An Interview with Seth Eisen and Xandra Ibarra
By Emmaly Wiederholt
After seeing CounterPULSE Summer Artists in Residence Seth Eisen and Xandra Ibarra’s most recent show, I came away thinking a lot about the word safety. Both in content and in performance, the artists bravely steered their work in directions that felt precarious, ballsy, and honest. Seth’s piece Homo File focused on the life of Samuel Steward, a homoerotic writer, college professor, tattoo artist, and sexual maverick who documented his every sexual encounter in what he called the Stud File. Xandra featured herself as burlesque performer La Chica Boom in Fuck My Life (FML). Inspired by Lupe Velez, the original Mexican spitfire, FML delved into a world of queer and racial stereotypes with an emphasis on Mexiphobia. While both pieces felt loaded, for me the performances transcended the content; the performers took risks emotionally and psychologically that I was excited to watch unfold. Safety had fled the room.
Homo File and Fuck My Life (FML) will continue to run this coming weekend at CounterPULSE. Visit counterpulse.org for more information.
Emmaly Wiederholt: What is the motivation behind your current work?
Xandra Ibarra: FML communicates the back story and logic of my burlesque persona, La Chica Boom. This work offers a glimpse into the emotional economies that a queer first generation Mexican-American woman might endure while performing insurgent hyper-racial/sexual/gendered work to incompatible audiences. The motivation of most of my work and especially FML is to portray the colonial gaze as a damaging social structure.
Seth Eisen: I’m very interested in gay history and the idea of passing on the lineage of queer ancestors, especially ancestors who were in the arts. The whole thing really started when I was working with Keith Hennessy and Circo Zero. The show was called “How to Die” and in doing research for that project I became very interested in the history behind queer characters. As gay artists we’re lineage holders of the people who came before us. How do we throw that stone forward and pass it on through our art?
Emmaly: What do you seek to accomplish with your work?
Xandra: I hope to implicate and overwhelm the audience with my racial melancholia. I want to illuminate how performing racially perverse material often fails because it is read and embodied as reality by my (white) audiences. I do this by juxtaposing the rumored death of Lupe Velez, the original Hollywood Mexican “Spitfire” who purportedly died with her head in the toilet, with the life of La Chica Boom. My hope is to present these stories side by side in order to foreshadow the destiny of my burlesque personae. Although I don’t resolve my actual life with death as Lupe did, I propose that the afterlife of La Chica Boom will be lived as a cockroach; reviled, untamable, and always pregnant with yet another disciplined reality.
Emmaly: Would you say you’re seeking to entertain or education, or both?
Seth: Both. I’m not crazy about the word “entertain” because I feel it is a huge responsibility to try to entertain people, seeing as people have so many ideas about what turns them on artistically. I’m much more interested in education and being a lineage holder. I want to share with the larger public the special lives of these creative people who are not very well known. So perhaps it’s more to enlighten and inspire and to give audiences a sense of the state of what that person had to live through. At times that will be entertaining and for some people it may not be entertaining at all. I want to take people on a ride of some kind. What they feel, how they interpret my work, is really up to them.
Emmaly: Do you feel like you have a larger message? When you say you want to educate and enlighten, is there a message you want to share with future gay artists, or is it more a homage to the past?
Seth: There are several messages in the show about human character and resilience amidst being ridiculed and all the taboos that come with being an outsider. I feel a calling to pay homage to Sam Steward, especially because he lived in the Bay Area and virtually no one knows about him unless they read the recent biography “Secret Historian” by Justin Spring. There are many questions that came out of my research: how much does community mean to us and how important is to be connected to community for us to do what we do? Steward’s alliances with Gertrude Stein, Alfred Kinsey and Thornton Wilder (to name a few) were really significant relationships because they gave him encouragement, and I think we all need encouragement; I don’t think an artist can really survive solely on their own in a vacuum. And yet the paradox is that Sam Steward was a very isolated guy. Despite his connections I think he was very lonely and he had big questions about humanity, himself, mattering in the world, and whether his work would be seen and known by other people. He came from an era where being a writer, an artist, a college professor, and a gay person was just not possible. But he decided to do it anyway. He decided to be an “out” person and even if they put him in jail or destroyed his career, he still was going to be himself. He knew exactly who he was.
Emmaly: Thinking about legacy so much, have you considered what your own artistic legacy is?
Seth: I don’t necessarily think about my own legacy quite yet. Even at my age I feel like I have a long way to go before having my own legacy. However I have always felt a deep connection to my elders and ancestors and I mean that in a larger sense, not just my own blood relatives, but the people I’m artistically connected to. I went to Naropa University where I met Remy Charlip. I saw he was a dancer, a writer, and a children’s book illustrator, and I was also a dancer and visual artist and was so excited to meet someone like me. We had a strong connection from the very beginning. And then when I moved to the Bay Area we reconnected and had a strong friendship. After he had his stroke I became one of his primary caregivers and helped to catalog all of his work, his videos, writings, and drawings… all of his work that will eventually be in some collection somewhere. He is really a lineage holder.
Emmaly: Where do you think your work lands in the ecosystem of issue-related pieces being made today?
Xandra: I think my work lands within the American performance tradition of minstrelsy, burlesque, vaudeville and physical theater with a contemporary focus on queer Latinidad.
Emmaly: I understand your work addresses Mexiphobia, stereotypes, and misconceptions. Do consider your work an opportunity to expose or enlighten?
Xandra: I am not sure that this work will enlighten or expose fear of Joteria and/or Mexiphobia, since my work is often trumped by the inability of audiences to absorb the different layers. Most people who are not familiar with Chicano iconography, Queer Latinidad, or racialized gender will most likely not be enlightened or exposed. I will, however, continue to expose myself for the benefit of creating the work I want to perform.
Emmaly: I’m always very curious about the places artists present their work. Would you change your work, and if so how would you change it, if you performed it in a place like Utah or any other place that isn’t generally sympathetic to homosexuality and Mexican culture? How closely is your work tied to the audience’s sympathies?
Xandra: I wouldn’t change the work at all. I don’t have any evidence that Utah is less sympathetic to queer Chicanos/Mexicans/Mexican-Americans. However, I do have evidence that California has a serious case of Mexiphobia. Utah citizens were not responsible for the lynching of over 100 Mexicans during the California Gold Rush; Utah was not responsible for gathering thousands of servicemen and citizens in a planned attack of young Chicano and Black zuit-suiters; Utah was not responsible for segregating Mexican children into separate public school systems; and it was not responsible for prop 187 (Save Our State (from Mexicans) Initiative), Secure Communities Initiative, and finally Utah did not deny basic labor protections to domestic workers for years. Let’s be clear, California is not utopia for queer or straight Chicanos/Mexicans/Mexican-Americans. If I can make/perform work here, I will do it/make it anywhere.
Seth: I don’t really know who my audience will be yet. I mean, I have a fan base, and CounterPULSE has been my artistic community for many years. I felt so honored they chose me to have this residency, and they will expand my audience greatly because they’re connected to a lot of communities who might not otherwise see my work. I am really interested in that interface of having people in the audience who wouldn’t normally see my work. I don’t make work specifically for gay people. I’m really into queer culture and the evolution of queer culture, but part of that for me is queering the larger community and opening people’s eyes to seeing this is not exclusion but overall inclusion. I don’t want to come across as “we do this weird hard core sex stuff and if you can’t deal with it then leave”. That’s just not my style. I do like making things accessible; I want my mom and dad to see it. Although Sam Steward was heavily into S&M and tattoos, I come from a Jewish background and we don’t tattoo. That being said the work is meant to push people’s edges and boundaries. Everyone has to figure out what their comfort level is. I’m sure it’s going to totally turn some people off, and some people will leave, they always do, but that’s okay because even if they get a tiny piece and get curious about how someone survived amidst the oppression, then that’s really important. And if they’re not blown over by my work they will be totally blown over by Xandra’s work.
First photo is of Xandra Ibarra, photo by Bousa Concepts; Second photo is of Ned Brauer, photo by Gary Ivanek; Third photo by Gary Ivanek; Fourth photo is of Xandra Ibarra, photo by Bousa Concepts