Francis Alÿs: Suspended interference

Francis Alÿs

David Zwirner
525 West 19th Street, New York, NY 10011
January 10 – February 9, 2013

Francis Alÿs (In collaboration with Julien Devaux and Ajmal Maiwandi) REEL-UNREEL, 2011.  Single channel video projection; color, sound; 19:28 minutes. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

Francis Alÿs (In collaboration with Julien Devaux and Ajmal Maiwandi) REEL-UNREEL, 2011.
Single channel video projection; color, sound; 19:28 minutes. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

For Francis Alÿs: “Poetic license operates like a hiatus—an agent provocateur, a short circuit—into the apathy of a situation that finds itself in the state of political, social, confessional, ethnic, economic or military crisis or lethargy.”[1] He incorporates walking into his practice to navigate the relation between mental, physical, and aesthetic realms, creating meaning from actions, or sense from nonsense. “Walking is not a medium,” Alÿs says; “it’s an attitude. To walk is a very handy way of interacting and eventually interfering within a given context.”[2] It is counter-intuitive to virtual motion. It is also a displacement of being, and recognition of the fruitfulness of doing, even when that doing makes little sense.

Philosopher and social historian, Michel de Certeau suggests that to walk is to be without place, to be in search of a position in relation to the social space through and around which we navigate. The walker enunciates the positions here and there—which are linguistically the “locutionary seat in verbal communication” —they are, in other words, the linguistic position of “I” that intimates the existence of “you.”[3] I am here in relation to there, which is you. From the point of departure to arrival, from speaker to listener, artist to subject, friend to foe, the invisible line drawn between two can connect or divide. This is clearly enunciated in the artist’s best-known work: The Green Line performed in Jerusalem in 2004 that echoes a previous action, The Leak, performed in São Paulo in 1995. In São Paulo, he walks through the city carrying a leaking can of paint and then retraces his path back to the gallery to hang the empty can on the wall, a reference to both the action painting technique of Jackson Pollock and the self-reflexive status of modernist painting. The Green Line, however, was overtly political bringing the same action to bear on retracing the armistice boundary of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, drawn by Moshe Dayan on a map with a pencil (some say green ink), but redrawn to incorporate annexed territory after the1967 Six-Day War.

In his most recent film entitled, REEL-UNREEL (2011)—commissioned by dOCUMENTA (13) and exhibited in Kabul, Afghanistan as a contingent project to Kassel, Germany and now on view at David Zwirner in New York—Alÿs’s linear trajectory becomes a circuitous path with a playful, circular momentum. The 20-minute film opens with children playing hoops with rubber bicycle tires on the streets of Old City in Kabul; they then substitute the tires for reels of film. One youth, dressed in white, unreels a red spool of film; the other youth dressed in black follows, rewinding the film onto a blue spool. Together they race through the streets and crowded bazaar of the urban center until at last one reel flies off the hillside and is lost. Like the 16th-century Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel, Alÿs is fascinated by the creative and heuristic potential of children’s games. Unpretentious and seemingly insignificant, games, like walking, allow for discrete interference in an environment, interjecting a dynamic that yields open-ended and unpredictable results. Just as pushing a block of ice once served for Alÿs as metaphor for sculpture in Paradox of Praxis I (Sometimes doing something leads to nothing) (Mexico City, 1997), here the child’s play of rolling a hoop becomes an allegory of representation and the act of observation.

How (or even why) does an artist from Belgium who lives and works in Mexico, come to Afghanistan to create a work of art? What kinds of meaning can be created when the grounds for engagement are uncertain? As in previous tasks, Alÿs’s project involved “an idea, a medium, a location, and an interlocutor.”[4] Two young actors from Kabul are on-screen interlocutors through movement rather than dialogue. Ultimately, however, it is the social space of Old City that we come to see through Alÿs’s device of interference. By focusing his lens on the action of play, everything else falls within the frame surreptitiously, present in an uninhibited manner, delineating a community. Unlike the gang of boys, however, who joyously accompany the players on their route, there are few girls at play on these streets and, yet, they colorfully accent the film, paused as if suspending interference as they consider their own space of narrative. Their gaze opens to the spontaneity of unraveling—the action of a game—and the discrete unveiling of a neighborhood through a non-heroic adventure, one that would have very different meanings for a war-weary Afghani or a Western audience. Conflating the words REEL and REAL, the artist describes a moment when the balance between “collapse and recovery”[5] pivots precariously on the nature of representation in both the social and visual sense of the word. 

Kathleen MacQueen, October 17, 2012 – this text is an excerpt from a talk I gave entitled “Silent speech and a politics of intimacy” for a conference on Strategies of (un)Silencing  in Yerevan, Armenia. The full text will be published later this year (date TBA).

[1] Francis Alÿs from a transcript of a talk given in Beirut, December 2008, quoted in Mark Godfrey, “Politics/Poetics: The Work of Francis Alÿs” in Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception (Tate, 2010), p. 9. There is a variation of this statement in Francis Alÿs (Phaidon, 2007).

[2] “Blind Date: A conversation between Francis Alÿs and Cuauhtémoc Medina” in 98 Weeks/Beirut Every Other Day (Beirut, 2009), unpaginated.

[3] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (London, Berkeley, and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), p. 99.

[4] Francis Alÿs in “From Collapse to Recovery: A Conversation with Francis Alÿs, Andrea Viliani, and Ajmal Makwandi” in Mousse 34, dOCUMENTA (13) (Summer 2012), pp. 175-179. Alÿs himself poses the question of the meaning of place.

[5] Ajmal Makwandi in “From Collapse to Recovery” in Mousse 34, p. 175. This is how Ajmal Makwandi describes the action of the film but the brevity of the phrase leaves interpretation open.