Watching the documentation of Couple in a Cage, I was once again struck by what a fantastic intersection this performance is between art and so-called natural history. I’m amazed Coco Fusco and Paula Heredia were able to pull off something so strikingly subversive, and for better or worse, don’t think a similar concept would be accepted by institutional venues today.
However, I also wonder if the sheer potency of Couple in a Cage as a critical act perhaps undermines some of its applicability to more subtle forms of creepiness in natural history museums. Of course, many viewers made the connection to colonization and the practice of dehumanizing nonwestern peoples through display. However my concern is that the connections extend only to more socially visible forms like fetishization that take place in media outlets (i.e. the very emotional woman’s concern about what the uncritical picture taking says about America and the Native American man’s lament that he could just as easily see his grand children in the cage). By putting image-culture at the forefront of the critique, I think Couple in a Cage fails to implicate contemporary natural history museums in doing the same thing today. By hosting Couple in a Cage, these institutions imply that they were forward thinking and radical enough not to perpetuate similar structures in the rest of their museum. However, I would venture a guess that these same spaces have displayed the bones of an indigenous person or have a diorama featuring mannequin people in “traditional garb” squatting on the floor over a cooking pot. These conventions are just as problematic but much less attention grabbing and perhaps overlooked in the hubbub of performance art.