Untapped Cities is a proud media sponsor of No Longer Empty’s latest exhibition “How Much Do I Owe You?” at the abandoned Bank of Manhattan in Long Island City. We are so excited about this week’s event that we met with Shaun “El C” Leonardo, the artist responsible for the Tiki Tiki Club party happening this Friday night at The Clock Tower in Queens to ask him a few questions about the performance art.
As an official part of No Longer Empty, Leonardo was asked to create a performance art piece/event that revolves around the concept of transactions. For Leonardo, whose other work explores the hyper-masculine standards set forth by his own Dominican-Guatemalan heritage, this artistic prompt offers an exciting chance to explore the culture of the Queens mesera or finchera clubs, an increasingly popular nightclub phenomenon in which men pay hired women $2 to dance with them for the length of a song. This transaction, which stems from practices common to the Mexican and Central American nightlife scenes, is less about sex (the women are fully clothed, and they do not strip) and more about companionship.
Still, the mesera clubs reinforce the cultural glorification of masculinity, and with his event on Friday, Leonardo aims not only to expose this intriguing aspect of Queens nightlife to outsiders but also to turn the club convention on its head. For this event, Leonardo is asking the women in attendance to pay their male counterparts for a dance instead. Naturally, we are quite intrigued by this role reversal, so we asked Shaun Leonardo to talk a little about his expectations and inspirations for the event.
Untapped Cities: Could you give us a quick description of what your goals were for the Tiki Tiki Club event and what you’re attempting to do with it?
Shaun Leonardo: Sure. Those are definitely two different questions. The reality of what actually may happen is likely going to be different from the goals I’m seeking to achieve. The background to it is that the majority of my work, all my work, deals with sort of reconfiguring masculine identities, sort of loosening the definitions of manhood in—definitely, American society—but as of late, with the sort of dance and music work, I’m really fixated with my experience of Latino machismo. And seeing that I’m half-Dominican and half-Guatemalan, and growing up with that cultural stigma, so to speak, I’m really trying to analyze that and investigate how that affects a person’s definition of masculinity. So, you know, I’ve been exploring this figure, this kind of suave, machismo figure which is really inspired by a grandfather of mine that I don’t really know, that I didn’t really know.
UC: Could you tell us a little more about him?
SL: He’s since passed away long ago, but the stories that they told of him… it’s sort of as if he used to fill the room when he walked through the door. Very, sort of, big personality, man about the town. You know, I’ve never said this to a reporter, but it was also explained to me much later in life that he also had five wives. And in Central America and the Carribean, this is actually a very typical thing. He had five wives, and he was seeing them all at the same time, but decided to marry them at different points of his life. So, my grandmother, who lives in Queens, and who I know well, I think was like, wife number two or three.
So, you know, as the work becomes more personal and becomes more poignant, I’m really starting the investigation from my own personal experience. It’s become important to sort of go through some of this baggage, you know. I’m keeping in mind the information in my own background, rather than just simply looking at pop cultural icons, and those kind of role models, I want to start with my own family members. So, this is an extension of that.
UC: Clearly, your connection to your grandfather and your own cultural roots plays into your decision to create the Tiki Tiki Club event, as you say. Could you talk a little more about the process by which your concept for the event came into being?
SL: I first became familiar with this cultural phenomenon in other countries, in Mexico. That’s where I first discovered that this was a thing. So, I’ve visited these clubs, but in a different context. And it’s fairly new to Queens, like I would say within the last five years. So I was kind of astonished that it was being imported to Queens, and in a very different but similar context, you know. It’s no accident. The importation of that culture, it really does make sense once you think about it a little bit.
It’s typically your low wage laborers. Many of the clubs are in predominantly Latin communities, and the visitors tend to be men that go either in a group or by themselves. And you know, you can purchase a bucket of beer for very low cost. And it’s really guys that, for one moment, at two dollars a song, are seeking to not be lonely for the night.
There’s a level of sincerity there. It is tough to sort of critique the situation.
UC: Right. But it is an interesting situation. Because, you know, as a woman, the first thing I’m thinking is, “Oh my gosh, women are being paid to provide companionship to men, that’s very degrading,” but at the same time, I’ve never been, and I don’t understand all the cultural constructs that go into that kind of situation. So an event like this one is really interesting, because it kind of illuminates that facet of the culture while turning it on its head, it sounds like.
SL: Exactly. When you delve into that culture a little further, you realize that the whole idea surrounding it does still stem from these sort of stereotypical cultural strongholds of what a man is supposed to be. I mean, there’s a reason why these men, that are typically away from their families and their home country, are going to seek companionship with what little money they have. It’s because—and this is my own perspective, I should explain that—I think it’s because they don’t, in their regular lives, have the opportunity to exude this kind of Latin machismo. So it becomes a reaffirmation of their manly stature but also, like you said, there’s a cultural underpinning to all of this. There’s this cultural expectation of how they’re supposed to be in society and in life, and that is something that is not being fulfilled regularly, because they spend the majority of their lives working, sending much of their money home or providing for family here. But they are not able to sort of be the Don Juan, so to speak.
So, to answer your earlier question, the goal is to further interrogate the dynamics around these clubs. Really, it’s just a social experiment. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I mean, the buzz around it is incredible.
UC: Well, we’re really excited about it.
SL: Yeah! You know, I personally want it to be a moment of empowerment for the women that decide to visit, that decide to take advantage of what I’m offering. The outreach has been to everyone in the art world, of course, but also to women in the Latin communities who will be familiar with this kind of culture. So, we’re going to salons, we’re going to community centers. We’re inviting the females that strip in strip clubs, the females that might be dancers at one of these clubs. We’re giving them the opportunity—and you know, by “empower,” I mean it like, “Listen, this environment is for you. Your selection, your choice.” The females will have an opportunity to dance, or not. And choose who they want to dance with. I’ve been able to gather a kind of curate, so to speak. I have a group of men that is really diverse. Some of them are professional dancers, some of them are racially diverse, and some of them are just good friends of mine that have no problem hitting the dance floor for three hours.
So hopefully, it just sparks the kind of conversation that you and I are having, you know?
UC: Right. And it seems like a really fun and a very interactive way to do that, too.
SL: Yeah, well, you know, at the end of the day, my goals are different from my expectations. My expectations, really, are just to have a great time, and to give women this opportunity. And to have a great party at the same time. You know, we all want to have a great time. But there’s something about producing an art piece that can be fun, but also has this underlying critique or—you know, and critique might be too strong a word—but it’s just about having this kind of conversation.
UC: Exactly. So, this might seem like a silly question, but even though the Tiki Tiki Club event is an art piece, anyone can come and participate, right?
SL: Anyone can come, yeah. And a lot of people ask me, what if other men come and want to dance? They are welcome to dance. It’s just that there are going to be my guys designated in very tangible, visual, and aesthetic ways. And so, the intention won’t be lost on anyone. That is my hope. You know, we’re being very careful as to how we cater to the women that are coming, both in the environment and how the guys are available. But other than that, the party is absolutely open, yeah.
UC: It sounds like a lot of fun!
SL (laughing): Well, I told the guys, I said, “Listen, you get to keep whatever you earn, so let that be your motivation.” I personally want to make my rent money, so I will be very much hustling myself.
UC: So, other than to have the chance to dance with you, why do you personally think that people should come to this event?
SL: Well, you know, a lot of the reason I’m even doing this event was because of the concept of the overall exhibition. When they told me that the title of the show was “How Much Do I Owe You?” I was like, you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me. This is more than perfect. And when you look across the street, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Queens Plaza, where the Clock Tower is, but it has been historically notorious for the amount of strip clubs in the area. Some of the largest ones in New York City have historically been in that neighborhood. So I could not help but interrogate or further instigate that title, in and of itself.
I should also say that, you know, my brother has been assisting me, he’s one of the collaborators, and he’s been involved in that kind of nightlife culture, so he’s helping me kind of construct the environment. Yeah, so it all sort of fell together, and it was obvious that I needed to do something with this.
But why people should come? I think when it comes to performance work, there is a level of separation that I don’t like about performance art. My performance has always been about engagement and interaction, and stripping it down and really disrupting that audience-performer dynamic, really interrogating that. So why people should come is because this is that—this is a level of engagement and they complete the piece. Really, they are the piece. So, as far as our performance goes, it really will be something new to people, I think.
UC: I think that the Tiki Tiki Club event is definitely something that people will not have experienced before, in both an artistic respect and culturally. Is there anything else you’d like to add about the event?
SL: I think, and this is really important to me, I think for whomever does come, that they will be surprised at the level of intention, by the careful consideration we’re putting into everything, because we really do want this to be understood. We want females in particular, and anyone who is knowledgeable about this culture, to understand that this event was dedicated to their experience. And, of the men that have been selected, there are a few surprising names from the art world that I’m not technically allowed to reveal at the moment, and a very reputable salsa club is lending their support as well. So there are going to be some really great personnel there.
You know, everything from the lights to the cocktails, it’s going to be a good time. Just tell people to come with change, preferably dollar bills!
Come witness the event yourself, this Friday, February 15, 2013, from 7-10 PM at the Queens Plaza Clock Tower.