Public Performance and the Freak Left: ASCO, Metropolitan Indians, and the Politics of Disrespectability

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The mainstream Left often finds itself struggling to construct a respectable image within a liberal political sphere whose survival is based on the marginalization and exclusion of radical political thought and practice. Since winning the January 2015 election, SYRIZA, Greece’s respectable left coalition party, has faced ongoing difficulties restructuring loan terms outside of the logic of the nation’s new debt holder, the Troika (European Union, IMF, and European Central Bank), which has bought up the Greek debt in return for a series of payments and harsh austerity measures on the Greek people. SYRIZA’s inability to push the Troika beyond their already established rules of the game during negotiations serves as the most recent example of the limitations of respectability. Behind SYRIZA stands the non-institutional Left, made up primarily of disenfranchised Greek youths, such as those living in the Athens neighborhood of Exarcheia. These young people take on the role of antagonizing both mainstream Left and Right. The anarchist Left serves the function of relentlessly criticizing the orthodox solutions to Greece’s deeply rooted political, economic, social, and psychological problems. They refuse to accept what are presented as the only two options regarding Greece’s future – either suck it up and continue with austerity, or default and risk the floor falling out from underneath the entire country. In refusing, they misbehave.

Political misbehavior is nothing new. It did not begin with the burning of a Christmas tree in Syntagma Square nor either of the two examples of performance art groups upon which I will reflect. Instead, misbehavior has profound origins in our very human feelings of disdain for authority and normative standards of practice. The Left has a historical tendency of policing behavior and denouncing autonomous manifestations of social psychological anxiety that challenge the established party line, as autonomous fits of rage and creative expression resonate among popular audiences, who are in similar need of these liberating bursts of creativity.

Although the bureaucratizing impetus behind Leftist political projects leaves a sterile social and cultural climate, East LA’s ASCO and Italy’s Metropolitan Indians have proven the urgent role for misbehavior and disrespectability within mainstream Left political movements. We need irony. We need absurdity as a means to return the disgust we feel toward respectability in all its guises. The Left’s failure to critically reassess and recoup after tried defeat is just as disgusting as any totalitarian political visions—we must remain committed to creative forms of pressure from the inside.

ASCO formed in 1971 while working on the Chicano literary magazine Regeneracion. Harry Gamboa, who had been recently appointed as editor, reached out to Patssi Valdez, Willie Herron, and Gronk. Their collaboration in the magazine immediately spawned controversy, as the artists were often accused of approaching Chicano issues from obscure and abstract perspectives. The group performed their first piece, Stations of the Cross, on Christmas Eve 1971. Dressed in elaborate costumes and over-the-top makeup, the group re-enacted a posada carrying a fifteen-foot cross throughout the neighborhood, eventually concluding the procession with a ceremony in front of the army recruitment center, where they left the cross in protest of the Vietnam War.[1]

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In Spanish, the word “asco” literally means “disgusting.” The group formally took on the name when they presented a collection of their work at a 1974 exhibition at Self-Help Graphics. The name held a double meaning. First, it expressed a discontent with the urban experience of a racialized minority living in a racialized neighborhood. Second, it played off the viewers’ reactions to their performances, as audiences often found their work to be absurd and repulsive (Chavoya 41). Moreover, ASCO’s contributions to Regeneracion radically broke from the journal’s standard art practice of social realist political cartoons invoking a pre-conquest romanticism. Instead, ASCO produced dark abstract art, often completely disjointed from the topics of the articles, and focused on the existential crises induced by the collective experience of violence and misery growing up in the East LA barrio (Gunckel 158).

The Metropolitan Indians formed among a loose network of youths from the working class districts and universities in Rome and Milan during the 1970s. Most of the participants were unemployed youths looking to broaden the analysis of class struggle beyond the orthodox Marxist understanding of class antagonism solely between the proletariat and bourgeoisie. Peter Cuninghame describes them as the following: “The Metropolitan Indians were the most visible counter-cultural force within Seventy-Seven. In Milan they emerged from a mixing of the experience of the Proletarian Youth Clubs (PYC) with ‘‘Mao-Dadaism’’, the ‘‘drug culture’’, group sex and ‘‘transversalist’’ linguistic experimentation, particularly the use of sarcastic and ironic slogans to ridicule all forms of organized politics” (Cuninghame). While UK youths were deep in the 1977 punk scene, Italian youths were uniting around autonomia, an anti-authoritarian Left current influenced by Italian workerism and post-situationism, which brought together Mario Tronti’s autonomy of the political-an argument that workers’ struggles were at the center of history, as capital reacts to autonomous labor action-and the creativity of dadaism. According to Cuninghame, autonomia was a blanket termed used to describe the new politics developing in Italy between 1968 and 1977, in which “alternative practices” were “politicized and made oppositional” (Cuninghame). After Italy’s “Hot Autumn” of 1969 and the autonomous workers’ struggles outside of the union bureaucracy, specifically the 1973 strikes and occupations at the Fiat factory, radicals in Italy began coalescing around the autonomia in an effort to promote autonomous action outside of the Italian Communist Party. More specifically, autonomists sought to transform the everyday, starting with the neighborhood, instead of being limited to the factories, as the post-Fordist economy was beginning to surface in the industrial centers of Rome, Milan, Turin, and Balogna.

Both ASCO and the Metropolitan Indians shared a similar socio-political climate from which they arose. Both groups formed in the midst of a youth crisis rooted in the urban experience. In East Los Angeles, high school graduation rates were the lowest in the country, at only twenty-five percent (Chavoya 241). East LA youths were commonly turning to gang culture in search of friendship and comradery, as lack of social mobility due to structural racism allowed little opportunity to move out of the neighborhood. Moreover, the state’s recently completed freeway infrastructural projects, in which East LA neighborhoods were sliced into pieces by the extension of the 5, 10, 60, 101, and 710 freeways, destroyed thousands of homes and further contributed to a historical process of quarantining the area.

In Rome, high youth unemployment and ghettoization of the urban “sub-proletariat” forced youths to search for alternatives. Reflecting on his experiences as a Metropolitan Indian, Mario explans, “I lived in Prevestino, and in Prevestino there is nothing, nowhere to meet, not a bar, no cultural events, not one moment of joy, nothing. The neighbourhood is ruled over by the PCI [Italian Communist Party] and the youths of FUGCI [Italian Communist Youth League] who come up with the usual things, a film by Eisenstein once in a while telling us to re-appropriate culture and a “Unita” festival good only for singing some shit, dreadful shit, then back into their holes again, everything over for them. We don’t want this. We want to reclaim our lives, which in our district are miserable, mad, and unhappy. The neighbourhood denies life and society denies life and then the PCI comes up to you proposing a film and some sacrifices.”

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Both groups developed during historical moments of extreme state terror. In the years surrounding the Chicano Moratorium, East Los Angeles was essentially a militarized zone, in which police heavily surveyed and repressed the neighborhood in search of subversives. According to Chicano Historian Rudy Acuña, protests and mobilizations in East LA were handled by local police as though they were insurrections (Acuña 345). In a 1970 testimony before a US Senate subcommittee, ASCO’s Harry Gamboa was named one of the top 100 most dangerous individuals in the United States, in which he was declared “anti-establishment, anti-white, and militant.” Similarly, the Metropolitan Indians formed during a moment in which the Italian state was carrying out its infamous Strategy of Tension in collaboration with the US government and Greek Military Junta. The Italian state was collaborating with neofascist groups, such as Stefano della Chiaie’s Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari, which bombed the Balogna train station on the morning of August 2, 1980, murdering 85 civilians and injuring over 200. The logic behind the Strategy of Tension was to use right wing terrorist groups to attack civilians and blame it on the Red Brigades, thus justifying further militarization and consolidation of the Italian state. The state terror in Rome and East LA aimed to discredit working class organizations that had been developing in the aftermath of the sixties, and did so quite successfully.

The Chicano movement and Italian Communist Party served as the hegemonic social movements by which residents in East LA and Rome challenged their conditions, but the analyses of both hegemonic organizations proved to be quite limited, which we have even further recognized in hindsight. Although ASCO and the Metropolitan Indians are most remembered for challenging the logic and conditions of bourgeois liberal democracy, both groups also sustained creative forms of pressure within hegemonic Left movements. C. Ondine Chavoya declares:

ASCO did not adhere to the prescribed agenda for Chicano artists within the Movement… Instead, ASCO cannibalized the mediums of film and muralism to stage movement and possibility in exchange for static, iconic, and mythical representations…their work was seen by many of their peers as unproductive expenditure that did not fulfill the tenets of nationalism within the Chicano movement and potentially obfuscated nationalist ideology (Chavoya 252).

ASCO’s work was representative of an aesthetic no-man’s land not only within the contemporary art scene—as demonstrated by the piece Spray Paint LACMA, in which members of ASCO spray painted their “wild style”-influenced signatures on the front door of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art after a LACMA curator told Gamboa that Chicanos make “folk art” not “fine art”—but also within the Chicano community, as their glamorous and glittery productions directly challenged the hegemonic understandings of masculinity within the Chicano Movement. Gamboa, Herron, and Gronk often performed in spandex pants, feathery boas, high-heeled platform boots, and bright glittery makeup while positioning themselves in close proximity to one another in an almost homo-erotic way. Meanwhile, Patssi Valdez challenged both traditional Mexican/Chicana gender roles and puritanical 1970s feminism—her surrealist characters embody a mysterious femme fatale while also maintaining complete control over her own body. While the Chicano Movement perpetuated ideologies and behaviors of heteronormativity and patriarchy, embodied by homophobic attitudes and expectations of female reproductive labor for la causa, ASCO challenged gender roles and hierarchy through their imagery.

The Metropolitan Indians formed in opposition to the “historic compromise” between the Italian Communist Party and Christian Democrats. Metropolitan Indians denounced the historic compromise as a spineless move by the PCI to rescue and preserve the capitalist mode of production during a historical moment in which it had been forced into crisis after nearly a decade of class conflict in Italy. Their humor and irony challenged the PCI’s dryness and disciplinarianism. Peter Cuninghame explains, “While the iconoclastic punk movement screamed ‘‘No future’’ in Britain, perhaps the main weapon of the revolt of ‘‘Year Nine’’ against the austere, humourless, bureaucratic authoritarianism of the Italian Communist Party, and its ‘‘Historical Compromise’’ with the corrupt Christian Democrat regime, was its caustic irony and satirical wit.” To be crude, the Metropolitan Indians were extremely clever shit talkers who used public performance as a means to put the PCI on blast.

Metropolitan Indians imagined an alternative form of politics rooted in the cultural and material needs of the marginalized and futureless urban youth, as the PCI no longer positioned itself antithetical to capital. Giorgio Mariani declares:

“To begin labeling the Metropolitan Indians as a political group…might be misleading, especially in light of the Indiani’s rejection of all forms of traditional politics… For the Indiani, politics remained always a vicious word” (Mariani 585).

He continues:

Although the movement considered itself a leftist movement, and Marxist or pseudo-Marxist ideologies played an important role in it, traditional leftist culture had little to offer young people often labeled by PCI, PSI and trade-union leaders [as] ‘provokers’ or even ‘fascists’! (Mariani 587).

Like ASCO, the Metropolitan Indians also challenged gender normativity and patriarchy. In their 1977 Meeting of the People of Men, they demanded ‘‘the immediate practice at the territorial level of militant antifamily patrols to tear away young men and especially young women from patriarchal tyranny’’ (quoted in Cuninghame). These challenges to gender normativity were not within the organizing purview of the Chicano Movement nor the PCI.

The primary point of difference between the groups was the use of indigenous representation. Needless to say, the appropriation of indigenous representation by the Metropolitan Indians is highly problematic. Although they used indigeneity to ironically play off the deeply rooted fears of barbarism and disorder held by the hegemonic Left and Italian elite, they mobilized behind a racial category from which they were completely detached while decontextualizing indigeneity into one homogenous identity. Although the group moved beyond a class-based analysis to incorporate gender, they failed to consider race. Aside from dressing in stereotypical and decontextualized indigenous attire, they also spoke what Umberto Eco has called Italo-Indian. For example, Metropolitan Indians would often interrupt political assemblies by simultaneously chanting “OASK,” an anagram of the word “kaos.”

The Metropolitan Indians used indigenous symbolism to distinguish themselves from the 1968-breed of activists, who had taken the route of respectability politics and supported the PCI. Moreover, the Metropolitan Indians recognized 68ers as sellouts and bureaucratic manipulators, whereas the MI came out of a crisis of youth unemployment among children of the urban proletariat—thus, they identified as a sub-proletariat. Their use of indigenous representation demarcated them from a worldview rooted in scientific socialism, instead, they identified with a utopian socialism of the proudhonist lineage, which was seen as discredited by orthodox Marxists. They mocked the orthodox Marxist understanding of the underclasses as reactionaries unrelated to a revolutionary project, as their class category as sub-proletariats truly did fall out of the organizing prevue of the PCI.

ASCO was rooted in a larger racial project, The Chicano Movement, which often encouraged indigenous identity as a means to claim authenticity. In retrospect, the Chicano Movement has been highly criticized as a primarily urban movement of Mexican Americans appropriating indigenous symbolism from which they are culturally detached, although Chicanos justified the indigenous fetishism due to a biological essentialist understanding of race. Moreover, the Chicano Movement’s race politics privileged Aztec and Mayan civilizations, perpetuating the racial logic of the Mexican state, which appropriated Aztec and Mayan indigeneity through mestizaje while launching genocidal campaigns on other indigenous groups, like the Yaqui. ASCO placed themselves outside, promoting a unique Chicano identity for the unique Chicano experience. Willie Herron declares:

“I feel that our main target and our main audience were the new generation. And at that time, the generation hadn’t come up yet because they were still too young. And they weren’t going into their senior year, into college, junior college. To me, that was our primary target. To let them know that you could go off and do something a little bit different. You don’t have to use the Virgen. You don’t have to have the Aztec calendar, all the pre-Columbian imagery. You don’t have to be a Chicano and create art work that only has that to be considered Chicano art” (from Smithsonian Archives of American Art, 2000).

ASCO were faced with the challenge of producing art as racialized subjects while distancing themselves from the expected aesthetic hegemony of Chicano indigeneity. Instead, they drew from surrealism. They saw the dystopic nightmare of 1970s life in the East LA barrio as enough of an influence to inspire their own aesthetic instead of drawing from a mythical place they did not understand, Aztlan.

The groups also differed in their perspectives on material culture, specifically material excess. The Metropolitan Indians invoked a primordialism through their performance of racialized stereotypes whereas ASCO embraced and detourned the world of glitter and glam. ASCO’s decision to embrace material excess was rooted in what Harry Gamboa called the “theatricality of everyday life in East Los Angeles.” Gamboa recalls, “People would get dressed up just to hang out. They weren’t going anywhere, and they weren’t doing anything, but they looked great. Everyone had an attitude or theatrical aspect to them. It often seemed like I was watching a movie taking place in the backyard” (quoted in Habell-Pallan 340). Although the groups chose to represent themselves in different ways, they both chose to radically alter their everyday representations and perform—perhaps as an effort to liberate themselves from the political and cultural confines of oppressive society and hegemonic Left, if only for just a brief moment.

Both ASCO and the Metropolitan Indians shared a similar disdain for the orthodox Left’s respectability politics and failure develop an analysis intersecting race, class, and gender. No wonder members from both groups played central roles in their respective punk scenes, as their marginalized roles within the Left led them to search for alternative forms of community. In the case of ASCO, we can trace a direct lineage from the pachuco to the cholo to the punk—a genealogy often present in the group’s aesthetics (Habell-Pellan 339). ASCO’s Willie Herron founded East LA’s first punk venue, The Vex, and ASCO eventually collaborated with Terresa Covarrubias from The Brat in later works. Italian autonomia, the movement from which the Metropolitan Indians spawned, has been considered the politicized alternative to punk rock. By the early eighties, autonomia and punk rock merged together around the Italy’s squatted urban social centers. Franco Bifo Berardi, one of autonomia’s most famous philosophical thinkers, founded Italy’s first punk zine, A/traverse, and the legendary Radio Free Alice. These connections to punk rock show the genealogy and friction between the 1968 “hippy” generation and the punks, as punk rock found inspiration in the countercultural movements of ’68, but added to them a deep pessimism rooted in the realities of working class urban youths.

When reflecting on the ignored and misunderstood contributions of ASCO and the Metropolitan Indians in the seventies, as they have only been sincerely engaged and respected in retrospect, we are begged to ask the question: What are the punks, the freaks, the outcasts, the scum, the lost, the anguished, the misidentified, the misunderstood, the cracks, and the crazies of Leftist culture telling us today?

Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis grew up in LA’s Pomona Valley suburbs and is a doctoral student in Latin American History at the University of California San Diego. His dissertation, titled “Anarchism and Armed Struggle in Midcentury Río de la Plata,” investigates the role of anarchist organizations during the Dirty Wars in Argentina and Uruguay. He specifically focuses on the relationship between anarchist groups and populist political movements, such as Argentina’s Peronismo and Uruguay’s Frente Amplio. Other interests include Latin American fascism, Spanish and Italian anarchism, Chicano art history, Southern California micro-­punk scenes, and Morrissey.

[1] Vietnam War protest became a hot-button issue in Chicano communities, as a disproportionate amount of Mexican American and Black soldiers were dying on the front lines – many felt as though people of color were being sent to the frontlines to fight a war against the Third World abroad while still suffering from white supremacist policies at home. Many Mexican American veterans of WWII took offense to this analysis of racial difference, as they sought to use their veteran status to assimilate into white America.