Santa Feans like to boast about the size and strength of the city’s art market. But discussions on the merits of this artwork or that are rare; rarer still is the hum of anticipation before a big, exciting show focused on art practice and critical engagement—not sales. Officials at the Institute of American Indian Arts, in partnership with the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, the New Mexican Museum of Art and the Lensic Performing Arts Center, however, are promising just that with this week’s Acting OUT symposium—a two-day jamboree of Indigenous performance art that includes panel discussions, movie screenings, workshops and performances by art-world heavyweights.

Andrea Hanley, the membership and program manager at IAIA's Museum of Contemporary Native Art, tells SFR that holding a symposium focused on Indigenous performance art came out of a conversation with Merritt Johnson, a New York-based performing artist, painter and sculptor. "Merritt and I talked about the need for Indigenous performance artists to engage each other. Often, when they go to perform, there aren't other Indigenous artists there," Hanley says. "There is a lack of constant dialogue between them."

So she brought the idea up to Patsy Phillips, the director at MoCNA, who immediately got on board. Then Phillips and Candice Hopkins, MoCNA's chief curator, began reaching out to artists across the globe, while Hanley began planning the structure of the event and pulling together partners and funding.

Performance art is very often the least understood mode of artistic production. It requires a performer and an audience, but the artist has explicit control in determining how that interaction is mediated. There are no rules in performance—there is no need for dialogue, repetition, recordings, props, lights. The inclusion (or absence) of each is entirely up to the artist and is what makes the performance.

As an outgrowth of avant-garde 20th-century art, the performance art luminaries one finds in art history texts are often white Americans and Europeans. But for Indigenous performance artist James Luna, who is of Pooyukitchum/Luiseño origin, performance is the "perfect medium for Native people," since it demands ritualized modes of public expression. Luna, who is currently an artist in residence at IAIA, says that during the symposium, people will be able to see three very different performances. "I've worked with Guillermo [Gómez-Peña] before, but I've always wanted to perform with Rebecca [Belmore]. She's actually a hero of mine," he tells SFR.

Panels and screenings featuring Indigenous artists and their work take up the bulk of the full two-day schedule (visit iaia.edu for details). The three panels deal with the main themes of performance art—performing for the camera, performing the body, and taking place—and will bring together artists and academics to unpack each topic's special significance within Indigenous art. The closing event on Thursday, a retrospective of Muriel Miguel, the co-founder and artistic director of New York City's Spiderwoman Theater, is a must-see for anyone interested in feminist and Indigenous theater.

The key event of Acting OUT, however, is undoubtedly the final one: two hours of performance and discussions by Luna, Rebecca Belmore and Guillermo Gómez-Peña. When confronted with such a match-up, one begins to understand why bringing Indigenous performance artists together matters. Alone, each artist risks being filed away, trapped in the classificatory system of the art market. But seen together onstage in short sequence, the event promises to disturb any one idea of what makes Indigenous art.

Gómez-Peña is a gregarious trickster-genius whose work disorients and entertains in equal measure; Luna's work is pensive, carefully focused on exploring interiority within restrained gestures; Belmore stitches together the gaps of memory inside seemingly ignominious public spaces. Their work shares, of course, an acute sense of how history is created and how memories are lost when people are killed, land taken away.

But the special contribution is likely to be the unique creations and conversations that are possible only when a show moves well beyond tokenism.

Acting OUT: A Symposium on Indigenous Performance Art
Keynote discussion and performances by James Luna,
Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Rebecca Belmore
6 pm Friday, Dec. 4. $25.
The Lensic Performing Arts Center,
211 W San Francisco St.,
988-7050