The Couple In The Cage Essay

In the early 90’s a Latino performance artist and a Latina video maker grouped together to create a satirical performance of culture stereotypes. The performance involved Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez -Peña dressing up as Amerindians and being caged for display in various places such as Plazas and museums.

 

The performers were photographed and gawked upon by visitors of the exhibit. The artists sometimes displayed themselves as “savages” through their behavior. For example, they were fed and taken to the bathroom by their “zoo keepers”. The zoo keepers also answered questions for visitors because the performers were “unable” to speak English or understand the language(this was apart of the performance). They wore headpieces, lots of gold jewelry, sunglasses and animal printed clothing. The performers were said to originate from a fictional island in the Gulf of Mexico.
The performance plays off of the colonial stereotypes of “tribal people” but also the old tradition of displaying non-westerners in world fairs, freak shows and circuses. The performers emphasized the stereotype of indigenous clothing but also wore and did western things like wear sunglasses and perform rap(for a dollar Guillermo would perform).
A reason why this piece is so effective is because of its placement and its humor. The piece was displayed in a Plaza in Madrid, the Australian Museum of Natural History in Sydney, the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, London’s convent gardens and several other places. The areas were chosen by the performers because they felt these countries were places that had abused indigenous people. The areas of display were also open to natives and tourists of the countries so as a work it was quite accessible.
The work was also humorous and appeared that way through the actions of the artists. The artists participated in “authentic” traditions such as typing on a laptop, sewing voodoo dolls and watching television. The juxtaposition of these objects is what made the performance interesting to look at but also something to laugh at. If these people were said to be indigenous and from a remote island, why would they have access to these technologies? The performers also over dramatized their roles such as when they posed for pictures or ate food, they did it in a way as a performer would-they exaggerated their actions and behavior.
The ability to read the work was difficult for some. Some viewers came to the understanding that the people were not performers but actual “Amerindians”. They acted with disgust in the way that these humans were treated, which is sort of the intention of the piece. Although some thought the work was “real”, others saw it as the performance it was and laughed it off.
As a whole the work allowed for viewers to examine the way they view non-Westerners and indigenous people, despite the misunderstanding of the couple being performers. The work became open for interpretation because some viewers saw the performance as reality and not a performance. It allowed for an open discussion on the way indigenous people are portrayed through museum exhibits and the media in general.
A compilation of the work was created into a video and features a mix of reactions from viewers, the performers “in action” and video clips of past ethnographical tapes of indigenous people.

Link to Trailer of The Couple in the Cage
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The Couple in the Cage

Two undiscovered Amerindians visit the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo by Robert Sanchez.

Contributed by Elisabeth Ginsberg

When: 1992–1993

Where: Various museums across Europe and North America

Performance artists Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco started their “The Couple in the Cage” tour five hundred years after Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. For two years, they travelled through various Western metropolises, presenting themselves as undiscovered Amerindians from an island in the Gulf of Mexico that had somehow been overlooked for five centuries. They called their homeland Guatinau and themselves Guatinauis.

Exhibited in a cage, the couple performed “traditional tasks,” which ranged from sewing voodoo dolls to watching television. A donation box in front of the cage indicated that for a small fee, the female Guatinaui would perform a traditional dance (to rap music), the male Guatinaui would tell authentic Amerindian stories (in a made-up language), and they would both pose with visitors. At the Whitney Museum in New York, sex was added to the spectacle when visitors were offered a peek at “authentic Guatinaui male genitals” for five dollars.

Next to the cage were two official-looking guards ready to answer visitors’ questions, feed the Guatinauis, and take them to the bathroom on leashes. In addition to the authority of the guards, an institutional framework was evoked by didactic panels listing highlights from the history of exhibiting non-Western peoples and a simulated Encyclopedia Britannica entry with a fake map of the Gulf of Mexico showing Guatinau.

Aside from the authority provided by the various museum venues, everything on display was blatantly theatrical and clichéed: the Guatinauis had their skulls measured, were fed bananas, and were described as “specimens,” among other things.

The performances were filmed and compiled in a documentary titled The Couple in the Cage: A Guatinaui Odyssey. Whereas the couple was the object on display during the live performance, the audience became the object on display during the documentary. While Fusco and Gómez-Peña adopted the roles of the caged natives, they were simultaneously scrutinizing the audience’s responses. And what they found was surprising: Despite their intent to create an over-the-top satirical commentary on Western concepts of the exotic, primitive Other, it turned out that a substantial portion of the audience believed in the authenticity of the Guatinauis.

In an article about the performance, Fusco argues that the audience’s immediate response reveals their fundamental beliefs: “In such encounters with the unexpected, people’s defense mechanisms are less likely to operate with their normal efficiency; caught off-guard, their beliefs are more likely to rise to the surface.”[1]

Seemingly making the same assumption, the documentary presents the audience’s reactions as indirect proof that racist beliefs — non-Western people are primitive, inferior, and essentially different from Western people — permeate our postcolonial society. Whether or not this is true, The Couple in the Cage persuasively argues that colonial ideas continue to influence our approach to non-Western cultures.

Why it worked

It was nearly impossible to respond “appropriately” to the display of the caged couple. What would have been the ideal audience reaction? To laugh? To appear indifferent and stone-faced? To turn away in disgust? Interact with (or try to free) the couple? There seemed to be no appropriate response, even if the audience caught on to the inauthenticity of the Guatinauis and got the ironic critique of similar displays from centuries past.

Key Tactic at work

Hoax

The Couple in the Cage was an ironic reenactment of the imperialist practice of displaying indigenous peoples in public venues such as taverns, museums, World Expos, and freak shows. By performing “The Couple in the Cage” in various museums, Fusco and Gómez-Peña were exposing the racism, colonialism, and voyeurism of the frame in which they appeared.

Key Principle at work

Show, don't tell

The performance is an example of silent eloquence. It said it all — colonialism, primitivism, the myth of the noble savage, exoticism — without explicitly stating anything. Viewers were left to draw their own conclusions.

Make the audience part of the theater

Before the audience could fully digest and come to terms with the show, their responses (via video) were turned into a show for another audience.

Recognize an opening when you see it

When the audience seemed to enjoy the same colonial exhibition practice that the performance meant to critique, it added some unintended irony. Yet Fusco and Gómez-Peña were quick to seize the audience’s misinterpretation and turn it into the focal point of the performance.


Elisabeth Ginsberg holds a master's in cultural studies and journalism from NYU. Being an over-educated Dane, she just finished her second Master’s degree, this time from the University of Copenhagen. In an attempt not to dry out completely, she wrote her thesis on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. She lives in Copenhagen, always in close proximity to her Mac.


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