Walk This Way: Diane Borsato and Francis Alÿs Make the City

“Let everyday life become a work of art!” 1

“Rarely is walking considered as a distinct mode of acting, knowing, and making. As its necessity diminishes and its applications rarefy, the potential of walking as a critical, creative, and subversive tool appears only to grow.”2

Despite its ubiquitous place in everyday life, walking is an activity that has become obscured by its own functionality and practicality. It is conceived of as a simple, slow and generally inefficient mode of transportation and is often associated with those who are not able to afford other means of travel. As the pace of life quickens and more efficient and exciting forms of transportation are developed, walking has become known more and more as anachronistic, as leisurely, or a mere necessity. Rarely is this most basic action considered a rebellious action, an artistic action, a clandestine action. And yet, when conceived of as a conversation between the body and its environment, walking becomes a highly charged movement, capable of both interpreting and manipulating urban space; an embodied and active way of understanding and knowing the world. This series examines the act of walking , specifically within the urban environment, as employed by contemporary performance artists Francis Alÿs and Diane Borsato. Part One introduces Michel de Certeau’s philosophies on everyday life, concepts of the pedestrian speech act and the act of ‘making do’ as a way of theorizing walking as art. In Part Two, I introduce the artistic practices of Alÿs and Borsato as well as a discussion of how de Certeau’s concepts can be applied to their work. In Part Three, we expand further, into a discussion of the ways in which Alÿs and Borsato’s performances provide new and interesting ways of resisting and destabilizing power structures at work within the city, using the theories of rhythmanalysis put forward by Henri Lefebvre. Within the context of the theme for 2013 Electric Fields Festival “We Make The City,” this series theorizes walking as a way to achieve an unmediated bodily engagement with the morphology of the city. It will also demonstrate how walking can be employed as an artistic act, as well as mode of cultural resistance that reinvigorates everyday life with moments of poetic creativity.

Part One

For French sociologist Michel de Certeau, the way a pedestrian weaves through the city is one of many ‘ways of operating’ in which personal creativity can be infused into everyday life. In my mind, de Certeau’s writing style and his theoretical approach to the everyday mirrors the gentle, more hidden, or furtive nature of the works created by Alÿs and Borsato. Very plainly, de Certeau’s project is to analyze the production of a poetics of everyday life. While many studies on everyday life concentrate on either the representations of society, or its behavioral models, de Certeau seeks to uncover the way in which such representations or behaviors are put to use by groups or individuals in society. This can be clarified in an analogy de Certeau himself uses:

“The analysis of the images broadcast by television (representation) and of the time spent watching television (behaviour) should be complemented by a study of what the cultural consumer “makes” or “does” during this time and with these images. The same goes for the use of urban space, the products purchased in the supermarket, the stories and legends distributed by the newspaper and so on.16 For de Certeau, this “making” or “production” is to be considered a poiesis – from the Greek poiein “to create, invent, generate.”17

His concern is with the inventive processes at work within everyday life and the manners in which, in circumstances that are inherently and ultimately limited, everyday life witnesses the creative potential of its individuals. At the heart of this project lies de Certeau’s interest not in a radical shift in existing power structures, but rather in elucidating the creative potential within the everyday that can be found at work within these set structures. As Ian Buchanan has noted, for de Certeau, “the everyday itself can be treated as always already containing the possibility of carnival.”18 De Certeau seeks to work within the set structures, specifically consumerism and capitalism, seeing in each situation the potential for individuals to make room for themselves, to find their own way to ‘make do’ with what has been allotted to them. While drawing out these creative activities from their more obscure, or illusive locations within the everyday, de Certeau also wishes to find ways to articulate them.

In his seminal book, The Practices of Everyday Life (1974), de Certeau sets out to elucidate the political potential of everyday actions, cooking, walking and reading, within a capitalist society by building on Michel Foucault’s approach to the study of power relationships in Discipline and Punishment (1975). De Certeau acknowledges the importance of Foucault’s approach, which analyzes the “microphysics of power,”1 yet wishes to move beyond Foucault’s theories that ultimately privilege the “the productive apparatus.”2

For de Certeau,

“…if the grid of “discipline” is everywhere becoming clearer and more extensive, it is all the more urgent to discover how an entire society resists being reduced to it, what popular procedures (also “miniscule” and quotidian) manipulate the mechanisms of discipline and conform to them only in order to evade them, and finally what “ways of operating” form the counterpart, on the consumer’s (or “dominee’s”?) side, of the mute processes that organize the establishment of socioeconomic order.”

His concern is not to dissect existing systems of power, that is to understand how the relationships of power work in society, but rather to understand the anti- disciplines that occur as daily forms of resistance within those relationships, “the silent and unacknowledged forms of resistance that ‘break though the grid of the established order and accepted disciplines’.”4 De Certeau’s primary focus in this book is the Western capitalist model of society, and the power dynamic that exists between ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ in the broadest sense. In the case of walking, an architect would be considered the ‘producer’, while the walker is the ‘consumer.’ Ultimately, the balance of power in this system rests with those who are able to produce; however, the way that consumers choose to use these products is of interest to de Certeau. He does not call for a radical, revolutionary (and arguably unachievable) overthrowing of the system, but rather, seeks to understand how it is appropriated by the consumer and attributed meaning in daily life. The social experience de Certeau seeks to elucidate in this text is the manner in which individuals make use of the ‘products’ of power in their everyday life, the less visible and non-confrontational ways they recycle, reinvent and reinterpret the apparatuses of power.

In his chapter titled “Walking in the City,” De Certeau describes walking as a method of reinterpreting the structure of the city that is akin to the ennunciative act in speech. “Speaking operates within the field of a linguistic system; it effects an appropriation, or re-appropriation, of language by its speakers; it establishes a present relative to a time and place; and it posits a contract with the other (the interlocutor) in a network of places and relations.”5 In this way, walking in the city becomes a highly charged action, a way for the “ordinary practitioner of they city”6 to come to both know, and in his view, speak back to the urban landscape. As de Certeau describes the pedestrian speech act…

“…has a triple “enunciative” function: it is a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian (just as the speaker appropriates and takes on the language); it is a spatial acting out of the place (just as the speech act is an acoustic acting-out of language); and it implies relations among differentiated positions, that is, among pragmatic “contracts” in the form of movements (just as verbal enunciation is an “allocution,” “posits another opposite” the speaker and puts contracts between interlocutors into action).”7

In this sense, the personal act of walking becomes highly political. For de Certeau, walking is “a space of enunciation.”8 If one is to think of the city as an interlocutor, that is, the walker’s partner in urban conversation, “the act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language.”9 The walker is able to use urban space, and all that exists within it, the same way a speaker uses language, using their feet to form steps, and steps to create a path or route, just as in speech sounds are used to form words, that are then strung together into sentences.

According to de Certeau, walking, like speech, is confined to a grammatical system, that is, the physical reality of the built environment; however, just as speech is altered through slang and colloquialisms, so too can walking manipulate urban spaces. “The long poem of walking manipulates spatial organizations, no matter how panoptic they may be. it can take place only within them. it does not receive its identity from them.”10 For de Certeau, “the geometrical space of urbanists and architects seems to have the status of the “proper meaning” constructed by grammarians and linguists in order to have a normal and normative level to which they can compare the drifting of “figurative” language.”11 That being said however, he notes that “in reality, this faceless “proper” meaning….cannot be found in current use, whether verbal or pedestrian. ”12 Whereas the intended or ‘proper’ use of urban design, arrived at by designers can be equated with ‘proper’ grammar in speech, de Certeau recognizes that, in speech, as in walking, a perfect use of such grammar is often not put to use, or adhered to. The way a pedestrian moves through the city, the routes she chooses to take or not to take, allows for a personal utilization of the city space, something that is not necessarily directed by the ‘proper’ grammar of its urban and architectural design. This improvisational use of the city, deciding to go only here and not there, creating shortcuts and detours, or forbidding oneself to take obligatory routes, is according to de Certeau, a type of ‘making do’ that allows the walker to adapt the apparatuses of power in the city to her own interests and rules.13 It is within these more subtle moments of creativity that the poetics of everyday life are evidenced.

Making do may be understood as a variation of the act of bricolage. First applied by Claude Levi-Strauss in anthropological theory, the French verb bricoler has no direct English translation, but can be considered in line with notions of “do- it-yourself” culture, essentially meaning “to tinker” or “to fiddle.” One who takes part in the act of bricolage is known as a bricoleur, a highly creative and resourceful person who is able to create objects or situations out of existing materials. They key to this creative process is that the bricoleur is able to collect information, objects and things around them, and recombine them in hand’, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous.”14 By making creative use of the materials already available to him or her, the bricoleur is able to reinterpret, reinvent and reuse what is available within various everyday systems, and make it his or her own.

While the idea of bricolage is a useful metaphor for understanding de Certeau’s concept of making do, it is certainly not analogous. Bricolage carries with it very mechanical connotations and is meant very much to signify the physical creation of one new object out of the parts of many old ones. The bricoleur takes care to exercise a certain amount of control over the objects he or she chooses to use in their creation, rummaging through a pile of scraps to pick out the trinkets that best suit his or her task. One who is making do differs from the bricoleur in that he or she does not create a physical object, nor do they necessarily have the choice of what products they are able to use. Making do, especially in the case of walking, is more about a creative reuse of a space or a text, less about creating a tangible object and more so a way of living one’s life. In the act of making do,

“…one insinuates into another person’s text the ruses of pleasure and appropriation: he poaches on it, is transported into it, pluralizes himself in it like the internal rumblings of one’s body…(the reader’s) slips into the author’s place. .this mutation makes the text habitable. It transforms another person’s property into a space borrowed for a moment by a transient.”15

De Certeau likens the act of renting an apartment to that of making do, where various people, at various times, each inhabit the same space, yet, none make use of it in the same way. “Renters make comparable changes in an apartment they furnish with their acts and memories. as do pedestrians, in the streets they fill with the forests of their desires and goals.”16 Through this process of ‘making do’ the walker “creates for himself a space in which he can find ways of using the constraining order of the place of the language; without leaving the place where he has no choice but to live and which lays down its law for him, he establishes within it a degree of plurality and creativity. By an art of being in between, he draws unexpected results from his situation.”17 Recognizing that many oppressive and domineering systems are continuously at work within the everyday, de Certeau asserts, nevertheless, that they cannot contain the spontaneous and imaginative energies of individuals; it is the way in which the pedestrian appropriates the structure of the city that is therefore of utmost interest to de Certeau, rather than a complete revolution of the structure itself. These personal acts of creative poaching, clandestine moments of re-usage, ultimately represent for de Certeau, “the ingenious ways in which the weak makes use of the strong, thus lend[ing] a political dimension to everyday practices.”18 It is in these moments that the poetics of everyday life are best brought to light.


1 Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World, (London: Penguin, 1971), 204.
2 University of Illinois, Walking Known as Making, Spring 2005, http://www.walkinginplace.org/converge/intro.htm (Accessed September 11, 2006), n.p.
16 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), xii.
17 de Certeau, 205.
18 Ben Highmore, Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction, (London: Routledge, 2002), 149.
[1] de Certeau, xiv.
2de Certeau, xiv.
3de Certeau, xiv.
4Michael E. Gardiner, Critiques of Everyday Life, (London: Routledge, 2000), 168.
5 de Certeau, xiii.
6 de Certeau, 93.
7 de Certeau, 98.
8 de Certeau, 98.
9 de Certeau, 98.
10 de Certeau, 101.
11 de Certeau, 100.
12 de Certeau, 100.
13 de Certeau, xiii-xiv.
14 Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966), 19.
15 de Certeau, xx
16 de Certeau, xxi. 17 de Certeau, 30.
18 de Certeau, xvii


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One Response to “Walk This Way: Diane Borsato and Francis Alÿs Make the City”

  1. Gabrielle says:

    Hi, I’m writing an academic essay about Francis Alys and spatial rhetoric. This blog post ‘Walk This Way: Diane Borsato and Francis ALys Make the City’ will help me a lot if I may know the author for referencing purposes? I hope to hear from you soon. Great article! Regards.

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