Describing his work, Mexico-based artist Francis Alÿs explains:
“I spend a lot of time walking around the city…The initial concept for a project often emerges during a walk. As an artist, my position is akin to that of a passer-by constantly trying to situate myself in a moving environment. Each of my interventions is another fragment of the story that I am inventing, of the city that I am mapping.”3
Since 1991, walking has been the centerpiece of Alÿs’s artistic practice, and the urban streets, especially those of Mexico City, have been his primary context. In his peripatetic approach, Alÿs drifts through the city as a way of “intervening, recording and involving himself in the urban landscape as a territory of conflicts, frictions and tales.”4 Akin to rumors or urban legends, Alÿs’s interventions in the public space of the city are ephemeral, poetic gestures that provoke alternative ways of knowing or understanding the urban environment.
Born in 1959 in Antwerp, Belgium, Alÿs was originally trained as an architect, first at the Institut d’Architecture de Tournai, Belgium and later at the Instituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia, Venice.5 Spurred into leaving Europe as a means to avoid service in the military, he relocated to Mexico City in the late 1980s, and soon after, began to develop what has now become a multidisciplinary artistic practice spanning the realms of performance, painting, drawing, photography, sculpture and video. “When I decided to step out of the field of architecture, my first impulse was not to add to the city,” Alÿs says, “but more to absorb what already was there, to work with the residues, or with the negative spaces, the holes, the spaces in-between.”6 Focusing his attention on the residual spaces between architecture, streets, sidewalks, alleyways, and the negative spaces within it, doorways and broken windows, Alÿs drifts through the city, carrying with him a prop or a camera, with which he maps or marks his route, records the results of his walk or collects artifacts from the street. In these actions, he “individuates and makes ambiguous the ‘legible’ order given to cities by planners. show[ing] how everyday life has particular value when it takes place in the gaps of larger power structures.”7 The images, characters and revelations discovered through such journeys reoccur later in Alÿs’s paintings, drawings or photographs, themselves resembling scraps of memories of these actions. Through his interventions in public urban space, Alÿs gently creates an archive of urban haphazardness and of the unreasonable aspects of everyday life. Interrupting the normative use of the city, each ephemeral action adds a poetic element to daily life in the city.
Diane Borsato creates performances that focus on small, poignant moments of everyday life. Like Alÿs, she too creates ephemeral interventions within the public space of the city, focusing on brief, intimate actions that seek to change the way her eventual audience thinks of their environment, and their relationship to others. Motivated by a need “to give weight to the smallest and least entertaining of gestures; to hold the meaning of acts in all kinds of sites and without cumbersome primary audiences; and to frame what sometimes are only movements of my mind”8, Borsato’s interventions in the public space of the city are based around an alternative engagement with the sites of everyday life, marking her own attempts to move through the city in a different way, exploring an alternative relationship to the space of the city. Borsato pushes normalized societal boundaries in order to re- insert her own private experiences into aspects of the everyday that generally go unnoticed.
Based primarily in Toronto and Montreal, Borsato was born in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada in 1973. She studied Fine Arts at York University, Toronto before achieving her Masters of Fine Arts at Concordia University, Montreal, and then her Masters of Art, concentrating in Performance Studies, at New York University, New York. The urban contexts for her interventions are primarily that of major Canadian cities, Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Halifax as well as areas of France and the United States. For Borsato, the everyday spaces of the city become a site for exploring one’s relationship to the space around them. “I’m interested in everyday life, the places I live and work, and everything in between. I have always suspected that one needn’t travel to an exotic location, or construct an extraordinary environment in order to find meaning, or even, magic.”9 For her, the urban environment is “a significant site to propose alternatives to ordinary, taken for granted ways of moving, perceiving, and imagining. It is about expanding everyday possibilities.”10 Her interventions are often highly subtle actions and gestures that allow her to explore a broad range of human relationships, whether they be social, political or physical, to the city. “I like to interfere with power dynamics and social taboos, only gently, but enough to point to our limits, and propose alternative modes of relating to one another.”11 Borsato’s gestures carry with them a sense of whimsy and wit that, also at times border on the absurd.
Michel de Certeau’s concept of ‘making-do’ [discussed in Part One] is present in many of Francis Alÿs’s early interventions. Treating the city as interlocutor, Alÿs exploits its residual spaces as a means of entering in direct dialogue with the city, rather than passively consuming it. In The Leak, performed both in Ghent and in Sao Paulo in 1995, Alÿs spent an afternoon wandering through each city with a punctured can of paint that dripped a Jackson Pollock-esque trail behind him, tracing his path through the streets. “Having left the gallery, I wander through the neighbourhoods carrying a leaking can of paint. My dripping action ends when, having found my way back to the gallery, thanks to my previous paint marks, I hang the empty can on the wall of the exhibition space.”19 The street is literally appropriated as the artist’s canvas, his personal path through the streets staining its asphalt and cobblestone. Alÿs’s actions here defy the notion that a work of art must be a defined, tangible object; his refusal to paint on a traditional medium like canvas clearly presents a challenge to the salability and marketability of his artwork. At the same time, in his direct interaction with the street, he enacts de Certeau’s notion of making do. Turning the asphalt into his canvas, he behaves not unlike a graffiti artist, reclaiming the space of the city as a space of creative action and festivity. His paint drops “tag” the street, claiming, “I was here.” By tracing his path through the streets, his actions not only visualize his own personal use of the city, they also serve to articulate the often obscured ways in which all pedestrians move through urban space, pronouncing and bringing forward the poetics of the everyday.
In The Thread (Loser/Winner) performed in 1998, in Stockholm, Alÿs set out to map his own route between the Museum of Science and Technology and the Nordic Museum. Instead of paint, Alÿs allowed the sleeve of his vibrant blue sweater to catch at one site, and unravel as he wound his way through the parks that lie between the museums, again creating a version of Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumb trail, linking the historical museum with the contemporary. Directly linked to his body, the remnants of his sweater inscribe the streets with the memory of his walk in the urban space. These ephemeral actions allow the artist to map his own individual use of the city onto the landscape, in a sense talking back to it, responding to its regulated streets, footpaths and parks. As in The Leak, the trail left by Alÿs illustrates his own personalized interaction with the city, standing as an illustration of the way in which Alÿs has chosen to make do with the spaces allotted to him, rather then necessarily conforming to them. In both works, Alÿs’s actions contradict the way in which the city has the tendency to erase the individual’s personal use of the city. His path becomes a visual marker of the way in which movement through the city becomes a highly personalized action. When left to their own creative devices, each citizen moves through the urban environment at their own pace, appropriating the grammar of the street to create their own poem of movement.
Diane Borsato’s performances represent an alternative way in which the poetics of everyday life are articulated through interventions in the city. Like Alÿs, she too attempts to create a direct physical interaction to the city, yet it is based more on clandestine movements that articulate moments of human interaction within the urban environment. Not always based on the walk proper, that is, movement on foot, yet always based on a broader sense of bodily movement, her actions in the city are “more about dance, about choreography, in a modern sense, and about the meaningfulness of gesture.”20 Performative interventions are a way for her to enact this gesture, and walking is often a starting point for her interactions with the city space. As she describes, “the defining attribute of performance is gesture, not live-ness really. While that means sometimes moving. it also means being moved or moving or touching in non-literal ways.”21 The sensual experience of the city for Borsato is a way of actualizing an “alternative relationship to the space of the city, of moving through the city in different way, using intimacy as a way of knowing.”22 For Borsato, it is finding this intimacy within the city that constitutes her own way of making do. At the same time, her performances, like those of Alÿs, continue to act as a means of articulating those unarticulatable poetics in the everyday.
Borsato conceives of knowing the city through intimate interactions with its citizens. This search for sensuality in the city space thus affects the manner in which she moves through the urban landscape. In Touching 1000 People, first performed in 2000 in Montreal, Borsato set as her objective the task of walking through the urban space with the intention of coming in direct contact with one thousand different people over the course of one month. Throughout her daily activities, running errands, shopping, travelling from one location to another, Borsato deliberately altered her habit of walking through the urban space, in order to achieve this goal. As we see in the photographs documenting this performance, she discreetly outstretched her arm as she passed each pedestrian, grazing their arm or shoulder with her hand. Whereas the “experience of urban space is [often] reduced to that of the modern museum, where constraints on the bodies of visitors create a kind of “organized walking” in which route, speed, gestures, speaking and sound are all controlled,”23 Borsato did not allow the architecture or the urban design of the street to dictate her path, instead, she based her entire walk on the actions of her fellow pedestrians. She deliberately went out of her way to brush against them, touching them lightly on the shoulder or arm or bumping into them in a busy crowd. The movement of others thus determined her path, a patchwork route sewn together by the street traffic around her.
Borsato was originally inspired by the idea that direct human contact can in fact improve one’s quality of life. “I read a study which suggested that when people are touched deliberately or even unconsciously tapped, it seems to subtly affect their behaviour and well-being.”24 Yet, her most interesting description of the piece tells of the work as one that describes a place. “Through projects like Touching 1000 People, I really get a picture of the city. It is like a way for me to ‘draw’ the city, to know the city through touching.”25 This idea of sensually knowing the city seems to counteract the colder, alienating effects of the city as described by writers such as Georg Simmel 26 Borsato instead embraces possibilities for social interaction and alternative relationships that could only be spawned in the bustling crowds of the metropolitan environment. She takes the potentially alienating space of the city and recreates it as a space of intense human interaction. The city, for Borsato, is not a place of fear or a place to avoid, but rather a space of constant conflux and change, of possibility and interest. Regarding the city as “an oeuvre, as the production of human beings and the richly significant play of collective creation as well as the place of love, desire, turmoil, and uncertainty,”27 her performance here is just as much about the nature of human experience in the urban realm, hers, and also her fellow pedestrians, as it is about articulating her personal use of the city.
While the notion of making do is articulated in the work of Borsato and Alÿs in the different ways in which they visualize the creativity inherent in an individual’s use of the city, it also plays itself out in the way each artist literally takes from the street, remaking new objects and scenarios. In one of Alÿs’s better-known works, El Colector (1991-92) Alÿs walked around Mexico City, pulling behind him a rectangular magnet on wheels, which was attached to a leash.
“For an indeterminate period of time, the magnetized collector takes a daily walk through the streets and gradually builds up a coat made of any metallic residue lying in its path. This process goes on until the collector is completely covered by its trophies.”37
The ‘collector’ resembled a child’s toy or a poorly made mechanical dog on a leash, albeit an unwilling dog that had to be coaxed along on his morning walk. Here Alÿs’s walk concentrates not necessarily on the way in which one moves through the space of the city, but rather, on the commotion one experiences in these movements. Whereas Borsato acts as a collector in Touching 1000 People, amassing an archive of her interactions with others as she moves through the city through the photo-documents that record her performance, Alÿs here seeks to accumulate the opposite, the insignificant, unknown and unusual. Alÿs sets out to collect the waste of the city, the mementos of everyday life, making do with the trinkets he finds there. Each artist, however, relies almost entirely on chance encounters in the city, neither can prepare in advance for the objects or people they will come across in the street. For Alÿs, the final appearance of the collector is entirely dependant on the detritus of the street, rather than his own hand or artistic vision. Acting as the primary documentation of this performance, the collector is exhibited prominently alongside Alÿs’ other visual records of this performance. Punning on the notion of travel, and the souvenirs one is supposed to collect on trips to foreign cities, this work concomitantly plays with the idea of Alÿs as both a resident, yet still a tourist, within Mexico City. “It’s like being a double agent…I have one foot in European culture, and one foot out. Maybe I enjoy having a double reading, having both an insider and outsider point of view.”38 His actions recall both The Thread and The Leak in their intervention in the cityscape as “a conversation piece and curiosity, while simultaneously culling something from the city.”39 His creative production is thus driven by the objects he finds in the street, which are culled together and made new on his collector.
Metaphorically, the act of collecting the refuse of the everyday should be considered as an articulation of the poetics of everyday life that de Certeau sought to elucidate through his writing. By seeing a value in those objects that have been tossed into the street, Alÿs creates an archive of the mundane, just the way that de Certeau attempts to do in his book, by writing about, shedding light on and ultimately finding moments of creativity in the otherwise trivial elements of the everyday. Alÿs, like de Certeau, asserts that this type of peripheral vision is much more about allowing for a different point of view, than declaring a militant discourse on the city. In describing this work, he directly echoes de Certeau’s language:
“It’s a poetic approach if you will…maybe it will have a social dimension or become a political comment, but that has to happen within the experience of the poetic act, when the poetics provoke a sudden loss of self that allow a distancing from the immediate situation, a different perspective on things, and might then have the potential to open up a political thought.”40
The poetics of a situation are thus of much greater importance to Alÿs than an actual dismantling of the regulatory systems of the city. His works read more as a bringing to light of that which generally goes unnoticed, a gentle reminder of the unnoticed spaces of the everyday, rather than suggesting ways to completely overcome the systems of power at work within the city. For Alÿs, the city is a site of confluence and possibility, rather than something that needs to be escaped.
Borsato’s performance How Easy it would be to be Garbage (2002) acts as an interesting foil to Alÿs’s earlier projects like The Leak and El Colector. In this intervention, Borsato set out to explore what it would feel like to literally be garbage within the urban space of Montreal. Borsato physically inserted herself into an area of the street by a telephone poll where the city’s merchants had disposed of their weekly trash, several black plastic garbage bags and cardboard boxes filled with the detritus of consumer culture lined the sidewalks awaiting pick up. Here, she decided to don her own garbage bag and sit amongst the pile of rubbish. With only her head exposed, wrapped in the red hood of her sweater, she sat with the black bag tied up to her neck. She describes her motivation for this piece: “I was recovering from surgery and feeling terribly material, and ephemeral. I experimented with garbage bags to see how easily I might fit into one. Could I just be thrown away like anything else?”41 Here, there is an interesting interplay of conceptual impulses that seem to fall directing in between those present in The Leak and El Colector. Similar to The Leak, this performance is very much about Borsato’s ability to assert her own individual physical presence in the city. Yet, whereas The Leak (and also The Thread (Loser/Winner)) is about a positive assertion of the individual’s presence in the city, Borasto’s sedentary position articulates the negative consequences that occur when an individual’s presence is ultimately ignored. Interestingly, whereas Alÿs decided to collect the detritus of society as a way of drawing out and illuminating the insignificant objects of everyday life, Borsato literally becomes that detritus herself. Here her interaction with the everyday spaces of the city, the neglected spaces reserved for trash and objects to be disposed of, becomes not only a way for her to engage directly with the city space, but also a way of employing these underused or overlooked spaces as a metaphor for human relationships and interactions in the city itself.