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Fireworks are cheerful, spectacular and used for nice celebrations. But what if they were turned into something that talks about tragedy, injustice, and anxiety? The French-Senegalese artist Gusto Zagg just did that some weeks ago in an unknown location in the Mediterranean sea, accompanied by some sailors and technicians. They all took their chances in doing a clandestine guerrilla action denouncing how this beautiful sea in which we all like to swim is, at the same time, a graveyard where hundreds of people die yearly escaping the horrors of their own countries.

Gusto, you’re a highly political artist. Most of your works talk about identity, violence, and political and social issues. But you’ve been an assistant of JR, an artist whose works are based on guerrilla techniques and are poignant critiques of our society and system. Do you think spending time with him has made you even more political? How has he contributed to your artistic practice?
First of all, family influences your political vision at a very young age, even before you discover artistic references. I actually decided not to go to art school in favour of studying political science. However, I do not define myself as a political artist, at least, not in the activist sense of the term. Even though my process remains about the issues between artistic creation and resistance, the denouncement is carried through an aesthetic proposition. I try to use art to awaken a sensibility and create a new perception on identity issues and violence.
I met JR when I was eighteen. From 2010 to 2016, I travelled with him and worked on many of his installations. He often repeats that he’s not an engaged artist but an engaging one. The exchanges and human investments he creates around his actions go beyond an artistic framework. Our practices are different but we share the same optimist and necessary naivety for the creation of our works. His generosity and humility have inspired me as much as the scale of his projects.
You’re French-Senegalese, so I assume how European governments are handling the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ (and how badly they’ve been managing immigration in general for years now) affects you in a different way than privileged white people (like me, for example). How have you been living the news of massive deportations, human trafficking and slavery, or the hypocritical event of France’s government giving the nationality to the guy who climbed a building to rescue a baby?
It’s not a question of being white or mixed-race. I’m originally from Senegal but grew up as a westerner, spared the process of uprooting, exile and urgency. Like you, I’m a witness to these inhuman and chaotic news. They are at the heart of my practice, with the challenge of acknowledging a violent reality without aestheticizing the tragic.
Regarding granting the citizenship to Mamadou Gassama, I see instead the end of fear for an undocumented Malian living in France. This does not mask the treatment dispensed at Porte de la Chapelle in Paris, Calais, or anywhere else. Excessive media representation sometimes disfigures spontaneous actions, especially if they can be politicized. For these exiles, citizenship is but one step to integration. With the discovery of new cultural norms and a new economic reality, the quest to belong in a society is a delicate procedure. The stakes of identity go above and beyond official nationalities.

“I discovered art through graffiti as a teen. It’s a vandal practice and it still conditions my relationship with creation.”
When I see the state of the world and, more specifically, how European governments are handling the situation, I have mixed feelings: anger, frustration, deception, rage, helplessness/impotence, etc. Which one do you feel the most? And which one drives you to create?
Failure. It’s an obvious trauma of our era and it generates alarmist vocabulary. As an artist, I focus on the visual representation of these feelings. The barbaric camps in Europe have illustrated the flux of migrations and chaotic arrivals on the continent. The tents installed in cities become symbols of modern poverty. They are now engrained and appear like any other monument of an urban space. In my work Untitled (white tent), I twisted the image of a public sculpture, heroic or decorative, into an allegory for failure via a tent painted with marble powder and elevated on a pedestal.
I explore different forms of violence, social tensions and collective fears, and then interpret them in an artistic field. I don’t attach myself to any singular style and the mediums that I use – photography, video, installation, sculpture or performance – are determined through the themes and the intended meaning. 
Your most recent project is a clandestine artwork/performance in an undefined point of the Mediterranean. From a boat, you set off a secret fireworks show, only using the red colour as a metaphor for the distress signals usually used on the sea. How did you come up with the idea?
I was still a student when my professors pointed out the migratory phenomenon that was taking place. It was around 2011. Back then, the shipwrecked and arrivals were around Lampedusa. As the Syrian conflict got worse, they arrived near Lesbos. In the early 2000s, these migrations happened near the Canary Islands and the Straits of Gibraltar – always using the same mode of travel, a very basic overcrowded inflatable boat.
My challenge was to tackle this issue without using the image of migrants. I wanted to get away from the photos you’ll find in traditional media and from the measure of compassion. The choice was guided by an empathetic thought: how do these exiles signal their shipwreck at sea? I had a radical perception of their condition: death defying a clandestine life. I put all my attention on the red flare rocket that sailors use to alert others of their situation.
The idea was to create a monochromatic performance inspired by these flares, which would be a metaphor for the tragedy in the Mediterranean. The idea of a red, clandestine firework imposed itself. It’s a universally festive symbol with an immediate visual impact. The firework is converted into a distress signal and is attributed a political use. This work is a symbolic creation on the failure of reaching Europe.

“The Mediterranean was a zone of trade and shared enrichment but it is now a deadly border of water for the refugees crossing it.”
Why did you prefer to do this action by yourself with no spectators and then distribute the only existing video? Were you afraid that, if it was a public event, the subversive and political message would have disappeared and spectators would have just thought of it as a ‘beautiful fireworks spectacle’?
There is no public audience gathered when a shipwreck occurs. I did not want its location to be known either. Greece, Italy, Spain, Libya; the intention of not showing any specific area allowed me to consider the Mediterranean as a whole, since the shipwrecks are spread across the whole region. With no precise date, the performance is apart from current events and evokes the drama of migration as a drama with no defined time period.
The project was also made in the tradition of land art, with these isolated rockets against the natural Mediterranean decor. The video and photos that were published are the only existing archives of the happening. It was recorded with a cell phone, an essential tool for communication, location, and translation all throughout the migratory journey. The images are low-res and are the sole witnesses of this nocturnal action. I then collaborated with the composer Bedis Tir to think of an immersive presentation. He created brutal music, its techno sounds being an important of the work.
Using fireworks as a symbol of failure instead of celebration is a subversive message. At the same time, being a clandestine/guerrilla action, you put yourself at risk of being discovered. What role does risk play in your overall body of work, and why do you think it was important to take that specific risk in order to send a clear, bold message?
There was no need to link this action to an organism, a sponsor, or an institution. To properly represent, freely and radically, the dramas of immigration, I needed to consider circumventing legal and moral rules. The sailors and technicians who were present with me took the same risks. I discovered art through graffiti as a teen. It’s a vandal practice and it still conditions my relationship with creation.
I’ve always been fascinated by nicknames and alter egos. Gusto Zagg is a fictional persona, an avatar created to sign my works. For my video Untitled (Burning car), I bought a car with a fake ID and burned it with a Molotov cocktail on a parking lot. Shot with an iPhone like an amateur Internet video, the project denounced the manufacturing of images by the French press during the first urban riots of the ‘80s. In 2016, I also filmed with a hidden camera into the Trump hotel in Las Vegas to ironically evoke the tension and hypocrisy of the United States concerning its illegal Mexican immigration. I’m obsessed with subverting and shaking up established processes.

The sea is also a metaphor: usually, it was a medium through which people could escape, discover faraway lands, maybe even fall off the edge of the world. And historically, the Mediterranean has been a place of trade and business as well as a place where civilizations, cultures and people met and mixed. It’s actually one of the reasons why we’ve been so rich: from Egypt to France, to Spain, Syria, Lebanon, Greece, Turkey, and Italy, all cultures and countries must thank their neighbours for what we are now. How do you think our governments could go back again to this more enriching relationships? Or how could ‘normal’ people, civilians, help each other more from the other side of the sea?
The maritime world, pure and utopic, is historically tied to immigration. The Mediterranean was a zone of trade and shared enrichment but it is now a deadly border of water for the refugees crossing it. It used to represent a liberty and a transmission of cultures, and today it is the epilogue of an individual’s journey away from his home. For this performance, the Mediterranean was a unique and common space with no distinct zones for death or tourism.
The line between art and activism is often misunderstood. My works insist on the representation and interpretation of political signals but I am not upholding any agenda. I have my own societal preferences but I try to keep them separate from my work and my message. The torture in Libya, the rise of extremism in Europe or the new Italian political landscape reflect traumas, fears and collective failures. Involvement should be unique to each person, I don’t believe an artist should be promoting any certain program.
I try to point out certain ambiguous details of our system but this vision remains subjective and probably separate from the real stakes. My social activism is entirely composed of micropolitical actions meant for the artistic field. Teams of real heroes are working on rescue boats in the Mediterranean. The rest of the discourse belongs to these true activists.

Arnau Salvadó

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