OMNI TOXICA: A radical new history of cocaine

OMNI TOXICA – Paula Chaves, Thais di Marco and Nadia Bekkers

15 November 2019 – Veem House for Performance, Amsterdam

Interview conducted & written by: Charlie Vielvoye

Photos By: Bas Czerwinski


OMNI TOXICA tells the story about coca, the medicinal plant from South America which is processed into cocaine and constitutes a global billion-dollar industry. But this performance doesn’t only show history, it tells it in a radically different manner altogether.

Whitewashed daughter of the coca plant

OMNI TOXICA starts in the entrance hall of Veem, where Thais di Marco climbs on top of a table and addresses the audience with an introduction. While doing this, she undresses, until she’s bare chested. This action immediately sets the tone for the rest of the performance in which the women use their bodies as feminist weapons by almost literally throwing the naked truth in your face. After the short intro, the audience is urged to follow the performers and split into two groups.

The second group is halted by closed doors and a woman with a balaclava. Repression, another important theme in OMNI TOXICA. In the next space a video is shown which educates the audience on the background of the performance:
the story of the coca plant in the context of Colombia’s colonial history. Cocaine is marked as the ‘whitewashed daughter of the coca plant’. A crude and sharp observation.

Cynical cooking program

The performance space is filled with tons of kerosene and paintings of coca plants with seats for the audience lined up around it. A voice blares from the speakers and points out how the Amazon has already died many times as a result of monoculture, indicating the irreparable environmental damage when only one crop is grown for a long time: coca. The Colombian locals don’t really have a choice if you consider that coca is 215 times more profitable than a normal food crop. A poisonous situation where criminals call the shots.

What follows is a description of cocaine’s manufacturing process, cynically resented, almost like a Jamie Oliver cooking program: ‘now add 100 liters of kerosene.’

No innocence

Besides the manufacturing process and the history of the coca plant there’s numerous themes in the performance: capitalism, neoliberalism, transfeminism, neocolonialism, to name a few. OMNI TOXICA connects them all effectively and thus provides us with an alternative history, so different from the romanticized perspectives one gets in Netflix’ Narcos. Sometimes the focus is a bit off but that doesn’t get in the way of the performance. The feeling of displacement is intended here. OMNI TOXICA also wants to show Western hypocrisy, denoting the sky-high demand for cocaine and simultaneous ‘War on Drugs’. This paradox has driven up the price of cocaine and subsequently created an unstoppable spiral of violence. The hypocrisy is strongly depicted when Paula Chaves starts to grab little packs of cocaine from under the seats of the audience. There’s blood on our hands.

Violent conclusion

OMNI TOXICA culminates into a furious scene in which the whole décor is ravaged while earsplitting music is playing and a voice that repeats the words ‘OMNI TOXICA’ is heard. The seats are also thrown onto the pile and the audience is sort of thrown out of the performance space. A violent and fitting conclusion.

Interview with Paula Chaves

After the performance I spoke with Paula Chaves, who directed and created the concept for OMNI TOXICA. Co-player Thais di Marco wanted to use the opportunity to demand attention for violence against women, which often stays unpunished, highlighting the case of Ana Mendieta, the Cuban artist who fell out of her window under suspicious circumstances in 1985. She was probably pushed out of the window of the apartment she shared with her husband, famous sculptor Carl Andre.

Can you describe the link between neoliberalism and the global cocaine problem?
Chavez: “We have to look at the free market economy for that. This is why we have a
situation for farmers in Colombia where growing coca is 215 times more profitable than the average food crop. This attracts criminals and forces farmers to grow coca.”

Thais di Marco made a comparison between neoliberalism and fascism; can you elaborate on that?
“In fascism it’s about violence, but in neoliberalism too. But of a more subtle nature, in the sense that it creates docile subjects. People – like the Colombian farmers who grow coca – are more inclined to accept their fate because of this.”

In OMNI TOXICA feminism played an important role, especially because of the way youused your bodies. How does feminism relate to the cocaine problem?
“The cocaine industry is often portrayed as a macho, male-dominated world where women are shown mostly as victims. This image is of course confirmed in tv shows like Narcos on Netflix. We want to show an alternative image, an alternative history about women. That’s why we make use of breaking the fourth wall a lot, by directly addressing the audience and we are subject and object simultaneously.”

How do you feel about the grow in tourism in South America as a result of the popularity of Narcos?

You can even play paintball at Pablo Escobar’s former home.“Is that really true? I didn’t even know that. But the popularity of Narcos doesn’t surprise
me. It has to do with white innocence. Instead of facing the consequences and total
destruction of a nation because of the War on Drugs the past is romanticized. This way you don’t have to feel guilty.”

This is a translation of an article in Dutch which was published in Amsterdam Alternative’s January/February 2020 issue.

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