Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Creative Resident Profile: Gustavo Alvarez "Musgus" (AJP)

Photos of Gustavo Alvarez by Henry Chan.

Andrew James Paterson

Mexico City born (and now Chihuahua-based) artist Gustavo Alvarez (also known by his alter-ego Musgus) was also a Creative Resident for the 2008 7a*11d Festival. In conjunction with his residency, Gustavo presented a series of four public realm performances and one gallery performance - on the festival’s final night which was also the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Alvarez began performing in 2000, and immediately began creating performances in urban areas - in the streets, on public transit, and more. Alvarez states that he prefers performing in the more public realm - that he is stimulated by contact with individuals and groups outside art institutions and the museums. He does enjoy interacting with people in social spaces that can exist inside galleries and even museums, but he prefers encountering unexpected spectators or ‘accidental audiences’. This is also an extension of the artist’s history of teaching workshops in performance art to people generally outside artistic “communities” - blind people, people dealing with mental hospitals and/or mental health issues, people living with HIV/AIDS, and others. Alvarez prefers the unexpected and the provocative - his is not a form of public art that is all about subtle immersion in the everyday or the public realm. His is a not a what’s wrong with this picture aesthetic. Alvarez or Musgus likes to shatter false silences, and conversely he likes to stop not only traffic but also mindless chattering and its exchanges.

“Musgus” is the performer’s alter ego. I asked Gustavo about the name, and he enigmatically suggested I should think of “moss” and also “juice”. Moss is somewhat synonymous with lichen, which tend to grow on rocks and other natural surfaces. Lichen are not bacteria - they are not unhealthy and are therefore life forces. Moss may popularly be considered to be baggage - the word may refer to things unnecessary (and to aging). Moss is also not unlike memory -it comes and goes and it also grows. It is akin to memory in that it is difficult if not impossible for humans or animals to banish or eliminate. Moss is a survivor, and juice is energy. ”Musgus”- Gustavo Alvarez wears that name and logo on his signature yellow jump or boiler suit.

In August 2008, Gustavo Alvarez concluded a series of workshops in there mountain range of Chihuahua with the indigenous Tarahumana. These workshops took place over a two-year period. During his Creative Residency at 7a*11d, Alvarez decided to undertake a series of performances based on the Tarahumana concept of Chabochi. Chabochi references the mestizo - a different thing or The Other.

Gustavo plays with the double-edged or two-sidedness of Chabochi. Chabochi can be presented as being both romantic with its otherness, its perceived threats to normality and to order. But Chabochi is also a derogatory label for an outsider, a foreigner, a virus. Who is Chabochi?

In tandem with his Toronto residency, Gustavo Alvarez “Musgus” presented four performances or actions in “public spaces” and one culminating presentation at Xpace.
The first public performance made use of bus shelters and newspaper boxes and gateways into parks, before moving onto the street and even the centre of a major intersection. This first public performance was called Chabochi Memories, and its trajectory involved the artist decorating bus shelters and newspaper boxes and sidewalks and street themselves with paraphernalia referring to memory - photographs and souvenirs and toys. Musgus would stop at ideal locations and create small altars or shrines. He would break silence by asking where are the memories. Pedestrians were curious but hardly threatened or alarmed. Queen West - even the sections without an abundance of art galleries - is a neighbourhood in which sidewalk and graffiti artists are not exactly unusual. Considering Musgus’ obvious costume, his masks and personae accessories, this was clearly a performance - the performer made no effort to blend into the crowd as that is not his methodology. It wasn’t until Gustavo moved his shrines or assemblages onto the street that situations began to tense. First he usurped a street corner at which there was a bus top, and then he concluded Chabochi Memories by occupying the centre of the street car tracks at Queen and Bathurst, a busy and often volatile intersection. A young couple wondered what the man on the street car tracks was doing. I explained that it was performance art, and I was personally grateful for the one careful street car driver who slowed down and observed that Gustavo knew perfectly well what he was doing.

The second and third public performances - Chabochi in a Dangerous World and Chabochi for the Dead - both took place on the property of the Toronto transit Commission. The first of these two cations was on a Queen West streetcar. Weering a green Mexican wrestling hat, and carrying a supply of bells and paraphernalia, Musgus led a 7a*11d contingent onto the street car and handed out bells. He ran up and down the street car and bellowed out lightning words such as Terrorist, Poverty, Bad Government, Corruption. These aberrations exist, and what do passengers think about that? He repeated his actions and proclamations. Passengers were beginning to become confused. A man accompanying a small child was upset that the performance had upset that child. Musgus changed his tone, not particularly in response to anxious passengers. He stated that there is exists hope, and then led the 7a*11d contingent off of the bus.

The Chabochi for the Dead performance was enacted primarily in the Museum subway station, with its kitsch totems and decorations - its “public art” proclaiming that we are indeed approaching the one and only Museum. This performance was much more elongated ritual than the streetcar action. Musgus ate from a loaf of bread characterized by a pink glacial face image-pattern. He ate like a dog, holding the food with his hands and eating with his mouth from both left and right. . He wore his signature yellow boiler-suit with no head gear today.

In the Museum station, he placed the by now well-eaten head of bread onto the floor, knelt as if praying before it, and continued eating. Crumbs were by now accumulating in considerable quantity. The artist began hanging black and orange plastic shields with shaped holes (some faces) around one of the station’s altars or museum-referent poles. The black and orange shields or flags appeared to have been purchased in some cheap Halloween-supplies store. Halloween or Sam Hain - Days of the Dead. The artist reached into his supplies-bag and retrieved first one small clay head sculpture, and then another. He placed the two heads on a black blanket, and retrieved twelve candles, which he spread about in the shape of a corpus. He scattered crumbs in order to provide flesh. He addressed the air and thus the commuters:

“For my dead. For your dead. For our dead”.

Many of the passengers coming and going the busy station were at least pausing, either fascinated or disturbed. One young couple asked me if the man was okay. I assured this couple that the performer was quite okay. Musgus regarded his altar - his remains of bodies - with respectful silence, and then packed up his utensils and led his acolytes onto the southbound train. The altar or installation remained, but it obviously would not remain for long. Passengers would hopefully help themselves to souvenirs or mementoes, rather than doing public space a favour and tossing the art into the waste containers.

On the following afternoon, Musgus had intended to perform his fourth outdoor action - titled Chabochi vs. the Global Market. His intended location was Dundas Square, which is an awkward “public” space hopelessly compromised and cluttered by corporate logos and non-stop advertising. Gustavo intended to make use of Dundas Square’s fountain, but alas the fountain was not running. Was this simply because the last day of October was the last day of the fountain, or were authorities worried about Halloween pranksters? Whatever. City Hall Square offered a possible alternative site, but also no fountain. There was a fountain in the privately-owned Eaton Centre, but the illegality of an action involving such a fountain would have averted an action intended to take place over a longer duration. So the fourth action was postponed until the next afternoon, and relocated to the street outside the Toronto Free Gallery on Bloor near Lansdowne.
Prior to the performance’s announcement, Gustavo Alvarez Lugo has already made a petit installation on the sidewalk, with a small object-holder of sorts, two toy bubble-blowers, and a small but ominous snake figure. The performance artist was wearing his trademark MUSGUS yellow boiler-suit, but today he was favouring a blue wrestling hat. After checking his sidewalk set-up, Gustavo began running on the sidewalk, jumping over his installation. He did this back and forth for a while, eventually for shorter distances until he stopped. Pedestrians walked around the performance and the sidewalk installation. Many stopped and watched. He shouted out SHOKWAME HAS COME. Shokwame is an evil man, a witch, a questionable magician.

He retrieved a black string and wrapped it around an audience member’s lower left leg. He found other semi-consenting observers at four corners from each other and tied them all to his central installation. The Shokwame has come. He caresses his blue wrestling-helmet, then removes it and begins to cut it open along the seams. He now has a mask with eyes, nose, and mouth. He adds it to the street-sculpture. Now he lies down, blows a few tentative bubbles, again announces that The Shokwame has come, and then concludes the performance. A young bystander/observer asked if he can have the mask. Gustavo declines the request, but informs the boy that he has other masks. This is November 1st, the Mexican day of the Dead.

This fourth performance - Chabochi vs. Shokwame - was much lighter in tone than its predecessors. Perhaps it was the time and the neighbourhood? Bloor and Lansdowne is a changing neighbourhood, host to various communities and now becoming a zone with at least a couple of high-profile art galleries. And the artist’s fifth and final performance during the 7a*11d festival was inside a gallery - at Xpace on the final evening. During the changeover from the evening’s previous performance/installation, Gustavo had assembled one of his trademark altar- installations on the floor. He entered banging a drum on its side with a mallet-stick, and he wore a facial mask on the back of his head. He moves toward audience members while banging the drum. Then he walked up to the west gallery wall furthest from the street and writes CHABOCHI on that wall.

Gustavo lit the contents of a cup which was part of his little shrine or altar, and used paper to increase the burning. He picked up the cup and transported it over to the wall under his writing, allowed the fire to burn itself out, and then asked the audience “Who is Chabochi?” He wanted a volunteer - he wanted someone else to declare themselves an other or an outsider. He procured willing participants from the audience. Those who admitted or declared themselves CHABOCHI were handed plastic flag-papers similar to the ones Gustavo had used in his Museum Subway Station installation, and instructed to tape them to the gallery wall and write their names on the wall at the top of the papers. When all the volunteers had done so, Gustavo then inverted the dynamics - the balance of his equation. He asserted that there is no Chabochi, that there should be no more Chabochis, and that there was one world. Then he said thank you, and the performance and the performances of the 2008 7a*11d festival were now history. The Day of the Dead had been observed, and now the Day of the Dead had drawn to its conclusion.

Gustavo Alvarez Musgus has indeed cut a swatch throughout parts of Toronto. It might well have been interesting for him to have undertaken a public action in a part of the city where performance art is not relatively recognizable; a neighbourhood in which his simultaneous celebration and parody of cult-leaders and their followers might well have prompted even more confusion if not hostility. But he is a very effective public performer, one who skilfully plays with boundaries between what is private and what is public - tensions between what should remain private and what is perfectly appropriate to vent in a public realm. Throughout the 7a*11d festival, Musgus succeeded in creating what Hakim Bey refers to as Temporary Autonomous Zones, in which conventional rules of exchange and etiquette are at least problematized if not completely abolished.

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