Thursday, May 25, 2006

INTERVIEW: The Celebrated Walking Blues Michele Robecchi talks to Francis Alÿs

Francis Alÿs is not an easy man to track down. A perfect mirror image of his work, he seems to be constantly moving from one place to another, and the wide range of media he uses – from painting to video and performance – can’t help but reinforce the conviction that with Alÿs we are called to deal with a rather mysterious, if not elusive, figure. Contemporary managed to meet Alÿs in London a few weeks prior to the opening of Seven Walks, one of his most ambitious projects to date, realised in collaboration with Artangel and Bloomberg, only to discover that he’s actually a very open, relaxed and affable character, every inch the articulate conversationalist and very willing to discuss his work in detail. In spite of the unequivocally high production values behind Seven Walks, Alÿs often emphasises the simple nature of his concepts, and the fact that he uses the first-person plural when describing the making of his work provides an insight into how much importance he places on the collaborative side of his practice. Unlike many other projects promoted by Artangel, Seven Walks revolves around different ideas rather than one single strong proposal, addressing various elements that the artist acknowledges as typical of the city of London, such as the Coldstream Guards, bottles of milk, the proliferation of CCTV cameras and the commuting phenomenon.

Francis Alÿs: The common trend of all the projects is walking, in a very loose sense. It could be me, it could be somebody else. Obviously all of them address the city of London, but there was no solid proposal aiming at one special single installation or film. In fact, there was no proposal at all. I’d been in touch with James [Lingwood, co-director of Artangel] for a few years and we weren’t getting anywhere in terms of putting something together, so I decided to come to London anyway and spend some time over here, and that lead to the first project, which was Railings, and then one thing led to another. It’s more like a suite of little or big interventions, which I hope will create some kind of narrative of one person in one place at a specific moment. But it’s not like a show – there’s never been any kind of master plan. We kept building along the way. The whole project took six or seven visits to London over a period of a year and a half. This is the first time that I’m in a situation where I am doing this articulation of scenarios or episodes in a specific location that’s not Mexico, which is very interesting. I think it has to do with the fact that the image I had of London as a city was very confused. I’ve come here a few times, but as a visitor. I always had an outsider’s point of view. I started by addressing the main features of London partly because of the absence of a big project. So I got things like the Buckingham Palace Coldstream Guards, or the railings – things that strike me as details of one bigger entity. The development of the project was very much like one discourse linked to another. And ultimately it could have continued on and on. That’s why the last walk, in a very catholic way, is about resting. You know, the working week and the Sunday rest. It’s very much related to the temporality of my stay. I think that if I had stayed another year it could have been 13 or 17 walks. It’s quite an open figure. It is more representative of an attitude than of one specific project.

Michele Robecchi: So the Railings film was the first step?FA: Yes. It uses the sound of the railings and represents the character of the place. That’s partly because I can’t think of a city that’s got as many railings as London does. I always export my way of working to different places. I extended and created a different version of something I was working on before while in Mexico and just pasted it on to London. MR: Did you deliberately try to focus on more than one single subject?

FA: I think it’s the way I work – I’m quite dispersed. MR: When Faith Moves Mountains (A Project for Geological Displacement) (2002) was built around a single strong idea. It’s not dispersed.FA: Yes, that’s probably true. That was one comment, or allegory. Seven Walks is much more like a structural kind of story. We talked a lot with James about the idea of rumour – how information passes from one person to another. We took it as a background, as a metaphorical way to talk about the project. It’s a fragmented identity. Once this was in place, we were also afraid of being tied to the concept of me, or somebody else, performing but I think I eventually managed to do something different while preserving my own language at the same time. For example the railing piece is very simple – it’s just walking along the railings with a stick. There are different moments – the first one is walking, then there’s a sound created by the architectural pattern, so you get the sound of a column first, then the railing, another column, an entrance, which generates a moment of silence, and then another column, the railing, and so on. The motion of the walker creates a melody that records the architecture. So that was the first chapter – the railing. The second chapter was to create a repertoire of the possible sounds available. It was a second short film. The third one was to play with it. I sort of improvised on the railings while I was walking. I understood that hitting them in a specific part, with a specific strength or speed, would make them sound different. And I started playing with that and creating more interaction with the material.

MR: The Coldstream Guards piece seems an evolution of Do It (1999), the work you did in Venice in 1999 where you and Cuauhtémoc Medina hung around the city carrying half a tuba and looking for each other. If you didn’t meet, would you have considered the piece as aborted?

FA: We actually thought it would have lasted longer. We met after two and a half days and were a little disappointed that it happened so quickly but it was a wonderful way of rambling through the city – we had some kind of role but at the same time it was just about wandering around. Ultimately we never really set a limit on time. It could have happened after five days or two hours. There’s no logic behind it – they’re random meetings. Except that after a while people started saying ‘Hey, we saw the other guy over there ten minutes ago’, so we were helped a little by the rumour spread by the piece itself, which was nice.

MR: John Cage once organised a future meeting with a few friends of his and years later when he went to the pre-established meeting point he was alone. The operation failed and yet I reckon it was successful in a different way.

FA: It could have failed. One of us could have got fed up and just dropped out. At the end of the day it was pretty much like a love story – two people looking for each other, a sort of sexual reunion, and then playing just one note with the tuba. In London I was curious to see how the same scenario would work if one multiplied the number of the participants. So we did a test with a group of musicians dispersed in the city on a Sunday morning when it was completely deserted. We were hoping that they would try to make bird calls and that once they met there would have been a battle of melodies which would eventually end up in a growing noise produced by the instruments calling each other. Unfortunately it looked a bit too much like the one in Venice, so we reduced the language to its minimum and started working with a group of Coldstream guards and just used the sound of their steps. It became a more minimal and serial piece – serial in terms of music and minimal because what they were doing was reforming or rebuilding this perfect square of eight by eight soldiers. So there was this growing element of the sound of the steps, which had more to do with Steve Reich, and the construction of this very rigid structure a la Carl Andre at the same time. I also wanted to address the fact that in England there is a long tradition of walkers, from the 19th century to people like Richard Long and Hamish Fulton. Do It in Venice was more like a bizarre love story, the guards piece is a social allegory. It reflects our need to identify with a group. The difference was quite striking if you think that they were conceived almost from the same premise.

MR: You once said about the early walks that if you felt they were getting nowhere, you would just drop out in the middle of it.

FA: Yes. I’ve had some like that. Not that these pieces were really aborted, but some of them drastically changed direction. Usually when something gets diverted, I just look for another way to make the same point. I don’t think any scenario has gotten lost. Not so far at least. Sometimes you build up something in a slightly distanced way, and then you get here and the confrontation with the place itself very quickly cancels the project. It’s just not the right moment to do it. The history of the place itself offers its own narrative. After all, only a small part of my work is planed ahead, a lot of it just takes place during the making. Once the parameters for the piece are set you just let it go. There’s little control involved in the actual outcome or development of the piece itself. But yes, it has happened, even recently, that something went wrong. One turned out to be a total disaster. It was great though – it was very interesting because it was totally liberating. I went as far as starting the action and then it just went wild. And it was actually really nice. I just stepped out of the whole thing and watched it. They were just doing what they wanted, they didn’t give a shit about what I was trying to do.

MR: And it never happened that, years later, you would reconsider a scenario that originally didn’t work for a different situation?

FA: Oh, they often come back, you know? It’s more like when you imagine a scenario in a certain location and you start being there, and eventually it fails or it just doesn’t happen, and then years later you’re invited to a very different context and this new context gives you the missing elements you were looking for. And then suddenly something clicks and that’s it. Afterwards it goes really quickly. We can all fail but it’s important to realise that the context is often the device that can give you that little missing information you needed to make a piece work. Another thing that vaguely links all the different projects of Seven Walks is that their plot is fundamentally very simple. Each project could be described in two or three lines. They don’t develop a very complex narrative. Most of them should be able to circulate without a need to see the images. Like walking along the railings with a stick – you can figure out an image of it. Or 64 guards walking in the city looking for each another. This idea of maintaining a very simple structure to the scenario is always there, maybe because there is a series of different chapters, and you can only say so much in each of them, otherwise you start to lose the context. I think there are just a few things that you can say as an artist. There are just a few things that I feel I can say or want to say, and I’m very obsessed with saying them by considering all the different angles. There aren’t many occasions when I think I might have something to add.

MR: How much professionalism and how much spontaneity is there in your projects now?

FA: Well, some of my pieces are more structured, some are more ambitious. Hopefully I’m not getting too controlling in that sense. What I’d like to keep open is this surprise element, this randomness. Maybe they’re getting more focused.

MR: It’s a bit like a jazz musician. After years of jam sessions you inevitably develop some reference points in your mind. You have a repertoire of tricks you can use in case you don’t know what to do.

FA: You can always play a trick or do a little kind of dance, but you lose something, you know? It’s good to be a bit more spontaneous. Though I think you know your limits much better than when you’re younger, there’s a better understanding of what you’re doing. I haven’t been in the business for so long, to tell the truth. I started quite late, when I was 30. I’m not physically young, but I’m not an old artist either. I have the age to be considered mid-career but I’ve only been in the business seriously for about 14 years – which is not that much in comparison to artists who started in their teens. There are artists in their 30s that have 16 or 17 years of experience.

MR: Do you think that with time you more often find yourself in familiar situations and the fact that you’ve been there before inevitably helps you to deal, or not deal, with it at all?

FA: You know how to deal with it, but on the other hand you have one option less because you don’t want to go through the same negative experience again. I never really thought about it, but I think it’s more because you understand yourself a little better. I don’t know if it’s because time is running out faster after a certain age, and you try to do what you reckon is urgent first. In a way I hope the fact that I’m so dispersed will help me better understand what I want to do. I’m not really sure, to be honest. It’s a good question.

MR: Do these walks somehow mirror the walk of life? Starting up, going ahead, developing expectations, having unexpected meetings, adapting to changes, the risk of failing…

FA: Yes. Probably, yes. But sometimes, during your evolution, you also become more risky somewhere. When things get more controlled they also tend to become more anonymous, more feasible. On the other hand, every time you try to challenge yourself or the place you live in, you push it a bit further.

MR: I think this aspect of your personality is evident in your work and it’s actually one of the things that I like more about it. Whereas some artists often display a striking clarity of thought from the beginning about what’s going on, and how things should be and develop a strong, single perspective, you always seem to remind your viewer that there’s another side of the story, if not more.

FA: Yes, I think it’s something I’ve had from the beginning. I deeply admire people that manage to go like caterpillars in one direction – I envy them but I can’t do it. I’ve tried; I get bored. I always work on at least 6-10 projects at the same time and I jump from one to another. It’s the only way I can move on. Stepping in, stepping out. It’s the same with media. I do two hours of drawings, maybe I’ll go and test something on the street, and then do a painting. I need that kind of skip of attitudes over the course of the day.

MR: Do you decide which is the most suitable medium along the way, or do you already have something in mind when you start?

FA: I start with an idea, then it develops. Usually you start talking to somebody else, and that person can translate differently; it grows, it starts to get a shape. Usually the medium defines itself. It could be an animation, it could be a drawing, a painting, a text or a sound. But that’s a second stage of the evolution. It probably means that I’m a failed writer. You’d love to do everything you want but you cannot. There are certain things you cannot express but through a painting. Painting enjoys a certain advantage. Some people would rather look at a painting than a photograph, or give more time to it. That possibly gives you a stronger contact point with the public. Also, because the images are figurative, they’re more straightforward. I use painting in a very traditional way. It’s a very good mental space for me. I think the multiplicity of media sometimes has kept me from being cornered into one specific audience. I know that if I would I’d be isolated within a very strict contemporary art world circle.

MR: Not having a specific talent for something in particular helps you to relate to a lot of different things. But it can represent a handicap too, whereas being fully aware of the ability to excel in something can be very confidence boosting.

FA: That’s true. I think there’s a general demand that pushes you towards one single thing. Our society is evolving into this very specialist world. Everybody is good at one very specific thing. That’s particularly clear in the art market. People want to be able to classify you.

MR: The downside is that there’s a lot of competition involved too. I think competition plays a big role in shaping your character when you’re exceptionally talented in something. You get defensive if there’s a new guy out there. You feel like you have to brace to your position, unless of course you’re so over-confident that you don’t even mind.

FA: Yes. It has been a great help to be in Mexico in this sense, and to be able to step out of it, although the country is changed a bit now. The art scene is becoming more global. But the reality of the city is so cruel; it’s so strong that it automatically makes you reassess why and how you’re trying to do what you do. It’s a very good test for your work and it was a perfect place for me to start. Nobody knew me, nobody gave a shit. And I got really addicted to the place. And living at this slight shift, this distance from my own culture, was quite helpful in starting to develop my practice. Then the years went by and after 20 years I’m still there. I just find it a very lucky coincidence that I had the opportunity to start in Mexico City. My upbringing was quite distant from Mexican culture. I consider my stay in Mexico City as a very good accident. It helped me to go a bit faster than if I had done it elsewhere. There’s a strange sense of urgency in Mexico. I was so used to the situation in Europe that I would have probably found it more difficult here.

MR: In Antwerp, the city where you’re from, there seems to be a very lively art scene though. There are a lot of good artists coming from there.

FA: Yes, there are very good artists. And I’m interested in that, from a distance. I recognise that there are certain ingredients of my work in common with them. Well, it’s the place where I’m from – it’s not something that you can wash away. I can’t, anyway. But for me Mexico City is better. I think one of the things that kept me in Mexico was that the place regenerated itself quite well over the last 20 years or so, out of which I’ve spent about 14-15 in the art world. Each time something’s getting in place, something else comes along that kicks it away and proposes a different attitude. It happens in a quite cyclical way, there’s always something new coming in that forces you to question your own practice. Maybe it’s got to do with the place itself. It’s strong. You always have to reposition yourself in order to not be overwhelmed by this gigantic urban entity.

MR: Speaking of gigantic entities, what was the genesis of When Faith Moves Mountains (A Project for Geological Displacement)?

FA: I was invited to the third Bienal Iberoamericana de Lima. It was conceived as an event to counteract [former President Alberto] Fujimori with the aim of recuperating civil space and culture. The end of Fujimori was in sight, and the country was very depressed. You couldn’t see a way out. I suppose the fact that there were those sand dunes around the city gave us the idea for the metaphor. You know, to do something that seemed impossible. It’s a very pretentious way of putting it, but it’s the shortest! Anyway, the project was turned down by the Bienal – they said it wasn’t feasible. So I spoke to Cuauhtémoc and we decided to keep going anyway. Eventually they called back and the project was reintegrated in the programme, and from there it was just pure logistics. The idea was very simple. The action was quite simple too. The premise of the piece was gratuity – nobody was paid and everything had to be done through generosity. There was a lot of good will or faith involved. We made four journeys just to go to talk to the people and try to convince them that it was worthy to be part of the action. In terms of energy, about 80 per cent was probably used just in trying to get people to participate and some other people to donate hot dogs and drinks after the event, or to get us buses, shovels, etc.

MR: You’ve developed a strong professional relationship with Cuauhtémoc Medina along the years. The cooperative side of your projects seem to be a really important part of your work.

FA: It actually comes from a very simple thing. I’m not trained in any medium, so once I define one, I start looking for specialists in them. Then there’s a kind of bouncing back and forth game, and that I really enjoy. That really develops a project and leads it. Most of the time the collaboration is good and it wouldn’t have happened if I had just continued on my own. Maybe I’m maintaining the structure of the architectural studios. Architecture is pretty much teamwork.

MR: You deal with a lot of different media and yet sculpture seems to be strangely absent from your work. How come? Is it because you’re an architect and…

FA: Yes, I think it’s because of my architectural background. At first, when I started working I tried to avoid adding things because I was a little frustrated by certain aspects of architecture. I was more interested in stories. But I’d like to do one now. I think it’s an interesting phenomenon and I recognise that some people are very good at provoking something just by putting you in a space in confrontation with one object. I think that another reason why I didn’t use sculpture was the difficulty of justifying the need for adding objects in an environment as saturated as Mexico City. It’s a place extremely full of elements to play with. [pause] Actually I’ve been invited to Skulptur Projecte in Münster in 2007. [laughs]

MR: [laughs] Splendid occasion to make amends.FA: Yeah. It will be challenging.

Michele Robecchi is Senior Editor at Contemporary

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