Diatraea saccharalis: “super terram, among the canes”

by Ian Deleón

Post-Performance Musings on Metanoia: Practices of Exhaustion
Grace Exhibition Space (March 8, 2014)
Co-curated by Holly Bynoe & Yasmine Espert with production assistance from Laura Blüer

In direct conversation with my earlier comments [at the previous day’s panel discussion at Volta NY, organized by ARC magazine] on metaphorical burrowing, diasporic amnesia, exhaustive labor, privileged bodies, and colonial symbols, I crafted what I thought was a simple score for a durational performance, which would end up taking my body further than ever before as a public site for reconsidering physical and psychological traumas of the colonized Caribbean.

Anabel Vázquez assisted me in the prosthetic application of a pineapple directly onto my bare back–a gaping tropical wound, a bittersweet burden slowly but methodically settling amidst the spinal landscape. I chose the pine fruit for its symbolic role as an indicator of great wealth and political means during the height of its colonial migration from the Caribbean to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries; also, because of the pineapple’s current development into an exploitative monoculture by Western produce corporations operating (colonizing) in Central America. I chose to embed the fruit to my body as a reference to a particularly painful scene from Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”.

The action of the performance consisted of my extra-species embodiment of a sugarcane borer moth, a tiny insect capable of wreaking havoc on a crop of sugarcane. Upon the discovery of this creature’s existence, I immediately recognized some significant, symbolic, revolutionary potential in the destructive nature of its boring actions. Recalling the cane fields of the Caribbean as crucial spaces for violent democratization during slave uprisings, I set about felling a total of 7 unshaven sugarcanes, fastened steadily to the floor of the performance space, using only my mouth as the instrument of their undercutting.

I wouldn’t feel the tearing at the corners of my mouth until well after the end of the performance. I was conscious of lacerating something in or around my mouth, but I thought I had just scraped against the gum lining too hard too often. I was mostly preoccupied with my teeth. I have a filling on one of my forward incisors from a childhood accident, so I was trying to just use my canines and premolars for the cane cutting.

I went into the performance without any solid plan for how to attack the cane, but after the first couple, a strategy developed. The thicker, darker canes had an incredibly tough exterior that I could only get through by taking small, cautious bites with my sharpest teeth, the canines. This broke up the outer layer of the cane into tightly formed strands that I could snap away. I imagine it would be similar to eating through a finely tuned nylon guitar string, over and over. Once I got halfway through the cane using this method, alternating sides of my mouth, I could begin taking long powerful bites with my whole mouth, and depositing as much saliva as I could produce in order to soften the cane, to make it yield to me.

Photo: Anabel Vázquez

Writing about the event, now a month in the past, I recall being very present, acutely aware of my surroundings. I listened in on conversations, shifting my body closer to an appealing wavelength, or away from a harsh light. I could feel that many things were happening around me simultaneously, and that my movements could easily go unseen by many in a crowd this large. My thoughts were focused almost exclusively on external stimuli, I have no recollection of lengthy interior monologues throughout the performance—my body was focused, machine-like—I just had to get through those canes. And meanwhile, I listened. I wondered if audience members could read my thoughts/my emotions from the tense lines on my body and the look of surrender in my lolling eyes. And I hoped I would not get stepped on. This, I suppose, is the insect within.

“I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake.”

Well over an hour in length, leaving behind clearings of blood, saliva, and splintered cane, the performance proved to be one of the most powerfully intense experiences I have endured, both in my public and private life. The mouth sores that would develop and last for the next week, the expressions of solidarity, respect, and the reawakening of “eruptive, involuntary memories” cemented my belief in the power of a body becoming a temporary site of historical trauma and residual pain as an educational tool for the critical rupturing of lingering colonial narratives in the seedbed of popular culture.

Knaw The Stalk 

The season had come, 
they burned the canes to drive out the snakes, 
to burn the leaves that cut skin, the season had come for cutting, the sun was blistering, 
the sweat started even before the heat, 
“cane cutting season, cane cutting season”, 
blood mus run, blood mus run, down the veins, 
sweat bursting from muscle, bursting from muscle. 
And then they brought out the men, the cane cutter men. Go cut this cane, go cut this cane, use your teeth, use your teeth, endure the bleed, endure the bleed.

– a reflection on the performance by Kwesi Abbensetts

Ian Deleón (b. 1987, Miami, 2nd generation Cuban/Brazilian)

“My current body of work may be best understood in terms of its allegorical relationship to archaeology, in which the meticulous uncovering, analyzing and restructuring of ‘media fossils’ allows me to better understand and critique the particular popular culture from which I have emerged. This deconstruction of images, sounds and text (strengthened by a background in film and video editing), provides an opportunity to re-examine mass media output through a variety of critical lenses, such as post-colonial, feminist, Marxist, cyborg, and post-modern theory.

As a radical, light-skinned Latin@ from conservative parentage, my performance work is often characterized by a duality and tension which reflects the ambiguous identity of a second generation Caribbean in the diaspora, as well as the pseudo-sovereignty experienced by several ‘post-colonial’ territories such as Puerto Rico and its status as a ‘Free Associated State’. My work is a personal journey of familial and cultural discovery, with societal implications that highlight lingering narratives within popular culture that seek to exoticize, romanticize, or apologize for colonialism in all of its forms.

Ian Deleón received a BFA from the Studio for Interrelated Media (SIM) at the Massachusetts College of Art & Design in Boston in 2011.