This conversation with Eugenio Salas took place online during the spring of 2021.
Christina Battle (CB): I’ve been researching and thinking about the concept of exchange: how we negotiate exchange; how systems of exchange might be more caring, more just. I was reading more about your project YYZGRU Express and it struck me as this really amazing example of engaging with exchange in an interesting way that is also super complex. I wanted to have a conversation with you so that I could learn more about it. Can you describe YYZGRU Express and maybe give an example of one of the exchanges?
Eugenio Salas (ES): YYZGRU Express was a participatory project in which I performed the role of a courier to transport personal goods from Toronto to São Paulo. The project’s strategy involved mirroring and reshaping the dynamics of a commercial courier as a site for artistic exploration.
For example, in the “real” world, a courier has to demonstrate to the regulating body that it is fit, willing, and able to provide those services for which it is granted authority. Similarly, for YYZGRU Express, I had to establish relationships and build trust with Brazilian community members in Toronto in the lead-up to finding participants. One-on-one meetings and group presentations allowed me to introduce the project’s details (scope, expectations, guidelines for participation), and discuss the idea of art as a service. I also experimented with developing a courier brand, including designing the shipping packaging and uniform. The project involved a gallery exhibition and performance, but these were secondary to the enactment of my role as a courier outside of the gallery.
CB: Can you describe in simple terms what was exchanged across the project? What did participants get out of participating? What did you get in return?
ES: In YYZGRU, the currency exchanged was affect. Participants were able to produce and circulate emotions through the exchange of personal goods that I collected along with personal stories. There were a total of 12 exchanges including a blender, camera, baby sling, mouth guards, hair straighteners, dictionaries, and a hug!
Paolistas living in Toronto were able to connect with their family and friends by sending these items at no cost. Some of them were intentional and contacted their chosen recipients to find out about their needs or wishes, others were more casual and sent items by surprise.
On my end, I got the opportunity to design, test, and execute a complex project that pushed my limits and expanded my ideas about participatory art.
CB: What’s an important element or consideration for you when you think of participatory works?
ES: My proximity to the issue that I am working on is the main principle that guides me—from concept to execution. Participation is a strategy that allows me to deal with personal experiences using artistic inquiry to create a set of relationships between art and life. I am interested in small gestures, social interactions, and collaborations as catalysts for alternative ways to produce and circulate aesthetics.
In the case of YYZGRU Express, I had just recently gotten a Canadian passport, so my immediate response was to use my newly granted right to travel: acknowledging that other immigrants that are unable to leave the country were in a less privileged situation. Before I got my passport, I could not travel for about seven years. I still have vivid memories of my grandma being sick, and when she died it was emotionally difficult not being able to be with my family back home.
When I first started thinking about this project, I felt the need to respond to the idea of exchange or trade goods because that is an activity that I grew up with in Michoacán, Mexico. Michoacán is a key state for commercial trade and drug trafficking because its strategic location in the center of the country and proximity to the Pacific coast enables trade between the South and North American continents.
In this environment, an underground economic system has flourished based on the circulation of imported goods that, in some cases, have been stolen from trucks. In other cases, they have been sent by their relatives from abroad or imported clandestinely. Because of that, I was able to get, for example, expensive sneakers that I wouldn’t have been able to afford when I was a teenager: contraband is something that is common in our region.
At that time, contraband was primarily sold at people’s homes and shopping would turn into a social activity, drawing a blurry line between a commercial transaction and a social affair. As a result, shopping was an intimate experience embedded in daily life. Sellers (also called fayuqueros) will let you into their homes, offer food and drinks, let you use the bathroom, let you play with the family dog or share stories about their relatives living in the United States, for example.
Under this unregulated economy we exchange goods and stories, build relationships, and create a very tight network to support each other—which to me was interesting to explore further with YYZGRU Express.
CB: I love hearing about this idea of finding ways to break the system, and how the economic system of exchange requires these relationships. I feel like that’s often something that’s lacking in the way that we think about exchange in dominant Western society, where it’s primarily based on monetary transaction: like, something has a price; you give them money matching that price; they give you the item; and, there doesn’t need to be a relationship in order to make the exchange work.
ES: I agree. In Western societies, we’re programmed to not break those systems, or we’re discouraged from improvising alternative ways to bend those systems. But in the Global South, systems are so broken that you are constantly negotiating the rules and the workarounds to them in order to survive.
CB: Were there any instances where you had to explain or negotiate the terms of the project further? Did you find there were any elements that people just didn’t understand at first, in terms of how exchange was to happen?
ES: Many times! With YYZGRU Express, I had no financial or institutional support to execute it. Despite the fact that the piece was being presented at an international performance festival, I was denied a grant because the jury didn’t see its artistic merit: this can be a real challenge for non-object-based art. Having no funds or backing from a respected institution posed an extra set of challenges, especially when recruiting participants. I created a set of support materials (prints, slide shows) that I used when I pitched the project.
CB: How do you approach expectations for such projects (both your own expectations, and those of participants and collaborators)?
ES: I cast a wide net of possibilities and keep an open mind. To me, the most interesting and fruitful part of working with someone else is building a relationship and brainstorming while meeting, working, making, and socializing. The challenging part is being able to forecast the final outcomes, which wouldn’t be an issue if the projects were self-funded and I didn’t have to rely on financial support from third parties. But, in the world I live in, that is not an option.
For instance, you may have a set of outcomes in mind when you begin planning, fundraising, making partnerships, etc. But, in the process, you may find that the idea’s execution will require more resources, the outcome(s) no longer seem that productive or exciting, the schedules don’t align, or that participants are more motivated to move in a different direction. How do you fulfill commitments while accommodating an evolving process?
YYZGRU was guided by the notion of contraband infiltrating artistic experiences as a service involving participants as senders and receivers.
CB: I’m curious to know more about the other artists that you collaborated with and brought into the project. I know that they responded to the objects and the things that were being delivered. You make clear in the work’s description that there are “participants” and “collaborators”—can you explain how you see their roles as different? As similar? Especially in relation to you as an artist.
ES: When I created this platform for collaboration, I created a set of roles and activities and expectations from everybody. I describe the senders and recipients as “participants” and the artists that provided artistic inputs as “collaborators.” Their roles differed in terms of expectations and motivations—the participants were expecting an exchange of goods and were agreeing to participate in an art project somewhat secondarily. They were amused by the idea of having their goods displayed in a gallery, and in some cases were ultimately quite moved by it, but at the outset they weren’t seeking to be artistic collaborators.
The collaborators were responding to the piece and they had freedom to respond within the characteristics of the project (limited resources, as part of a courier system, accessible in both languages). Francesco Gagliardi created a beautiful set of scores that materialized as packaging labels which were also exhibited in the gallery. When we were installing, the technicians were so moved by them.
Francisco-Fernando Granados’ contribution linked to the colonial past of English and Portuguese languages. He designed a crossword puzzle about the items’ names in both languages that would highlight the visual intersections/disconnections between the two. These puzzles took the place of package instructions.
CB: That sounds really lovely, and also like another form of exchange between the collaborators and then the participants.
ES: Yeah. Francisco, Francesco, and I didn’t have expectations, and we didn’t have much control over it: maybe people would throw it out; maybe people would be thrilled to see it. It was out of our hands.
CB: How did people approach you to participate in the project? How did you approach others?
ES: I reached out to community leaders who introduced me to their networks. I was interested in sneaking artistic experiences into a service-provider transaction, involving both senders and receivers as participants. I was also interested in smuggling in other artistic voices, by inviting performance artists that I admire to participate—who also happen to be immigrants—even though they were not officially selected by the institution to be part of the festival.
CB: Extending and diverting resources to others.
ES: Yeah, exactly. The participants who received the delivered goods were also presented with artistic gestures in a non-artistic context which destabilized preconceived expectations of the artistic experiences.
CB: So, you’re sort of infiltrating the ways that artistic spaces usually invite artists to exhibit, by bringing in other artists as part of the shared experience. Do you feel like the art galleries or institutions understood this challenge? Did you need to explain to them why and what you were doing? Were they responsive to it?
ES: Because of the participatory nature of YYZGRU, it was already understood that the piece included multiple inputs. I was interested in the idea of making a piece with porosity that included the input for local people from Toronto (where I was living back then) and São Paulo, where the piece was going to take place.
The piece was part of an international performance festival where, for the most part, its presentation channels (venues, stages, programs) are well defined. In addition, the festival was restricted to ticket holders which curbed its accessibility for local audiences. So it was like: artists performing for artists or people in the cultural sector. In this context, it felt like the piece got lost in the festival program.
With YYZGRU the audience were the participants whom I met, each at a site of their choosing. Audiences from the festival were able to witness the work through an exhibition of the parcels presented in museum-style pedestals while awaiting their delivery. Most of the items were delivered by me, but in one case, the receivers picked up their parcel from the gallery.
Actually, there was an amazing moment at the gallery, which I missed! I spent most of my time on the street. Imagine commuting in one of the most populated cities in the world. It was insane! The logistics for the project were brutal. The local institution that was managing the festival’s production was very generous and assigned me an assistant who was with me almost 24 hours a day for the entire length of the project. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him—Giovanni—he was incredible. He was a performer and also spoke Spanish fluently from watching Mexican soap operas! He was a problem solver, a hustler, had a great sense of humour, and was a very smart kid.
So when these recipients came to the gallery, we were outside delivering parcels. When we got back to the gallery, we found the gallery attendants with teary eyes, and I was like, what’s going on? And they were like, oh my god you missed it, you missed it! One of the senders, a young guy from São Paulo—who moved to Toronto to pursue his dreams of becoming a professional dancer—sent Christmas cards to his parents. They were musical cards that when opened, a dancer (I think) popped up and started spinning.
His mom knew that she was going to get something, but I think the card’s sound and motion caught her by surprise. When she opened the card, she started bawling and the father followed. Since I was not around, the gallery attendants had to take care of them and sat down with the parents and chatted about the experience of having their youngest living abroad. Gallery attendants suddenly had to improvise roles as social workers providing support and comfort to the couple.
I see this anecdote as the dramatic moment that is often pursued in theatre or performance art, but in this case, it was delivered differently, and I had no control of the script, timing, actions, or subjects. I didn’t even witness it, nor did the festival audience. But it doesn’t matter. It was effective.
CB: Maybe even more so than what it would have been, otherwise: because you were removed from the situation, they had to engage and respond in a different way. If you had been there to mitigate, maybe they wouldn’t have needed to. Maybe they would have just stood back and watched and not had the conversation or experience. That’s really amazing: you set up the parameters for them to engage in performance in a way that maybe they normally never would have as gallery attendants.
ES: Yeah, I think it was a valuable opportunity to test the understood roles of gallery attendants and, more broadly, the ways in which we as cultural producers deliver art to audiences.
CB: And what about the responses when you delivered the works? Would it often look like you having a conversation with the people and learning more about their loved ones who sent the objects or the gifts?
ES: For the most part, the recipients were really nice. But, understandably, people in São Paulo are always in a rush. So the exchanges were brief and within their time limits. In one instance, I met a recipient at the subway and delivered her parcel across the fence before she ran to catch her connection. Another meeting was at a government office. She said that, because of the project, she had reconnected with her cousin who one day called her and said: there’s this guy working on a project, do you need anything? She replied: a glass cup blender. Apparently in Brazil, these kinds of blenders are rare and expensive. She shared all this while unwrapping the parcel in the middle of the courtyard.
CB: And maybe then she has more contact with her cousin that she lost track with?
ES: Yeah, I hope. She was very touched by it. Even though it might seem banal to go through all the hassle of exchanging a used blender across continents, I believed there was a story attached to it worth pursuing, and I am thankful that both the sender and receiver trusted my intuition.
Another beautiful and strange story was a parcel sent by Rea McNamara—a Toronto art critic and writer who specializes in internet culture. In fact, when she was a teenager, she co-wrote a fanfiction novel with another teen in São Paulo through a BBS group. Both had parents who were fans of the Beatles. As a result, they came up with a novel about falling in love with, I think, Paul McCartney. Through this collaboration, they built a tight relationship while one was living in suburban São Paulo and the other in the suburban Greater Toronto Area. Their lives took different paths, and through YYZGRU they reconnected again, when Rea chose to send her collaborator a copy of the novel.
The strange part came when I was about to deliver the parcel. I got to her place and she didn’t even open the door. I was given instructions to drop the novel through the fence and was told that because she was pregnant, she was not going to come out. I remember that getting to her house was a nightmare. It was really awkward.
But, what followed was one of the most tender experiences. When I was developing the project, I thought about sending goods and then I realized that I wanted to be more ambitious and be able to offer things that are not just objects, but things that can be experienced. But I also didn’t want to impose my artistic desires on the participants, so I left it open. Once when I was pitching the project someone asked: I talk to my cousin almost every day on Skype, I miss her so much, I just want to send her a hug, is that ok? So I met him at his house in Toronto to get a hug from him.
It was my last day delivering parcels. Giovanni and I were exhausted. After the awkward exchange with the fanfiction writer, we jumped back in the cab on our way to deliver a hug. That day, the traffic was insane. Finally, we got to her house—with no expectations based on the previous experience. But she surprised us with a full spread of food, wine, music, and candles. We were looking at each other like, is this happening? She was so gracious and warm. It was really wonderful and unexpected.
CB: Do you think it has to do with how people come to have the project explained to them? Because you’re engaging with exchange on a number of fronts and with a number of people. There’s the person who you get in touch with in Toronto, and you’re negotiating with them how this exchange is gonna go, and then the person in São Paulo. I imagine that the person who’s sending them the item (or the hug) is the one doing the bulk of the work explaining how the project works. Do you think, in terms of communicating the project, that that is what dictated if it tended to be more or less warm? Maybe the woman who asked you to throw the delivery over the fence hadn’t had the project fully explained to her; whereas, with the woman with the hug, it seems like it’d take a lot more to explain to someone: I’m sending you a hug. They’d be like: what do you mean? And then they’d have to have a conversation about how the project works.
ES: Yeah, and it’s kind of a similar experience with a gallery. I create the parameters of collaboration, but also you have to surrender to the outcome. The outcome doesn’t belong to you, or to me. I had to pass on trust to the senders, to communicate the scope of the project, the intentions, the way in which the project can be modified. My limitations also shaped the project. Originally, I had intended to do a freight cargo with more, and bigger, items. Because I didn’t get the requested funding, I had to go by the weight that was included in my plane ticket: 60 kilos. Because of these limitations, I created a uniform not just for aesthetic but for practical reasons too. I wore the same uniform every day during my trip which I fit in my carry-on, along with my technical gear. This issue led me to research uniforms for couriers and reimagine what my ideal uniform would look like given the opposite weather conditions: when I picked up the items in Toronto it was zero degrees Celsius, but when I got to São Paulo it was above 35 degrees, and the pants became shorts.
CB: I was wondering, because I’m looking at the photos as you’re talking and you’re wearing shorts. So those are the same pants and you just adapted the uniform?
ES: Exactly, and I thought, oh my god, this is gonna be so oppressive, to have to wear this uniform every day on the trip. But it was so liberating, and I loved having the uniform because it saved me so much time every day: I didn’t have to think about what to wear. Every other night before bed, I would wash one set—because I had two. But there was no like, oh my god what should I wear?
CB: It was your job.
CB: So you went back home to Toronto with an empty suitcase?
CB: And did it feel like a sense of closure?
ES: Yeah. It was a relief. I didn’t give much thought about the empty space because the suitcase weight didn’t equal the magnitude of the project’s requirements. The space seemed banal and small, but the logistics were not easy, especially given my limitations and the lack of resources I had.
When I came back to Toronto I was really pleased. I was pleased with my performance, but it felt pretty lonely even though I had participated in a pretty large festival. A similar feeling to when you go to a crowded bar and don’t talk to anybody. Festival audiences experienced the piece in a kinda limited way through a live performance of the media documentation using Powerpoint.
It seemed appropriate using the documentation of performance by performing it live. Because I feel like just showing photographs on their own can sacrifice and flatten the performance.
CB: I’m curious to hear more about this idea of performing the documentation as documentation, and how you think about your relationship to the exchanges now.
ES: For future presentations of YYZGRU, I want to do another live performance. I feel like in the future I’d like to do more, there’s a lot of media that I collected: I collected the objects but also collected a lot of media and stories. A lot of audio, beautiful audio. For instance, I went to pick up a helmet from a mother whose daughter went back to Brazil after the family emigrated to Toronto. The mother stayed in Canada, and she wanted to send her daughter a bike helmet. The mother was a social worker who works with an elderly Portuguese community on Ossington. When I went to pick up the helmet, they were rehearsing live music: this amazing group of elderly women knitting and singing at the same time.
So I said, is it OK to record? They got really excited about it. And so, there is a really wonderful recording of these elderly women, very passionate and beautiful. They’re circle singing Portuguese folk songs and it is really nice. I have a lot of media that I collected and I’d like to use it to consider those experiences in a live way, because the project was live and it was not an object at the time.
CB: It also sounds like a very economical approach in the sense that you’re working with the resources you have access to and shaping them or retooling them in a way that does the thing you’re really looking for. It’s quite an economical approach to be aware of what the gallery can offer and to use that to do the thing you actually want to do. And, you know, maybe you don’t get to do all of it, and it sounds like you knew that you wouldn’t be able to—but you knew to capture that media for another opportunity. So, there’s this other exchange going on with yourself in a way—maybe it’s compromise, but I feel like it’s more than that.
ES: I think the limitations push you in different directions that you need to be aware of. I think they allowed me to envision other ways that I could be an artist, or engage with audiences. I feel that if I had had more opportunities to circulate my work through traditional channels, I wouldn’t be the artist that I am right now. I feel like there’s value in envisioning alternative platforms that can complicate the idea of art institutions from outside and prove that there are other ways to circulate aesthetics in a way that is more reciprocal. Not 100% reciprocal of course, I’m aware of that, but in a more participatory way.
I was conscious of that, because of these relationships, I was able to participate in an international festival and how that benefits myself and my career. But also, people got their gifts for free, and reconnected with their parents or their friends and family members, and I was able to circulate the work of other artists who I admire. I feel like, yes, we all got something in different ways.
CB: Yeah, it also strikes me that, in the same way that you have these stories now: they’re a part of your experience. You never would have toured São Paulo in that way, you never would have seen all those neighbourhoods, you never would have gone to all of those different places without having this as an experience. I also I love imagining the woman with the glass blender and how, every time she uses it, maybe she’s making a fresh drink for guests at her house and she tells the story of the time when this artist from Toronto came to deliver this glass blender: that exchange just continues on without you knowing about it, or being directly involved. I think that is such a beautiful thing to imagine.
ES: I hope so, and I really want to think that it’s happening in that way, and I also want to think that it’s starting conversations in those circles that say: Is that art? A blender? A used blender? It destabilizes the idea: What is art? She didn’t have to attend a gallery to be part of an artistic experience. So, I think those conversations are very valuable. I’m never gonna be able to witness them, but that seed is there. I think it’s important that the seed was planted and I hope people are asking such questions.
CB: I also love thinking about how that then becomes an external pressure on galleries. Like, if the public expects galleries to engage with art in this way that’s very relational, I love thinking that that expectation then forces galleries to think differently about how they engage with communities as well. You’re sort of educating the public about the potentials of art in a really particular way, much more than galleries often do.
What things did you encounter or learn from the project that you think could be incorporated into the way we engage with typical delivery services? (For example: if Fedex was going to change their model from one based on and around capital—what do you think they could instantly incorporate from your project? What could they learn from it?)
ES: I think it’s a three-part response. During the pandemic, goods delivery has become the norm. I think about three stakeholder groups in answering this question: shipping companies, audiences/consumers, and art institutions.
Shipping companies must provide better compensation and improve labour conditions to couriers. Delivering packages not only requires hard physical labour that aggravates pain and can lead to body injuries, but also a tremendous amount of emotional labour dealing daily with clients, front desk clerks, security guards, drivers, and other people on the street (cyclists, construction workers, other delivery workers, police, etc.). Such companies have consolidated their services and make so much profit. They should offer artists the opportunity to piggyback on their infrastructure to circulate aesthetics.
As consumers, we play a role by having high expectations for fast delivery, and the behind-the-scenes reality that goes into meeting those expectations is really dark. I also feel like, as an audience or client of those services, we need to chill out about our delivery times. Amazon is creating a culture that is very toxic: where we expect that objects will be delivered the next day. I find that is creating a super oppressive and dark environment—like, people are getting injured. It’s super gross. I think we need to chill out about how we expect things to be delivered to us.
Finally, art institutions would benefit from using this model as a strategy for engaging with their audiences and being less obsessed about filling up their walls with objects. With the current focus on inclusion and diversity in the art world, institutions could engage with the economies of BIPOC communities. For example, Filipinos abroad send approximately 400,000 balikbayan boxes back home per month. There is so much to be explored artistically. The way that the world is moving toward delivery is massive—especially now with the pandemic, delivery is crucial for us. Why aren’t art institutions using those channels to distribute aesthetics and make contacts with those companies, and work with them to support art? They’re already using the transportation. There should be a way that artists or institutions can piggyback on that and create something. We’re getting it anyways, so there should be a way where we might as well get a box that also has a different experience and promotes the work of artists.
CB: Even hearing you talk about it, it’s like: yeah, why aren’t they doing that? Especially as you said, during the pandemic when arts institutions are having these conversations about expanding audience and the importance of art because: “look everything shuts down, look how much we need to rely on art, to get us through it.”
But I think, you know, part of the problem is what you illustrated at the start of our conversation about the expectations that artists, art galleries, and art audiences have of what art looks like and who engages with it. The idea of a performance as being something that is dramatically performed in a space in a certain way, with usually really limited views outside of that.
ES: We cultural producers need to surrender space and think about why there needs to be a gallery at all. There is this obsession in bringing people to the gallery but what about the other way around?
It’s a crisis that a lot of galleries cannot understand the logic of their social function in our present moment.
CB: Yeah and exchange is at the heart of that, right? Like, exchange is at the centre of how we function in society and how we engage with one another, and many don’t get that, it’s the most basic, fundamental thing.
Even in terms of conversation, it’s an exchange: you’re compromising, you’re sharing, you’re getting something, you’re giving something, and if that isn’t understood on a basic level, as artists and art institutions, what are we even doing?
ES: Totally, it’s so limited, and we can’t continue with the same model. I mean, certain institutions will continue, especially commercial galleries. Institutions that are not profitable, I feel that they have more freedom to think beyond the four walls, to think about how to engage with people differently.
YYZGRU Express is a participatory art project by Eugenio Salas consisting of a free parcel delivery system created to generate connections between the North and South ends of the hemisphere through the exchange of personal objects.
In YYZGRU Express (YYZ being airline coordinates for Toronto and GRU for São Paulo), Salas assumes the role of a courier offering his services to transport parcels between the two cities. He delivered twelve parcels in total, containing various items from a used blender and postcards to a hair straightener and a hug. Collaborating artists responded to the items and created pieces that formed part of the final parcels. Francesco Gagliardi created a series of individual scores about memory and time in both English and Portuguese that were printed and placed in the space traditionally occupied by parcel labels. Francisco-Fernando Granados invited recipients to play crossword puzzles (including the names of each delivered item) using one color in English and another in Portuguese, highlighting points of intersection and disjuncture between the two colonial languages.
Acting as a service provider, Salas documented the participants and their packages in an activity that coincided with the Hemispheric Institute’s 2013 “Encuentro” (Encounter) symposium at the University of São Paulo.