When SB 1070 was signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer last year, Paco Velez and some other Arizona performance and video artists were in Mexico City. Their trip was supposed to be about the artists' shared cultural heritage with Mexico—but it turned into a series of performances and discussions focusing on division.
Velez, a visual and performance artist who was born in Nogales, Sonora, decided to address the controversy by wearing rows of small American flags around his waist onstage.
"I don't think people in Arizona understand how Mexicans felt and feel about Arizona. The attitude is ... 'I'm going to get lynched.' It's that bad. Being down there when SB 1070 passed was a surreal situation, representing Arizona when everyone was thinking so badly of Arizona," Velez says.
Onstage, being Mexican didn't matter; what mattered was that Velez was from Arizona and was wearing American flags. As a performance artist, he reacted by playing devil's advocate: He was heckled, so he yelled back and threw the flags to those who heckled him.
"It wasn't what I planned when I went up onstage, but when I started getting heckled, I decided that I'm not going to stand there and take it, either. I reacted, but it was still performance mode. At the end, people heckling me wound up taking the flags home as souvenirs. ... By the way, the flags are made in China, which just makes it crazier in thinking about the divisions of how we exist."
The experience led Velez and the other artists—Laura Milkins and Heather Wodrich—to think about how to make a statement of their own at home. One option was to perform and cry their eyes out about what they saw happening in Arizona, but instead, they decided instead to bring emerging and well-known Mexican performance and video artists to Arizona and the border.
"The newspapers in Mexico covered our shows, and people wanted to know: Who are these people from Arizona?" Wodrich says. "We stayed on afterward and talked with many artists and others about Arizona and Mexico. I discovered that a huge variety of opinions existed, and (I discovered there was) a different understanding of the border throughout Mexico.
"We also found out there's a lot of really incredible art going on in Mexico that never gets represented here. We started asking ourselves: What would it take to bring these guys here?"
Six months ago, the artists, along with Verbobala artist Logan Phillips, began planning Arizona Between Nosotros, a festival that focuses on three well-known performance- and video-artist headliners, as well as nine other emerging video and performance artists—all from Mexico. The headliners were put in place first; the organizers then put out a call for other artists, and the "result is our selection and the Mexican artists' selection," Wodrich says.
Phillips says it became a much more democratic process when they asked the headliners to be involved in selecting the emerging artists.
The headliners are Gabriela León, a visual artist and writer who lives and works in Oaxaca, Mexico, who was an artist-in-residence in Tucson at MOCA in 2007; León de la Rosa, with his wife, Gabriela Durán, from Ciudad Juárez, a spoken-word artist and video-maker; and Niña Yhared, a performance artist from Mexico City who supports her work and that of other artists through her gallery, Casa de la Niña.
Phillips says audiences need to be prepared. "México has a higher threshold for what we consider provocative, especially for what we consider performance art," he explains. Phillips expects the work of the artists to push buttons—and to force the audience to look at issues from a much-needed new perspective.
"For me, it goes back to the fact that so much of our relations between these two countries exists in a theoretical debate and a political sphere, which is why Arizona is synonymous now for racism, while México is synonymous now for drug violence," Phillips says. "What performance art really allows us to do is a more visceral contact in a space where there isn't any mediation, and it is all about the body and presence. There isn't a computer screen between us or a newspaper between us telling us what to believe or not believe."
The festival starts in Tucson at 7 p.m., Friday, July 1, at MOCA, but the first festival performance will actually take place in Nogales, Sonora, on Thursday, June 30, at IMFOCULTA. On July 8, the show will move to Phoenix.
Velez says he can see the Nogales performance space from his old bedroom window at his mother's house, and he's looking forward to bringing people from Southern Arizona to Sonora to help open minds about what's taking place in his hometown.
"The PR from Nogales is so bad. This performance will help, and I'm hoping people realize it isn't as bad as most people think," Velez says.
Phillips interjects: "That negative press image: Both Arizona and Nogales are trying to work out that same problem, but for different reasons.
"This is a conscious decision for us to be on the Sonoran side, and an opportunity for people who've lived in Tucson for years and have never gone into Mexico. Here is a perfect chance to go see the other side with a contingent of people. How interesting it will be to see the performance in that context, and the very next night see that same performance in Tucson."