Edited from two conversations that took place in London on the 11 and 20 July 2005 between Francis Alÿs and James Lingwood.
Image: (above) London People, Francis Alÿs, Seven Walks (2005)
Francis Alÿs: It’s difficult to get to know this city. It has to do with the fact that, as a tourist, you navigate it like a mole, from underground, so it’s not easy to get a hold of its actual geography/topography. You get to know very well certain particular areas but you have no idea of how they are connected, except by the tube map.
Were there particular points of orientation for you?
London doesn’t really offer that. There aren’t many vantage points and the Thames doesn’t really provide a sense of orientation. In Paris you can clearly feel on which side of the river you are. I think that part of the difficulty in materialising any kind of clear proposal for London had to do with the fact that I could not comprehend the city as a whole. The geography of New York is quite transparent, London is not so clear.
You’re invited to make works in many different situations, and sometimes you respond to those invitations quite immediately. You arrive in a city and you make a project in a week. You’ve worked on this project in London for a few years. Did London somehow suggest that you work in a slower way or with a different method?
It was precisely because I had no master plan that we agreed I should approach the city with a method more than a project. I just displaced my attitude to this new urban context, this new territory, hoping it would develop into something without trying to predetermine what that something would be.
Because working with Artangel is more open-ended, this has given me an opportunity to develop a vocabulary of different responses to one city. The project is an opportunity to build a repertoire of possible attitudes which could develop in their own way within the envelope of the walk in the city. That’s quite unusual within my own history. Normally I can make one episode per city, in London I have been able to play with more instruments. To be able to continue the momentum in one city has been very interesting.
Had you imagined some scenarios for London before you got to work here?
Obviously you arrive with a series of little sparks. You try them out in your mind when you’re here and they quickly either light up or die away. To begin with you have a kind of pen-pal relationship to the place, you imagine all kinds of potential scenarios, but really it’s only on location that you understand what might be relevant.
These scenarios grow out of other scenarios you might have enacted in other contexts?
There is a degree of continuity but also of confrontation with previous works. I had been working in particular with sound issues and the relationship between sound and the city, the idea of rhythm and chance and physical displacement. Instinctively you continue within the same kind of boundaries, the same kind of obsessions and you try to develop a language, or to adapt it... It’s not like you come to London and start from zero. You always continue a larger story. The situation or the invitation becomes an opportunity to materialise a missing episode. Sometimes the coincidence with the new context suddenly awakens a scenario that has been sleeping for years…
But where do you begin in a city this big?
Like I said, you cannot perceive the city as a whole. My perception of the place was sequential and fragmentary… you can’t feel the edges of the territory. The entry point is always a detail, an aspect of the architecture, or some social mechanism, a tic, some kind of phenomena which recurs throughout the city. Then you can start opening up a larger field of investigation.
Were you looking for features of London which were quite commonplace?
Well, from early on I started focusing on major features of the city, the kind of postcard icons. I remember on my first visit picking up systematically all these postcards presenting a repertoire of the “best of” of London, the mental image of a place as it perceives itself but also as it wants to be perceived abroad… and I started to give a slight twist to these archetypes. Because I lacked a clear perception of the place, I followed the official version.
How did you begin to work on the street railings?
They are an omnipresent architectural device, more so than in other cities, I think. You see them all over London, in front of grand buildings, or humble houses, along streets or around parks and so on. They speak of a certain period in the city, maybe the Empire days, of a certain status in the world, they have/emanate a slightly nostalgic note.
Image: (above) Francis Alÿs, Seven Walks (2005)
They are a motif you had worked with before, in drawings and animations? They are already part of your imaginary world as well as part of the city.
It came as a natural expansion of a past obsession, plus the coincidence with my ongoing investigation around rhythmic possibilities, which I had been working on in Mexico City although in a different way. More through the repetition, the space of the rehearsal, the ways of delaying the real momentum…
There’s a direct correspondence with some of your paintings and animations – I’m thinking of a painting of a figure with a walking stick on some railings. Where do they come from, these characters in your paintings?
I would more call them ‘personages’ than specific characters. It’s a coincidence of different factors. Definitely a lot of them have been inspired by real personages in urban life, people that I have witnessed or heard about or somehow registered. They then become the protagonist in a scenario that I’m trying to put into place. But there is no specific sequence in my work which means a painting precedes an action or vice-versa. They feed off each other – the studio and the street.
Does your interest in railings come from a childhood memory, from growing up in Belgium ?
Well maybe as a kid’s game, you know, picking up a stick and running it along the railings. A lot of the walks have had that kind of echo, like kicking a bottle along the pavements, or dragging a magnet through the streets at the end of a string… I tried something similar in Mexico City but not on railings but on the metal shutters of shops in the centre of the city. But the shutters in Mexico require more of a vertical movement of the stick, so it doesn’t combine so well with the horizontal motion of the walker.
The shutter is a barrier and a railing is also a barrier. It means you are obviously outside and the power and the wealth are inside.
Richard Wentworth suggested to me that the railings are an echo of the moat around a castle. They certainly play a role of protection, they are a filter.
How did you decide on the different places to drum? They are all in grand, Establishment parts of the City.
I think there were two requisites, they had to be representative of that social barrier we mentioned before, but they also had to have an acoustic quality. The railings function as an instrument, for example a free-standing railing gives out a richer, longer sound than one grounded in concrete. The architectural rhythms had a lot to do with the choice of locations: railings/column /entrance /column/railings etc. By just walking and running a stick against it, the details of the architecture automatically generate a sound pattern.
Now if I go back to the chronology of how the projects in London developed, the simple act of touching the railings, of feeling the architecture with the drumstick acting as a kind of catalyst, was a way of making contact, of connecting to the physicality of the place,….As the drumming piece developed, a number of variations happened. The first moment was just walking with a stick bouncing on the architecture, there was no interaction, the architecture was entirely dictating the sound patterns, but the melody was generated by the motion of the walker.
Architecture has been called ‘frozen music’ ?
The city is a kind of interlocutor. It was just about listening to the music of the city…. The second stage was to build some kind of archive of all the different sonorities that the railings and architectural patterns could offer, a kind of repertoire….Once that had been done, the logical step was to start playing with the instrument, to improvise, to see how far this could get me. I am no musician, as you know, but the temptation was too great….The different moments unfolded naturally, alongside discussions with Rafael Ortega, who was filming, and Mark….who had given me a quick crash course in drumming.
What kind of musical models did you have in mind ?
We talked about Steve Reich, John Cage, about being open to the sounds of the city. All the incidental sounds a city can offer, an ambulance or a car, a police siren, a dog barking, they also become part of the piece. But we also talked about animated movies, like Fantasia, or films like Berlin - Symphony of a City.
I remember one of your first proposals to me in London was for a completely immaterial project. You wanted to spread a rumour. To invent a short story, and somehow release it into the city.
Well, I still want to…
What is interesting about spreading a rumour?
From a purely pragmatic point of view, it was very tempting to take the opportunity of being invited by an organisation like Artangel to use and abuse its logistical skills. Artangel could have been the perfect agent of propagation, with all its reservoir of contacts in the city. But the rumour was also corresponding to my mental image of London – foggy, diffuse, dispersed….this fragmented organism seemed particularly propitious for a rumour to circulate within.
Have you tried out other rumours?
It is something I had tested in a smaller environment in Mexico…
This has to do with your interest in fables and fairy tales?
It has the same rules. If the rumour hits a certain place at a certain moment of its history, if it manages to materialize a fear or corresponds to an expectation, then it can grow. It circulates if it hits a nerve.
Does this relate to you dropping those small bronze sculptures in garbage bags in different locations in Mexico City and then looking for them to eventually resurface at different flea markets?
I was interested in the parallel circuits of circulation. A good rumour evolves and takes on a life of its own.
Image: (above) Guards, Francis Alÿs, Seven Walks (2005)
Do you like rumours because they are analogous to the way you’d like your work to function?
I like to set an idea in motion, to set the parameters for a situation to develop, and then lose control of it. The whole project has functioned like a kind of rumour, the way one piece led to another, like a chain of people. In a very discursive way, the pieces were echoing one another, they were like clues for each other.
What other phenomena did you respond to ?
One of the features we addressed was the omnipresence of the CCTV cameras around London. You may be used to it as a native to the city, but to a foreigner it’s quite shocking, especially when you come from a place like Mexico City. I believe that London has the greatest concentration of CCTV cameras anywhere in the world, and probably within London the greatest density of CCTVs are in the financial centre, the City of London.
You’re surprised at how accepted this level of surveillance is in London ?
It could never happen in Mexico City. There’s too much private life going on in the street for people to allow themselves to be filmed. Anyway the camera wouldn’t last a week. Apparently the average Londoner is filmed something like 300 times a day. That already says something about the relationship people in London have to a public sphere.
When working on the drumming piece I often had the feeling of being filmed by other cameras. In Park Crescent, security people would emerge from the building to check out what we were doing. When the two of us were walking around Belgrave Square one day, walking perhaps too slowly and looking perhaps too closely at the buildings, we were picked up by the police. So exploring the territory of surveillance was the next logical step.
It’s important that it’s a completely contemporary phenomenon – it’s a different expression of power and control to the railings?
The way one project led to another was very organic. Some of the maps we did while scouting were two parallel walks, one following the path of maximum surveillance, the “route of fame”, and another following the path of least surveillance, the clandestine way. The density of CCTV cameras in the City of London is very striking. But for a number of reasons, it wasn’t possible to work with the surveillance cameras in a methodical way there, so the surveillance idea was displaced to another location, and after a hiatus we returned to make a different kind of film in the City. The way the Guards piece was filmed and edited still echoes the surveillance set-up, with camera angles from above.
The development of the project is not particularly linear?
The periods of not moving forward are also important – things are moving through the inertia. The London project is a chain of ideas, it is materialized by the evidences of what has happened, of how one potential scenario ricochets off another. We never envisaged the final shape of the production.
To begin with we were discussing one big project, which was to do with musicians meeting in the City, but it became more interesting to have a sequence of scenarios. It enabled you to be more improvisational than having to deliver on one big event.
In the daily reality of the project, there have been two interlocutors – there has been the city, and there has also been you, and your team at Artangel. These conversations continued in parallel to my growing capacity to grasp the territory.
There was initially a musical proposition at the origin of the piece you were interested in making in the City. One working title was Concerto for the City of London. What was the starting point of the idea?
The prototype of the idea for the piece in the City of London came from a project I made in Venice called Duett. I entered the city by the train station and a friend of mine, the artist Honoré d’O arrived through Marco Polo Airport. We arrived the same day, carrying the two different parts of the Tuba, trying to find each other in the labyrinth of Venice. There was a basic dramatic construction to the piece, with the two protagonists needing to find each other. Eventually, there was a happy end, maybe even a moral, to the story with the meeting and the physical reunion of the two halves, and the resulting production of a sound.
You’re interested in the idea of duality. You have an ongoing piece based on Doppelgangers ?
The Venice piece was inspired by the speech of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, which in short is that it is in our nature to be incomplete, to be bisexual. There is always a missing half, a confusion, a split identity. So in London, I was looking for another version, a different way of staging the drama of being alone and then being joined with someone else.
You wanted to work with a larger number of protagonists.
I wanted to push this idea of separation and union further. If Duett in Venice was more about sexual desire, two people wanting and needing to find each other, then by the moment you have more protagonists, you enter a different sphere, there is a social dimension. So Guards is a kind of social allegory….of the need for individuals to form themselves into a group. It’s also about the desire to reproduce the perfection of the machine – the need for this perfect illusion of synchrony. The military formation of the square exemplifies this – a human desire to match up to the perfection of geometry.
There’s a relationship to minimal sculpture here?
There is a strong sculptural dimension, thinking of early Minimalist sculpture, like Carl Andre’s sculptures with wooden blocks, which to me had a kind of anthropomorphic feel. In a way I’m coming to terms with certain sculptural forms, from Minimalism for example.
You’ve played with the forms of Minimal sculpture a few times?
With the Ice piece I made in Mexico City (pushing a large block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it had melted away) it was the dissolution of a perfect cube, turning something into nothing. With the Guards it was about going from nothing to something, the making of a square.
Is Minimalism – with its formal rigour and indifference to narrative – a language that you feel you should contend with? There’s a certain ambivalence in your position. It’s respectful but also wry.
I’m not so interested in any single history or style or genre or medium. I’m happy to use any possibility in relation to a specific situation, or for a specific purpose. I first work on the concept, then along the way the medium defines itself.
I recall the basic scenario for the piece in the City related to the idea of a marching band, which you’re familiar with, and you’ve worked with before. In Mexico there are all kinds of marching bands.
The idea was to disperse 20 to 30 players in different part of the City, each of them playing a different part. Upon meeting, they would battle out two different melodies, until one melody became dominant and then the other one would fall in with that, or together they would create a third melody. And as the groups were growing in size the battle for the dominant melody would become more intense. Eventually, through hearing each other’s sounds, like bird calls in the city or through the rumour travelling through the City, they would find each other and, as a full complement, a unified band of musicians, would play a final triumphant tune.
We did a trial with a disparate group of musicians, but it was hard to know how to progress the idea after the trial.
The real problem was that you could not get hold of much surveillance footage. The musicians must have been filmed by hundreds of CCTV cameras, but you could hardly get access to any of the material.
Apparently if you are filmed on a CCTV camera, you have the right to view any video footage in which you are featured, but in reality it’s very hard to exercise that right. And it’s impossible to get a copy of the film material.
So there was an impasse. Not a dead end, but definitely an impasse. But the failure of the trial proved to be very productive. It helped define the nature of the instrument we could work with. On the one hand, the musicians wanted to reduce the register of musical possibilities. So I did just that, I reduced it to a bare minimum, the sound of steps in the street. And then this minimum register was linked to a maximum of expression – the sound of a large number of steps marching in unison.
This is where the Guards came in?
Yes, a formation of marching soldiers from the Coldstream Guards, in full uniform, with guns and bayonets. Originally we talked about 100 guards, 10 by 10, but in the end we had 64 – which could still make a perfect square.
Image: (above) Francis Alÿs, Seven Walks (2005)
You feel the medieval within the modern in London?
London has never cared enough to rethink its urbanism in the way that other great cities did in the aftermath of great fires or other disasters. Because it’s such an engine of business and trade, London rebuilt itself even when the city was still smoking. Business as usual. That was one of the first things you saw after the bombs, which went off in London this week – shops and restaurants with signs saying business as usual.
It’s like being a double agent. No matter how long I’ve been away, I have one foot in a European culture, and one foot out. Maybe I enjoy having a double reading, having both an insider and an outsider point of view. A lot of my work has played on that double status. Even the fact that this interview is not in my native language.
A native and a tourist.
You become used to it, I think in a certain way you become addicted to it.
The juxtaposition of photos of ice block in Mexico City and milk bottles in London relates to this duality.
I was interested in playing back and forth between these two worlds. It’s probably the most formal piece I’ve made for this project, they’re both about a certain kind of respect in public space.
You have never made a work in Belgium, where you spent the first 20 years of your life?
No, maybe it’s too close for me. Maybe after 25 years of living abroad, I could do it now.
How important was your training to be an architect?
One of the most important experiences from my years in architecture was learning about the structure of collaboration. You launch an idea, and then you work to find the specialist within that specific field you’ve touched, which will help you go further and translate your original proposal in their terms. So the conversation is always important.
But you didn’t want to make buildings?
When I decided to step out of the field of architecture, my first impulse was not to add to the city, but more to absorb what already was there, to work with the residues, or with the negative spaces, the space in-between.
How did you begin to work with different media?
What emerged was the idea to insert into the city a story rather than an object, an inert piece of something, another brick in the wall as they say….It was my way of affecting a place at a very precise moment in its history and for a very short period of time. If the story is good, it can disseminate in a much more effective way. I like the idea that the story moves from its original specific location. In this project there will be a physical manifestation of the stories, the evidence in the form of videos or photographs, but I think that the ambition behind is for it to somehow travel further through the stories of the project. This ‘mythic’ dimension is interesting to me. Maybe you don’t even need to see the work; you just need to hear about it.
Could we say that walking is a medium for you, in the way that it has been for artists like Richard Long or Hamish Fulton?
Walking happens to be a very immediate way of unfolding these stories.
For you it’s always the city at street level, the experience of the city at the pace of the pedestrian. It’s a counterpoint to planning – this panoptical view of the city. But it’s not the way most people navigate the city.
Certainly in London, it’s a dimension that public transport has buried, so to say. Walking definitely generates a different set of relations, it gives you the chance to be open to the city. It’s the opposite of the condition of the commuter, who tries to block out his surroundings.
Walking generates a particular conception of time, of a human body moving at the pace that the legs can easily move. The writer Rebecca Solnit suggests the mind moves at three miles an hour? Is walking a tool for thinking for you?
It’s a perfect space to process thoughts. You can function at multiple levels simultaneously. It’s like my method of working on lots of different scenarios in parallel, I always bounce from one project to another, it’s the only way I can progress.
Also, when you are walking, you are aware or awake to everything that happens in your peripheral vision, the little incidents, smells, images, sounds….Walking brings a rich state of consciousness. In our digital age, it’s also one of the last private spaces.
Walking has its own history – it means very different things in different cultures. Is the British tradition of walking in the landscape – Hazlitt, Wordsworth, Coleridge, the romantic idea of freeing the mind by moving through untamed nature – of interest, or are you more connected to the idea of Surrealist wanderings in the city?
I’m aware that I’m stepping within a tradition of romantic walking, British in particular. In my case, the walking is mainly within the context of the city.
In the 1960s another generation of artists emerged for whom walking was important. Stanley Brouwn and Richard Long and Hamish Fulton in Europe, or someone like Vito Acconci in New York.
One of the London pieces is a kind of homage to Richard Long, but it’s inverting the mechanics of his work. I respect very much his attitude to the medium (Francis – you used the word ‘limpide here’ – please clarify?)
How do you invert his work?
With Richard Long there is often a voluntary act of removing something, or reconfiguring a certain form in the landscape, drawing a line. Making a circle.…In the postcard piece I made in Hyde Park, I walked and there was an involuntary consequence of my walking, which was that some pebbles entered into my shoe.
Does this interest in the involuntary link you to the Surrealists, and their celebration of chance as a counter to rationalism?
Chance yes, but not the kind of chance encounters the Surrealists were interested in.
But you are reacting to what you discover as well as to the proposals you have in your mind? The photographs of different groups of people in London parks – pale skins seeking out the sun, other groups with darker skins staying in the shade, would be an example.
There are photographic pieces which are more to do with observing a phenomenon. The sunny/shady piece followed on from the work I had made of people standing in the line of the shadow of the large flagpole in the middle of the Zocalo in Mexico City. But I play with chance more when it comes to collective actions.
Having set up the rules of the game?
There was a clear, mathematical structure to the proposal for the Guards, a clear set of instructions, within which the random elements of the meetings of one guard with another could take place. There was a scenario which I could articulate in a territory which we’d agreed upon, these were the fixed elements, the parameters of the work, and then there were a series of elements we were not able to control, which affected how the work could materialise, how the action could unfold and how we could document it.
To what extent did you feel a need to orchestrate the action?
The piece became a large choreography that was partly planned and partly improvised. The underlying intention was about creating a perfect form, building a perfect momentum. Lots of chance factors played their part – chance not so much as random accidents or incidents, but the logistics of the operation of course affect what the work can be. The City Police having to be involved, for example, and imposing their rules on the game. How long the streets could be blocked for. How long the soldiers could wander on Southwark Bridge after they had broken step. The weather. The protagonists of the piece, the soldiers. For a long time, they had just been red dots on city maps but they turned out to be very human characters, with strong personalities, who also had their say. The piece is conditioned by all of these factors.
What was the main input of the Guards?
So far as the Guards were concerned, the real discussion was whether we were going to play with the instrument or not. Once the instrument of the 64 Guards had been assembled, the formation completed, there was a temptation to play with the instrument.
Probably the point when the Military connected with your idea was when you talked about your appreciation of the precision of the form and the sound the soldiers make when they are marching.
The guards wanted to play with their instrument – this wasn’t something we had anticipated. The repertoire of different kinds of marching is very extensive – the slow walk, the quick step etc.
The musical aspect of the construction was important.
Like the Duett piece, there was a basic structure with various movements, andante, allegro, crescendo and so on. But I was also aware of the references to certain kinds of serial music, Steve Reich and Ligeti.
As you become involved in larger scale productions, like the work with the Guards, you have a large production team, of camera crews, sound people, policemen, motorbikes, walkie talkies, does that mean you can’t afford to fail.
No, it can still happen. It has happened before. The way the action develops is an integral part of the contract. I cannot offer any guarantees as to the final result of the game. Once the parameters have been established, you have to let it go.
Do you enjoy these different levels of production?
To me it’s interesting to bounce between these very different scales of production. To take the two extremes, the pebbles walk took twenty to thirty minutes of my life and did not involve anybody else’s energy. And then on the other hand, there was the work with the Guards, which involved two years of planning, trials, failures, rethinking the scenario, an enormous amount of people and energies. But the meeting point is that the scenarios are very simple, they can be explained in a small number of words.
Thinking about the project as a whole, has it been constructed to somehow get under the skin of post-Empire London? I’m thinking of the Guards in the City, the photographs of different groups of people in the sun and the shade.
It’s a London project, and the identity of the city today has to do with that experience. The projects are based on things that I’ve witnessed, they are made with ingredients that are alive and contemporary. If you take a long historical perspective, it’s almost yesterday, it’s only half a century. It is so embedded that, regardless of the present state of things, it’s a major component of the culture, the economy, the missionary vision. So yes, on one level the projects will inevitably intersect with this post-Empire situation. It’s like politics in Mexico, it is always there.
The photographs of groups of people in the park is a perfect transposition. A hundred years ago, they might have been Englishmen out in the midday sun in the Tropics. The attitude to the sun is the same, but it’s transposed to a London park.
The actual project is presenting a very specific situation, the relationship to the sun, the way people expose or protect themselves. When I noticed it in London, there was an immediate echo of the piece I had made in the Zocalo in Mexico City, with people standing in the shade of the flagpole.
You prefer to engage with these issues in an oblique way, rather than being politically direct?
The subject itself is so immense that I can only address the details. I’m trying to use my language, the language of an artist. It’s a poetic approach if you will, not a militant discourse….It’s in the cracks that the dimension of poetics might happen, it cannot be planned ahead.
You like projects that are ongoing. Collecting similar versions of paintings, working with the idea of the copy and the copy of the copy, reanimating paintings which have remained in the bottom drawer for a while, allowing ideas to resurface. Some of the drawings are like notations which look like you might never finish, but you keep on adding to. Like Duchamp’s Large Glass which he described as being ‘definitively unfinished.’ Do you like things to remain unfinished?
My work is to open up the possibilities, not draw the conclusions. I could keep on working in London, maybe I will. The project is ongoing; it’s never complete, even if individual works are. The city itself is never finished.
How did you arrive at the idea of Seven Walks?
As I said before, there was no master plan, just a project in a city, which was growing and sometimes interweaving. The key element was that the making should not be programmatic, but open and responsive. The last walk perhaps offers the Catholic dimension.
The Catholic dimension? You were brought up a Catholic?
Very much so. I went through most of the models – Dominican, Benedictine, Franciscan. After six days of work, I thought the last project should be a day of rest.