Dangerous Border Crossers: The Artist Talks Back

By Guillermo Gómez-Peña | Go to book overview

Vladivostok: An Untranslatable Memory

Radio Chronicle

In July of 1990, I traveled to the Soviet Far East as part of a binational human rights commission involving “citizen diplomats” from San Diego and Tijuana. The objective was to exchange information with Soviet groups. It was the stormy year of perestroika, and we were one of the first “Western delegations” to visit the closed city of Vladivostok since the Stalin years. Unlike my colleagues, who presented either straight political data on human rights abuses at the US/Mexico border or decorative art objects as presents, I chose to present my politicized performance art.

I will never forget my first performance in Vladivostok, a true challenge in intercultural diplomacy. The event was to take place at the monumental Convention Center, which to my foreign eyes looked like a Mexican Olympic gym from the 70s. My Soviet hosts provided me with a room to rehearse, sour coffee, hard cookies, and two translators: a 65-year-old physicist who spoke Russian and “British English,” and a 20-year-old woman who claimed to have been “Miss Vladivostok” two years before. She spoke Russian, of course, and a very peculiar Spanish “learned with the help of some 1940s records from Spain.” Our only rehearsal consisted of a surreal trilingual discussion about what they perceived to be the content of my Spanglish monologue. After two hours, we finally decided on a strategy for translation: I would perform a five minute excerpt from my monologue and freeze, then my two involuntary border art “collaborators” would walk on stage and translate, or rather, attempt a translation. Then I would unfreeze and continue my monologue for five more minutes, then freeze again as the translators stepped on stage to continue translating…And so on and so forth. That’s precisely what we did. So, a spoken word performance that

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