Francis Alÿs: In the Spirit of Conviviality
Few commentators would dispute that, on the face of it, Francis Alÿs’s project When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002, was a ludic, if not ludicrous, gesture. A huge deployment of voluntary human labour with nothing to show for it – on site, at least – except some tracks in the sand, sooner or later to be obscured by the forces of wind and gravity. And few artistic gestures so lucidly lay bare the Sisyphean absurdity of the human condition, caught between utopian aspiration and frail endeavour in the larger space-time schema of the world. The very play of grounded and groundlessness, materiality and immateriality in the work, conjures up that abyssal gap between the burden of everyday existence and the weightlessness of the imagination, in which the sheer gravity of the former in most regions of the world, including Peru, lends the latter at times an air of the frivolous. Kant himself may have appreciated the extent to which Alÿs’s project colludes with his assessment of art as ‘purposiveness without purpose’, a characteristic that Gadamer also significantly attributed to play: he described both in terms of ‘movement as movement’, setting its own rules and existing in an ‘autonomous temporality’ – a time-out-of-time; and they expressed an overabundance of life.1 Art – like play, garbage and wastelands in general (notably the outskirts of cities where most shanty towns of the world are sited) – is an ‘excess’ or ‘unproductive’ expenditure, a continuous production of ‘otherness’, neither reducible to commodification nor wholly subject to the disciplinary mechanisms of the socio-political system that engenders it. And as such, it always presents a latent form of resistance to prevailing structures of power.
We should not, then, underestimate the role of the gratuitous in Alÿs’s project: it was a collaboration – a working together – between the artist, the critic, the filmmaker, the volunteers and the local people in a spirit of free will and conviviality, a sharing of a space of existence, if only momentarily, to perform a seemingly inconsequential act. But there is, of course, more to it than this. What grabs our attention here, and what cuts to the heart of what we may mean by art practice nowadays, is the very freedom to think and act upon such a thought. In what sense can praxis – in the classical sense, an act that is an end in itself and pertains to the labour of everyday existence – be at the same time poiesis – an act whose end is not in itself but in the pro-duction (in the sense of a bringing-into-being) of a ‘truth’? What kind of ‘truth’ is at stake in the work? And what can be the relevance of a poetic act in the context of sustained political crisis, such as that experienced in Peru itself, of which the displacement of people and the coming-into-being of Ventanilla, and other pueblos jovenes like it, is but one of its consequences – a symptom, in fact, of a fundamental void of meaning in the structure of polity to which the entire play on displacement in the work alludes? The argument I should like to advance is that the space of freedom opened up by When Faith Moves Mountains provides the conditions of possibility for a new thought of the political, here understood not simply as the mechanism of political discourse or the structures of power and the state, but as ‘conviviality’, or, the founding moment of community.
When Faith Moves Mountains was not, of course, without purpose or consequence. We know of it through its meticulous documentation – aerial footage of the overall topography showing the work in progress as a serpentine chain of workers battles up and down the dune in the heat of the noonday sun; and on-the-ground footage of the volunteers, their shovels scraping through the gritty surface and throwing up clouds of sand. We are given a sense of both its material and immaterial conditions. Based on its re-presentation through video, photographic and written documentation, knowledge of the work has already been disseminated through art publications, gossip and various interpretative commentaries. This ‘absence’ of any tangible ‘art object’, the displacement of preparatory work to event to re-presentation (what Alÿs describes as the three successive and distinct lives of the project), entangles us again in the dilemma of where between concept and object ‘art’ lies, which has been unresolved since the 1960s. But in any case, the mythopoietic effect of dissemination is how we ‘know’ the vast majority of the world’s cultural productions, especially site-specific ones, from Easter Island to Giotto’s Arena Chapel to the Land Art projects of the late 1960s and 1970s.
In some respects When Faith Moves Mountains invites comparison with earlier Land Art and Conceptual practices. Just as they were born out of the politicised climate of the 1950s and 1960s, so the forces of globalism have confronted us again with the question of the nature and place of art practices and their relevance to the social and political networks in which we are all now irrevocably entangled. And yet, despite their ambitions to ‘democratise’ art through its redefinition (as in the case of Kosuth), or through avoidance of its elitist institutions (as in the case of Land Art), these earlier practices nonetheless produced image-based objects still conventionally encoded as ‘art’ in exclusive, modernist terms. Typically, Land Art projects sought out remote and seemingly unpopulated landscapes; among the most infamous of these we can cite Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, 1969 – a displacement of 240,000 tons of earth in the Nevada desert; Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field, 1977 – 400 steel lightning conductors set in a grid over a square mile of the New Mexico desert; and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970 – over 5000 tonnes of earth and stone curling into Utah’s Great Salt Lake. As with When Faith Moves Mountain, Spiral Jetty is known to us through the documentary film of its making, and similarly, Smithson’s concern with entropy meant that it was not intended to survive the forces of nature.
All of these earlier sculptural sites were realised through the use of backhoes and other heavy earthmoving machinery, in contrast to the shovel and manual labour of When Faith Moves Mountains. The difference, however, is more than the macho affluence of the US versus the material poverty and labour-intensive necessity of Latin America. To understand the fuller significance we might think also of Richard Long who, like his American counterparts, trekked around what he liked to call ‘empty landscape’,2 but manually moved rocks or driftwood into configurations that nostalgically invoked a prehistoric or pre-industrial arcadia. Nonetheless, these practices retain a residue of the colonial mentality that assumes the right to make one’s mark on or exploit the land as material for art no matter whose territory, ‘empty’ or not, it may be. By contrast, When Faith Moves Mountains was an act without possession. One crucial distinction, then, between these earlier practices and Alÿs’s project is that the former are authorised, delimited reconfigurations of nature that draw the world into the orbit of the privileged subject rather than engage the self with the space and rhythm of the world. They remain consistent with what Agamben describes as modernism’s progressive displacement of poiesis by praxis, which gave rise to the notion of art as an expression of the artist’s creative will, and in the process detached aesthetics from ethics. And yet, as Agamben continues, ‘what the Greeks meant with the distinction between poiesis and praxis was precisely that the essence of poiesis has nothing to do with the expression of a will (with respect to which art is in no way necessary): this essence is found instead in the pro-duction of truth and in the subsequent opening of a world for man’s existence and action.’3
When Faith Moves Mountains is consistent with Alÿs’s tendency to withdraw as the artistic subject of the work. This does not at all mean that he also withdraws responsibility for it, but is an acknowledgement that the significance of an artistic event lies in its potential to open a world ‘for man’s existence and action.’ Alÿs shares this reticence with certain Conceptual practices of earlier decades. For instance, his paseos, although derived from a different set of parameters, recall Adrian Piper’s 1970-71 Catalysis series of absurd street performances; intended to elicit surprised responses from the passers-by, these interventions were, as she has said, not ‘art’ in so far as she was not posing herself as the object, but ‘propositions’ about art. Or, one might invoke Lawrence Weiner’s text ‘sculptures’ about form or materials, and Luis Camnitzer’s text-based work of the late 1960s. Rather than impose an image or object, these works were intended to activate the individual imagination of the viewer, since anyone could visualise the work according to her or his own experience. This attentiveness to the way the viewer imaginatively negotiates the work, although still based in formal concerns, is already ‘political’ in so far as it posits a concept of art as inherently dialogical and non-hierarchical. And yet Alÿs’s projects (like Piper’s and Camnitzer’s subsequent work) extend this propositional dimension of art much further into the socio-political sphere, such that the very absence of tangible object in When Faith Moves Mountains brings the frame, or socio-political context in which the work was produced, into sharper relief. For this reason it also poses some rather difficult questions regarding the ethical responsibility of the artist, questions that also demand that we rethink the aesthetic and the political as not inherently irreconcilable categories of experience.
To make art more answerable to ‘real life’ has been a persistent drive of the politically conscious artist at least since the 1960s, but politically motivated art has always been caught in a dilemma between the desire for artistic freedom and the demands of political activism, in which poiesis has too often ceded to praxis. And yet one has to ask whether this is not a false antinomy based on old assumptions that the aesthetic was necessarily detached from everyday life, which is tantamount to claiming that the creative act could have nothing to say of the truth of existence, a patent absurdity. Art may be an excess of life, but in our encounter with it, it brings its world to ours in what Gadamer described as a ‘fusion of horizons’. It is a space of interpenetration between these two worlds, where rather than the one mimicking the other, they are both put into mutual crisis. The need of contemporary art to understand and test the limits of this horizon, which I take to be one of the drives behind When Faith Moves Mountains, was also manifest in the recent Documenta11 in 2002. The exhibition’s curators deliberately set out to interrogate the relation of artistic practices to neo-colonial globalisation; against the historical convention of such international events to showcase formally inventive work, they selected practitioners who sought ways by which to confront real social and political issues. The consequence, however, was a slippage between documentary and artistic practices that begged the question of their respective efficacy in producing new truths for understanding reality.
Among the primary goals of the documentary – and activist art – is persuasion and clarity of transmission, which means that the language it uses must be unambiguous and already commonly understood; that is, there is an assumption that words and images are directly communicable. But if one reproduces the language of established, hegemonic discourses without challenging the ideological motives that underline both their structures of representation and forms of reception – in effect, their claims to ‘truth’ – then one ends up conforming to the conservative politics one wants to oppose. Hence the rhetoric of politically motivated art has tended either to reconfirm authority – often by seeking to occupy its place – or to become appropriated and neutralised by it, a problem that dogged activist art of the 1960s and 1970s.
If, however, we take the view that the poetic and political efficacy of art lies beyond the transmission of mere information in what Heidegger called the ‘unconcealment’ of truth, then its modus operandi must involve a suspension of signification. This may be experienced as liberatory joy or intense anguish, but in either case it mobilises the feelings and imagination of the viewer, an affectivity that depends less on its status as a physical image per se than as an encounter with an event and a vector of a thought. By this route, we come closer to appreciating the subtlety Alÿs’s work. Art, for Heidegger, ‘institutes a world’, meaning, that art as poiesis produces a hitherto unthought configuration of reality. To do this art needs to provide the conditions of an ‘event’; but for it to be an event it cannot strictly speaking present what is already known. Thus the radical event of art precipitates a crisis of ‘meaning’; or rather, it exposes the void of meaning at the core of a given social situation, which is its ‘truth’. This truth is not something already there to be discovered – like the laws of gravity, or how many civilians were killed in the American bombing of Baghdad – but is created in response to a world and a self in a continuous state of transformation. What this means, as Bakhtin recognised, is that each act performed in the world at each singular moment has its transformative consequences, however localised, and herein lies the ethical responsibility of not only the artist but of us all: that the ethical arises in our answerability to our own actions, not in any prior moral rules.
Typically, Alÿs’s work does not attempt to fill this unconscious void with a plethora of images but to hollow it out, and this is the trait we see playfully excavated in, amongst other works, Magnetic Shoes, 1994, the artist’s paseo around La Habana wearing magnetic shoes to attract metallic street debris (a deliberately ironic gesture given that Cuba, like much of Latin America is, out of economic necessity, a nation of opportunistic collectors and recyclers of ‘garbage’); Paradox of Praxis 1: Sometimes doing something leads to nothing, 1997, in which the artist pushed a block of ice round the streets of Mexico City until it melted; and The Loop, 1997, in which the artist took an airplane detour from Tijuana around the world to San Diego to avoid crossing the notorious US-Mexico. What thereby emerges as ludicrous and meaningless is not the poetic gesture itself but what it discloses of the geopolitical conditions that frame it. Deleuze maintained that, contrary to conventional opinion, the artist was not so much the patient (suffering some form of psychosis in need of treatment) but rather the ‘diagnostician’ of civilisation, capable of identifying the symptoms of a social pathology prior to any general awareness of it.4 And it is precisely this moment of artistic insight, when our habitual structures of reality are shown to no longer make sense that the potential arises for a collective demand for change.
When Faith Moves Mountains relates to Alÿs’s earlier ‘demonstration’, Cuentos patrióticos, 1997, a video staged in the Zócalo in Mexico City, in which the artist led a line of sheep in a circle round the square’s central flagpole, a rallying point for Mexico’s public demonstrations. The work speaks in general of the coercive effects of power, but also alludes to a historical event in 1968, in which government officials, forced to rally in the Zócalo against the student movement, began to bleat like a flock of sheep.5
When Faith Moves Mountains also relates to a ‘happening’, Lava la bandera, staged two years earlier in Peru by a group of artists and writers, the Colectivo Sociedad Civil. Outraged by the Fujimori government’s election fraud, they assembled round the fountain in Lima’s Plaza Major to wash the stains of corruption from the national flag. The recommended brand of soap was Bólivar, named after Latin America’s most famous liberator. This metaphor, well understood by the populace, sparked off spontaneous flag washing in towns all over Peru, contributing to the downfall of the government. This event in turn recalls the ‘scrubbing piece’, an unofficial performance by the Guerrilla Art Action Group (an activist group engaged in street protests and letter campaigns) conducted in the Whitney Museum in New York in 1970 as a protest against both the elitism of the institution and the Vietnam War, their slogan: This place is a mess. We’ve got to wash it up.6
What these events have in common to various degrees is the articulation of a poetic metaphor with collective agency. The question is, what is it that links a movement seemingly originating in individual sensibility to collective response: what is it about When Faith Moves Mountains that enables an apparently absurd thought to gather to it a body of unpaid participants and then touch the imagination of an art world displaced at some considerable distance from its site of execution? Agency is experienced in the decisions subjects and communities make in mapping and positioning themselves relative to sites of power. This is precisely the point of articulation of the ethical where this is understood not as a pre-given set of rules, which are by no means universal, but in something produced in the encounter with an event for which one has no ready-to-hand explanations. This is the moment of the ethical that Bakhtin refers to and that Zygmunt Bauman describes as preceding the moral law.7 Alain Badiou relates this moment to Lacan’s notion of the Real: a realisation of a ‘truth’ – a void of meaning at the core of any situation, which is nonetheless its unacknowledged or hidden foundation.8The subject is seized by a realisation that alters its existing perception of the world and sense of self within it, producing a ‘becoming-other’ than itself. The subject is what the intuition produces. Hence, if each act performed creates a new configuration of self and world, then it also animates a new ethical evaluation. Badiou’s famous example is Saint Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus; and we might add that both artistic insight and faith, referred to in Alÿs’s title, are experiences of the human spirit that exist in excess of scientific proof, or instrumental reason in general. What this means is that art as insight does not render up a subject of knowledge, since it is precisely the privileged subject that is dissolved here, but access to what Jean-Luc Nancy calls the ‘origin’: neither the origin of the world nor of a psychological self, but of each moment in its singularity, where artist and viewer find common ground.9
Central to all these accounts is the proposition that each singular moment is constitutive of shared existence. As Bakhtin insists, ‘To live from within myself, from my unique place in Being, does not yet mean at all that I live only for my own sake’; as I approach the other in its own singularity I acknowledge my answerability to that other and to myself as a responsible participant in the always becoming world-as-event.’10 As Nancy argues, we must forge a different path from the post-Enlightenment privilege of Being, which conceals the fact that ‘I’ is mutually constituted with others. ‘I’ is always and already ‘us’, ‘being-together’: ‘Being does not have meaning… there is no meaning if meaning is not shared.’11 From this point of view, art’s origin and destiny no longer move from and to an autonomous self, the assumption of modernism, but in ‘being-together’, an essential sharing of existence in which the Western notion of the privileged artistic subject is no longer sustainable.
This spirit of conviviality is, for me, the motivating force behind the event of When Faith Moves Mountains, initiating and uniting community as a shared experience of a thought, from the group of mostly engineering students who participated in the event at the site, to the people of the pueblo jóven who took it upon themselves to protect the site from interference while the work was in progress, to the art world, which receives the idea through the chain of documentation and commentary: a movement connecting the local to the global. In other words, as several commentaries have pointed out, When Faith Moves Mountains initiates a storytelling function, and Alÿs himself has spoken of the work’s potential to become a ‘fable or urban myth’, consistent with the intentions of his work in general.12 Deleuze calls this ‘fabulation’, which he emphatically places in the domain of collective utterance.13 Fabulation concerns neither psychological nor historical memory as such (although it may draw on this), but the event through which teller and listener, or image and viewer, enter into a mutual relation of transformation. For the author, it is the task of the artist to invent new uses of language through which the collective may see the possibility of reinventing itself.
Every new community needs its myths and storytellers on which to found its cohesion, or right to exist against the forces of fragmentation, as Patrick Chamoiseau’s epic novel Texaco, set in the post-slavery conditions of Africa’s descendants in Martinique, perfectly describes.14 As it happens, both Texaco – the jumble of ‘hutches’ on the outskirts of City (Fort-de-France) – and the pueblo jóven of Ventanilla on the dunes outside Lima are founded in the unpromising shadow of an oil refinery. Sand, an organically inert material, provides little sustenance for life, but is nonetheless an ingredient in material for building foundations. Both When Faith Moves Mountains and Texaco invite us to consider that in repressive regimes, the cruellest act is perhaps not to deprive a people of its body but of the ground and will to imagine new possibilities of life. Art, of course, does not produce grand revolutions; but as an event that opens up a new narrative about reality it provides the conditions of possibility for a nascent political consciousness, one born from conviviality, a being-together as a coming-into-being of community: the realisation of shared existence.
When Faith Moves Mountains is a reminder that, faced with the ever-increasing instrumentalisation of life under globalisation, the responsibility of artistic practices is not to relinquish the right to imagine, but to invent new uses of language and new tactics of engagement with community – in other words, not the patronising notion of ‘bringing art to the masses’, which still inscribes the attitudes of Western institutions and ‘social’ art practices, but a reconfiguration of practices capable of penetrating different social spaces and collective imaginaries. Or, as Camnitzer puts it: ‘The discussion is not one about the ethics of art-making under dire circumstances, or the measurement of its direness, but about the possibility and duty of sustaining a useful militancy and, further, society’s critical ability and sanity. That is, keeping alienation in check, everybody’s alienation, no matter what.’15 To keep alive the will to imagine is also to invent new ethical landscapes, new narratives and new agents of social change; it is utopian without promising Utopia.
The Green Line, 2004, Alÿs’s paseo through Jerusalem, revisits the question posed in When Faith Moves Mountains: what can be the relevance of a poetic act in the context of sustained political crisis?16 As such, The Green Line functions as an extended and complementary exploration of the earlier work. The difference is that Jerusalem is a more militarised political context than Ventanilla, problematizing any notion of ‘aesthetic neutrality’. To perform an act objectively in Jerusalem would be to succumb to the compromised liberal strategy favoured by Western media of reporting a ‘balanced view’ when the prevailing unequal relations of power demanded an ethical critique. Given that, as an outsider, the artist could also not be partisan, and direct collaboration with local communities, as in When Faith Moves Mountains, was not an option, what position was available to him? Alÿs’s solution was to retrace the map drawing made by Moshe Dayan in 1948, known as the ‘green line’, that inaugurated the partition of the city, but which topographically represented a sixty to eighty metre wide tract of land. Alÿs was filmed walking the ‘green line’ with a leaky tin of green paint, and the film was then combined with recorded commentaries on Alÿs’s action by both Palestinian and Israeli interviewees. By making a minimal intervention in a ‘cartographic gap’ no one can possess and hence from which no one can speak, the artist offered another position from the paradoxical ground of groundlessness.
In both When Faith Moves Mountains and The Green Line, meaning lies not in Alÿs’s gesture but in what its absurdity discloses of the historical and socio-political framework that surrounds it. A poetic gesture intrinsically does not state a political position from which any determinate meaning can be derived, on the contrary, its value is its capacity to ‘put meaning on trial’ (as Adorno once said of Beckett’s plays), to induce in its interlocutor a momentary loss of control of meaning from which a new insight and configuration of reality can emerge. Both When Faith Moves Mountains and The Green Line speak to questions of human belonging and dispossession, of the cartographies of colonialism. But this is not simply a territorial matter; it touches those relations that dehumanise feeling on both sides of a repressive divide. If the effect of conventional politics and its technologies is to disable human exchange and shrink existence to the limited world of ‘interests’, the effect of Alÿs’s poetics is subversively political in its gift of the gesture as a potential catalyst for working through and reconfiguring reality, from senselessness to sense, impasse to passage, inhuman to human, towards a more expansive politic of solidarity and conviviality.
1. Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, trans. Nicholas Walker, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, p 22-23.
2. Richard Long interviewed by Colin Fitzpatrick: ‘There is some comment on the lack of people in my work, but it is just a question of choice, the subject of my work is walking, or making sculpture in empty landscape. Most of the world’s surface is still open landscapes. I feel I’m a realist working in the real spaces of the world. dundee.ac.uk/transcript/volume2/issue2/long.
3. Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content, trans. Georgia Albert, California: Stanford University Press, 1999, p 72.
4. Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale, New York: Columbia University Press, 1990, pp 237-238.
5. For a full analysis of this work see Cuauthémoc Medina, ‘Action/ Fiction’, in Francis Alÿs, Antibes: Musée Picasso, 2001, pp 16-20.
6. See Lucy Lippard, Get the Message? A Decade of Art for Social Change, New York: E. P. Dutton Inc., 1984, p 43.
7. Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics, Oxford, UK and Cambridge, USA: Blackwell, 1993, pp 47–61.
8. Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. Peter Hallward, London & New York: Verso, 2001, pp 47-52.
9. Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne, California: Stanford University Press, 2000, pp 1- 22.
10.M. Bakhtin, Toward a Philosophy of the Act, trans. Vadim Liapunov, Austin: University of Texas, 1993, p 48. Bakhtin’s reading of the ethical as mutual answerability derives from his attempt to reconcile the seemingly insurmountable gap between lived experience and its cultural representation, which is also the trajectory traced through the three ‘lives’ of When Faith Moves Mountains.
11. Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne, California: Stanford University Press, 2000, pp 1- 22
12. Francis Alÿs, ‘A Thousand Words’, Artforum International, Summer 2002, XL no 10, p 147.
13. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, London: The Athlone Press, 1989, pp 215–224. In speaking of the critique of disabling myths in Brazilian Glauber Rocha’s cinema, Deleuze says, ‘[…] the agitprop is no longer the result of a becoming conscious, but consists of putting everything into a trance, the people and its masters, and the camera itself, pushing everything into a state of aberration…’ This echoes Alÿs’s desire for the event of When Faith Moves Mountains to provoke a ‘collective hallucination’. See Cuauthémoc Medina/Francis Alÿs, ‘Maximum Effort, Minimum Result’ in Francis Alÿs, Phaidon, 2007.
14. Patrick Chamoiseau, Texaco, trans. Rose-Myriam Réjoulis and Val Vinokurov, New York: Vintage International, 1997.
15. Luis Camnitzer, ‘Conflict’, Art Nexus, no. 47, March 2003.
16. The Green Line was designed to test the axioms ‘sometimes doing something poetic can become political’ and ‘sometimes doing something political can become poetic’.
The essay was first commissioned in 2004 to focus specifically on When Faith Moves Mountains. It was subsequently revised for the publication Francis Alÿs, London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2007, pp 109-120. Presented here is a synthesis of both versions.