For over 25 years, the work of J.L. Austin, or at least the title of his book, How to Do Things with Words, has been a touchstone in English-speaking performance theory, and, since ideas from the English-speaking world have a habit of influencing or infecting ideas from other worlds of thought, international performance theory. More recently, Susana Vargas Cervantes has problematized these theories as arriving thoughtlessly from a white, middle-class perspective: exactly the people who can “come out of the closet” without consequence. There is no point in rehashing all of these arguments here—Vargas’s essay is great, and there have been other essays from an intersectional, postcolonial, or generally non-white perspective about Judith Butler’s work in the last 25 years—there’s something kind of funny about having been 5 years old when Gender Trouble was published—but the general gist is that being able to “do things with words” is a privilege afforded to gender-conforming white, middle class people: those with the ability to speak, whose words are more likely to be listened to, whose “ceiling of actual possibilities,” to paraphrase James Baldwin, is higher. Even Butler herself acknowledged this in her 1994 book Excitable Speech: “The subject as sovereign is presumed in the Austinian account of performativity…” But what about those whose sovereignty is compromised or non-existent due to class, race, gender or geography?
Speakers of indigenous languages in Mexico, like the rappers that populate the video from Noe Martínez’s current exhibition “Hacer cosas con palabras” (“Doing Things with Words”), suffer from this lack of sovereignty in their own speech. In an hourlong series of interviews, which you can watch from one of three or four giant beanbags on the floor of the darkened room, maybe with another person, maybe alone, or maybe not, maybe you decide to stand to stand awkwardly by the door, the interviewees in Martínez’s video tell of being ignored, mis-identified as thugs or junkies, spoken down to, laughed at. Their sentiments echo those from the audio recording in his partner María Sosa’s performance in PARQUE Gallery a couple of weeks earlier, describing the feeling of constantly being reminded of their low ceilings of actual possibilities. In each interview, a rapper first speaks about their experience, their upbringing, their community, how they are perceived within Mexico generally or Mexico City specifically, and listens to a recording of traditional Mexican music—for many, Oaxacan banda music, a music that mixes indigenous ritual, medieval popular music and dance that arrived with Spanish missionaries with German brass band instruments that arrived at the beginning of the twentieth century. Almost every interviewee closes their eyes with pleasure, smiles: “you hear the Son Mixe and it makes you want to dance!” Just as language carries the capacity to injure, as Butler argues in Excitable Speech, music carries the capacity to move.
It is just in this that Martínez’s exhibition shifts “doing things with words” from a privileged, aloof, individualistic determination to a grassroots, embodied, communitarian one. A (white, middle-class, gender-conforming) person coming out is making an individual decision that affects only their individual self-formation, effects little to no solidarity with others (it’s “I’m gay,” not “we’re gay”), and certainly does not cause anybody to think about or move their bodies, alone or together. On the other hand, an indigenous person making rap in their original language using the communitarian tools of music, a democratic form of music-making that does not make class demands, that causes bodies to move, by themselves or together, enunciating not the uniqueness of one but the power of many.