How do you measure time? Years, decades, anniversaries or seasons, semesters, and grey hairs? What about the time it takes to prepare a microwave bag of popcorn on stage at the Mission Cultural Center? Two precise minutes. Dozens of pops leading up to an obnoxious BEEP BEEP BEEP.
That is the unit of time Maris Bustamante chose to give a touching eulogy to seven of the artists who came of age with her in the youth movements of the late 1960s and 1970s.
One bag of popcorn. One friendship. Two minutes. Three beeps. Repeat. Add the time for Bustamante to walk from stage center to the microwave on its side and give an additional adieu to herself and the audience, and you get about 16 minutes, or “960 Seconds,” the title of Bustamante’s original solo performance. It was part of the event, 1968 Still Dreaming … , “celebrating the role of artists in the great student movements of 1968 and those who came before and after.”
“Dying is like when you hear and smell the popcorn pop,” said the 59-year-old Bustamante, a feminist with white, spiked hair. The artist, who has been called the godmother of Mexican performance art, made the comment in an interview before the show.
The unusual analogy proved a surprisingly effective one in her tribute performed last Thursday and Friday nights. The set consisted of a long table, with eight light bulbs hanging over eight place settings that consisted of a photo of each friend, a small momento or prop, and a bag of unused microwave popcorn.
After walking over to the microwave sitting on a smaller table to the side, she put the bag in the microwave, pressed the timer to two minutes and returned to the place setting. While the microwave counted down and the pops became more incessant, Bustamante talked to the audience.
“To do this is like to say goodbye forever,” she said, after beeps signaled her time was up summarizing the life of Melecio Galván, the subversive drawer who was killed in 1982. He was the first in her lineup of friends that developed into an anthology of Mexican radical art.
Next was Rubén Valencia, a fellow member of the alternative art collective No Grupo, and the father of her two daughters.
“I decided that if I didn’t talk about them, nobody will talk about them,” Bustamante said before the opening performance. Of the numerous worldwide commemorations of the movements of 1968, many of them are incomplete, she said, because they honor students and leave out the unconventional art groups that flourished following those movements.
What she and those she called her “accomplices” began doing as a result of their politicization was to use conceptual art to revolutionize the way of perceiving reality. In the 1981 Caliente-Caliente, for instance, Bustamante wore a penis on her nose while discussing Freud’s theory of penis envy.
The intimate setting of last week’s show felt more like a funeral than a performance. The electric beeping of the microwave provided a closure, however irritating, to each life. And Bustamante punctuated her story by piercing her finger after the beep, and smearing the blood across the left breast of her bleached white shirt.
“Adios,” she said to each one and invited the audience to join her. And then she pulled the cord above her friend’s photo and his setting went dark.
Local artist Adrian Arias followed her movements onstage with a camera, its video projected onto the back wall.
The performance came as Bustamante finishes up her year in San Francisco as a Fulbright scholar at San Francisco State University.
The passage of time was the reason behind the event, part of S.F. State’s year-long commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the 1968 student strikes. The strikes there, organized by a coalition of student groups called the Third World Liberation Front, resulted in the creation of the nation’s first College of Ethnic Studies.
The event, explained organizer and the state university’s sociology chair Ed McCaughan in his introduction, was meant to highlight the context of those strikes amid global student activism, and the role artists played.
From the two sides of the stage hung screenprints of political art from student movements around the world, such as Adolfo Mexiac’s depiction of a student with his mouth shackled in chains, from the Mexican student movement. That movement culminated tragically in October of 1968 when police and military forces opened fired on hundreds of students in a Mexico City plaza—an event which politicized many young artists there, including Bustamante.
The other performance of the evening was by Carla Lucero, whom McCaughan called a “product of the movements of that era,” as a successful Latina opera composer. Lucero has been working for several years on an opera about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th-century Mexican nun, poet and proto-feminist scholar. Countertenor José Luis Muñoz, mezzo-soprano Nicole Takesono and pianist Michelle Parker performed an enticing preview of the work to come.
Sor Juana’s struggles to probe intellectual questions in a misogynistic society 400 years ago, coupled with Friday’s May Day rallies across the globe, illuminated the meaning of the word “still” in the event’s title, 1968 Still Dreaming … .
As Teresa Carrillo, chair of the Raza Studies department, said in her address at the start of the show, “The role of the artist is to created a common vision. You could see what we are dreaming for in their work.”