On March 12, 2008, at the Robert Gill Theatre in Toronto, I spoke with Guillermo Verdecchia about his play Fronteras Amercianas (American Borders) and its relationship to memory, theatre, and the archive. To follow is an excerpt from the interview and from his play.
The end of the US-Mexico fence in California
GV: The play started as a letter. I went back to Argentina many years ago as I was traveling. I was figuring out what this experience … a stranger in a place that in some ways was very familiar of this notion of a return home, this notion of trying to make sense … of where I lived, imagined, or some interior way I always felt that I wasn’t fully here and part of my imaginary and part of my memory was situated elsewhere. I have a memory that was passed from generation, from my family collective and culture that doesn’t sit well with the collective or social memories that are found here, in Canada or North America. This experience of being dislocated and yet knowing that returning to Argentina was the solution … it was the experience of returning and feeling, “Oh my god.” So in returning there was this working through it. That is where the play comes through, on one level. On another, it is comes from what it means to be an American, to be on this continent. What are the modes of being on this continent? Who gets to speak? Who represents who? (“Interview”)
Fronteras Americanas is a one-person show about a man divided by cultural borders that manifest in the live theatre of cultural memory through timelines, multimedia, and physical and emotional journeys home. In the play, Verdecchia is the “straight guy” against the anti-hero, Wideload, a constructed hyperbolic array of stereotypes designed to deflate defamatory archetypes through shrewd and witty commentary on culture and sentimental departures (Karenda 10). Verdecchia sees his character(s) as a border-line, as a conflation of space in the pop and political culture, not so much as a binary but as a negotiation, a working-with and through in order to reveal the violence, as well as the amnesia that is bracketed in racist representations. As “a direct descendent of Tupac Amaru, Pancho Villa, Dona Flor, Pedro Navaja, Sor Juana and Speedy Gonzalez, Wideload is the reveal that Verdecchia is after in his work ” (Verdecchia “Fronteras” 23). Wideload is a manifestation of the popular archive or “the store,” a space that “sustains power” as it disseminates through mass culture the representations of Latino American culture, specifically male identity. Borders, geography, and body are articulated in the process of theatre by Verdecchia’s transgressing and foraging from multiple archives.
In Archive Fever, Derrida reveals the assumed veracity of the constructed catalogue or “that there could be no archiving without titles (hence without names and without the archontic principles of legitimization, without laws, without criteria of classification and of hierarchization, without order and without order, in the double sense of the word)” (40). The notion that there could be no archiving without titles delineates the process of classification, and the subsequent power in how material is made and not made accessible, and who decides. The archive, in its very structure of bordering off culture through authorization and classification, stratifies the object, subject, and culture. Verdecchia is clear that the archive creates and orders privilege:
GV: I could go to the library and get things out or I could go to the Research Library and look stuff up … that’s fantastic; however, it is not the be all or the end all of knowledge, or of understanding, or the ways of knowing. The problem of course is that we have, or the West or generally in the world, we’ve validated a certain kind of knowing … we validate … the archive over embodied … knowing, not transmitted through writing: “That’s not really a document! But if you had a letter, if you had a letter that would be really good.” And of course that raises a lot of historical questions because up until a certain point in our history most people couldn’t write, so those documents that were extrapolated from a culture … are only the elite strata of a culture … because those were the 10% or less of the people who could actually write things down.” (“Interview”)
What is culturally privileged as archival ironically doesn’t necessarily represent what was or is. Matthew Reason argues that theatre provides a challenge or a resistance to the authoritative “permanency” of the archive: “stage detritus presents an ‘archive’ able to create and recreate the multiple appearance of the performance. In the accumulation of these traces it is as if an immediate archive of the production is established: here is the shaky and incomplete evidence of what happened” (88). Where then does the archive of theatre exist if it is “shaky and incomplete”? Diane Taylor suggests “the West has forgotten about the many parts of the world that elude its explanatory grasp. Yet, it remembers the need to cement the centrality of its position as the West by creating and freezing the non-West as always other, ‘foreign,’ and unknowable. Domination by culture, by ‘definition,’ by claims to originality and authenticity has functioned in tandem with military and economic supremacy” (Taylor 12). The “freezing,” then, is a project of the institutionalized archive to maintain “the object” for supremacy that ultimately serves the economic and capitalist payoff in the form of Cultural Property Certification and the issuing of the federal tax receipt to the donor, who once again represents a small, yet powerful, elite. It is in the theatre, then, where there is a melting of the “freezing” of objectified culture, the live and living performances of its various formations in all its shaky detritus.
GV: That is one of the things that attracted me about the theatre was that it left no traces. There was something about that [aspect] that really appealed to me. I love the temporality … the flaring up like a light and then it’s gone. It’s very anti-archival, but you know, I wish I could make something to point to. Like, ‘I made that bridge!’ Instead, I make the thing that happened for a few hours, for a few weeks.” (“Interview”)
As both a scholar and a playwright, Verdecchia utilizes the archive, as well as performance to put pressure on the cultural, and institutionalized “keeping” of information. By couching his performances with multimedia, he is able to access other sites of memory, other public archives that have become naturalized into the contemporary Western lexicon of representation.
GV: Part of my process is that I have to know everything before I can write … I’ve got to assimilate to get to the beginning of what I want to get to. The timeline is an idiosyncratic history … I’ve chosen preposterous markers that appeal to me … part of the timeline is … the dialogue between history and art … I come back and forth between certain historic events and its construction of history and how it is meaningful to me.
SM: There is also a safety with the timeline, right? A collective comfort?
GV: I do want to unsettle it [the comfort] … there are markers that should be known … or that there were cities being built in 5,000 BCE. Like Das Kapital … it’s not a marker that we would stick into a cultural timeline … it’s kinda rude to mention Marx or capitalism but I stick it in … right next to Confederation … and it’s the utter absurdity of history. (“Interview”)
The absurdity of history through its agents, as Verdecchia states, are the keepers of the archives who categorize by way of massive reduction the “key” moments in time. Reason’s argument about the impossibility to capture “live” theatre in the archives echoes the inability to capture the “live theatre” in everydayness. Archives at best act as a filter through which most of what is passes (84-5). The filter managed by institutional mandates, then, has the “sustained power” to decide what cultural memory is and what is forgotten.
Gloria Anzaldúa, in “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” insists “that borders are experienced primarily as psychological conflict, and those who wish to negotiate them experience a kind of dual identity” (63). The borders, she remarks, are not translatable in the natural world: the skin of the earth is seamless. / The sea cannot be fenced, / el mar does not stop at borders” (“The Homeland, Aztlan” 3).
Verdecchia is haunted by his cultural memory “it still speaks to me” and begs as Marcellus implores Horatio: “Thou art a Scholler, speake to it, Horatio” (Hamlet 1.1.51). Verdecchia dares to speak to the phantom; however, he departs from Derrida’s assertion that the phantom is to have the last word” (39). The haunting that Verdecchia cannot fully articulate draws in another level of archive: the body, his DNA. Theatre becomes a space in which the archive is activated, a fluid dispersal of polyphonic (re)memory, concrete documents that are enacted on the stage through the process of body, the articulation of the archive, without sea walls, and remain unpredictable.
The anxiety that haunts Verdecchia and informs his work as an Argentinean is the cultural trauma of the “thirty thousand disappeared who were tortured and murdered, ten thousand were women, hundreds of them pregnant. They were killed as soon as they gave birth. Their children, born in captivity, were also disappeared – not killed, in this case but adopted by military families (Taylor 169).
GV: It’s part of my memory, my cultural memory. It’s a significant part of my memory where … I live it. I would have been exactly the right age to be on the receiving end or the giving end. My family was almost entirely untouched. I have friends who were disappeared. My identity and my memory and that experience of political experience … that is a significant part of my … self imagining as a Latin American and that’s a bit weird and a bit troubling … There is something about it that’s not great … that’s not right … and that is what this moment speaks to. I wanted to see. I wanted to be close to the … it’s a hoary trope … Those are horrific and stupid cliques and what do you know, I subscribe to them. It’s a big part of my imagination. It’s complicated.
The following is an excerpt from Fronteras Americanas (American Borders). Verdecchia listened to this music, a Tango, Verano Porteno, Astor Piazzolla, over and over again while writing this section of the play. The Tango remains in the play as a stage direction. I suggest (because I’m bossy) that you play the music and read the section out loud:
Let it “flare up like a light and then it’s gone.”
[Music: Verano Porteno, Astor Piazzolla]
It is music for exile, for the preparations, the significations of departure, for the symptoms of migration. It is the languishing music of picking through your belongings and deciding what to take.
It is two a.m. music of smelling and caressing books none of which you can carry – books you leave behind with friends who say they’ll always be here when you want them when you need them – music for a bowl of apples sitting on your table, apples you have not yet eaten, apples you cannot take – you know they have apples there in that other place but not these apples, not apples like these – You eat your last native apple and stare at what your life is reduced to – all the things you can stick into a sack. It will be cold, you will need boots, you don’t own boots except these rubber ones – will they do? You pack them, you pack a letter from a friend so you will not feel too alone.
Music for final goodbyes for one last drink and a quick hug as you cram your cigarettes into your pocket and run to the bus, you run, run, your chest heaves, like the bellows of the bandoneon. You try to watch intently to emblazon in your mind these streets, these corners, those houses, the people, their smells, even the lurching bus fills you with a kind of stupid happiness and regret – Music for the things you left behind in that room: a dress, magazines, some drawings, two pairs of shoes and blouses too old to be worn any more … four perfect apples.
Music for cold nights under incomprehensible stars, for cups of coffee and cigarette smoke, for a long walk by the river where you might be alone or you might meet someone. It is music for encounters in shabby stairways, the music of lovemaking in a narrow bed, the tendernesses, the caress, the pull of strong arms and legs.
Music for men and women thin as bones.
Music for your invisibility.
Music for a letter that arrives telling you that he is very sick.
Music for your arms that ache from longing from wishing he might be standing at the top of the stairs waiting to take the bags and then lean over and kiss you and even his silly stubble scratching your cold face would be welcome and you only discover that you’re crying when you try to find your keys –
Music for a day in the fall when you buy a new coat and think perhaps you will live here for the rest of your life, perhaps it will be possible, you have changed so much, would they recognize you? would you recognize your country? would you recognize yourself?” (58-60)
Anzaldúa, Gloria. “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” Living Languages: Contexts for Reading and Writing. Ed. Nancy Buffington, Marvin Diogenes, and Clyde Moneyhun. New Jersey: Blair Press, 1997.
Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: UCP, 1996.
Reason, Matthew. “Archive or Memory?: The Detritus of Live Performance.” NTQ. 19:1 (Feb 2003).
Taylor, Diana. The Archive and The Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. London: Duke, 2003.
Verdecchia, Guillermo. Fronteras Americanas (American Borders). Talonbooks, 1997.
… , Interview with Sorouja Moll. Personal interview. Robert Gill Theatre, Toronto. 12 March 2008.