Jesi Khadivi Artmoreorless: The Early Performances of Asco

A black hole lies at the centre of a photograph. As if from a gaping wound, brown water appears to trickle from its obscured bowels onto a pile of organic debris before gathering into a fetid pool littered with scraps of plastic and other detritus. Slouching elegantly with their hands in pockets, four figures surround the hole while staring blithely at the camera. Behind them a familiar landscape of decaying, industrial infrastructure provides the backdrop to nondescript, overlooked urban terrain.

Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk, Patssi Valdez, and Willie F. Herrón are the figures occupying this particular frame, individuals who came of age in what Arthur C. Danto describes as the “era of revulsion.” [1] After meeting at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles during the late 1960s, they began working together under the name Asco—the Spanish word for nausea or disgust—to produce conceptual performances that unfolded between the street and the printed document. [2] For the work described above, the aptly titled Asshole Mural (1975), the precise function and location of the hole in the photograph are unclear and less significant perhaps than Asco’s artistic and political responses to such elusive spaces, which eschew direct engagement with identity politics in favour of a politics and practice more difficult to parse, yet still involved with identity. Borrowing an expression from the artists themselves, performance scholar Amelia Jones has used the term “Artmoreorless” to describe the strategically slippery and multifaceted practice of this intermedia collective. Throughout their fifteen years of collective practice, Asco’s work both commented on their exclusion from regimes of representation and embraced a “space between,” which they carved out for themselves in actions, as in 1972 when Gamboa, Gronk, and Herrón spray painted their signatures on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), effectively appropriating the structure as their own giant readymade in an unsanctioned gesture. [3]

Like many DIY artist collectives operating adjacent to the circuits of object-oriented production and reception, Asco created works that were difficult to categorize according to the most commonly recognized mediums for art-making. While it can be argued that the sheer range of what they produced—which includes performances, slideshows, drawings, paintings, and ephemera—implies that Asco’s work cannot be exclusively discussed vis-à-vis medium-specific histories, the group’s contributions to a history of performance are especially significant, showing how a social commitment in art practice can intersect with questions regarding representation, which their street and media interventions critically raised. Ephemeral and collective practices such as Asco’s often suffer when institutionalized and historicized—often because writers and curators tend to focus on the social context that fuels this work and the breadth of such groups’ artistic output at the expense of understanding the innovative ways of being and making that their work proposes. Yet socially engaged practices such as Asco’s require a different form of artistic evaluation, one that engages not only questions of hybridity and collectivity, but also how the work envisions its own visibility through the very form that it takes. In other words, Asco’s formal innovation emerges from their social commitment. Although a dominant discourse within performance art stresses the importance of a live encounter, Asco’s approach to conceptual performance complicates the primacy of liveness that this argument presumes. [4] Looking back on Asco’s early projects, one finds at least two distinct forms of performance: one that engages the body and the urban landscape of 1970s Los Angeles and another that engages the image and its networks of distribution. A third, less clearly defined typology combines the two, comprising both live performance and purposefully circulated documentation. By honing in on the historical development of a specific subset of works rather than focusing on an overall formal hybridity, it is possible to see how an artwork can create its own conditions for display and circulation, and on its own terms.

Taking a multifaceted approach to performance, Asco staged interventions in meaningful sites, including contested urban spaces such as East LA’s main commercial thoroughfare—Whittier Boulevard (the site of a series of repressive crackdowns on Chicano youth in the wake of the anti-Vietnam Chicano Moratorium Riot in 1970)—as well as in performance spaces specifically designed for the camera. [5] In some cases, Asco distributed documentation of these carefully orchestrated scenarios via mail-art circuits, while other performances took the form of unsolicited media interventions. Asco’s activities in the margins were perhaps a function of both exile and activism, and the collective used the exclusion of Chicano artists from mainstream exhibition venues in Los Angeles to their advantage. Its members chose to create interventions within their own neighbourhoods instead of seeking institutional validation, enacting a physical and conceptual space for the direct engagement of localized social concerns such as police brutality, drugs, gang violence, and discriminatory urban planning practices. To this end, the collective deployed the power of printed matter, conversation, and rumour, circulating their genre-bending brand of performance art through mail art and popular media channels alike.

The Chicano body and the city

The body plays a specific and central role for Asco in agitating the urban landscape of Los Angeles. Unlike performance artists such as Chris Burden and Carolee Schneeman who repeatedly used their bodies to refer to the endurance, vulnerability, and limitations of the corporeal form, Asco brought the body into play as a means for drawing attention to space, and vice versa. Gamboa Jr., Gronk, Valdez, and Herrón interested themselves less in the body as a sensuous physical form and more in the social relations that a body’s presence could elicit. In their early performances, the group would stage disruptions in busy urban areas dressed in elaborate costumes that combined the aesthetics of glitter rock with bastardized versions of Chicano symbols and religious iconography. For Stations of the Cross (1971), the collective’s first public performance, Asco hijacked the format of a traditional Mexican Las Posadas processional to enact a protest against the Vietnam War. On December 24, the last day of the nine-day celebration, Gamboa, Gronk, and Herrón lugged a crudely fashioned fifteen-foot cardboard cross behind them down Whittier Boulevard, looking, in their white face paint and flowing robes, like demented biblical figures on parade. [6] The trio amassed a crowd of onlookers who followed the artists’ processional down East LA’s main shopping artery toward their final destination: an army recruiting office. There, the collective conducted a five-minute silent vigil to protest the disproportionately high Chicano death rate in Vietnam. After a moment of silence, Gamboa, Gronk, and Herrón blocked the door with the crucifix and then ran away. Their outlandish costumes and disruptive street tactics in Stations of the Cross appear comical, but, in fact, the intervention responded seriously to an increasing urgency surrounding the effects of the Vietnam War on Chicano communities in Los Angeles and the escalating circumscription of free speech and movement in East Los Angeles during that time. Writing about this period in an article commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium, Asco member Gamboa recalled how

East L.A. was placed under excessive police control during the next few years in a manner that closely resembled a military occupation. Chicano youths were routinely rounded up, harassed, beaten and arrested, without regard to their constitutional rights. I had firm beliefs regarding my activist role as an American citizen who sought change from my cultural perspective. Being shot at by numerous riot police strengthened my sense of purpose. [7]

What might Gamboa mean by saying he sought change from his cultural perspective? Furthermore, how did this desire for change shape Asco’s street performances? Jones writes, “one of the tenets of body art, especially situated within an activist practice, is the enacting and the asserting of the self within the social.” [8] By inserting their bodies within the fragmented and segregated urban fabric of Los Angeles, Asco’s members deployed activist-artistic strategies in their early works, usually performing in highly charged and symbolic areas within their own neighbourhoods, ranging from gang zones to seemingly innocuous non-sites such as a traffic island at Arizona and Whittier boulevards, where a particularly brutal clash during the LA Riots in 1970 occurred. [9] In an era of almost militaristic standoff between police and Chicano youth, Asco opened a space for dissent that directed itself not only towards the war in Vietnam and the divisive zoning that cut East LA off from the rest of the city via a nexus of freeways, but also towards the iconography of Chicano art, especially muralism. In saying that he sought change from his cultural perspective, Gamboa seems to speak not only from the position of a young Chicano targeted by police violence, but also through Asco’s critical methodology of “making strange” (i.e., taking spaces, forms, and practices familiar to Chicano communities and making them unsettling). Gamboa and Asco’s other members thus articulate and seek visibility for an expanded notion of “Chicanoness,” one that doesn’t conform to prevailing models of Chicano identity.

Asco adopted a stance of disidentification towards the systems of production, display, and reception of contemporary art, as well as accepted artistic strategies within the Chicano art community, largely dominated by the essentialist and nationalistic narratives of muralism. According to the performance and queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz, disidentification scrambles and reconstructs an encoded text in a fashion that both exposes the message’s universalizing and exclusionary machinations and recruits its workings to account for, include, and empower “minority” identities and identifications. [10] Gronk and Herrón had already independently established themselves as muralists before working together as Asco. However, the ephemeral nature of the group’s artistic production, coupled with their interest in creating self-reflexive spaces to interrogate and pluralize the notion of Chicano identity, prompted them to collectively explore a conceptual approach to muralism that worked against the universal, rooted identity (and identification) promoted in many Chicano murals. Instead, they worked to posit a new framework for muralism that was dynamic, flexible, and performative. By combining elements of street theatre and Mexican processionals, Asco’s earliest performances riff on Chicano mural iconography, positing a mash-up of religious and mythical references. Unlike other murals found in East LA, Asco’s “dynamic” murals used actual bodies dressed in varying forms of queer and punk drag, thus physically inscribing a social space in which to challenge static notions of Chicano-ness.

Public relations

As their work combining muralism and street theatre indicates, Asco’s early performances explore notions of identity formation and its representation, deliberately complicating familiar signs and symbols within their cultural milieu to articulate alternative visions and revisions of the Chicano self. As their practice matured and their work gained increasing layers of complexity, Asco expanded their focus on symbols of Chicano experiences in Los Angeles to include thinking about how these symbols circulate in culture more broadly. While Asco documented the bulk of their performances, the dissemination of performance documentation did not become a vital ideational component of Asco’s artworks until around 1974. Around this time, Asco began to work on what they called No Movies—a self-created medium featuring “film stills” from non-existent movies that the collective scripted, staged, and then photographed with the intention of circulating via mail art and media networks. By purposefully disseminating documentation of their performances, Asco expanded their audience and began shifting their collective energy away from creating urban disruptions to intervening in the world of images. While later works in this genre interrupt the homogeneity of 1970s Hollywood with fictitious Chicano stars embodying and promoting their own form of glamour, works like Decoy Gang War Victim (1974) and Instant Mural (1974) formed a bridge between Asco’s nascent activist work in the public realm and their later, more ambiguously political engagement of the image. The notion of place and context is of particular importance in early No Movies, often reflecting real-life concerns affecting the community or directly engaging Chicano cultural heritage. Works like Decoy Gang War Victim address cycles of violence and their representation in Asco’s East LA neighbourhoods, while the performances-turned-No Movies Instant Mural and First Supper (After a Major Riot) (1974) took place in sites of bloody conflict between Chicano anti–Vietnam War protesters and the Los Angeles Police Department.

For Decoy Gang War Victim, Gamboa photographed Gronk lying in the middle of the road covered in ketchup and flanked by two flares. As a hit-and-run performance most likely seen by only a few people, Decoy Gang War Victim can be read as a sort of vigil for those engaged in gang violence or victims of violence in general. In a conversation with curator Phillip Brookman, Gamboa recalls: “We would go around and whenever we heard of where there might be potential violence, we would set up the decoys so they would think someone had already been killed.” [11] Through creating a decoy, Asco foreground the centrality of violence both gang related and police generated. After the performance, the collective sent a photograph to a number of news outlets, claiming that the depicted figure died in a gang fight. The grainy, yet nonetheless dramatic, image shows Gronk lying alone in the middle of a dark street, except for three or four figures lurking in the deep background of the image. KHJ-TV subsequently used the photograph to support a news segment on “endemic violence” in Chicano communities. [12] Part performance, part activism, part media hoax, Decoy Gang War Victim illustrates the hybridity of Asco’s artistic and political engagement during this period. Not only does the project concern itself with how Chicano images circulate in popular media, positing a dramatic image of a “corpse” in the street, but through the work Asco sought to make an impact on life in the barrio by jamming circuits of rumour that fuel gang retaliation, and in doing so, put themselves at risk. Gamboa, in a roundtable discussion on LA art published in Artforum, explained how “the project was a response to the incendiary tabloid-style journalism of the two major Los Angeles newspapers, which often listed the names, addresses, workplaces, and gang affiliations of victims or their family members in an effort to maintain high levels of reciprocal gang violence, thus selling more newspapers. The desired effect of Decoy Gang War Victim was to generate a pause in the violence in order to rob the newspapers of their daily list of victims.” [13] By presenting Gronk’s body as an absurd, ketchup-covered effigy, Asco’s members very well may have deterred further violence and given actual victims of gang violence and their families a temporary reprieve from media scrutiny. Yet how can we understand the significance of this hybrid gesture? And, does it gain power through its hybridity? Not quite a media hoax, nor strictly a performance, Decoy Gang War Victim illustrates Asco’s adoption of indeterminacy as a guiding principle. By creating a work that resists easy categorization and calls into question the very movement of an image through media networks as a foundational concept, Decoy Gang War Victim creates the conditions of its own visibility, establishing a network for the display of the work beyond the confines of the gallery and museum. Around the same time that Asco were working in Los Angeles, curator Seth Siegelaub reached similar conclusions about the power of circulating images and utilizing networks beyond the static exhibition space to promote and distribute artworks that did not fit neatly within its institutional boundaries. [14] In Asco’s case, the expanded context for the presentation of artworks had as much to do with imagining alternative systems of representation as it did with finding novel forms of display that accommodated forms not especially well suited to presentation in a white cube space. In other words, Asco developed this system out of contingency and necessity.

Hollywood cinema had certainly locked out Chicano actors and actresses in the mid ’70s when Asco began their work with No Movies. As Rita Gonzalez, co-curator of Asco’s 2011 retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Elite of the Obscure, writes:

Asco lived in the shadow of Hollywood, feeding off of its productions but also striving to create a counter-vision out of their own lived realities. Asco’s invention of No Movies, or film stills for non-existent films, allowed the group to appropriate the spectacle of Hollywood even as they critiqued the absence of Chicanos in the mass media. [15]

Unlike Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills, an ongoing photographic project roughly contemporary with Asco’s No Movies, Asco made no attempt to allude to stereotypical scenes that viewers could have seen in other contexts. In Asco’s case, Chicano representation in mainstream American cinema simply did not exist. The No Movie genre was thus an attempt to articulate and approximate what Chicano cinema could look like: a fusion of glam and gore as inspired by fotonovelas (comic books) as the Hollywood star system that excluded Chicano people. From its beginnings as a supplement to the group’s earlier politically tinged performances, which were circulated through correspondence art circuits, No Movies developed into an elaborate system that included faux publicity materials and an award ceremony. Through this system, Asco articulated a concept of representation that reached beyond the image to implicate its systems of distribution, promotion, and reception. By creating an award ceremony and an intricate, albeit satirical, administrative apparatus to accompany the visual components of the No Movie genre, Asco sought to construct a new system that not only represented but also promoted and rewarded them.

Dark materials

Asco’s ethos of Artmoreorless—a way of working and being at the interstices of art, politics, and propaganda—fulfills Gregory Sholette’s description of DIY, improvisational practices and institutions as forms of dark matter. As in astrophysics, dark matter in the arts operates in the shadows, while its activities are essential to the perpetuation of the universe of art. Sholette presciently challenges historians of this “dark matter” to consider how best to work with this material. “Where are the historians of darkness?” Sholette asks. “What tools will they require beyond a mere description of these shadows and dark practices and towards the construction of a counter-public sphere?” [16] Operating on the fringes of—and sometimes in direct opposition to—the densely networked power and taste-making structures of both contemporary art and the expanded social field, dark materials coalesce into their own ecosystems that imagine alternative systems while remaining tethered, however obliquely, to the systems they help perpetuate.

Asco’s performances provide glimpses of dark matter and at times this shadowy material coalesces into a coherent system. Works like Asshole Mural, described at the beginning of this essay, propose a double ontology of dark material: non-professionalized collective production and overlooked urban communities and spaces. Here, Asco’s embrace of the abject avoids its typical association with the flesh and fluids of the human form and instead evokes a contaminated or disgusting social body. By recasting an oversized sewage drainage pipe as a perverse sort of monument and appointing themselves as municipal inspectors surveying their territory, Asco posits a generative approach to disgust—one that eschews simple shock tactics in favour of performances and media interventions that propose dynamic reworkings of social spaces that have both nurtured and constrained them.

  • 1. According to Danto, each generation possesses a distinct attitude or mentalité, and he defines the mentalité of the late 1960s as one of revulsion directed against the Vietnam War. Gronk and Gamboa echo this sentiment in interviews and each draws explicit links between their activism and their disgust with violent conflicts in their own neighbourhoods and around the world. Gronk recalls: “a lot of our friends were coming home in body bags and were dying, and we were seeing a whole generation come back that weren’t alive anymore. And in a sense that gave us nausea . . . that is Asco, in a way.” See C. Ondine Chavoya and Rita Gonzalez, “Asco and the Politics of Revulsion,” in Asco: Elite of the Obscure, eds. C. Ondine Chavoya and Rita Gonzalez (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2011), 40.
  • 2. While conceptual performances formed the bulk of Asco’s collective activities, each artist developed and maintained an individual practice spanning illustration, painting, muralism, and publishing. The group’s collective activity grew out of their collaboration on the Chicano journal Regeneración, a political and literary magazine founded in the early 1900s by the Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magon, which Harry Gamboa Jr. helped to revive as an editor in 1971. This collaboration marked the first of many projects, both as a foursome and with a rotating cast of collaborators that included Terry Sandoval, Humberto Sandoval, and Jerry Greva, among others. Like many loosely articulated artist collectives, the group shifted between more and less formal modes of production, ranging from spontaneous street performances to carefully scripted theatre pieces.
  • 3. After a curator at the LACMA allegedly told Gamboa that Chicanos “don’t make fine art, they make folk art,” the members of Asco sought retribution by spray painting their names on the side of the building. The spray paint remained for no more than a day and very few photos of the intervention exist.
  • 4. Performance scholar Peggy Phelan argues that a performance is a singular event and changes in its reproduction or documentation, while both Amelia Jones and Phillip Auslander claim that documentation provides an access point to a performed work and thus forms an integral part of a performance. In his essay “The Performativity of Performance Documentation,” Auslander differentiates between two forms of performance documentation/residue: the documentary and the theatrical, arguing that “theatrical documentation” is a performance in and of its own right, since the audience is met not via live encounter, but through the image itself. See Philip Auslander, “The Performativity of Performance Documentation, Performance Art Journal, no. 84 (2006), 1–10; Amelia Jones, “‘Presence’ in Absentia: Experiencing Performance and Documentation,” Art Journal 56, no. 4 (Winter 1997), 11–18; Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London: Routledge, 1993).
  • 5. The Chicano Moratorium was a political anti-war activist group that organized a broad coalition of Chicano Americans to protest against the Vietnam War. On August 29, 1970, a riot broke out during a protest organized by the Chicano Moratorium, and police injured a hundred and fifty people and killed four, including award-winning Spanish language journalist and columnist for the LA Times Rubén Salazar. Accounts differ regarding whether the protestors or police instigated the rioting. See George Mariscal, Aztlán and Viet Nam: Chicano and Chicana Experiences of the War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
  • 6. Gamboa describes this performance in Gronk: “On December 24, 1971, Herrón, Gronk, and Gamboa arrived unannounced on the corner of Eastern Avenue and Whittier Boulevard. Herrón was the representation of Christ/Death, dressed in a white robe that bore a brightly coloured Sacred Heart, which he painted in acrylic. His face had been transformed by makeup into a stylized calavera. Gronk personified Pontius Pilate (aka Popcorn): he wore a green bowler hat, flaunted an excessively large beige fur purse, and carried a bag of unbuttered popcorn. Gamboa assumed the role of a zombie altar boy and wore an animal skull headpiece to ward off unsolicited communion.” Harry Gamboa Jr. quoted in Max Benavidez, Gronk (Los Angeles: Chicano Studies Research Center, 2007), 41.
  • 7. Harry Gamboa Jr., “Against the Wall: Remembering the Chicano Moratorium,” East of Borneo, November 16, 2010,
  • 8. Amelia Jones and Tracey Warr, The Artist’s Body (London: Phaidon Press, 2006), 43.
  • 9. For more detail see C. Ondine Chavoya, “Internal Exiles: The Interventionist Public and Performance Art of Asco,” in Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art, ed. Erika Suderburgh (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 196.
  • 10 José Esteban Muñoz, Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
  • 11. C. Ondine Chavoya, “Orphans of Modernism: The Performance Art of Asco,” Corpus Delecti: Performance Art of the Americas, ed. Coco Fusco (New York: Routledge, 1999), 224.
  • 12. Amelia Jones, “Traitor Prophets: Art of the In-between,” Asco: Elite of the Obscure, 116.
  • 13. Richard Meyer and Michelle Kuo (moderators), “LA Stories: A Roundtable Discussion,” Artforum, October 2011,
  • 14. See Alexander Alberro, Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity (Cambridge: MIT Press), 2004.
  • 15. “Asco’s No Movies,” Unframed: The LACMA Blog, published November 9, 2011,
  • 16. Gregory Sholette, “Dark Matter, Activist Art and the Counter Public Sphere,” in Anti-Catalogue #01, ed. Amish Morrell (Sligo: The Model, 2010), 64.
  • Article Image: ASCO, First Supper (After A Major Riot), 1974. Performance, Los Angeles, California. Photo by Harry Gamboa Jr. From left:Patssi Valdez, Humberto Sandoval, Willie Herón III, and Gronk.

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