III. Moving Cities: Francis Alys’ Paseos (Strolls)
The real must be fictionalized in order to be thought.
- Jacques Ranciere
The work of artist Francis Alys builds on a kind of homage to Fluxus that is half Situationist derive and half Benjaminian flaneur. Born in Belgium, Alys has for the past sixteen years lived as a citizen of Mexico City – and it is no doubt due to the eight years he spent as an architect before deciding to become an artist that his interests now are formed from themes of social, urban, and city space. When discussing his work, Alys speaks of “building situations” and “elaborating scenarios” through a ‘practice’ which allows him the fantasy of being a storyteller. There is a sense of playfulness or childishness to his strolls through the labyrinthian networks of the city which is all the more apparent when considering his series of portable sculptures called Ghetto Collectors: small “toy dogs” on a leash that have been outfitted with rollerskate wheels and magnets. Though reproduced in cities across the globe, Alys’ performances involving the Ghetto Collectors were initially designed to be taken through the streets of Mexico City as an examination of what he expressed as the “politics of survival of the place”; such survival was predicated on an economy he perceived to be essentially thriving on nothing – on recycled life. The toy dogs would consume the city’s waste (bottlecaps, bits of metal, coins…) as Alys went about his stroll, a stroll which would only end as soon as the power of attraction supplied by the magnets inside his Ghetto Collectors had been sufficiently used up.
Alys’ Paseos can also be seen as a way of refusing habit, of refusing the normalized pathways of the city so as to build stories ( of drift, fragmentary invention, absence of memory) through the act of walking. His Paseos also resemble the stroll as a kind of “speech act” described by de Certeau in his essay “Walking in the City”: Alys walks in an improvisational childlike wandering that subtracts itself from the city’s panoptic order, making stories that are “composed with the world’s debris”(53). For de Certeau, such walks would be the ‘proliferating illegitimacy of microbe-like, singular, and plural practices’ not eliminated by the order of the “proper name” of this or that particular street, this or that particular space; thereby embodying the “tricky and stubborn procedures that elude discipline without being outside the field in which it is exercised.” (58)
If Alys fancies himself as a storyteller then it may not be an exaggeration to make such comparisons to de Certeau, who views the act of walking as an engagement with the surrounding urban environment in which changing steps or cutting away through tangential skips would inform a whole “rhetoric of walking” that destabilizes language. A walk in the city, then, as defined by being a “field of trajectories”. For de Certeau, the city performs an emptying of the imaginary - it erases stories, legends, and fables; it empties itself of “special” and habitable spaces which might otherwise perform the function of exits, instead giving way to an art of walking that, by substituting for such vanishing exits enables space to open back onto “something different”:
What this walking exile produces is precisely the body of legends that is currently lacking in one’s own vicinity; it is a fiction, which moreover has the double characteristic, like dreams or pedestrian rhetoric, of being the effect of displacements and condensations. (59)
Paolo Virno has also analyzed contemporary forms of metropolitan behavior and their attendant ‘childishness’ – a childishness that can certainly be seen in the Paseos of Alys, which resist both the substantial and the legible. Characterized by a disappearance of “special places” that are slowly being supplanted by “common spaces”, repetition dominates these new behaviors that might provide refuge from the course of the world (60). In this sense Alys embraces what Virno effectively describes as the positive features of being a stranger in one’s own community and “not-feeling-at-home”. Even in Alys’ paintings – scenes derived from future, past, or altogether unrealizeable strolls and performances – solitary figures wander or hover about through desolate and liquid landscapes where they always appear, as Alys himself has acknowledged, to be “looking for a home”. “Common spaces” then, can also be solitary and desolate – or for that matter, precarious - spaces which skirt disaster yet still provide repetition as a form of refuge: the same fairy tale, game, or gesture one more time (61). Such repetition should recall Deleuze’s analysis of the return of the same: when someone (a child, a city-dweller, an artist) repeats the same story, game, or gesture, it is the return of the same inasmuch as that same is different. There might otherwise run the risk of what Virno calls “the emergence of a publicness without a public sphere” that would dictate redistributions of hierarchies and control (62). Alys’ strolls aim at becoming the positive form of a repetition that provides a refuge and a refusal, so as to strategically exit from such risks.
While any possible relationship of Alys’ Paseos to the particular romantic notion of an ‘artist’s journey’ – which I take to be the illusion of a decadent and vulgar individualism – is of complete irrelevance here, I do wish to further locate his urban interactions/interventions within the context of Benjamin’s flaneur, and to a certain extent the Situationist derive (even if Debord happened to have directly opposed the derive to the ‘classical’ notion of a stroll). To take, then, one project of Alys’ in particular: Narcotoursim/Copenhagen, 6-12 May 1996. This work, which truly investigated Deleuze’s assertion that “underneath all reason lies delirium, and drift”(63), outlined a week-long stroll where Alys would walk within the city under the influence of a different drug each day, and document his experience through photographs, notes, or any other material that became relevant. Nowhere in Alys’ many other performances is the solitary, impersonal figure of the flaneur more relevant than this one in particular. For Benjamin, the flaneur traveled in the time of a childhood not necessarily his own, through a “landscape built of sheer life” and anamnestic intoxication. The flaneur’s observations were not to classify, categorize, or otherwise single out the distinctions or social standing of a city’s inhabitants, but instead to level the world within a horizonal structure (‘a more terrifying labyrinth’, as Deleuze would say). And Hashish, which Benjamin for a time experimented with (and it can be assumed or at least imagined was one of Alys’ seven selections), gave similitude an “unlimited relevance” that produced a world where ‘everything was face’ (64).
So why continue with the Lafarguian flaneur as so analogous to the strolls of Alys, even when many critics have dismissed such a comparison as having little to bear on Alys’ projects? Perhaps because the best and most perfect flaneur not only found his home in the homeless multitude to which Benjamin’s fragment from Baudelaire would attest (65), but also because the flaneur found the idleness of the sidewalk stroll to be a productive venture – and Alys certainly fits the profile of a “productive walker”. Benjamin also noted the role of the journalist as flaneur, who counts his leisure hours as work hours too, constructing his stories while exhibiting a worktime visible to everyone in the space of a city where external agitations are made to be profitable. But most of all, it is the flaneur’s idleness, like the interruptive and interventionist idle chatter of humanity examined by Virno (66) which makes such a comparison so necessarily pressing – and as Benjamin wrote: “The idleness of the flaneur is a demonstration against the division of labour.” (67)
Alys’ behavior really is somewhat childlike; his Paseos comprise an art that speaks and builds stories, reappropriating the dreamworld while making maps of new experiences that mirror the desired effectiveness of a derive. And not to forget what on one occasion Deleuze had said about art: that it “ […] no longer retains anything of the personal or rational. In its own way, art says what children say. It is made up of trajectories and becomings, and it too makes maps, both extensive and intensive.”(68)
IV. Anorectic Subjectivities
Maurizio Lazzarato distinguishes in “Struggle, Event, Media”(69) between two paradigmatic bodies in Western control societies – either the obese subject who readily consumes the multifarious possible worlds offered up through advertising and media, or the anorectic who refuses the world, constantly seeing the starvation and destruction transmitted through the television. Yet, this simplification permits the television as only a stream of advertising interrupted by the film or the program, and the anorectic subject is limited to becoming “sick with the world” through absorbing only the disasters of society. There must be more to the anorectic subject than a mere refusal of the world of images depicting a certain hell of capitalism. Are there only negations, or can refusal count as affirmation – and what, exactly, is being refused?
There must be a positive, affirmative anorectic subject who refuses through invention; but it would also amount to an obese subjectivity, an insatiable desire to find or create untapped resources of the multitude. The gaps, voids, potentials are covered over by a world that has become advertising. The anorectic subject is forced to invent and create or risk having desire blocked. An unhinging of new forces of desire has to begin with refusal, it has to begin with the perception and understanding of the infinite ways that capital is capable of controlling and enforcing - through the most microscopic regimes - a received subjectivity that will always come back for more (advertising and media: it’s ‘so harmless’ after all…). But the programs on television are no longer only the interruption of advertising (or the other way around), the programs have themselves become advertising, and it is harder to distinguish between the space and time of the commercial and that of the program which would “interrupt” it. It could almost be said that product placement had moved from its uncanny presence in the Holywood film and directly infiltrated the television programs themselves, which before were the breaks between the advertisements. And in the cinema, the television model has been synthesized into an extended and uninterrupted commercial. There thus exists an indeterminate zone between what is supposed to be entertainment and what is expected of the subject.
As Deleuze might say, there are ways of seizing the possible in the gaps - those imperceptible arrangements and voids. Advertising is that forceful vengeance of capitalism that invades all of life and puts it to work wherever it is, and as Lazzarato recognizes, the prompt for ways of living (food, clothing, styles of life – ways of speaking and behaving), the circulation of opinion – in short: everything that is expected of the subject is something that insists in the hertz waves as ‘incorporeal transformations’. With the Deleuzian analysis that Lazzarato embraces, these sign regimes express commands disguised as seductive messages which describe the world as “something possible”. Massumi has also considered the home as a “regime of passage” – a pourous membrane allowing sings to enter in an circulate; the ultimate capture is one of the movement of the event itself which leads precisely to the problem of belonging.(70)
And what of ‘artistic practices’ within the new situations generated through globalization and the proliferation of institutions? What, if anything, is art supposed to do under such circumstances and how might it benefit from refusal – from its own ‘anorexia’? The upcoming Documenta XII may attempt, under the guise of ‘institutional practices’ to broach some of these questions. It’s three leitmotifs, “is modernism out antiquity?”, “what is bare life?”, and the third, oft repeated “what is to be done?” intend to take full advantage of immaterial production: the model for the latest Documenta will include a “documenta XII magazine” which proposes to utilize over 70 worldwide publications so that it might ask questions as to how artistic theory differs from practice or other forms of politics, artistic work from other kinds of work, etc. However, these questions are not entirely new, and Jacques Ranciere has already done considerable work toward clarifying them, particularly with regard to the notion of ‘modernity’ itself and the place of art within other kinds of activities, stating that: “Whatever might be the specific type of economic circuits they lie within, artistic practices are not ‘exceptions’ to other practices. They represent and reconfigure the distribution of these practices.”(71) Of course, the curator and the institution often have their own artistic ambitions, so to speak – and the organizers of Deocumenta XII, as their website indicates, are approaching these questions with “the aspiration of becoming a platform for the transfer and discursive consolidation of specialized knowledge”. Yet the institution that asks the questions invariably determines the market to a very large degree.
An arrival at antagonism, not a starting point. Saying no – or more appropriately, just refusing in general (however it might be decided to do so) - becomes the means to invest new forms of affirmation, new ways in which to grab hold of the gaps and run with them. The ‘immaterial transformations’ are the site of new potentialities, and Tronti was already beginning to acknowledge this when four years after writing “The Strategy of the Refusal” he went on to say that attention should be paid to capitalism’s “growing phase of development which creates a positive movement in the whole social texture of production without presupposing that the latter is owned and organized by the capitalist class”(72). Refusal, as de Certeau recognized, is an “ageless art” that goes back beyond our contemporary demarcations of workplace and worktime – a refusal might take the form of “la perruque” (“the wig”): “La perruque is the worker’s own work disguised as work for his employer”(73). To create diversions inside of the factory, the office, perhaps even the home by tricking the order through actions that do not obey the law of the place. Such refusals, as Berardi would note, are more about active life and its enhancement than merely indicating some “right to laziness” of which they are nonetheless a part. And then there is Negri, who is at his most cogent when he says that the refusal of work is one thing, outmoded and ineffective as it may be, but the refusal of command, well, that is something else entirely…
58. “Stories about places are makeshift things. They are composed with the world’s debris.” Michel de Certeau, “Walking in the City”, in The Practice of Everyday Life (California, 1988), p.107
59. ibid. p.96
60. ibid., p.107
61. See Paolo Virno, “Publicness of the Intellect, Non-State Public Sphere and the Multitude”, archived at: http://www.republicart.net/disc/publicum/virno02_en.htm
63. “Reason is always a region carved out of the irrational – not sheltered from the irrational at all, but traversed by it and only defined by a particular kind of relationship among irrational factors. Underneath all reason lies delirium, and drift.” Gilles Deleuze, “On Capitalism and Desire”, Desert Islands, p.262
64. “The category of similarity, which for the waking consciousness has only minimal relevance, attains unlimited relevance in the world of hashish. There, we may say, everything is face: each thing has the degree of bodily presence that allows it to be searched – as one searches a face – for such traits as appear. Under these conditions even a sentence (to say nothing of the single word) puts on a face, and this face resembles that of the sentence standing opposed to it.” Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Harvard, 1999), p.418 [M1a, 1]
65. “For the perfect flaneur,...it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow....To be away from home, yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the center of the world, yet to remain hidden from the world - such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial [!!] natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito....The lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electric energy. We might also liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness, which, with each one of its movements, represents the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life." Baudelaire, L'Art romantique (Paris), pp. 64-65 ("Le Peintre de la vie moderne"). Ibid., p.443,[M14a,1]
66. See Paolo Virno, Grammar of the Multitude
67. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.427, [M5, 8]
68. Gilles Deleuze, “What Children Say”, Essays Critical and Clinical (Minnesota, 1997), p.65-66
69. See Maurizio Lazzarato, “Struggle, Event, Media”, archived at: http://www.republicart.net/disc/representations/lazzarato01_en.htm
70. Brian Massumi, Parables For the Virtual (Duke, 2002) p.84-88
71. Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics (Continuum, 2004), p.45
72. See Mario Tronti, “Social Capital”, archived at: http://www.geocities.com/cordobakaf/tronti_social_capital.html
73. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p.25