ARTICLE TEXT: Ecstasy in a Bunker with Gavin Russom and Friends
By Mary Reilly
Gavin Russom, the wizard behind the scenes at D.F.A., needs little introduction. His cosmic hits and mixes dominate dance-floors worldwide. Parallel to his steady rise to international dance-hall fame runs a second story, one of a well received and highly regarded fine artist with pieces in the world’s finest institutions and fanciest collections. This Sunday, Russom is slated to introduce his latest piece, Bunkerweltanschauung (Bunker Ideology)- a six hour performance culminating in a dance party- with a cast of fellow doers, dancers, singers, and makers to an audience at P.S. 1 MoMA’s SundaySessions.
Over the weekend, I headed up to Gavin’s Washington Heights apartment to find out what exactly is Bunker Ideology. As the A train ran local, I had time to pour over a decade and half of art-world press. The artist’s statements, clippings, and reviews revealed a wildly prolific career snaking through two continents, a wide range of media, and more than a few notable collaborations, all of it bound together by that shamanistic impulse and ecstatic vision familiar to fans of Russom’s music.
Gavin Russom is a man on a quest. Through ritual and repetition, his work explores how sound, vision and space can alter consciousness to reveal what he describes as the “malleable nature of personal reality.” Transmutation and metamorphosis appear as both metaphysical and a material themes often dressed up in a wonky, tripped-out aesthetic described by Holland Cotter in The New York Times as “a combination of Joseph Yoakum and Joseph Bueys, and lovely.”
Arriving at the apartment, I found the door ajar. Pushing inside, I entered a small hallway containing a crystal-lined coat closet-cum-tabernacle and a gilt-leaf mirror draped by a dream catcher. Goddess statues, crucifixes, feathers and knives, all artfully arranged, covered nearly every surface of the space. I followed Gavin’s voice through a tiny living room lined with keyboards to the kitchen where I found him making homemade ginger tea.
We spent the next two hours talking- jumping from subject to subject. He first explained the nuts and bolts of the Bunkerweltanschauung, clarifying that it has two layers. The first is the installation itself. With original soundtracks, video, and a hand-made laser light show, the artist sculpted what he described as a “vessel” for the performances. He noted that the P.S.1 Performance Dome is already something of a bunker in itself and so is perfect for the project.
The second aspect is purely curatorial. Russom projected an end-of-times scenario. In short, the world has become hostile to human life. Society is at a bottom. A group of misfit radicals take shelter inside an abandoned bunker. Here, freed from the constraints of cultural programming, with only their individual and collective memories as reference, they set out to create a new reality, transforming the space with ecstatic worship, dance, and imagination. The bunker (structurally similar to a womb, cocoon, cave, grave) provides “unique conditions for metamorphosis.”
He offered this context and space to eight artist-peers to do what they will. Lucky for the audience this Sunday, Gavin rolls with wild and brilliant crew. Labanna Babalon, Alberto Cortes, Raul De Nieves, Marie Karlberg, Liz Larsen, Stanley Love, Micki Pellerano, and Viva Ruiz are set to wow.
Bunker Ideology pulls from array of sources. Inspiration came first from time spent hanging out in Germany’s repurposed bunkers. Enraged by the 2004 election, Gavin broke for Europe, settling in Berlin, where he found “bunkers everywhere.” He described hanging out at two in particular. “One is in the center of Volkspark Friedrichshain. Drum circles, raves, sex and displays of cycling virtuosity and all the possible combinations thereof often break out.” The second, on the edge of the Humboldthain, offers an expansive view of the city. Russom recounted, “It is one of the most soothing and meditative places I have ever been and a frequent spot for those looking for that kind of experience.”
After seeing the German film Downfall based on Hitler’s last days inside the “pretty decked out Fuhrerbunker (Leader’s Bunker),” “some shit fired off in [his] brain.” In a stream-of-consciousness email, Gavin related the epiphany, “An architectural form that was originally created to protect an elite few from a war that they created, repurposed as a spot for highly individual and radically liberating action. I started to think about a Bunkerweltanschauung, a Bunker ideology.”
Russom explained how the ethos of the Occupy Movement served as something of a muse for the piece, “…to have a group of people saying, ‘This is not working. We don’t know what would work but we can no longer just sit here and not say something about how this juggernaut that’s just continually moving forward and eating everything… has to stop. Even if there’s nothing to take it’s place, it just has to stop… because there is never going to be anything better if that doesn’t stop.’”
Occupy did not pretend to have solution; it began a conversation. With Bunkerweltanschauung, the artist hopes to do the same, though his aims lie in the spiritual, rather than economic, realm. On fantasy’s fertile ground, “we’re using creativity as a way… to imagine new ways to live.”
With performances planned for later this year in Berlin and Naples, Easter Sunday will serve as Bunker Ideology’s international debut- a fitting day for a performance that aims at nothing short of redemption. “I want to create something interesting that promotes healing and new patterns of thought… The idea is also to create something that… leaves people somewhere different than where they were when they entered.” So come Sunday and expect to leave altered. If all else fails, Gavin promised me, “We will have the most fun ever!”
“Open The Door, Viva Ruiz,” by Casey Spooner & Adam Dugas. “Satanic nuns, gothic Latin house music, and voguing animal spirits are but some of the images pouring into the world from the fecund brain of filmmaker and performer Viva Ruiz. Born and raised in Jamaica, Queens, Ruiz’s up-from-the underground aesthetic is quintessential New York.”
ANTI FASCIST REPROGRAM: an audiovisual intervention from Gavin Russom and Viva Ruiz
Created for collaboration with artist Diana Puntar’s installation “The Milky Way: Get Your Orgone On” @ Blackston Gallery, NYC
“We responded strongly to a thread we saw in Diana’s piece, that the gallery context could be used to create an experience that would act directly on the body and psyche in ways that would be especially healing considering our current political climate. We felt her use of the ideas of Wilhelm Reich seemed especially relevant because he suggested that individual empowerment was possible and critical in freeing people from their own desire to persecute others. We created an audiovideo program that responded to our own concerns about our current predicament. It was screened in both exhibition spaces of the gallery to create an overwhelming sense of the image and audio as a method of deprogramming the mind and saturating viewers with both reality checks and pleasurable affirmations. Food was served as a way of giving something directly to those who came, something that would be a rare pleasurable offering in this city, in keeping with Reich’s belief that there is power in pleasure - and with the intention of "opening” the viewer more to the programming. Diana chose mushrooms because of their high Orgone content. The video piece focussed energy back onto Diana’s creation; the Orgone box, a direct and physical element of the space, that could gel the re-program into the body. We wanted to make a strong link between the resource that she created for people and the reasons why such an experience is meaningful and necessary today. People could lie around and soak up more healing Orgone while they internalized the message of love that the video ultimately is.“
Instrumental version of “Touch” by DFA’s Gavin Russom, artist Viva Ruiz and friends aka The Crystal Ark. On the original version you get vocals in English and Spanish to go with the post-colonial funk. They’re playing the Sugar HIll Disco in Brooklyn. More at Brooklyn Vegan.
OK, I’m just gonna say it – Gavin Russom is the man. He spends his time building modular synths, having about fifteen distinct musical endeavors on his burners all at once, making sick-ass podcasts, etc. etc. As the Wikipedia entry about him puts it, “Russom’s aesthetic is the search for unity between man, machine, and art.” He pulls this off with aplomb: his taste is cheeky, playful, unafraid of goofiness – or of driving things off the beaten path and into more wantonly absurd territory.
The over-the-top-ness of The Crystal Ark’s eponymous debut full-length is just about the only assailable thing I can drum up to say about it. To be honest, though, it’s not as if that my ears are particularly geared against grandiosity or pretense, and maybe that’s why I’m so into this record, what with half of its cuts clocking in well over the seven-minute mark. One way or another, the LP is an eight-track romp through a wild, lysergic summer night in The Big City: it’s dreamy and inward at times, bombastic and dance-floor-possessive at others, with moments of tension and exploration weaved in – resulting in a neon-tinged psychedelic tapestry of Latin-infused disco-house that is bringing some much needed reinforcement to your blog hosts’ current battle with seasonal affective disorder.
Russom’s artistry as a composer and knob-twiddler (sound designer, if you prefer) is in full force throughout the record, but he shares the spotlight with - and is routinely dwarfed by - the commanding, sultry-as-all-getout Viva Ruiz. Her vocals are The Ark’s catalyst, as tracks like the saucy-yet-surreal single “Morir Soñando” and the funky, synth-washed “We Came To” amply prove. The epic chorus loops in “Silver Cord” feel a bit like Ruiz is showing off, but fuck it, she should be showing off - 2012’s crop of other singers in the electronic/dance category could stand to learn a ton from the woman, as the band’s deliciously ass-kicking (and apt) cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” made clear earlier this year.
I’ve seen The Crystal Ark both getting dismissed by other reviewers and being lauded as fervently as what you’re reading here, so it’s what one could call a divisive record. It is hard to imagine anyone taking the fence position on it for sure – you either like your bilingual disco-funk swaddled in cutoff manipulation and noodling brass outros or you don’t, y'know? INTERZONING recommends the hell out of it, but go on and make your own decision, loves. DFA’s got half of it streaming via Soundcloud, below.
Gavin Russom and Viva Ruiz’s project The Crystal Ark doesn’t stop moving. Its pulsing beats make the dance party portable. Tomorrow night the soiree sashays onto LPR’s stage for the outfit’s album release celebration. The part-dance-part-DJ-part-live-performance fun monster kicks off at 10.
Start assembling your elaborate costume and read more about ticket info here.