Day of the Dead in Mexico City 2013
Had the rare chance to perform in Mexico city during Day of the Dead 2013, as part of the Enemigos project and Festival Expandible, along with Holly Pester. Our first performance was at the Laboratorio Arte Alameda, then Holly and I had a near hour long showcase at the Centro Cultural de Espana en Mexico, as part of Festival Expandible, where we were in residence, on the day of the dead itself. You can find videos from the performances below and blogs on the entire trip. Thanks to the British Council.
Every single person on the street stares at my big white face, my stupid mohawk and my mustard trousers, which is fair enough, and not entirely unpleasant. The city is both immensely busy and fraught and yet indelibly slow. I walk at least three times faster than anyone else I've seen. My lack of Spanish is a serious breakdown of possibilities, as perhaps it should be, to teach me a lesson, as Ive skived off English nearly everywhere else in the last five years, when I've not travelled much outside of Europe, as I used to often. The police are everywhere, look bored, but have intense weaponry, personalised shotguns and assault rifles. People let off fireworks which have no visible result but make a hard, dense crack when they go off. Sounds like gunshots every few minutes. There are 1000s of people crammed into tiny streets just off the historical city centre where we are staying and they all walk in front of cars. The food is absurdly dense and pleasant. The city is so big, that I am grateful I live in London in order that I not be overwhelmed. People are generous and patient with me.
We were met by one of the organisers, the charming Ari Chavez, in the morning and were shown to the Centro Cultural de Espana en Mexico, where we are doing workshops and a reading later in the week. It is a beautiful, unique architectural space, full of art and art spaces. We then took to the city. She walked us around, gently touring the very city centre. I've munched enchilladas and tacos so far, and guacamole so spicy I feared for the toot fog. The flight over was so easy, British airways has Louis CK and Alan Partridge on its in flight, and the great bear stakeout, unbelievable. No brain sleep cloud. Sharp.
We go to meet Jack Little in the evening. Just such a fundamentally decent, warm hearted, open, hospitable soul. Amazing to spend hours with him, with a view over the city and then from a near cantina in the old town, just listening to how he found himself in Mexico City, 22 years of age, now his home, having perfect Spanish, mexican family around him, years past and how poetry became his passion in the years spent in Mexico, despite his mother being a really well known and established poet in the UK. Just an humbling experience to spend time with someone so outgoing, positive, human. Really the day is a day of two generous people who live in this city, giving something of their home over to us, allowing us new eyes to a place so big and intense it can blind you. Here's some of Jack's work on 3am http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/two-poems-jack-little/ and his remarkable Ofi press, where he published this interview we did awhile back http://theofipress.webs.com/fowlersteven.htm
A frightening amount of the buildings here lean. Seriously lean. The city is built on Tenochtitlan, the city of lakes. It makes towers and churches cut angles. They really love the Minions from despicable me in the city too, they are everywhere. After pancakes, we began the day with Holly's seminar in the CCEMX http://ccemx.org/2013/10/07/poesia-sonora/. A bit of a cautious experiment, as we didn't know who to expect, how many, what their knowledge was of avant garde poetry and indeed whether they spoke English. Turned out, they didn't speak English. Holly did an amazing job considering the seminar was to last four hours. I put my fat palm to my face a bit. She was calm and clear and covered her practise in gentle depth. Miscommunication - technology - error - song - body - code. She played some Mondegreens, some BBC radio (which immediately started talking about Jimmy Saville) from which she's usurped for poems and we finished up with a interactive exercise in symbol led sound poetry. All considered, she was doing a poem, talking to a room of people who for the most part couldnt understand her. But there is creative potential in not understanding, and the final feeling was perhaps more warm and intimate and genuine than it couldve been. Her skill, my seminar is thursday. Haha. Though I did find one of the best childrens books Ive ever seen.
We then were accompanied again by the lovely Ari, el pandarhia, and walked a fair swathe of the city, from the historical centre down the Alameda central and onto the reforma (a massive avenue de avenue), through the Zona Rosa (which is full of gay people and prostitutes apparently but seemed to me like a quaint, upmarket shopping district) and then into the Condesa http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condesa very much famed for its trendy ways. We visited the American legion and their English language bookshop http://underthevolcanobooks.com/, which had loads of amazing writers and then doubled a mochacino in a trendy cafe. I left Holly as she was meeting a mate of a mate and walked back to the hotel in the dusk / darkness on the massive glowing streets of the city, music in my ears.
I ate alone in a restaurant, getting by on a day's worth of Spanish and going back to the hotel I bumped into the concierge who had helped on our arrival. Clocking off, we started talking, him with his thick American accent and I bought him coffee while he told me how he was deported from the US even though he was born and raised there, leaving behind his (caucasian - he kept saying this, I didnt ask) wife, while she was pregnant. He has spent a year in Mexico city, never having been there before, working as a busboy essentially, and a month ago his wife gave birth. He hasnt seen his kid. He is going to Juarez tomorrow for a physical (?) to finalise his papers to return, hopefully. I wished him luck. He asked about me, thought Holly was my wife, though said it was weird we stayed in different rooms and insisted he was going to buy some of my books. I told him not to waste his money.
Teotihuacan. The bus driver drove Mexican speeds and having been in a car crash, I began the day with fear lacing my joy. We saw the slums that line the hillsides of the north east of Mexico city, where people claimed land like a goldrush and now own it after squatting. The pyramids are an hour outside of the city. We were paraded first to a weird shop where they showed us native dogs which were black and hairless, then the multiple uses of the many cactus', like alcohol and paper. The smell was of a leaking septic tank. The handmade aztec and mayan object recreations were proper takk. The mangey dogs loved Holly.
No one knows who built the pyramids or why, the aztecs just found them later on. The complex is enormous. We did the sun temple, a hard steep step climb, with groin sweats on, and then the moon temple. Holly takes lots of self pictures. There were loads of stray dogs, racing each other. I bought a Jaguar flute, that makes one of the most obnoxiously entertaining noises you can imagine, and seems to have a curse that once you buy one you have to keep fucking blowing it in the ears of strangers. Human slavery was put to epic use. The spirituality of the place was somewhat mauled by tourists, but it didnt matter, the day was gentle, calm, sunny with a sprinkle of rain god / dog.
Back in Mexico city, after another frightening journey courtesy of pothole jumps, we headed out, explored and came across the most amazing display being erected and formed in the cathedral square for the imminent day of the dead celebrations. Huge statues of skeletal horses backed by an enormous marquee where hundreds of people had come out to build dioramas, sculptures, flower arrangements and stalls. The festival actually means something, to remember one's dead, but its humour, its artistic expression, at its very root, clearly and palpably brings people out and together in the act of making. It was amazing to witness what we have no equivalent to in England. Balls to baby jesus birthing / dying as a holiday next to giant skeletons and sugar skulls and free and open art making.
I was immensely lucky with kind people who attended my seminar. The whole thing was a joy, because they were very warm and interested and English speaking! That being said the Cultural Centre actually laid out a translator with a microphone booth and earphones. Only one person took the translation. He was used to doing political translations, so he said he loved a bit of avant garde poetry for three hours! I just did a little tour of my methods - written work with disjunction, found text, mishearings, write throughs, performance, conceptual work, visual work etc... we did three workshops. One where we wrote through Coral Bracho and Octavio Paz with stolen lines to form new poems, another where we rendered a Paz poem visually, as a spiral, and a third making new poems in the Renga form, stealing lines and going multilingual. I showed some of my more out there performances on video too, they loved my boxing when ill and sound gorillaing. Met some great people, they were too too nice to me.
The day of the dead stuff here continues to amaze. The dioramas they build are so inventive, and have such a sense of humour too. The sense of immediacy of purpose that facilitates this humour and community is remarkable. Again, we have no equivalent. I also bumped into the guy from the hotel who had been separated from his wife in America. He got residency! He can go back and see his baba. I wished him well.
Holly and I made our way to the Labatorio Arte Alameda next to Alameda park where the Enemigos performance would be. A famous avant garde venue apparently, it was a remarkable space inside of a giant yellow church, a big black cube. While we waited for Mexican time to catch up with Greenwich Mean Time we went to a cafe where a man had a hat on with rabbit ears and then his fellow waiter picked up an accordian and played it with such beauty.. i was terribly heartsick for my romanian, he played romany tunes! I finally met Amanda de la Garza, who I'd written with for the Enemigos anthology, we had transliterated each other's poetry. She was remarkably friendly and charming and talented, she is a curator at the contemporary art gallery in the city and has a clearly powerful poetic presence, as well as incredible freckles, el tigre. Also there was a frog on the coffee machine in the cafe and some sort of creature next to it, see below
The Enemigos evening, the reading, were grand. Amanda, Rocio, Holly and I popped up throughout the night, to a nice intimate crowd. Amanda did a great piece with a typewriter, her poem 'dictated' as she read, and she read her transliterations after I'd read three poems from the anthology, Atacama, the one about James Harvey and the one about Newquay. We had a VJ all night collaborating too, showing videos behind us as we read, he was amazing www.vimeo.com/nomadaspace Rocio showed some of her new work, which was very beautiful and then to close, Holly and I did an improvisational piece, on an hours notice! We came up with it fast. She sat in the dark and said mean things to me while i sat in the light and said nice things to her. They dont get our humour really so it ended up being like a drama exercise! i acted so heartbroken that i made one of the sweet Mexicans weeep! haha, maybe I should be a fucking actor. It was fun though, being restrained and not being able to verbally abuse Holly as I wanted to. This picture to the left is of the audience while Amanda read one of the transliterations.
we went out for a big meal afterwards in this massive hall with hundreds of people eating and playing dominos. they were so nice to me, the extended Enemigos Mexican family, a whole host of them, like i was an old friend. Ari the panda and her pando, Sara, who moved to Mex from Berlin to study, Rocio, Amanda, loads of people. They all got my jokes and were kind enough to laugh. They ripped the piss out of me a lot too for the picture I allegedly sent for the performance poster where I look like I am in a shampoo advert, and for the fact that Eduardo, the VJ, and I, both were wearing the same clothes with the same hair. But he was a dude, so I was happy to have a twin in Mexico city. / Nearly everyone we've met in mexico is really really kind hearted and gentle, much more than england. they find it very easy to make time for you and want to speak to you.
Days are running out. I actually walked into the restaurant used to people speaking Spanish, or used to me not understanding what anyone's saying. A quieter day, but perhaps the most profound of what has been an immensely human, social trip. Some time to actually explore the city, to realise how enormous it truly is. I walked from the historical centre, down the entire length of the Reforma down to the Chapultepec park, which is a huge complex of forests, avenues, museums and most importantly a zoo. In the last month or so alone I've been to Edinburgh, Bratislava and now Mexico city zoo. An institution which reveals the character of the people of the city. It was day of the dead, the family day, so it was packed with kiddles, but the whole feeling was very respectful towards the creatures. I saw brown, black, ice and Panda bears! and Axlotls. A charmed two hours.
I then walked a ring around Chapultepec, found the avenue of poets, which features busts and memorials to Mexico's famous poets and was adorned with skeleton paraphernalia for the weekend. I cut out of the park and spent a few hours walking south, exploring la Roma and the Condessa. I walked all the way back to the hotel from there, coming back via the Madero pedestrian road and seeing the teeming thousands of families and fancy dressed revellers. The atmosphere was very warm and some of the costumes are truly amazing, and funny. Parents seem to be practising a mild form of child abuse by dressing their young, many babies wrapped in bandages as mummies.
In the evening Amanda de la Garza was amazingly generous to pick us both from the hotel and drive us an hour outside the city to a small town in the mountains to visit a famous cemetary and witness an authentic day of the dead celebration. It was a humbling and moving experience. Winding through the steep cobbled roads of the town we followed an almost hidden path to the cemetary, a place we would have never found in a thousands years without Amanda. The walk to the gates were lined with brightly lit food stalls and joke shops. Hundreds of people were dressed for the occasion, but inside the cemetary, lit by hundreds of candles, with live musicians playing, with families sat around the graves of their loved ones, eating, talking, joking, it felt we had entered something entirely new and yet wholly welcoming. The atmosphere was like the music, upbeat in rhythm, profoundly sad in content. Many sat alone on graves, other families sat around dioramas and flowers and food on the graves. To witness an old couple look on to the grave of their child, covered in toys, left us silent. It's an experience I will remember forever.
On our return we ventured into the carnage of the Madero to see the thousands and thousands who poured into the city centre to celebrate. Some of the costumes were violently gory, others funny, but it was so packed you could barely move. I felt completely relaxed, there was no violence in the air though people had been drinking all day and we let the mass tide of humans carry us on.
The day of our final performance, our main event, an hour or so split between Holly and I, a showcase really, in the Centro Cultural de Espana en Mexico, where we had eaten and hung out all week, in their main hall. The show had been loosely titled and advertised as something like night and death, and poetry. Not sure we could quite live up to that. Having not really formulated the content before the day of the performance, it was a day of construction and rehearsal. Absolutely a joy for me, to have the pleasant nerves to keep me sharp but to be working with someone as experienced, subtle and talented as Holly, after a good week of spending nearly all day together, we had immense reservoirs of material. Also we were genuinely trying to shape something new to both of us, that crossed the width of our practices in an original way. We created a programme that featured readings, performances, written collaboration, sound poetry and improvisation all stitched together with segways in antagonistic play between us - interruptions, interventions and quite physical stage play.
We soundchecked, looked after by the amazing staff of the cultural centre, and Ari, from Festival Expandibles, and really sat in the size of the hall, an amazing venue. Ari and I then took to the cathedral square, to get my face painted as a Calavera, to pay true homage to the fact that the performance was taking place on the day of the dead. The family doing the face painting, for 50 pesos, were cholos apparently, a gangster family. The girl who did my makeup couldn't have been more than 10 years old.
The show ended up going very well, and certainly left us on a high. There is something shared in the act of performance, and in the act of collaboration, that brings you intensely close to someone, and Holly and I having known each other for years, seen each others work for years, and spent a load of time together, but without ever having collaborated before, meant this crescendo was all the more powerful. Holly was on special form, it was all I could do to keep up with her! So much in that piece, too much to write about, hoping to get the video sometime soon. Suffice to say we covered translations, prisons, ravens, volcanoes, shanties, jaguars, and massive projected sexy pictures of me shampooing my hair amongst many other things.
The audience wasn't huge, but this seems to be in the inverse of the immense Mexican hospitality. If you phone someone on 20 minutes notice they will meet you for coffee and take you around the city or their home, but if you set a date and time, they probably won't make it. None the less many of the people in the city we met and admired did make it, which was amazing. We all went for food afterwards in the cultural centre restaurant where we had been spongeing all week with meal tickets, and then we wandered down to the beautiful Regina street where we closed out our last night in Mexico city in an appropriately buoyant, satisfied, slightly exhausted mood. The day of the dead was over too.
The last entry, writing it from England. Sad raining psychologically repressed England. Went to a dead town by a desolate coastline, filled with slot machines, battered chip shops and grown idiots staring at me, the day after my return. A huge mistake. I should've gone away to Spain, or stayed in Mexico. The final day was spent feeling as though it was surreal to leave, that I couldve spent a month, a year, in Mexico city and written something good. Maybe a mirage, maybe it's always polished when you know you're off and every day is packed with new things and new people. Maybe though, there's a difference between the places. We ate our free massive hotel breakfast again, the last time Ill be having quesadillas in the morning, then I went out into the city to meet Ioan Grillo, the remarkable British journalist who moved to Mexico city 12 years ago. Originally from Lewes, I discovered his story and his amazing book Narco some time ago and contacted him out of the blue to see if he would meet me. He did, and I was privileged to spend a few hours speaking with him, plying him with questions about his experiences with cartels and his experiences of Mexico. Consummate journalist, he spent more time asking me questions. The beginning of a friendship I hope and undoubtedly a special experience to mark my last day in the city. www.ioangrillo.com
Holly and I then met up and walked down to Regina again to eat and sit and talk. The hours passed before we did a final circle of the Alameda and the Madero before catching our cab to the airport and flying 11 hours through the night. What can be said about the hospitality, warmth, generosity and energy of those who have gone far out of their way to host and befriend us in Mexico? One of the best trips of my life. Thanks to Ari, Ed, Rocio, Amanda, Itzel, Eliza, Adrian, Jack and many others. I hope to return, soon.
In Mexico, Holly & I wrote a collaboration, part of our performance on Day of the Dead, made up of found text, from Malcolm Lowry, and new writing, called Under the Volcanoes and we read it in part at the Hardy tree Gallery in London, November 2013.