In December of 1997, Luis Alfaro’s play Los Vecinos: A Play for Neighbors went up in a Chicano community center in Los Angeles. The piece was staged as a means of bridging the gap between the usual theatergoing audience and the communities upon which so much of Latina theater and performance art are focused. Relying on the resources of the community rather than imposing their own, the directors collaborated with many nonprofessional actors from the Boyle Heights neighborhood in which the play was being staged, and made use of the limited lighting and production tools of the nontraditional space of the community center. When a writer from the Los Angeles Times reviewed the play, she wrote disparagingly that it had “actually looked like a community production.” Its untrained actors, raw staging and brazen themes were read by her as a lack of the polish and canonical markers she expected from a “professional” production. When, however, the production is imagined not as trying to work itself into the cannon of traditional theater but rather as crafting itself within whole other lineages of performance—such as those of camp, DIY, pasterola and punk—we may come to understand that the production was not falling short of professionalism, but, rather, actively challenging the very means through which we evaluate art and understand its duties
I recently attended a screening of filmmakers Chris Vargas and Eric Stanley’s current project Criminal Queers, a film which follows a group of friends as they organize off the grid to break their comrade—who has been incarcerated for terrorizing homonormative structures of power—out of prison. In the director’s words, the film “visualizes a radical trans/queer struggle against the prison industrial complex and towards a world without walls.” Save a cameo by Angela Davis, all the actors in the film are nonprofessionals, friends and acquaintances of the directors. All cameras and sound equipment are borrowed, as are the sets in which the scenes take place (the directors relied on spaces known to them, and filmed by force in areas in which they were prohibited). The uneven sound quality, washed-out lighting, exaggerated makeup and shoddy costumes could easily be dismissed as a lack of professionalism, resulting in a poorly made or unpolished product. A more nuanced and radical approach, however, might understand this film as functioning within a DIY/punk/camp framework, in which the very elements of production which are failures in the eyes of the cannon come to be seen as a subversion of the cannon itself, a means through which whole other structures of cultural production and their respective sets of values come to be honored. From the film’s description: “Criminal Queers grows our collective liberation by working to abolish the multiple ways in which our hearts, genders, and desires are confined.” The breaking out of traditional film rules—which is, in fact, a form of failure—is simultaneously a breaking out of the oppressive structures from which that tradition was born, reinventing film as an entirely new tool, useful for a new form of radical cultural production.
DIY, like camp and like rasquache, can result in a powerful and original aesthetic, but is not at its root solely aesthetic. It is a way of existing, a means of surviving the structures which want you dead, and of fashioning voice outside of the systems which silence you. Like the examples of Los Vecinos and Criminal Queers, it incorporates and honors the community, rather than essentializing and degrading it through distanced portrayals. And like the pasterolas which precede it, it subverts the genre within which it functions rather than appeasing its conservative lineage. The results of these forms of cultural production are not merely aesthetic, but are a reminder of resistance, a means of expressing and of being which empowers existence outside of dominating structures. It teaches us that life off the grid of the cannon is totally feasible, and there is no shame in putting on a “community production.”