they react when I'm performing live in front of them. Because if something bad is happening it's me they want to see more of it. It's like, shoot her more, bang her more, because there's a certain kind of dynamic that comes from the world of the computer game. The computer game gets transferred over there. So I wanted to make a comment on that. We thought of a way of showing how these stories of these horrifying scenarios that happened twenty years ago get recycled and replayed in the contemporary world as entertainment. All that people know about political violence in Chile was what they saw in a movie with Sigourney Weaver. All they know about somewhere else is what they've seen on a news show. That tends to be a big mess without a lot of details. It also helps for me to do it this way - it's disturbing for some people because they want the real moral indignation but I think things are more complicated than that - and when you try and bring tales of woe and violence and political tragedy into the context of art there's a certain way in which no matter how dignified you are or moral you are you end up playing into a participation with the violence itself. And so the only way I could reconcile myself with that was to comment.
3AM: It's linked with your work on globalisation and your desire not to do an emotional striptease.
CF: Well the thing is, when you think about it, who are the shock troops of Globalisation? All these women in poor countries going to work in all these awful jobs. It's like Manchester 1840 except that now it's Tijuana 1999. It's the same thing. Largely female workers, probably exploited, they're not allowed to unionise, very long hours, all these sexist stereotypes about women having more nimble fingers, being more obedient and helpless and passive are being used to justify bringing the factories there. The conditions are pretty horrendous. People will say, well, it's better than if they were working as a maid. Well yes, but by International Labour standards they're a problem and because the bulk of the labour force is young, most of the time they're poor, and come from rural areas, they don't have a lot of experience when they go in. They don't know their rights and come from very patriarchal, top down families where you take what daddy says! It takes a long time - and I get this from the women who I've talked to who work in these places - it takes a long time and a lot of experience to build up an understanding of your rights and understanding of the injustices and also the courage to speak out.
So most of the women who are involved in trying to improve the situation are older. They're in their thirties and forties. They've been at this for a while. You know that you should be entitled to more because you're giving up so much of your life for these places. It's also the same border towns, whether you're talking about them being in South Asia or along the USA/Mexico border that are centres for a huge sex industry.
3AM: You're American Cuban aren't you and you've done quite a lot of work in this area haven't you?
CF: I am - I was born in the States because my mum needed a visa but my family are Cuban. And I have. I did a piece on sex tourism. But those are women who were really sophisticated in the way they could market and isolate it specifically to the demands of clients all over the world. So they were a kind of reverse globalisation. Instead of being hired out into eternal nomadism which so many people are forced to leave their countries for whatever reason to find work, these women stay at home and the world comes to them. Each country has a different idea of what Cuba should be and these women have to fulfil these fantasies according to what these people want.
3AM: Why in Cuba?
CF: There is a lot of sex work along the US/Mexico border but it's not an international sex tourism centre in the way that Cuba has become and Jamaica has. Although in Jamaica it's more women going there for men. The Dominican Republic is also big for sex tourism, as is Puerto Rico although there it's more gay. Cuba started off being more female but now it's mixed. Brazil is anything goes. These countries have reputations internationally as being sexed. Over sexed. It's the Caribbean and the idea of being on the beach all the time and being hot and people dancing all the time and so on. The economic factors that lead to it in Cuba are really simple. Berlin Wall falls in '89, Soviets start to pull out from Cuba and within four years the whole Cuban economy went through the floor. Things there in '93, '94 were horrifying. Just people getting Vitamin B deficiency where you get temporary blindness and that was then 35,000 jumped into the sea and tried to escape in rafts because they were so desperate.
There was nothing to eat, there were no jobs, the whole economy crumbled. The Cuban government had slowly been beefing up tourism slowly in the 80's but they'd not wanted to do a lot of tourism prior to that because it was associated with the mafia before the Revolution and they wanted to have an economy that was a modern industrial economy but it was becoming clear that wouldn't be able to compete on the International market so they did tourism. '94 legalised possession of US dollars. Up until that point the sex worker collecting money from her clients would be shaken down by the cops and they'd keep all the money! It was really difficult for Cubans to have dollars on the island, especially if you were suspected of doing anything illegal. Well then that changed. Suddenly you didn't have to explain anything. Tourism was blooming. All these people from Europe, mostly from Italy and Spain, were coming in and here are these young women who were the first to have free birth control and free abortions in a secular state.
And in the high days of Socialism when there wasn't anything else to do but party and have a good time - so Cuba already had a reputation for being a fun place - and party was party all night and totally debauched. I went to some art and film festivals in the 80's! The word spread. Here are all these girls. You don't have to pay them all that much money. It's not all that sordid. They're not sold into sex slavery. A lot of them have college degree but find it's easier to make money doing this stuff. The main motivation for the women involved was to emigrate. Money in the short term but in the long term they want someone to marry them so they can get out of the country and then they can get their families out.
3AM: You don't judge them.
CF: No. If you ask me what I think about sex work that's a different story from this. But I talked to a lot of women involved and they have different attitudes to the work involved, a range of attitudes. The good thing is that I've never found in Cuba the families or the general public who look down on the women who are doing this. You don't have the pariah status of women as sex workers that you find in other Latin American countries and various countries in Asia. On the contrary, people are just so happy that the girls are bringing money into the house. She finds food, she finds refrigerator, cars, and she's supplying her family with the things it needs to survive. And also she's supplying them with the potential to emigrate. So she's a hero.
Even though there's an enormous amount of state repression at the level of what do people think I never found anyone being really judgemental. In terms of what the women think about it, a lot of them have a really hard edged pragmatic 'this is what I need to do and this is what I'm going to do' attitude. It's too bad that this is the only way, but I can handle it. Some of them went Stateside and came back! These are not weaklings who can't handle themselves. I did meet 15, 16 year olds but by and large they were slightly older and quite savvy. They knew exactly what they were doing and they dealt with a lot of different guys from a lot of different countries and they knew what they were doing and they knew how to handle themselves. Now, would they rather live in a country where they didn't have to? Of course. Would they rather practice law or be architects? Of course. But it's not the case. They're doing what they have to do. I don't know what I would do if I was in that situation. I don't think that they all turn away and don't think about it. I think a lot of them ask some hard questions about what they are doing.
But they understand as a way of survival in a place where there's a very limited economy. The worse thing for me that's happened in the last 10 to 15 years is that all the people who completed their education and dreamed of becoming professionals, it disappeared. You can't be an architect if there's nothing to build. You can't even be a construction worker if there are no supplies. If you're a doctor and your salary is only worth $5 a month and you have a family you're going to have to moonlight as a cabby to make up the money you need and pay the bills. That's what's happening.
3AM: So how does the art world position all this stuff?
CF: Well, I have a reputation for being very interested in political issues and identity issues. I am! But I'm also very interested in making sure that the framing of the camera on stage is good and making sure that the look of things is right and taking a lot of time developing the piece and spending a lot of time with designers. I put a loot of care and attention into the look of it and the style of the performance. It's very Comedia Del Arte. Also, I'm the only biological female in a story only about women. The other characters are played by a man, a robot and a manikin. So I didn't want to have the true story of the suffering of etc… it's also about theatre, of how to represent these things in fantasy spaces and what automata do to us when we're in contact with them. That stuff really interests me also! I'm interested in trying to figure out ways of bringing social issues into contexts of art. I don't think I could make work that could separate those two.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Coco Fusco from Cuba is one of today's best-known performance-artists and is often concerned with gender-specific conflicts, migration, cultural colonisation and death. She teaches at the School of the Arts at Columbia University, has made a name for herself not only as a performance-artist but also as an author and curator of exhibitions and lives in New York.