Time Dislocated: Masculinity and the Performance of Breathing

In 2012, Los Angeles artist Rafa Esparza used the following materials to stage his performance STILL in LA’s Elysian Park: soil, artist’s breath, translucent balloons, jute rope noose, shovel, and a cardboard box. Only a few spectators experienced this performance and there was little to no documentation of the day’s events; the image used here is one of a few exceptions.

I want to pause and point to the fact that under the materials listed to be used to effectuate the performance is the artist’s breath. In his work, Esparza is keenly aware, in other words, of the ways in which laboring brown bodies exert physical power and strength in the name of profits, in the name of capitalism, in the name of gore capitalism. We may be tempted to align this particular piece with artists such as Piero Manzoni’s Artist Breath (1960) wherein the Italian artist inflated red balloons with his own breath and displayed them. However, I situate Esparza’s use of breath in this piece as being in conversation with works by other queer Latinx artists such as Nao Bustamante’s Sans Gravity (1993-2003) and Ryan Rivera’s Breath Piece (2002) who both performed live and video works where they pushed the limits of their respective body and being by holding their breath.[1] These pieces, as Esparza’s, are performative and ephemeral and interested in process as opposed to having a product that could easily enter the logic of the art market, as in the case of Manzoni. Moreover, the violence that is gestured and/or performed in Sans Gravity, Breath Piece and STILL relate queer brown bodies, because they are the ones performing, to enduring processes of colonialism and other forms of oppression.

The bulk of Esparza’s work in the years that have transpired during this decade center performance and installation in order to link the histories of colonialism, enslaved and migrant labor, dissident sexual desires, and religious and secular rituals or performative practices, and they most often figure his own body. Yet, in STILL, the attention to the artist’s breath gestures towards a making visible of the labor of inhaling and exhaling; that is, a gesture towards life itself, yet a precarious life for him–a brown queer man born to immigrants from a small town in Durango, Mexico–and others like him in the urban centers in the United States. Esparza, halfway buried in the soil of Elysian Park yet vertically standing, uses his breath to blow air into the balloons while the jute rope noose sits around his neck.

Elysian Park is centrally located and adjacent to the Los Angeles River and was a significant location for Esparza to stage his performance for several reasons. The park’s layered histories include the battle of Chavez Ravine, which displaced many people, mostly of Mexican origin, in the middle of the twentieth century to make way for the Dodger’s baseball team stadium. The park has also been an important site for gay male cruising in the city, where mostly black and brown people meet up to have sexual encounters, countering the ways in which violence against black and brown people at the hands of the state (particularly police, and in the case of Esparza’s LA, the LAPD) and other “violence specialists,” to use Sayak Valencia’s term, is an everyday reality often now made viral. In the logic of gore capitalism, it is “important to underscore that within this criminal web the violence specialists occupy a liminal space where it is not always possible to separate their work from that of the government’s security forces. In fact, it is well known that the ‘specialists in inflicting damage (such as police, soldiers, guards, thugs, and gangs) play a significant role in collective violence,’ and that many of the figures are employed by the state or otherwise entangled in it” (Tilly, 4-5, Valencia, 65-66).

In the eight years since the Spanish-language publication of Capitalismo gore and its translation and publication into English, the Black Lives Matter movement, which emerged in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin, has become a global movement that makes relevant and necessary connections to other movements and to realities where the police state and the narco state use the same logic regarding the commodification of violence. We may also want to make a connection to Eric Garner’s homocide and his repeated plea of “I can’t breathe” to Esparza’s and the other performances mentioned above.

In the reality that Valencia describes, the dead body is worth more than the body that is alive. In Valencia’s own words, “gore capitalism tells us that nothing is untouchable and that all taboos of economics and respect for life have been shattered. There is no longer any space for restrictions or for salvation: all of us will be affected” (70-1). And, I would add, many have already been affected. But for others, it is a matter of time. It is a matter of breath. Valencia’s contribution through her text and now translation makes visible the underbelly of globalization; it signals that blood and violated and torn bodies–as we see in graphic form in mainstream media and in viralized fashion in social media)–index capitalism’s dystopia. These images counter the idea that free and open markets lead to freedom. But I am also drawn to Esparza’s performance because it signals life (and by extension, death) through breath. We might ask ourselves, then, when we will take our last breaths.

[1] While Nao Bustamante’s Sans Gravity is well documented and exists in video format, I became aware of Ryan Rivera’s Breath Piece through Sandra Ruiz’s book Ricanness: Enduring Time in Anticolonial Performance (NYUP, 2019).

Laura G. Gutiérrez

Laura G. Gutiérrez, a Mexican and Latinx visual cultural and performance studies scholar, is an associate professor in the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Performing Mexicanidad: Vendidas y Cabareteras on the Transnational Stage (2010) and essays and chapters on Latinx performance, border art, Mexican video art, and Mexican political cabaret. She is completing a monograph on racial and sexual panics in mid-twentieth century Mexico through a reading of cine de rumbera films as well as well as a book on contemporary Mexican and Latinx visual and performance art.