It is tempting to think about how the performance interventions of Alÿs and Borsato, in their various forms, might function to undo the built environment. This deconstructive motivation was certainly at the heart of other walkers’ work, especially that of the Situationists. While I argue that each of their works contain a highly subversive component, I stress that the goal of neither performer is to completely demolish the city as a whole. In drawing out the poetics of the everyday at work in urban space, they each present a resistance to the dominant power structures of the city; however, it is not necessarily out of blatant hostility. Keeping in mind de Certeau’s notions of making do [Part One and Part Two], one could theorize this resistance in his terms as well. As Ben Highmore points out in Everyday Life and Cultural Theory, “resistance in de Certeau is closer to the use of the term in electronics and psychoanalysis: it is what hinders and dissipates the energy flow of domination, it is what resists representation.”42 In this light, I wish to continue to theorize the performative interventions of Alÿs and Borsato as alternative ways of ‘knowing’ the city, as presenting different sensorial and temporal experiences of urban space, akin to what French theorist Henri Lefebvre describes as rhythmanalysis. It is in this way that the resistance present in both artists’ work is able to come to the fore.
In his text Elements of Rhythmanalysis, published posthumously in 1992, Lefebvre proposes the study of the various rhythms that are active in daily life, from the blood flow and the nervous system to the circulatory rhythms of international capital, as a way of theorizing the quotidien.43 Rhythms, according to Lefebvre, are present throughout everyday life, everywhere that there is an interaction between a place, a time and an expenditure of energy; every rhythm implies a relation of a time with a space, and the people who occupy those times and spaces.44 It is through rhythmanalysis, the study of biological, psychological and social rhythms, that such relationships are revealed. For Lefebvre, these rhythms “reveal and hide, being much more varied than in music or the so-called civil code of successions, relatively simple texts in relation to the city. Rhythms [are] music of the city, a picture which listens to itself.”45 While Lefebvre’s Marxist tendencies are still fairly apparent in this text, it is also productive to consider the multiplicity of such rhythms at work within the everyday as a sort of poetic resistance, that which hinders the flow of domination, to the regimented, measured structures at work within the space of the city.
As though directly describing Alÿs’s own artistic practice within the city, Lefebvre writes that in order to grasp and analyze rhythms, “it is necessary to get outside them, but not completely. A certain exteriority enables the analytic intellect to function. However, to grasp a rhythm it is necessary to have been grasped by it: one must let oneself go, give oneself over, abandon oneself to its duration.”46 Exploiting this notion of duration, in Paradox of Praxis (sometimes doing something leads to nothing), (1997) Alÿs left his studio in Mexico City at 9:15 in the morning, pushing a large block of ice. Struggling at first to move the ice through the streets, his task becomes easier as the ice began to warm and melt. Chronicling his actions through video and photo documentation, Alÿs continued to move the ice through the streets, pushing, and then kicking it until at 6:47 in the evening, it was nothing more than a puddle of water.
Here, Alÿs is “not just drifting through and analysing the environment but actively constructing, en route, a fable about the possible ways of interacting with it.”47 Alÿs’s intervention enacts two very subtle forms of resistance. The paradox inherent in the work, as referred to in the title, is that his artistic action does not lead to the creation of a final product, on the contrary, in this work he performs specifically to dissolve the object with which he begins. Again playing with art historical references, both Minimalist works of art in their simplistic, refined geometric formations, and also punning on the idea that the gallery space itself is known as a ‘white cube,’ Alÿs resists the institutionalized forces of the art market. Paradoxically, he points to the futility of his own practice: sometimes doing something leads to nothing.
And yet, as Michel de Certeau points out, “the commonplace can also contain artistic gesture.”48 In this case, the banality in this work exaggerates the temporal rhythm of the city, physical time slows the way it does in all tedious activities, as one is witness to the sluggish and drawn-out real time thawing and disappearance of the cube of ice. Yet, an acute awareness of the time and space of the streets is also revealed, one becomes alert to how the other occupants of the city around Alÿs use its space, how the cyclical rhythms of the sun change the appearance of the street, and wreak havoc on the ice, while the sound of the cube on the ground vocalizes its texture and roughness. Time is visualized through the melting block and exaggerated through Alÿs’s own body, as he forces himself to continue with the intervention until the ice has completely dissolved. In this act of creating nothing, Alÿs in fact reveals the very subtle rhythms at work in the city that may otherwise go unnoticed.
Social and architectural theorist Iain Borden describes the same skill in relation to skateboarders. The manner in which skateboarders appropriate the built environment for the purposes of their sport is, for Borden, both a subversion of the authority of architecture, but also, an alternative way of speaking, or knowing, the city. Applying Lefebvre’s notion of rhythmanalysis to the skateboarder, Borden explains “micro experience is also part of rhythmanalysis, the relation of the self to the city’s physical minutiae that are not always obvious to, or considered by, the dominant visualization of the city on which we most commonly depend.”49 For Borden, “micro rhythmanalysis involves a sense of touch, generated either from direct contact with the terrain, a hand on building, foot on wall, or from the smoothness and textural rhythms of the surface underneath [the foot that]… create[s] a textual pattern bound in the. experience of urban space.”50 The countercultural nature of skateboarding, while it does operate on a more oppositional or confrontational form of resistance to the architectural space of the city, nevertheless is very useful for understanding how Alÿs and Borsato’s work relates to rhythmanalysis. Borden suggests that it is through skateboarding that the rider is able to, “rather than reading or writing the city, speak the city through utterance as bodily engagement.”51 I would argue that it is through their own bodily engagement with the city, that Borsato and Alÿs are able to do the same.
Alÿs’s performances, like those of the skateboarder, reveal the micro-rhythms of the city. Railings (2004-2005), a segment of Alÿs’s more elaborate intervention Seven Walks of the same year, is a project that allowed him to explore the “rhythmic possibilities afforded by a characteristic feature of Regency London, its railings.”52 For Alÿs, railings along the streets of London “are an omnipresent architectural device, more so than in other cities. They speak of a certain period in the city, maybe the Empire days, of a certain status in the world. 53 For this particular intervention, Alÿs was videotaped walking through five areas of London, dragging a stick across the railings he passes. As described by Hugh Pearlman,
“[The] film shows him rattling a stick along the railings and porticoes of architect John Nash’s Park Crescent. He does it seemingly casually, puffing a cigarette as he goes. but actually keeping to a strict tempo. Then the film cuts to Onslow Gardens in Chelsea. where his stick- rattling becomes an accomplished, syncopated percussion piece.”54
Drawing on past motifs in his own work, including similar interventions in Mexico City, where he dragged a stick across the metal shutters of shops in the old centre of the city, Alÿs describes Railings as “a natural expansion of a past obsession, plus the coincidence with my ongoing investigation around rhythmic possibilities. ” 55 In Mexico City, the shutters “require[ed] more of a vertical movement of the stick, so it [did not] combine so well with the horizontal motion of the walker.”56 In London, the intervention developed from the simple act of the artist dragging his stick along a railing as a way of “feeling the architecture, with the drumstick acting as a kind of catalyst. a way of making contact, of connecting to the physicality of the place. ”57 to a more complicated drumming action. After initially playing the railings in a more improvisational fashion, Alÿs set out to arrange his performance by systematically determining and noting what sounds each railing made when struck. He methodically mapped the tone each individual rung made on a hand-drawn, vertical musical staff that resembled a guitar tablature. Once his notation was complete, he attempted to actually play the railings as one might play a guitar, piano or harp, striking specific rungs so they would resonate as specific notes, in time to a melody he sung to himself.
When asked how he had decided on the site of these interventions, Alÿs notes that “there were two requisites; they had to be representative of that social barrier. but they also had to have an acoustic quality. The railing functions as an instrument. By just walking and running a stick against it, the details of the architecture automatically generate a sound pattern… it was just about listening to the music of the city.”58 By turning the railings into musical instruments, Alÿs not only acts as a rhythmanalysist, “[keeping] his ears open. not only hear words, speeches, noises and sounds for he is able to listen to a house, a street, a city, as one listens to a symphony or an opera,”59 he also enacts de Certeau’s concepts of resistance and making do. Through his appropriation of the railings, he makes do with the objects at hand to create his own musical interpretation of the city. By turning the railings, objects that represent physical borders of class and status in the city of London, into a playful instrument, he resists the power structures they symbolize. Unable to physically remove or destroy the supremacy of the railings, he is nevertheless able to speak back to the power structure they represent and subvert their restrictiveness and authority.
Such resistance is also very much present in Borsato’s performance interventions. Rolling on the Lawn at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (1999- 2000) is an explicit attempt to move through the city in a different way, to defy normative uses of the city space, and can also be theorized in light of Lefebvre’s notion of rhythmanalysis. As she describes in the text accompanying the photo- documentation of this work:
“I was living near the Canadian Centre for Architecture and walked by it everyday. I was trying to think of new ways to engage myself with the city, and coming home from work one fall afternoon, I decided to roll across the entire length of the famous green lawn, instead of just walking by. I repeated the action in every season for the following year.”60
The photographs that stand as documentation of this performance show exactly this: Borsato, dressed appropriately for the weather, in a sun-dress in the summer, and boots, mittens and a hooded jacket in the winter, rolling playfully across the grass, her arms and feet outstretched and flailing in mid-motion. Her full-body interaction with the lawn, the space in between the architectural museum and the neighbouring buildings, is not unlike the movement of Iain Borden’s skateboarder, or Lefebvre’s rhythmanalysist. Through her rolling actions, Borsato’s entire body comes in direct contact with this interstitial area, in what she calls a “meditation on our relationship to space, I was trying to think of new ways to engage myself with the city, and work in a space between art and life.”61 By rolling though the grass, she maximizes the surface area of her body that comes into direct contact with the city itself. Like the rhythmanalysist, Borsato “thinks with [her] body, not in the abstract, but in lived temporality.”62 Lefebvre’s insistence that the rhythmanalysist must understand the rhythms of the city through their own body, “arriving at the concrete through experience,”63 directly parallels the essential concept behind performance art, as a work wherein the artist’s body becomes the main medium. Borsato’s body here becomes the channel, literally and figuratively, through which she comes to know the city. This incredibly intimate contact with the urban space also functions on a temporal level, the duration of her rolling action is slower than that of her walking speed, and thus, not only does she come into more direct bodily contact with the city’s surfaces, but she is also able to slow the rhythms of the city to match those of her body.
Her actions are about reconceptualizing the normative use of city space, as designed by architects and urban planners. The lawn at the Canadian Centre for Architecture is a highly pristine space, a perfectly flat, immaculately trimmed section of grass that runs the entire length of the building adjacent to Boulevard Rene Levesque in Montreal.64 Despite its lushness, the pristine nature of the lawn coupled with the ascetic architecture of the CCA creates an austere atmosphere; this lawn, which is in fact raised up from street level, does not automatically invite passers by to come and lounge on it, to sit and read, or to walk across it. It instead, like a railing, is a space meant to separate the building from the streets, and to keep pedestrians at a certain distance. This expanse of immaculately manicured lawn is perhaps meant to allow passers-by the appropriate ambit from which to view the building in its entirety. The lawn thus acts like a frame around the building, or more specifically, the matting within a frame, which gives the image within ample visual breathing space. The lawn acts as a visual break, so that the CCA can be properly viewed and experienced from street level.
Borsato’s childlike, playful actions disrupt this space for contemplation; she ignores the ‘framing’ of the building and uses this empty space to satisfy her own personal desire. Her actions “boldly juxtapose diverse elements in order suddenly to produce a flash [that sheds] a different light on the language of a place. ”65 She does not allow the design of the space to dictate her actions within it, but rather uses it for her own means, under her own conditions. “I am trying, subtly to undermine some of the ways of moving and behaving in public that significant buildings and city planning try to determine and control.”66 Rather than allowing the architecture to dictate how she should use the space of the city, Borasto makes do with the spaces allotted to her within the urban design.
This use of space, not unlike the actions of Alÿs in Railings, falls into the category of what de Certeau terms a tactical action: “a clandestine form taken by the dispersed, tactical and makeshift creativity of groups or individuals already caught in the nets of ‘discipline’.”67 For de Certeau, tactics are actions of the weak. They are hidden, ephemeral improvisations, reactions against societal structures or norms. He writes:
“A tactic is a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus. the space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power. it takes advantage of “opportunities” and depends on them. [it] must accept the chance offerings of the moment. [and] must vigilantly make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers. It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected. It is a guileful ruse.”68
A tactic gives advantage to the weak in a situation where they cannot directly affect change. They are enacted within the gaps or loopholes in normative power structures, for our purposes, the space between architecture in the city: streets, lawns, alleyways. They also take advantage of temporal opportunities, of being in the right place at the right time. “The art of pulling tricks involves a sense of the opportunities afforded by a particular occasion.”69 A tactic is not necessarily planned out completely, but rather, takes place when the moment is right.
Borsato’s rolling actions are tactical in nature. Taking place in the imposing space of both the architecture of the museum, and the institution itself, she must postpone her clandestine actions until the time is right, she cannot complete her performance if she is being watched by museum or city officials; instead, she waits for the best opportunity in which to act. Her ephemeral interventions momentarily allow her to speak back to the authority of urban design, taking that space as her own, if only for a moment. She cannot directly confront the designers of the building, rather she is able to use her body in a moment of protest against the structures of power at work here in the city space. This temporality is inherent in Alÿs’s Railing performance, but in a less guerilla-like fashion. Whereas Borsato’s timing is very much driven by the need to evade the surveillance of museum authorities, Alÿs must time his actions both to avoid confrontations with officials, but also to literally synch his performance in terms of musical timing. While the initial performance of dragging a stick on the railings was not necessarily planned out, and thus can be concretely defined as a tactic, the manner in which this performance evolved from its initial makeshiftedness to a larger production demonstrates a slightly different, yet equally valid, form of making do.
Ultimately at the heart of these tactical performances lies the conceptual notion that each must rely primarily on the most minimal of actions on the part of the artist. As Borsato explains, each intervention is “like a minimalist performance. I wondered what would be the smallest possible gesture that could create an effect in public.”70 Alÿs too describes his performances as stemming from an interest in “the most ‘minor’ things.”71 The subversion of, or challenge to structures of power comes not from grand, overarching gestures of revolution, but rather from the small, minute actions of the everyday. Herein lays a key parallel between Borsato and Alÿs’s work, and the theories of de Certeau. In The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau addresses the importance of attending to the minor, diminutive gestures in everyday life as a way of building on the work of Michel Foucault. Foucault is famous for his analysis of social and cultural apparatuses such as prisons, asylums, clinics and schools, and the way in which they condition the masses for work and production through a microphysics of power. In public settings, for instance, proper social behaviour is enforced not by a larger physical force but rather through a more ‘humane’ system of observation, through smaller gestures at the micro level, which in turn allow the larger power structures to function. A pedestrian uses the sidewalk in the ‘proper’ manner not because she fears being arrested, but because she is worried about standing out in the crowd, of being seen as different or rouge. According to Foucault, these fears of being chastised by one’s peers that maintains the status quo and in turn allows larger systems of social control retain their power.
The small, everyday actions undertaken by Borsato and Alÿs serve to subvert the microphysics of power at work in the city by quite simply ignoring these systems of observation and control. Moreover, in their minimalist gestures, they also represent an artistic visualisation of the ways in which de Certeau’s consumers find alternative ways of operating within such a structure. Here, I would like to return to the paradox Alÿs points to when he describes his practice in Paradox of Praxis: “sometimes doing something leads to nothing.” I believe that such a paradox is evident in all the works described here by both Alÿs and Borsato, but I would argue that the reverse is also true, “sometimes doing nothing leads to something.”72 It is true that the actions of both artists seem quite non-confrontational, and may even be considered by some as ridiculously fruitless, but it is precisely in their futility that their strengths are revealed. The point of each intervention is not to inspire a grand restructuring or utopian re-visioning of the urban space, but rather, to demonstrate how even the smallest gestures can invigorate and inscribe moments of intense creativity within everyday life. As Borsato states, “I think play and pleasure and humour are tremendous sources of subversion too, to undermine power, and propose another standard of empathy.”73 Each ephemeral action Alÿs and Borsato undertake through their performances inevitably interrupts the normative use of the city. These interventions add layers of meaning and alterity to the public space of the metropolis and elucidate the poetic elements that are always already at work in daily life.
“The everyday is already extraordinary; it is a virtual carnival.” 74 The performative interventions of Diane Borsato and Francis Alÿs function to illuminate the exceptional moments of creativity continuously at work within everyday life. By invoking de Certeau’s concepts of the pedestrian speech act and making do, as well as Lefebvre’s theories of rhythmanalysis, I have shown how each artist uses their own body as a means to engage directly with the space of the city, to enter into a corporal dialogue with it, to sing its rhythms, and inevitably, to speak back to it. In this way, walking has been shown as an artistic act, as well as mode of cultural resistance that reinvigorates everyday life with moments of poetic creativity.
Walking is a highly charged form of personal locomotion, capable of both interpreting and manipulating urban space; an embodied and active way of understanding and knowing the world; walking here is is been discussed as a deeply personal, yet emphatically public action, an interpretive act, a generative act and an embodied act. In Diane Borsato and Francis Alÿs’ peripatetic approach to performance, the city has been revealed as holding great potential as an interlocutor, as a space of confluence and exchange, of possibility and of poetry, and a space where everyday life can in fact become a work of art.
42 Highmore, 151-152.
43 Ben Highmore, “Introduction to Work and Leisure in Everyday Life,” The Everyday Life Reader (London: Routledge, 2002), 225-226.
44 Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (New York: Continuum, 2004), 15.
45 Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, trans. Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (Cambridge Mass, USA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 227.
46 Alÿs and Lingwood, 43.
47 Jörg Heiser, “Walk on the Wild Side,” Frieze Online. http://www.frieze.com/feature_single.asp?f=850 (Accessed Jan. 17, 2007), n.p.
48 Theriault, 27.
49 Borden, 190.
50 Borden, 190-191.
51 Borden, 195.
52 Artangel, F r a n c i s A l ÿ s Seven Walks, Artangel.org http://www.artangel.org.uk/pages/past/05/05_alys.htm (Accessed February 2, 2007), n.p.
53 Alÿs and Lingwood, 16.
54 Hugh Pearman, “The Soldier and the Fox: Francis Alÿs gets the Measure of London,” Gabion: Retained Writing on Architecture, http://www.hughpearman.com/articles5/alys.html (Accessed Feb 2, 2007), n.p.
55 Alÿs and Lingwood, 16.
56 Alÿs and Lingwood, 20.
57 Alÿs and Lingwood, 22.
58 Alÿs and Lingwood, 20-22.
59 Lefebvre, 1996, 220.
60 Diane Borsato, “Rolling on the Lawn at the Canadian Centre for Architecture” Diane Borsato Online http://www.dianeborsato.net/cca.html, (Accessed Feb 6, 2007), n.p.
61 Diane Borsato, Artist’s Talk, SAW Gallery, Ottawa, ON, October 28, 2006.
62 Lefebvre, 2004, 21.
63 Lefebvre, 2004, 21.
64 The CCA shares the site of the historic Shaughnessy House built in 1874 to the design of William T. Thomas. The new building, designed by Peter Rose with consulting architect Phyllis Lambert and associate architect Erol Argun, was integrated with the Shaughnessy House in 1989.
65 de Certeau, 37-38.
66 Personal Communication via email with Diane Borsato, April 6-9, 2007.
67 de Certeau, xiv.
68 de Certeau, 37.
69 de Certeau, 37.
70 Diane Borsato “Touching 1000 People” Diane Borsato Online http://www.dianeborsato.net/touch.html, (Accessed Feb 6, 2007), n.p.
71 David Torres, “Francis Alys, simple passant” Art Press International, (Dec 2000): 19.
72 This wall text accompanied the display of Paradox of Praxis in the exhibition Moi et ma circonstance at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in Nov 4 1999 – February 6, 2000.
73 Personal Communication via email with Diane Borsato, April 6-9, 2007.
74 Highmore, 2002a, 148.