By 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.
I asked Gustavo about the name Musgus 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 the 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 mixed race Other.
Gustavo plays with the double-edged or two-sidedness of Chabochi. Chabochi can be presented as being 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’s 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 stop, and then he concluded Chabochi Memories by occupying the centre of the streetcar 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 streetcar 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 actions was on a Queen West streetcar. Wearing 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 streetcar 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 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. When he completed building and interacting with his altar—his remains of bodies—Musgus regarded it 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 mementos, 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.
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.
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 skillfully 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.