The Successes and Failures of “Couple in a Cage”

Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s Two Undiscovered Amerindians is a bold experiment of a performance whose successes and failures stem from the same aspect of the show: its tendency to blur the lines between the audience and the performers. When Two Undiscovered Amerindians succeeds, its presentation of an ethnographic display makes its audience question their complicity in the history of colonialism, regardless of whether they take the display at face value or not. When the performance fails, it misleads its audience so completely that they can ignore its message against colonialism, and substitute their own contradictory or unrelated interpretation. Both reactions are made possible by Fusco and Gómez-Peña’s decision to almost completely collapse the fourth wall and invite the spectators to interact with the display. This action, in the terminology of Diana Taylor, collapses the “narrative” of an art performance into the “scenario” of a real ethnographic show. The suspension of disbelief caused by this collapse allows audience members to personally decide what the performance signifies, for better or for worse.

As seen in the documentary The Couple in the Cage: A Guatinaui Odyssey and Fusco’s clarifying article “The Other History of Intercultural Performance,” the performance yielded four categorically distinct reactions. The first, that which Fusco and her collaborators intended and expected to see, was an understanding of the satirical, but crucially anti-colonial nature of the false human zoo. The second reaction, that which makes up most of the documentary footage, was expressed by audience members who did not see the show as fiction but still felt uncomfortable with the prospect of caging people. Both of these reactions are defined as “successes” because they fulfilled Fusco and Gómez-Peña’s goal of educating museum-going masses about the Western world’s cruel history of indigenous exploitation by pseudo-scientists and impresarios. The times when the performance “failed” were indicated by the audience’s failure to grasp the performers’ critical message. This happened in two ways, the first of which was what happened in Buenos Aires, when public audiences fell completely for the performance’s illusion, with no qualms about caging the “savages”. The last possible reaction was the “moralistic” response, in which critics cared more about the ethics of duping such masses into believing a fake ethnographic show, than about the show’s actual argument against our unethical history with subjugated natives. The first two reaction types are qualified as successes because they follow the performers’ intended goal of communicating an anti-exotic, anti-colonial sentiment to their audience.

Fusco clarifies that her “original intent was to create a satirical commentary on Western concepts of the exotic, primitive Other” by creating “a surprise or ‘uncanny’ encounter, one in which audiences had to undergo their own process of reflection as to what they were seeing” (Fusco, 37, 40). She defines the notion of a successful performance as one that conveys the satirical anti-colonial message, and, perhaps more crucially, allows the audience members to seriously consider their own relations with colonialism. After all, when presented with the “domesticated savage many audience members felt entitled to assume the role of the colonizer, only to find themselves uncomfortable with the implications of the game” (Fusco, 47). It did not matter that some audience members couldn’t see through the illusion, only that they reflect on why the exploitative spectacle of ethnographic displays is unconscionable. In this sense, an effective performance of Two Undiscovered Amerindians affected audiences much in the same way that Patricia Hoffbauer and George Emilio Sanchez’ The Architecture of Seeing did. When a socially-conscious audience views either performance, it sees itself implicated in the forces of history that produced the dehumanizing stereotypes on display. May Joseph, a critic of both performances, infers that the “amusement park of minority archetypes” presented by Architecture and Two Undiscovered Amerindians ought to “suggest that a fundamental realignment of audience expectations . . . need be made” (Joseph, 125). Crucially, this realignment that the performers seek is made possible “by blurring the role of spectator and performer” (Joseph, 117). Audience members are empowered to change their prejudices only once they can see their own role in the performance of stereotypes. Only by breaking the traditional barriers between themselves and their spectators can Fusco, Gómez-Peña, Hoffbauer, and Sanchez effectively provoke their audience to deep reflection about the history of oppression that they satirically present.

The problem with barrier-breaking performativity is that it can promote audience reflection to such an extent that the audience fails to see the performance’s ironic message. In the case of Two Undiscovered Amerindians, the specific reasons for this misinterpretation can be found in Diana Taylor’s view of the performance as one in a long line of colonial “discovery scenarios”. Although the satirical intent of Two Undiscovered Amerindians is clear to most critics, it was lost on many spectators. Therefore, it helps to interpret the show on a surface level, in order to decipher why its themes were so often misunderstood. Taylor looks at what makes an ethnographic show so appealing to colonial audiences, and by consequence what makes Two Undiscovered Amerindians liable to be interpreted at face value as a real ethnographic show. Taylor first defines a basic paradigm of ethnography as the “scenario of discovery,” a kind of non-narrative performance that “normalizes the extraordinary conceit” of “undiscovered Otherness” (Taylor, 54). She uses Columbus’ descriptions of his first encounters with indigenous Caribbean people as an archetypical example of these “discovery scenarios”. In the Columbus scenario, we see two crucial elements of Fusco and Gómez-Peña’s performance: “mimesis” of Western culture by the “natives” and the audience’s assumption of “reciprocity” in communication from the unspeaking Others (Taylor, 60).

These elements are captured in the archive of audience reactions, Paula Heredia’s documentary The Couple in the Cage: A Guatinaui Odyssey. In the film, the audience of Two Undiscovered Amerindians becomes the performer, and their performance of belief in the scenario shows how the original performance failed to get its point across. Taylor’s idea of mimesis is expressed by the interviewed audience members who marveled at the way the Amerindian characters could dress in modern clothes and enact Western behavior, such as watching TV and listening to popular music (Heredia). They assumed that these “savages” were prone to mimicry in the same way that Columbus’ audience did. They dehumanized Fusco and Gómez-Peña’s characters by assuming that their appropriation of Western fashion and behavior was an act of parrot-like imitation rather than an expression of free will. The assumption of reciprocal communication was seen in reactions by audience members who believed they could interpret Gómez-Peña’s nonsense language or either performer’s nonverbal communication. Some interviewees claimed that they could understand the arc of Gómez-Peña’s Spanish and gibberish “ancestral story,” without actually understanding what his words meant, while others tried to interpret the emotional or sexual relations between the two non-speaking characters and themselves (Heredia). Both of these assumptions show that some audience members were drawn completely into the colonial scenario. Employing the same two tactics highlighted in Taylor’s analysis of the 1492 narrative, the audience performed Fusco and Gómez-Peña’s colonial fantasy into reality. In a way, this total immersion fulfilled Fusco’s intention to create “a blank screen onto which audiences projected their fantasies,” but the greater purpose of the piece, to inspire self-reflection on shared history, was thwarted by the audience’s inability to reflect on their colonial behavior (Fusco, 47).

Taylor concludes that “the point of the performance was to highlight, rather than normalize, the theatricality of colonialism,” but because such theatrics are nearly identical in both the sincerely colonial and satirically anti-colonial scenarios, it’s easy to see how a misinformed audience, one without knowledge of the performance’s fiction, could confuse the two (Taylor, 71). The performance’s tendency to blur fiction and reality, a tendency that had previously enabled audience members to reconsider their views on “savage” stereotypes, supported the audience’s cultural prejudices. The resulting “normalization” of colonial theatricality is a dangerous misinterpretation that could only result from an audience so immersed in a performance’s enticing interactivity, if not outright believability, that it cannot see the satire for the spectacle. For this same reason of spectacle overtaking satire, some of Two Undiscovered Amerindians’ audience responded with neither skepticism nor belief, but with moral outrage. Just as she was surprised to see some observers believe the fiction she had created, Fusco was astonished to find that “a substantial number of intellectuals, artists, and cultural bureaucrats sought to deflect attention from the substance of [the performance] to the ‘moral implications’ of . . . ‘misinforming the public’” (Fusco, 37). These social elites had the education necessary to see Two Undiscovered Amerindians’ satirical bent, but chose to overlook the message the message of the performance to critique its form. Just like the masses who believed in the existence of Guatinauis, the elites responded literally to the methods of the performance, which they saw as “being offensive to the public, bad for children, and dishonest subverters of the educational responsibilities of their museums” (Fusco, 51). Again, the performance failed to get its point across because, as the audience’s reactions reveal, its anti-colonial structure was upstaged by its unstructured dialogue between audience and performer. The open-ended, “blurry” performativity of Two Undiscovered Amerindians is a double-edged sword: it alternately facilitates and obstructs the performance’s message. On the one hand, the performers’ intrusion into the audience prevented static observation of the show; instead it catalyzed opinions on the ethics of ethnographic displays. On the other hand, the conflation of audience and performance often overshadowed the act’s fictional nature. When the audience did not see itself as a theatrical spectator, the show’s theatrics failed to provoke thoughts deeper than gullible acceptance of the dehumanizing spectacle. Even when some audience members could look past the fiction, they couldn’t distance themselves from the disturbing spectacle that had enraptured others.

While some could argue that this hazard of misinterpretation undermined the performance, the divisiveness of the show gives credit to the artist’s fearlessness and bold vision in confronting stereotypes and colonial hegemony. Rather than letting audience misinterpretations muddle their original message, through subsequent pieces, such as the documentary and Fusco’s articles, the artists use these misinterpretations to support their theories as to why their performance had such a mixed message. These theories then tie back into the original message that colonialism is still a relevant target for criticism. By refocusing on the audience as the performer with these later texts, Fusco and Gómez-Peña strengthen their resolve to shift the role of observers and enactors in performance and in history.