An Interview With Harry Gamboa Jr.
by Pancho Lipschitz
Harry Gamboa Jr. is best known as the co-founder of ASCO, the mas chingon performance art group to emerge from the 70’s and 80’s. But his post-ASCO output, in a wide variety of media, has continued to defy the boundaries of categorization and commodification. Working with a new group of performers he published the photo-novela Aztlángst 2, a poetic grito against corporate culture, constant wars, digital surveillance and the criminalization of “others”.
Outside a cafe in Little Tokyo we talked about his work. [PL]
PANCHO LIPSCHITZ: Do you remember the first project you did after ASCO broke up?
HARRY GAMBOA: Immediately after ASCO broke up I had this idea that I was going to pick 15 people that simply looked beautiful and somewhat dangerous and have them all show up somewhere. So I did. It turned out that half of them were criminals, the other half were somewhat psychotic and mostly everyone was a little bit too dependent.
It wasn’t until 2005 that I kind of had enough experience in my life that I was able to select people and invite them to participate in an ensemble.
The initial group was mostly Chicano, but as time went on, I decided to invite other people and express visually the diversity of what’s actually here in Los Angeles. It started off with maybe five, 10 people and now it’s up to 85. The group exists mostly in Los Angeles, but there are also members in Antwerp Belgium, Paris France and Mexico City.
LIPSCHITZ: What do you call the new group?
GAMBOA: It’s all called the Virtual Vérité. Of course it comes from ASCO, on some level. Now it’s really possible to transform a concept into a visual concept that exists and yet doesn’t exist.
I’m interested in getting the material out in digital form initially, and when it does come out in 3-dimensional form, maybe at some future point then it can be viewed as something else. But almost none of it actually exists as a fine art print or as a finished piece. You can’t really find it unless I hand it to you. And in that way it continues with the notion of the mirage and the myth.
LIPSCHITZ: You seem to do things that are intentionally difficult to commodify.
GAMBOA: It’s unfortunate.
LIPSCHITZ: Are you trying to avoid the marketplace?
GAMBOA: I actually study the market quite a bit. I read the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Forbes regularly. My newest issue of Aztlángst is all about capitalism and post-capitalism. In the end it’s about creating your own currency, on some level, which can be devalued or inflated immediately, or actually used to buy a loaf of bread.
In the end it’s about creating your own currency, which can be devalued or inflated immediately, or actually used to buy a loaf of bread.
LIPSCHITZ: Why don’t you work with professional actors?
GAMBOA: I work with people who through discussion and observation can reach some kind of pathos. Some people are not aware of the fact that they have very precise movements or they’re very fluid and, in the end, they are actors, dancers, poets and musicians, but without ever being self-conscious of that because they’re too busy doing something else. And for a moment I capture that.
Then there’s always the possibility of the chemistry that takes place between the group. Usually many of the things look very choreographed, but when we go out, it’s the first time its ever been done. So I’m playing a little bit with the chaos, and at the same time it’s kind of like nudging the chaos to fall into place in front of my camera.
For me, it’s very invigorating and at the same time very exhausting because it requires me to focus all of my energy in the hope that I can actually make that happen. Sometimes it takes a really long time for me to recognize that it actually did happen, as with this book. I photographed it close to five years ago and had to really work on it over and over again, thinking about it, for it to finally become what it was. But it couldn’t have become what it is now unless events in the real world had happened to unfold, to actually fit the action that preceded it.
Quite often I get a sense of what’s going on in the world, do something, and yet maybe the image arrives too early. And sometimes that moment only lasts a fraction of a moment, so if there’s not a way to display it for that moment then it’s gone forever. In that way that you need the proper conditions to have a mirage in the first place, as opposed to a long term sustaining myth. For me it’s more important that the myth derive from people having talked about the mirage that they’d witnessed, which in the end really meant that they saw nothing.
LIPSCHITZ: So how many photos did you take to produce Aztlángst 2?
GAMBOA: I think I took 1,200 photographs that day. And in the end it’s actually 60 pages, which means that 30 photographs made the book.
LIPSCHITZ: So it becomes like a No-Movie, because you have to edit it and create the narrative…
GAMBOA: Yes, from the ASCO days it was the No-Movies, and then towards the 80’s I would do things that I called photo-novellas. But they were actually projected slides, done in sequence using an audio recorder to then project the voices and images on walls, and that always seemed interesting to me. But that’s very ephemeral and requires a lot of equipment, and it’s more like theater.
I first did photo-novelas for the magazine Frontera, and that must have been about the year 2000 or so. Then that went away and maybe I did one or two for a couple of journals and publications. It wasn’t until recently that the technology was so advanced that I could just do it on my laptop and publish on demand.
So they don’t exist unless someone buys it. And nobody buys it so I buy them and give them away. They are introduced into the market but they are not marketed. I make sure that the people I would like to have a copy get a copy. In a way it becomes very much like mail art. I send it directly to people that I feel should read it, whether they respond to me or not.
There’s also a little bit of strategy in that, because usually the people I send it to I have a feeling they might know each other anyway, and it might fall into the conversation at some point. I’m waiting for someone to use the term Aztlángst as a way of defining a critical moment in the 21st century, because on the back I actually provide the definition — a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition and/or the state of Aztlán in general.
LIPSCHITZ: In other words, people describing a real emotion based upon a myth.
GAMBOA: And that comes from the whole process. I was part of the Walkouts in the early Chicano movement and I remember being a part of a group that we all kind of, you know, it all came up to the vote: what are we going to call ourselves? And there were critical characters around there and I kind of saw the process by which a word can be introduced into the language.
For me this time period is very interesting because we live in a time where you can imprison mothers and their children for having crossed borders. There’s such a high-powered focus on Mexicans. The presidential campaign was run on this, so it does generate angst in Aztlán. The way of overcoming that angst is to engage in psycho-drama. That way you can perform acts that might in one way unleash the extinction of the hate and the power that negative stereotypes have. That power comes through the ridicule of a really bad idea. I feel that’s what Virtual Vérité is really good at. Visually, it makes commentary and satire and has a really sleek and professional look while not taking itself too seriously.
LIPSCHITZ: In some ways it seems through the Virtual Vérité that you are trying to create a like-minded community.
GAMBOA: I think part of the role is to bring in people that are creative, intelligent and everyone’s capable of engaging in brilliant dialogue. You put people together, and I always treat everyone to eat and drink, and all of a sudden during that moment it becomes a sort of think-tank in a very real way. I’ve introduced a lot of people and they go off and they work together eventually. Or it might inspire them to take on a field of study that contributes more to whatever is going on now. And other people just start hanging around with each other and create their own smaller groups doing other kinds of things. Some are encouraged to go to school and some are encouraged to do different kinds of work, or simply to make work. It’s pretty much of a crash course. You wind up in this place and everybody is moving quick, and if you’re not you can get spun right off the surface.
LIPSCHITZ: In some ways that relates to another project, the Chicano Male Unbonded. When did that start?
GAMBOA: I started working on the Chicano Male Unbonded photography series in 1991. The original series began as a response to negative stereotypes on the radio, where they were searching for a Chicano male. They gave a big warning but they gave no parameters other than that. So I immediately made sure I photographed my male relatives: my father, my brothers, my son. And then in concentric circles people that I was associated with.
I started thinking about who are the males that I bonded with, and there’s always something about the males that I photographed, either some aspect of their integrity, or I’ve seen them perform an action of some sort, whatever it is that — and I’ve actually photographed one or two males that are not cool — but at one moment they did something that was cool.
LIPSCHITZ: I think you’re talking about me.
GAMBOA: There have been two or three people that have been removed from the series because they’ve arrived at a place that is opposed to my sense of what ethics and integrity is all about. And so those negatives and photographs get torn up. Other people I’ve had to photograph them over a series of time because some people, I catch them, and it’s really a definitive moment. Other people I didn’t realize that the moment I photographed them they were really changing from one lizard skin to the next. Some people go from a caterpillar to a different kind of worm, and it takes a while before they arrive at who they are really going to be.
And there are some people who I’ve had to wait for them to become men. I met them when they were infants and I wait until they’re 18. And there are others I meet when they’re 18 and by the time I get to photograph them they’re already middle-aged. In fact I just handed someone a photograph who I said, “I’ll give you the photograph next week,” and it took 11 years before he finally got it in his hand.
You know, it’s always assumed that people grow, but some people shrink and grow and expand and collapse. So there’s been a few people that I have photographed three, four, five times. But most of the time it’s once. There’s been a handful of people where I photograph them and it turns out to be the last photograph that’s ever been taken of them. By the time I’m ready to hand it to them, they’re gone.
LIPSCHITZ: So because it started with a warning to the general public, is that why they’re all done at night with the people wearing dark clothing?
GAMBOA: I’ve situated all the men similar as to how one might encounter a man on the street at night. It’s printed in stark black and white and has a very film noir effect.
But the idea is that I make sure that all the males are in an assertive position, that is they simply stand and stare at the camera. The response depends on who is doing the viewing, because of course Chicano men are not often represented in mainstream media, and if they are, they’re usually in some way portrayed in a manner that’s not exactly in the most positive light.
At an early point in time I exhibited in Arizona 20 of these images, and at the museum some of the viewers asked me what gang it was. The people I know, most of them have some kind of profession, or they’re students or artists. Everyone that was on display there was of that nature and none of them were in a gang. But it’s very reflective of the viewer and their preconceived notions of who Chicanos are.
As time has gone on maybe I’ve photographed about 120, 130 men. Times change a little bit, but still some people who are the meekest, nicest people, in black and white at night could look like the kind of people you wouldn’t want to encounter, and then others look like movie stars. As an entire group it makes a pretty striking visual statement.
LIPSCHITZ: You’ve written plays, you’ve written for tv, you write poetry, you do performance art, paintings, photography, lithography, music, photo-novelas, videos, No-Movies, and the thing that unifies these different forms seems to be that you put yourself in an uncomfortable position and then figure out how you can improvise your way out of it.
GAMBOA: On some level I think I was influenced by some of the silent film stars. It was always that situation where they somehow found themselves inside of a machine, or they’re being chased, and it also mimicked my experience growing up in East L.A. where suddenly I’d be in a very dangerous situation and the only reason I still exist is because I was able to figure that out. But it was always during those moments of intense crisis that everything would come into the sharpest of focus.
LIPSCHITZ: You never passed a class in high school, you never passed a class in college, yet now you’re a university professor…
East Los Angeles : Photos by Joseph Rodriguez
GAMBOA: I grew up in Boyle Heights amongst people that wouldn’t be living too long. They would either be subjected to the nuclear radiation from the 1,200 nuclear blasts that took place in Nevada during that era, or due to violence on the street, or the Viet Nam war. So I learned some pretty hard truths watching how the human body can be transformed in a second and how people utilize speed and fire and sex and drugs to such extremes that there was no way that even some of the observers would survive.
I figured out at a really young age that I had the capacity to read. I started out speaking only Spanish. I was insulted. I was shamed. I decided I would pick up English. I found out that English was an interesting puzzle and I kind of unlocked that puzzle and realized that whatever was offered in school was insufficient. By the time I was in my twenties I went off on a different trajectory and consumed a lot of reading material which assisted me in being able to write.
But it also had to do with me being on the streets almost every single day since I was a kid. To see how that knowledge from reading could be applied and how that existed in the real world, and in some ways I synthesized that kind of information. And as time has gone by I’ve learned how it can be presented to young people in a way that will accelerate their learning experience.
Things are often presented whereas you have to start at the beginning, then you go to the middle and then you get to the end. Quite often with beginners I start at the end, and we might not get to the beginning until they’re about to graduate, because it’s not necessary to go in that exact order.
I’ve taught at UC schools, I’ve taught at Northridge for 20 years, I’ve taught at Cal Arts for almost ten years. And then I’ve had the opportunity to lecture at many institutions like Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Cornell and present different points of view in different locations and engage with a lot of brilliant minds. In fact one of the things that I’m pretty convinced about is that all the schools have super brilliant young people; it’s what they have been introduced to previously that makes the difference. Some people are at an advantage and some are at a disadvantage, but once you catch on, the capacity to acquire knowledge is infinite for most people. But it’s gotta be done with style and it’s gotta be done with fun.
The Post Pachucos
For me, I feel although I was born in the post-pachuco era, I always liked the notion of the pachucos wanting to appear as a diamond from a distance in the way they would dress. I always felt that, from my perspective, starting off as a Jetter and through the Chicano movement and through ASCO that it would be much better to be an actual diamond, something that is sharp, that reflects much light, is impossible to crush and is able to cut through any kind of shit. And that’s my goal, to show the young people how they can crystalize their knowledge.
LIPSCHITZ: What is your take on the Art School system as it is set up currently?
GAMBOA: I can only talk about the students that I encounter. Irregardless of their social position or their economic position, I always take the view that we’re all on a sinking ship of some sort and the goal is if you’re not going to float or swim upstream, how will you survive? At the same time, survival is never sufficient for someone who is illuminated. So how do you survive in a manner that will allow you to paddle and, in the meantime, mold the waves along the way.
So much of my discussions are all about the practical intermixed with the conceptual. And also it’s about duration. Cal Arts, people make a choice to go there. They either believe it’s going to turn into something or not, and in the end it’s only those that persevere and produce and have caught on in some way that realize all of it, on some level, is a very difficult game to play.
How do you play a game? Some people play games with the assumption they are going to win. But most games are designed for everyone to lose except the winner. Other people realize that the board is tilted, but want to play anyway because it’s fun. And then there’s the handful that are really determined to lose, because then that provides them a platform for something else. I think all art schools and actually all universities offer that. Some people might make it somewhere in a second and some might take 50 years to get there. It’s the idea, how do you make the most out of whatever that journey is.
Every time I look at someone I do so with the knowledge that we are all 70% water, and water is H2O, and you only need one molecule of hydrogen to generate a thermonuclear reactor. So yes, everyone is the bomb.
LIPSCHITZ: How do you see the function of political art in the online age, and has it changed from how it used to be?
GAMBOA: I think one of the ideas is that everything is so corrupt. All the established systems are absolutely corrupt and so highly financed, so in order to function, one has to step away from the system and figure out other methods of generating ideas and images. In a way it’s a different kind of coding. It’s almost biological.
The internet is only reflective of the way we think. It’s simplified into either zeroes and ones and if you reduce that, I always take credit for the zeroes. You wouldn’t have the binary code if it weren’t for the Mayans. So what happens if you take one of those away?
Why not just play with the nothingness of it all? It becomes this existentialism in the 21st century where you deal with things, almost the inherent energy that we have, the capacity to communicate that we have, without communicating. If you look into quantum physics, sometimes simply your existence actually effects the physics of everything else.
And every time I look at someone I do so with the knowledge that we are all 70% water, and water is H2O, and you only need one molecule of hydrogen to generate a thermonuclear reactor. So yes, everyone is the bomb. But what do you do with all of this energy? I think the human structure is really much more sophisticated than we give it credit for. You walk in a room and you just know who’s cool. I know who’s cool, I know who’s a threat, and I know who’s an asshole. And right off the bat you’ve already known more than there is to know just by a simple glance. You make an assessment in the fraction of a second and you go home and you go to sleep and you dream and you figure it all out and it unfolds before you the next day. In that way we have certain capacities that I play with. I think that’s what my medium is. I play with the range of senses that we have that are not really identified.
LIPSCHITZ: Is there an ideal reaction that you want people to get out of your work.
GAMBOA: I’ve always referred to myself as being Chicano, and that position immediately puts me in opposition with the mainstream. And it serves the mainstream to denounce the idea and very existence of Chicano. I find it to be interesting to create work that completely refutes their notions of our inferiority.
So for some I appreciate it when I leave them without anything to say. But with others it’s a way of starting off with a blank slate, where you now have something you can play with, and I leave it up to you to sketch in or draw whatever you would like. And I think for me that is the ideal kind of response.
Harry Gamboa Jr : Photo by Barbara Carrasco
Pancho Lipschitz is a barrio flaneuer and a barrio flan connessieur. Follow him on Instagram @pancho_lipschitz.