THE CANVAS-INTERVIEW WITH FRANCIS ALŸS: ‘THE OBSERVER POSITION IS THE POINT OF VIEW OF AN OUTSIDER’
A lot of your work has to do with space, territory at the one hand, borders at the other hand. How important has it been for you to move from Europe to Mexico?
Alÿs: “It was the starting point. I lived and worked here as an architect for two or three years and by a series of circumstances I ended up being trapped here. I always had an interest in the arts, but without any real intention of getting involved as a main activity. It is probably the encounter with Mexico, that made me just give it a try. I had a lot of free time and as I was working outside of Mexico City, I knew very few people here. This opened up quite a large space of exploring, since there were no witnesses.
I think it was partly that and partly the fact that the city was so omnipresent and oppressing, that I needed to react to the urban entity. I had to do something to situate myself within this culture which was still very foreign at the time. It is so different from the culture I came from. Furthermore I had never lived in a major city – I grew up in the countryside and lived in provincial places. It’s this double shock that made me want to find a means to react and learn a territory.
The first pieces were very much a matter of both finding a place within this chess game the city was and also of mapping it. Thus the walking came into place. It was a very easy way of memorising a new space and of acquiring, mostly through repetition of simple acts, a certain acknowledgment of your presence in that place.
So it is a question to what point the encounter with Mexico City had to do with my artistic orientation. It’s a bit of an irrelevant question, because it just happened that way. It happened that way, and then things started moving on faster. But at first it was very much an action-reaction game.”
Was there a decisive moment in which you decided to abandon architecture and become an artist?
Alÿs: “It turned out to be, but it wasn’t a conscious decision at first. I suddenly had the chance to test and see how far I could go and then gradually, without noticing, I was drifting away from the architecture field and getting fully engaged in the artistic practice. And by the time I realised the change that was happening, three or four years had passed.
Architecture is very slow and full of compromises: with the city, with the client, with the local politics, with the finances. Eventually you end up so far from the initial concept, because of all these compromises. Instead the arts can be very immediate. You can think about doing something here, test it out tomorrow, get a couple of friends on it and shoot it two days after. That was very seducing, having worked for a number of years in the architectural field and in particular the architectural field touching urbanism.
I might have continued to be an architect for the rest of my days and have been happy, had I not come here. It’s just that one thing led to another. And potentially it might still lead to another thing, in two years time, I don’t know.”
Having been an architect, has it been important for the themes in your work?
Alÿs: “I think it helped. It definitely helped one aspect of the work, which was the collaboration. Architecture being all about teamwork, it was a very good training for the kind of work I am interested in – I was able to reproduce the same structure. I put on the plate an idea, which is not even necessarily defined in terms of the medium. Some kind of occasion gives the missing ingredient, often the location. And then the medium starts to define itself. It could be a series of photographs or a film. It doesn’t really matter as long as it is the most immediate way of translating the original script.
After that I start to look for specialists within that specific field. People are usually much better than I am, in animation for example. They take over the project. In that sense it is not so different from an architect working on an original idea, passing it on to other people, who will themselves pass it over. It is a game of bouncing back and forth ideas. If the plot is good enough it will survive these passages from one person to another. If it is not strong enough, or not ready, it dies – and you are made aware of it very quickly. And then you just cancel it or wait or move on to another project. This collaboration side of my work is a big element in what I do.
The other thing coming from my architectural background probably is the fascination of the urban phenomena. This need of addressing the city in a direct way, through works and interference – even though that happened later. At first I took an observer position and then gradually I felt I gained the right to comment.”
The observer position, does it in a way relate to the fact that you have been a foreigner.
Alÿs: “Certainly. The observer position is the point of view of an outsider. It is about translating what you are looking at in your own codes. Having this slightly remote incomprehension of things – you don’t understand them and for the same reason you pay more attention to them than the local who is integrated in that situation. I definitely used and abused the distance. But you can only hold that position for so long. It gradually erodes along the years. And after a while you naturally want to be part of the scene and you step on to a different field. It took me about ten years to get there.”
Ten years of being an observer, being an outsider…
Alÿs: “Being an observer and doubting if I have the right to take part in a critical discourse of the situation. This is my host country in many ways – I’m in debt to them for that. I have done lots of things before getting to the stage where I could start criticising my host. That’s a different step and it’s a matter of taking your time.”
Is this outsider position also metaphorical for the artist position?
Alÿs: “It could be. It certainly used to be but I don’t know if it still is. It seems like the artist has stepped in the reality of many places, very much in the same way as journalists used to do, or sociologists. The borders between those different practices are becoming much thinner and sometimes you may question why a documentary which is all about sociology happens to be in an art space. And how does that affect your reading of that documentary?
I think that the notion of the artist having this kind of – I’m going to make a caricature of it – enlightened vision of his own area, is disappearing. Which might not be such a bad thing. It’s making the artist just another professional. In the same way as the market changed. I think it is repositioning the artist in the same way as he was perceived in the 16th century in Rubens’s studio. It was a big enterprise. In the same way as you could be a lawyer, it could be a bourgeois profession. With the influx of money that is being put into the art and with the kind of general interest that seems to emerge in the life of the artist, he is now occupying a very middle class function in society. Artists just become celebrities, at least the cream of them.”
You moved from this position of an observer, a foreigner, an outsider, to the position of someone who criticises, who comments also on political…
Alÿs: “I don’t think I necessarily criticise. Sometimes I just wave a flag about something that I consider wrong, or dysfunctional.”
Take for instance ‘Patriotic Tales’. It feels like a comment.
Alÿs: “Yes. ‘Patriotic Tales’ was certainly that. It is a good example because it was probably the first piece where I was moving further than the observer position. It was certainly the first time I was directly quoting an historical situation in ’68 and re-enacting it in the present, in ’98 – it was the thirtieth anniversary – but with a critical comment, which was: things basically haven’t changed.
Thirty years later we are still accepting the official discourse and there is still no real opposition discourse that can be handled. In the last ten years there has been a change of regime, but other problems have occurred.”
Was it also because you became a Mexican finally, that you felt you were part of this society and had the right to comment?
Alÿs: “I don’t think you can become a Mexican. I am not Mexican, I don’t look Mexican and I don’t fit in. But that doesn’t mean you cannot function in the place, it doesn’t necessarily stop you from being able to be part of the general chess game. You don’t need to pretend you are part of the local scene to be able to interact with the local scene. And that much is accepted.
Nowadays it is more complicated, because time passes and by far now, Mexico is the place where I have lived the longest. No matter if I grew up in Belgium which definitely had, and still has, an imprint on what I do. But I lived here most of my life.”
Belgium still has an imprint. What is the importance of Belgium for you, now? In which way does it still affect the way you look at things, or the way you work?
Alÿs: “I don’t even know if I can analyse it. I think it’s something that is rooted deep in me. I recognise tics here and there. Not just going back to Brueghel, but also in my contemporary colleagues. I recognise and I am very good at identifying Belgian artists elsewhere. There has to be some kind of a germ that has to do with, we come from the same malt. No matter how split the culture might seem – it is a very small country, with a very strong kind of catholic input, still. And there is a certain kind of humour that comes out of that, as a kind of reaction and a resistance, a way of ironizing that part of our past. That comes out in many of the Belgian artists, I came across.
Belgium is not something I think of on a regular base. It’s a long way, I don’t go very often. It’s more a reference that I know is floating around. The rate here in Mexico is very different. No matter how global this planet might become, it still is very, very deeply different. My life here is very different. I left as an architect and I became an artist, I have family here… After all, I think you just live in peace with your past and that’s it. So it is a sentimental relation, more than a direct artistic one.”
There is a big ocean separating Belgium from Mexico, one could say. This ocean is also there in quite some of your works. Does it refer to this thing of crossing the border? Of going from one place to another, the difficulties involved with it?
Alÿs: “Yes. It’s very much a reality and probably borders are much more present today than they were even twenty-thirty years ago. It’s quite a contradiction of this global economy and global communication. The easier communication becomes and the more economy seems to float – that is at least what they are trying to tell us – the more borders are becoming a barrier, up to being a wall, in many cases. So this occurrence of both opening and closing is going on. Part of my fascination for the border phenomenon is the materialisation of that growing misunderstanding between the higher level and the reality of the planet. In many cases the border – and you could say the same for the sea – is a physical representation of the fracture in cultures, or in the case of Havana-Florida, in a broken community: the exile Cubans and the Cubans that stay in Cuba. Obviously the image of the bridge comes in as a metaphor; it’s illustrating in a funny way the border.
Probably the first time I directly addressed the border phenomenon was in ’96, when I did this travelling around the globe to go from the Mexican border to the US border without ever crossing the border precisely to illustrate the absurdity of the situation. It was a time that they were extending the fence between Mexico and the States and opening the commercial agreement between Canada, Mexico and the United States. What was going on in the political discourses and what was actually happening in reality was completely contradictory.
I have read some time ago, that until passports were invented, in the 19th century, it was much easier to cross borders from one country to another. The difficulty at the time was to leave the country, because you were kept for the army or something. But once you had left your country, you could move across the planet much easier. It is paradoxical how the invention of passports has made travelling across different countries more difficult.”
Do you see yourself as a political artist?
Alÿs: “No. I think the political…”
Politics in the large sense of the word is very much there.
Alÿs: “In Latin-America or Mexico it’s just one of the ingredients you need to take into account as to respond to a situation. You can’t ignore that there is a major political turmoil going on with lots of tensions and unresolved conflicts, and contradictory, also desires. And that is not even at the level of high politics. There is this north-south axis; they want to be like the States but reject them at the same time. You could say the same thing about the colonial days, when one was embracing the Spanish European culture, yet completely resisting to it. And it could go on forever. It moved to modernity, it probably moves on today to globalism, and there is this constant love and hate game.
What I’m saying is that the political ingredient is there and you need to deal with it, as you need to deal with the racial, socio-economical ingredient. Some pieces address it more directly, but I hope they don’t do it in a militant way. I use the poetic language, as a means to trap the viewer into a story where he might eventually find a strong political component. The trick is always to make that contact, whether the work is political, humorous or formal, it doesn’t matter. Once you have got the viewer inside your artwork, video story or whatever, then you can bring into a second layer which would have more to do with a critical discourse of the situation.
I think that often the artwork is a matter of creating a distance, by breaking the local codes – and it can happen to the absurd. Not that most of what I do is absurd, but it can be read as such at first. ‘When faith moves mountains’ could be read as an absurd act. But actually the dune did move. There was some kind of result; something did change – it wasn’t just a completely useless and gratuitous act. It took a massive effort of a whole collective to make a minor change, but a change did happen. And you could say the same thing about reforms in Latin-America. It takes massive efforts to make minimal reforms. The work demonstrates a different take on things and not necessarily by criticizing. I was illustrating this two steps forward/ three steps backward dance which at the end of the day results in a move forward, even if sometimes it takes endlessly for the change to happen.”
Moving mountains is almost a mystical notion, a very philosophical one. It’s related, I would say, to this other notion which is important for you or your work, of doing nothing. An almost Chinese, Taoist concept.
Alÿs: “No I think one led to another. When you are in the production process, you don’t necessarily understand exactly why you do it. You do it by this intuitive drive, because it is the right thing to do at that moment. And I think, I hope, there is a kind of ongoing narrative from one work to another. Nevertheless there is no way I could tell you what that narrative is. The works are probably different kinds of episodes of one larger story. But even those episodes are not necessarily linear.
The way I work is much like this game of snakes and ladders. You go from here, you move there and then there is a snake and you move back there. There is this whole attempt of building a body of art that has to do with work, labour, the activity of working, what someone called ‘going from the work of art to the art of working’, if you want. And this leading to the concept of production, but mostly of efficiency. What is efficiency, what is progress? For us, for them, for another culture? I myself don’t know exactly where this is ending. I might go from this gap to that one and then three years later fill up a gap in between.
What I am getting at is, getting back to the mountain project linked to the ice project (which had as subtitle ‘Sometimes doing something leads to nothing’, AMP): yes, there was a link. Both had to do with production. If you were to take the ice piece from ’97, which led to nothing, you could say that the Lima piece actually did lead to something. So it’s a little progress. It is a next chapter. And then, potentially, the strip-tease (‘Rehearsal 2′, AMP) is another take, that also enters the mechanics of moving forward. And a piece like ‘Rehearsal 1′, this little Volkswagen going up and down the hill, is actually much more of a kind of association in between two poles. But they are all part of the same story and they are not chronologically following one another. It will take somebody else to put order in those. Hopefully I will fill the gaps of the narration in the next years, or not.”
It seems a common notion in a lot of your performances that there is something like the autonomy of the concept, and then a kind of autonomy of the way the concept develops itself into an action.
Alÿs: “Yes, as much as I can.”
Is this the way this idea of nothing has to be understood?
Alÿs: “No, but you could read it that way. You look at what somebody has done, with the necessary distance to be able to create links that I probably can’t create. But in terms of not intervening, no interference, I don’t think it can happen that way although it’s a nice thought. There is a physics concept of Isenberg that says you can’t observe micro molecules without affecting them. In the same way you as an observer do interfere in the situation you are witnessing. Realizing this probably made me decide that I might as well interfere openly. I put together a plot, there is a set place, there is a group of protagonists that will take over the scenario. And it’s from there on I don’t interfere with the developments and whatever comes out is the answer to the proposal, to the action. But to say I do nothing, I don’t know. You do and you don’t.”
That is also how the Chinese see it.
Alÿs: “In what sense?”
That consciously interfering is not the thing to do. That to act is not to act. I think there is a lot of similarity between Taoist ideas about action and your point of view. So that is why I wondered whether there was an influence of it.
Alÿs: “I have to say I know zero about Taoist philosophy. The culture I know best is probably the Latin American culture. It’s potentially because I have been very obsessive about that territory that I made a real effort in trying to integrate it and understand it and look at it from the other side. It has eradicated other options – I mean, how many cultures can you look at? I think one is already… It’s quite a schizophrenic situation. And that’s probably the point I am reaching right now – I am no more from there, I am not yet from here. It’s a constant split. But you can live with it, if you know yourself enough and if you know to function within that dichotomy. If I would also try to understanding more about oriental philosophy I might get lost in the spiral of options. But I am not excluding any possibility for the future.”
‘Sometimes doing nothing leads to something’ is one of the many rather poetical titles of your work. How important is poetry, in the literary sense of the word?
Alÿs: “I don’t know if poetry is the word I would use. I love poetry but I am absolutely incapable of writing it. Whenever I manage to put three or four phrases, it is more like a lullaby than poetry, although it has got the structure and the verses … I see it as an enormous achievement and an ideal condensation of an idea. Writers manage to condense in an essay, a book, a series of ideas, whereas visual art is very heavy, as opposed to text. Also text is a very cheap commodity. It is accessible to lots of people for very little money.
Poetry is not my medium. Nevertheless, I probably obsessively try to reduce and come back to it, and condense any possible situation in very few words. You can take the case of the ice piece as a study case. It is such a simple action that it can be repeated into words and transmitted without the need to see an image. You talk about a guy who pushes a block of ice until it melts down to nothing. I think it’s important to do it, because it is important to confront the idea with your idea of the situation, the street.
The use of words in my work – and that’s a key element, that things can be at some point be articulated in a very simple phrase – probably also has to do with the fact that, because I work with other people, I do need to articulate my thoughts at some point. And if I’m not clear in the proposal, words won’t be able to translate the idea.”
Some of your texts have been published also. Do you consider yourself as being a writer too?
Alÿs: “Not at all, no. That’s a new attribute that’s been given to the artists in the last twenty years that he has to be able to verbalise what he does. Which is not a given. I would think that most visual artists are visual artists because they are not able to articulate their thoughts. If we would have done the same thing 10 years ago, I would have been, dead scared. But you do learn to articulate what you do, although I would recommend the viewer to take it with distance. Because at the end of the day I’m not the one who should be talking about what I’m doing, and I’m not the one who has the best understanding of what I’m doing. I’m just doing it. I’m doing it, I’m doing it compulsively, and I will keep doing it until I feel I’m running out. And I hope someone will tell me when I am running out.”
You are performer, a writer too, although you deny it, a painter, and a craftsman. Why are you a painter when you are a performer? What is the relationship?
Alÿs: “Because I’m none of all these at the same time. I had no art education. It was an immense liberation: when I started being interested in the art field, there was not one medium that was imposing itself rather than another. I was not better in any of them. So, in a sense, the issue of the medium became very quickly irrelevant.
When people ask me: “is painting dead, is painting alive?” Painting lives as long as there is a good reason to use paint instead of using words or instead of using a moving image. It’s just another medium that is available. And if painting, for example, is the best way to express your idea, well, do painting. What I do in painting parallel with actions is just because I can’t do it in the action; because it is more an image or a fantasy, or because I want to step out of the action.”