Francis Alys | \"REEL-UNREEL\" (10/2014)

July 10, 2017 | Autor: Iwo Zmyślony | Categoría: Contemporary Art, Psychogeography, Situationism, Francis Alys, Afganistan, Hamish Fulton
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Iwo Zmyślony | Interview with Francis Alÿs accompanying exhibition of the artist in CCA Ujazdowski Castle “REEL-UNREEL (Afghan Projects, 2010-2014)”, first published in (10-2014) (in Polish)

Out of love

Iwo Zmyślony: Your works are often described as poetic. What is the poetry to you? Francis Alÿs: Jeez… it’s a tough question, because I always balance between more poetic and more performative side in my projects, while taking into account a geopolitics of the place. I think there’s always this kind of tension. To be too poetic may fall into sometimes nearly condescending attitude towards the situation I am working in. A poet creates a distance of metaphor and ambiguity. I tend to use it as a way to pull out the viewer from a specific, mundane situation, and let him look at things differently. Poetry can bring out the absurd quality or absurd ingredient that is hidden in reality. You mean fictionalize it? It’s more than fictionalize. It’s turning things in a such way, that you cannot fully grasp them anymore. While if you fictionalize, you impose a different reading. In poetry you allow the doubt to enter and interfere with your a priori. Poetry can open the possibility of changing it, by introducing that doubts. It’s a very fragile, subtle sphere – that’s only an intention, that can or cannot happen, but there is no guarantee it will. You are architect by the profession. How do you conceive the sole idea of architecture? For sure I don’t look that much into the buildings. Certainly, I can still appreciate the specifics of the buildings, and Warsaw is a perfect example. For example I was looking last night at the Orbis building – the one with the globe in the city centre. And I was amazed – it’s fascinating, but more for what it represents, more than for architectural qualities. Why has it caught you attention? Because of this all soviet-era clichés and hidden layers you can read through architecture. Those codes are something I am interested nowadays, much more than specific of style and other formal qualities. These I appreciate, but I do not integrate them into my practice. I look rather into the urban structure in terms of how it reflects the society. This is how I approach the architectural element in my projects. Actually lot of my earlier work was nothing more than attempt to mapping places. If you think about “The green line” (2004) or even “The Collector” (1991-2006) it was the way of tracing a line and mapping of territory. I asked about the idea of architecture, because you can conceive it as a system of invisible social relations – kind of a priori structure, you mentioned. If you think about social norms, behavioural patterns, semantic conventions, our whole cultural baggage, they are admittedly invisible, but in fact as much real as buildings.

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Iwo Zmyślony | Interview with Francis Alÿs accompanying exhibition of the artist in CCA Ujazdowski Castle “REEL-UNREEL (Afghan Projects, 2010-2014)”, first published in (10-2014) (in Polish)

It’s interesting, because my closest relation nowadays to architectural activity is the fact that I work with other people. The architectural process is very collaborative one. And the way I keep on working repeats the same structure. Even when doing paintings I work with other people. So in terms of the process I really maintain the same way of production. You have just stressed the importance of the process, that leads to creation of your works. Even some of your paintings rose up in collaboration with workers, that paint signs on the streets of Mexico city. True, exactly – it’s a net of production but also a net of friendships, inevitably. On the other hand in the recent years I’ve been asked several times to collaborate in architectural projects. People know I was architect in the past, so they think that maybe I could help. So far I have not yet accepted any of those proposals, not only because I am reluctant to go back to that moment of my life, but also what do I appreciate about my urban interventions is that they don’t leave a trace. There is this kind of ephemerality, nearly a process of recycling of existing material – adding no matter to a place, which I enjoy very much. Urban entities are already oversaturated with matter. My temptation is much more to redraw, recycle or intervene in the existing matter. Why did you turn to visual arts at all? No, it was a bit of accident. I came to Mexico as young architect to work with NGO after an earthquake that happen in 1985. I made friends with some artists very quickly. My girlfriend was an artist and what she was doing seemed a way more fun than that, what I was doing (laugh). She tricked me into it and I was hooked very quickly. So you became artist out of love? Definitely not because of money (laugh). That time there was also no art market, so everything was much easier. We were doing art without any expectation of selling works or gaining recognition. It was some kind of drive towards authenticity and building relations with others. But I was also slightly frustrated with the architectural field, because the gap between the concept and realisation could take sometimes even up to five years. So the result of idea was looming far away from the original concept. I wanted to have more immediate effect. Some critics call you flaneur. Yes, and I disagree with that. Me either, therefore I ask. Flaneur walks aimlessly. While the walks I perform are actually kind of tasks – they try to achieve something, with or without success, or to show something. I believe this cliché diminish important aspect of your stance. Flaneur keeps distance, remains detached, without any personal involvement into the situation, deals merely with surface of reality, in purely aesthetic fashion.

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Iwo Zmyślony | Interview with Francis Alÿs accompanying exhibition of the artist in CCA Ujazdowski Castle “REEL-UNREEL (Afghan Projects, 2010-2014)”, first published in (10-2014) (in Polish)

There is definitely a bit of dandy-style, you’re right. I cannot identify myself with the figure. It’s a bit the same, when people associate me with Situationist movement. Admittedly, I am interested in the tradition and there is many things I admire… Like psychogeography? Yes, but methods of my preoccupation are different. I admire their approach, but in the specific context of their time and society. Are you familiar with works of Hamish Fulton? A little bit. He works mostly in nature, no? That’s right. This is the kind of existentially involved attitude, that avoids detachment we talked. Yes, I’ve seen some of his works and I know what you mean. How would you differentiate between his practice and Richard Long’s? They were classmates, you know? Oh, really? I didn’t know. Yes, they studied at St Martin's College of Art, besides together with Gilbert & George. Long is more associated with Land-art – he create abstract sculptures, works willingly with substances of earth like stones, dirt or mud. While Fulton undertakes long-distance walks, lasting often couple of days, sometimes without sleeping, testing the limits of our condition. He also bring almost nothing back to the gallery – he makes no film-documentation. Only some pictures or posters. It’s true, Richard Long interferes with matter of earth, whereas Hamish Fulton just passes through. His works are more ephemeral. I like this kind of transience. Let’s talk for a moment about the works you are showing in Warsaw. What really the Belgian artist, living in Mexico, has to say about Afghanistan? Why did you agree to indwell in this project at all? Gosh, I was asking myself this question form the very beginning (laugh). When Caroline [ChristovBakargiev], the curator of documenta (13), invited me to the project, I told her, that I will be happy to accompany, but I cannot offer any guarantee, that anything will come out of it. On the other hand from quite some time before, I was wanting to explore more my relation to film. Largely because I was slightly confused by the passage from analogue to digital and eminent proliferation of new medias. I was wondering how does one as an artist shall respond to that. Sounds like kind of post-internet attitude. Oh, yes, in a way. That had been going quite a while through my head, I think for several years before I went to Afghanistan for the first time. So I knew that the topic is going to be “film”, in same way as in the case of the ice piece the topic was “the sculpture”. Starting point of “Paradox of praxis” (1997) was the idea of sculpture?

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Iwo Zmyślony | Interview with Francis Alÿs accompanying exhibition of the artist in CCA Ujazdowski Castle “REEL-UNREEL (Afghan Projects, 2010-2014)”, first published in (10-2014) (in Polish)

There were two angels. One was my personal relation to the sculpture – the kind of personal exorcism “to kill the father figure”, erase the minimal, conceptual heritage. But on the one hand, my interest was to represent the absurdity of concept of economic production in Latin America. Massive, huge effort, to reach minimal results. There were many other layers, but primarily it was my personal relation to the sculpture. So “Reel – unreel” (2011) was made, because you intended to do a piece about the condition of cinema. The prop scenario had to do with the reel of film, and all this kind of unrolling, unwinding, rewinding. When I went to Afghanistan several facts occurred, that made me think “ok, this is probably the right place to do this work”. For example the kids were very good at the game of “hoop and stick”. They were excellent at it, better than in any other place I saw. But there was also issue of distorted image of Afghanistan in western media, as well as the tension over extremely complex relation of Muslim culture to the nature of image and representation itself. Finally, I learned about the episode of burning the Afghan film archives by Taliban in 2001. All these elements prompted me to investigate the idea. And soon the potential scenario started to unfold. But as we have told already, once you start develop a scenario and collaborate with people, then it becomes a totally different story. What was the initial idea? When we started to film I was very clear what the rules of the game going to be. Obaid was going to chase Nazir, one was supposed to unroll, the other one was rewinding, and we were crossing Kabul doing this, as a pretext to do a portrait of the city. We originally thought about doing a loop – an endless chase through the city, but the kids started to intervene saying “no, no, no – we can’t do that, we need to have development, we need to have climax and some kind of ending”. Have you seen the film already? I did. So, from the moment the kids go onto the pickup the movie was fictionalized. Whereas the first half was strictly registered in action, from the scene on the pickup we started to use storyboard. That’s because children wanted to tell the story. And what was their story? The fire burning the film, reel going down the hill – this was all their invention. I was even reluctant – they had to force me. Julian, my friend and camera man, was on their side, saying that we can’t just keep on improvise. I resisted, since I am not fiction-maker. But you’ve created the outline of the situation that has developed from itself up to this point. Someone asked me earlier what was the most interesting part of the project for me, and I said that this was it – I was forced for the first time ever to fictionalize the situation. And being an artist this is that what you want, because that’s when you learn – when things turn out differently from what you have planned. One of my fellow artists wanted me to ask you, why you have decided to destroy these reels – someone else’s work. He told me none of your other works involves that kind of aggression. Page 4 of 6

Iwo Zmyślony | Interview with Francis Alÿs accompanying exhibition of the artist in CCA Ujazdowski Castle “REEL-UNREEL (Afghan Projects, 2010-2014)”, first published in (10-2014) (in Polish)

You talk about the end scene, when the reel goes down the hill? No, the whole situation, when children are playing with reels, that cannot be screened anymore. Yes, but as I told you already, whole project was about the twilight of the analogue film and the burning of the Afghan Film Archives by Taliban. I understand, but also my colleague was wrong about the aggression, that indeed appears in your other works. For example in one of your children’s game kids are tearing away the legs of grasshoppers and then throwing them in the air to let them fly. It is cruel, but also poetic, in a way. Very powerful picture. It’s horrible, extremely cruel. But some of children’s games are like that. Exactly, but their cruelty is naïve, and hence morally indifferent. Therefore they represent some kind of distorted image of ourselves. All of these games are trying to address to particular quality that children have, the same as adults. I started filming them about ten years ago, without any particular plan. And it’s pretty much upon traveling, when I encounter children, that represent some common experiences of humanity. The one you mentioned about the grasshoppers shows cruelty. The other one shows war or hierarchy. For me it’s largely a bit of homage to childhood, which is a guideline and source of inspiration in my work. Whenever I lose my track, I think: “what would a child to do? What this or that scenario may look like, if it would be a child’s game?”. In a way, your position as an artist is similar to child-like attitude towards the world. Being poetic mean being a bit naïve and childish. Yes, it’s true. Yesterday you have met with students of Mirosław Bałka – what did you tell them? How do you see the role of artist in contemporary world? It was an interesting situation, because at first I thought I was going to look at their works. Than I was told, that I shall talk about my work. So I had to improvise. I am much better at talking on something that I did recently, than something I did let’s say ten years ago. So I told them about the project I did in St Petersburg at Manifesta 10. Also partly because I realised that Polish cultural community was very critical at the fact that the biennale took place at all. Were you aware of the political context involved? Hadn’t you hesitate over taking part in the event? Certainly, but I am getting to address your question about the role of the artist. In discussion with Mirosław Bałka’s students I simply compared two responses. My choice was to participate while Chto Delat – Russian, St Petersburg-based collective, refused. They were invited, but they decided to boycott the event. I talked with them and their response was apparently valid, since they created platform of discussion to justify their gesture. So they were efficient in their boycott. Contrary to them, I am not militant artist and I am not somebody that work with theories. I work with image. And I had to confess, I hesitated. The more the project was developing, since September 2013, the more Page 5 of 6

Iwo Zmyślony | Interview with Francis Alÿs accompanying exhibition of the artist in CCA Ujazdowski Castle “REEL-UNREEL (Afghan Projects, 2010-2014)”, first published in (10-2014) (in Polish)

political situation was getting worse and worse. But I felt that my role as an artist will be nevertheless more efficient by doing an provoking picture, than by retrieving. I felt my boycott will do any good – I won’t manage to create a platform to express my critical attitude, as Chto Delat did. It’s just a matter of knowing in what you are more efficient. Apart of the political issues, what are the most critical problems of contemporary culture you think that an artist shall to deal with? Jeez, there are many, I don’t know… how you think? Regarding the artworld? Maybe celebritism. Oh yes, it’s terrible (laugh). When someone becomes a great artist just because of being famous. Yeah, but don’t think too much of it, because it’s ephemeral. It comes and goes. I’ve seen great artists which from one day to another lost that kind of fame. This phenomena belongs more to the world of Fashion and Lifestyle. I believe that the artworld is still more than this. More than celebritism, I would say that a challenge is the art market. This was my other question. Art market has great features – it allows you to get paid or to finance projects. But there are also controversial issues – in particular the role of auction houses, that mess up with whole production process. They can elevate or destroy career of young artists in a flash. You work with David Zwirner, who is recognized as one of the most influential among the artdealers. But working with a gallery is a whole different story. My first discussion with David was that my videos are not for sale. And that was the agreement. It’s the matter of clarity – you have to set the rules and trust your gallerist to help you. I am not good in all these commercial aspects that he is so comfortable with. What do you receive from him? It’s obviously a moral support, sometimes even inspiration. There are moments when you need a different kind of eye. If there is mutual trust, the gallerist can show you a different perspective. I’d like to say that the fundamental and primordial condition to work with an gallerist is that you have a personal sympathy for him. I know it sounds very romantic and naïve, but in a matter of fact it’s a relation of trust and friendship.

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