Politics of the Line

Samuel Steinberg
Denison university

* editing and publication by 17, instituto de estudios críticos

Volume 2, 2012

That is what the word “emancipation” means:
the blurring of the boundary between those who act and those
who look; between individuals
and members of a collective body.
—Jacques Rancière[1]

I insist: fraternity is the real manifestation of
the new world, and hence of the new man.
What is experienced her e–in the Party, in action,
in the subversive artistic group, in the egalitarian
couple– is the real violence of fraternity.
And what is the content of fraternity, if not the
acceptance that the infinite “we” prevails over
the finitude of the individual?
—Alain Badiou[2]

A partition, conceptual or real, painted or sculpted, is a line. Lines are, for example, drawn on a map, sketched onto the plan or survey –think of the peculiarly straight lines of Africa– and enforced by our phantasies that the etchings that took place elsewhere, above, and before us, must take effect here and now for us. Palestine forms a dagger, drawn by colonial masters, in a way that unintentionally records not only the violence of these lines, but also the struggle between the identities who would hope to wield its power, who would perhaps like to take this dagger and cleave its usurpers, whatever their names, from the land outlined by its shape. Lines are forged in a sculpture -think of the border walls that are erected even today to divide a destiny in the Americas. The years that pass form a timeline: a past in reference to the “here” of the present, opening, with anticipation, over there, onto the future. The traveler’s itinerary, likewise, is a line. We trace and are traced, our global positions from here to there, rendered by Google to orient our direction and grant efficiency to our displacements. And our cities traced these lines in us long before that: the meanderings of the medina, the A-to-B of the grid. Our bodies, too, are lines (of a kind) -a threshold that contains, for my eyes, the matter that constitutes me.

These lines, and others, are explored in the works of Francis Alÿs (b. Antwerp, 1959). Originally trained as an architect, his first such experiments were often solitary, often taking the shape of sculptural drifts around Mexico’s historic center, where the artist has lived for more than two decades, since leaving Belgium by way of opting out of national military service.[3] A 1997 video, Paradox of Praxis I, is often referred to by the “axiom” that organizes it: A veces el hacer algo no lleva a nada. The work-truly work that, like many of Alÿs’s projects, engages centrally the question of labor and endurance-witnesses Alÿs push a large block of ice around Mexico City, leaving an ephemeral liquid trace behind him-a line threatened by evaporation. The block melts and Alÿs kicks along what is at last a tiny cube. As one critic put it: “An arduous task has imperceptibly turned into a game”.[4] The transformation of labor into play (but the work remains irreducible as labor) and then again-not visible in the video, but rather as video-into money, as determined by the speculative value of the work, wherever, whenever its rentable object appears and resides. The works of Alÿs are thus about lines and are themselves lines, itineraries; they meander, they exact a duration, they achieve their end, however uncertain, provisional, for their object, I suggest, is precisely (or imprecisely, perhaps, sometimes, necessarily vaguely) an investigation and improvisation of what, today “the word ‘emancipation’ means,” understood, in the fashion that Jacques Rancière does, as “the blurring of the boundary between those who act and those who look; between individuals and members of a collective body”.[5] This blurred boundary, the politics of the line of the work, is traced both formally and thematically in Alÿs’s projects. His works do not merely re-present a division that we see everywhere, but re-configure and re-distribute the sensible world before us, turning on the potential political subjectivation of the artist, the world he creates and inhabits, and the spectators who gaze upon such representations. Writes Rancière, “This is what a process of political subjectivation consists in: in the action of uncounted capacities that crack open the unity of the given and the obviousness of the visible, in order to sketch a new topography of the possible”.[6]

Perhaps thinking of this will to inscribe a “new topography” –our collective faith in this will– the art theorist and frequent Alÿs collaborator Cuahtémoc Medina describes what is arguably Alÿs’s most famous work, the 2002 project When Faith Moves Mountains (Cuando la fe mueve montañas), which is to be the central focus of my analysis here, in deceptively simple terms: “Maximum effort, minimum result.” As we shall soon see, the supposed uselessness of the topographical effort both clarifies and also suspends the division between the work of art and work. In order to mount an action whose trace reaches us only through the extensive documentary record, the artist traveled from Mexico City to Lima, where he organized a group of 500 university students to travel to the dunes outside of the city.[7] Once there, the students “displaced” one of these dunes by a few centimeters. The students –armed with shovels and wearing t-shirts marking their participation in the project– formed a line on the bottom of a dune to push the dirt from one side to the other. They “succeeded” in displacing the dune by an infinitesimal degree.

According to the more or less canonical reading of the event, the work exists to document an action, to produce or reproduce “sociability”, a “specific sociability”, as the art critic Nicolas Bourriaud might put it. A mountain is not moved as such, but rather a kind of “social fiction” is created in which participants are momentarily invited to believe in the effectiveness of their collective action and in so doing are constituted as a temporary community. For Reinaldo Laddaga, such artworks fashion something like “experimental communities” that resemble the general conditions of the world, the social life, out of which they emerge.[8] According to such a line of thinking, so to speak, in When Faith Moves Mountains, we encounter a kind of art that establishes a “new subjectivity,” a “new community,” or “practicality of the communion”.[9] Such works are based on “the generation of ‘artificial modes of social life’ ”.[10] The work as such exists as the contingent moment of collective experience; it cannot be housed in a museum, but is lived and told (documented). That is, in such projects persists the question regarding whether the work is located in this documentary record, or something else–the experience, even the thing that is not recorded (for example, as we shall see, the moment at the very end of the action, as one participant recounts on the video that documents it, that “se perdió,” that went uncaptured by the camera). In this respect the “work,” whatever its object-form, has a tenuous permanence that corresponds to the very contingency of the collectivity that its becoming convokes.

Yet, those who witness and –often unwillingly or unwittingly– “contribute” to the works of Alÿs are not readers of the work, nor are they readily its artists in any full sense of that word. They are part of the larger coordination of the artist; their collaboration (at least in the work I intend to read here) is of a limited nature.[11] On the terms identified by Rancière, the works stage and make visible the conceptual and material demarcations of the sensible: “The distribution of the sensible reveals who can have a share in what is common to the community based on what they do and the time and space in which this activity is performed”.[12] In this regard, the embodied performance –the interaction between Alÿs, his counterparts, and the surrounding environment– is not the work in the way one might expect. Only through its recording and subsequent mechanical reproduction can the work dispose itself of a space, of a public, and then only as object; Alÿs stages the uncertain and perhaps nearly immaterial return of the art object and of its relation to an emancipatory politics in the present.

The fate of such an emancipatory politics is perhaps best signaled by the very deployment of the word “emancipatory”, with its connotations, today, of a vague freedom without grounds or axiom. It would not be incorrect to suggest that this name for any future politics –this name without body– might well be rooted in or traced to the epochal beginnings of our current “resigned surrender”. As Alain Badiou has put it in his recent defense of the “communist hypothesis”: “The mid-1970s saw the beginnings of the ebb the ‘red decade’… It finds its subjective form in a resigned surrender, in a return to customs –including electoral customs–deference towards the capitalo-parliamentarian or ‘Western’ order, and the conviction that to want something better is to want something worse”.[13]

I have been tempted to take this line of critique –and perhaps of affirmation– of Alÿs’s work under the negative influence of precisely the tendency to read in such works a kind of “sociability” that is finally apolitical, at least in the sense of the word “politics” that would still oppose itself to our “resigned surrender”, that would ground itself not in the rather more consensual notion of a “sociability” –how genteel that word!– but rather, in Badiou’s terms, in “the infinite ‘we’ ” it suggests.[14] Kester’s brilliant reading of When Faith Moves Mountains and of the reception of this kind of work, turns on an illumination of its tendency to highlight play, indeterminacy, and futility over commitment, systematicity, and organization. According to the logic of such works, writes Kester, “We cannot yet be trusted with the freedom that would result from a total revolution. Instead we must practise this freedom in the virtual space of the text or artwork, supervised by the poet or artist”.[15] I am indeed sympathetic to Kester’s concerns regarding When Faith Moves Mountains. Even the reader less inclined towards populisms might hesitate before a piece by one of the world’s most prominent plastic artists, represented by one of the world’s most powerful galleries (David Zwirner). Yet, despite my general disagreements with Claire Bishop regarding the “relation” between politics and art, I am inclined to agree when she calls for the need, pace Kester, to “discuss, analyze, and compare such works critically as art”.[16] In other words, I aim here to occupy some middle position in which the artwork is read politically in light of its symbolic potentials. As I cite above, “[The volunteers] have been summoned by Alÿs not as collaborators but as bodies to illustrate a ‘social allegory’ about the inevitable failure of Latin America to modernise successfully”.[17] However, it is my sense that the work is much more equivocal –dialectical– than Kester, or more importantly, Alÿs imagine. To honor that intuition, in the pages that follow I hope to reactivate the work as the site of a politics, of a certain possibility that there will be a politics that deserves that name, by moving through a series of gestures which, like the artwork they concern, might appear to be largely preparatory. I begin with the scene of “rehearsal” as a topos and topography of the arts today, contextualizing this line of Alÿs’s production. I will then turn to the question of labor as preoccupation and condition of artistic production by way of examining Alÿs’s work in light of other works produced in Mexico around this time that seem to share similar preoccupations. Finally, I will return to the question of faith –faith as a substitute for a politics and as a politics itself. All are, again, provisional gestures, for my speculation here advances the following thesis: any politics of art that we can call politics –again a politics of emancipation deserving of that name and which gives meaning to the term “emancipation”– must address the time of practice (rehearsal) and waiting (whether it be programmatic or playful), for art is not politics and nor is politics art. Writes Bruno Bosteels: “[…] the future of communism will not be given over to the pure self-immanence of the people as people; instead, it belongs to the core of all future politics, according to the temporality of what is yet to come, to be marked by the radical finitude of each and every community”.[18] The artwork on which I focus here, again, Alÿs’s “epic” project from 2002, When Faith Moves Mountains, centers on such a finitude, maintains such a temporal distinction, an orientation towards the future, an attachment to that which is to-come which is central to its functioning. The artistic present is a moment set aside for waiting, a time for practice, rehearsal, and staging for a future that will be properly political.


Practice and preparation figure as common preoccupations in Alÿs’s oeuvre. Indeed, even formally, his works’ ends are secondary to a sequence of preparation and planning (that is, process). Or even of a certain mockery of the ritual, in this case the contingent, non-reproducible sequence that leads to the final object, toward which Alÿs himself has expressed with some frequency a certain indifference. Each work creates an archive of the preliminary gestures, of the essays and sketches, of the conversations and emails, of the accidents that produced it. The finished project always maintains an unfulfilled and merely arbitrary distance from its process, a line constantly under attack, sous rature.[19] In turn, the line between the work and life itself is divided and held by the gallery. The work is a line and is about a line. As Luis Camnitzer writes of the period following the high point of sixties-era conceptualism: “By 1970 the art-life merger seemed to have failed, and at that point, art activity started returning to the gallery space”.[20] The violence of another line divides the work from its most public appearance, yet simultaneously assures, through the mechanisms of a certain kind of public display, the work-as-art. Several of Alÿs’s most well known projects seem to mourn precisely this return, at the end of a certain conceptualism, by way of exploring this partition.

A localized reflection on such conditions seems to serve as one optic for receiving a host of works produced in Mexico in this period, which might be understood as the moment of achieved neoliberalism. In Reenactments (2001), one of Alÿs’s most widely viewed works, a tall thin man (Alÿs) has just purchased a gun. He loads it and begins to drift through streets of Mexico City’s historic center. The gun hangs at his side. Despite the discomfort the weapon causes his fellow pedestrians, the armed ambulation takes place for several minutes before the man is arrested, taken away in a police car. On another screen, the story is repeated, simultaneously. The purchase of the gun, the walk, the arrest. But this time, as reenactment. The two screens run the loops of Alÿs’s video, in which we see two versions of one story: a tall thin man wearing sunglasses enters a store. He selects a pistol, purchases and loads it, and begins a walk through Mexico City. After frightening his fellow pedestrians, he is arrested. A clock appears on left hand screen in order to establish the duration of the action, as well as to underline the reenacted nature of what the viewer encounters on the right hand screen. The conceit of the clock appears to be that only through intentional reenactment can the second screen capture the same series of actions at such a precise interval.

Two screens divide the viewer’s experience. Two logics of movement divide the story. On the one hand, Reenactments imagines an urban deterritorialization. On the other hand, the piece conspires in (or demonstrates no distance from) the violence of art, making visible the socioeconomic force that conditions the reception and transmission of aesthetic experience. Yet the work’s division between these two screens also makes visible the conditions of reflection on the work, its realization, reproduction, and display. The first, putatively original action recorded suggests the instantaneousness of presentation itself, pointing yet to its own always insufficient and incomplete nature as the registration of an event and its effects. The second moment acts as supplement to the first. As re-presentation it bears witness to the now infinitely postponed original action, serves as testimony of the actions that unfold on the first screen. The now synchronic nature of the two sequences, in turn, suggests that Reenactments imagines the possibility of a faithful resonance between presentation and representation, between documentary and witnessing, which is by no means to say that the piece in any sense endorses this possibility. Indeed, it should be remembered the work is not Reenactment, but Reenactments, in the plural. The two screens are finally unified in the title as a pair of reenactments: to what, then, do these two screens bear witness? What is it that they both reenact? What if the second screen’s more obvious form of repetition is precisely a ruse that conceals the reenactment that motivates the work as a whole? Perhaps this working out of “neoliberal urban violence,” this return to “urban practice” turns on the division between origin and reproduction, on an impossible encounter with the site of the work’s material event.[21]

This question of the materiality of the work, of its disposition, its location, its orientation–and only this question of the work’s materiality, for there are too many such questions to treat comprehensively all of the possible materialities of the work–haunts us since at least a certain conceptualism. The foregrounding of participatory rites (I want to call them) effaces the line between production and reception; one does not precede the other but, rather, they are simultaneous.[22] Whenever there is a work to be received, it is produced again as original, originary, perhaps even auratic or pseudo-auratic. Even without the materiality of the work, as work in its material body –which is also acted upon by this simultaneity– the emergence of a “new perceptive behavior,” as Oiticica calls it, marks the tendential overcoming of the object and its displacement by the rite. The work is a work or oeuvre and is also a play or spiel. Again: “An arduous task has imperceptibly turned into a game”.[23] The line of the work symbolizes this imperceptibility, in a sense, makes intelligible the very imperceptibility of the line between the task of the artist and that of the spectator, production and consumption, original and reproduction, work and play. And yet, there is nothing particularly notable about any of this today, in a contemporary scene ruled by the transit between such positions. Alÿs’s work suggests a return, however: the immaterial reconstitution of a politics of the concept that explores such a separation by way of non-symbolically annulling the very socio-political alienations that constitute and protect the forms of difference that ground the work in both the spheres of production and display. Indeed, the work, as participatory rite, effaces the temporal and spatial lines that maintain such a distinction.

Alÿs’s 2005 project Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic, a walk carried out in Jerusalem, sees the artist drip green paint along the so-called “Green Line” that divides Israel from occupied Palestine. The painted line underscores the absurdity and also the violence of this separation, which occurred elsewhere and earlier but which is enforced by the Israeli border guards who watch as the strange figure allows the green paint rematerialize the name accorded to an imaginary, but effective, line. Mark Godfrey locates the work within the “return” of historical representation to contemporary artistic production. Calling the work a “re-creation” for, indeed, in this sense it forms another take on the question of “reenactment,” Godfrey writes, “Walking through Jerusalem with a leaking can of green paint, Alÿs both ridiculed (by mimicry) the arbitrariness of [Moshe] Dayan’s border and resuscitated its memory at a moment when even Israelis on the left maintain a dedication to a ‘United Jerusalem’ ”.[24] The “sculptural idea” is in both cases largely “inaccessible” to the observers who witnessed the original action.[25] As we shall see, Alÿs’s works turn on this disjunctive state, this line between production and consumption, witnessing and participation (“those who act and those who look”, as Rancière would put it), labor and contemplation, politics and non-politics.

An early drift, The Collector (1991), sees Alÿs drag a small magnetic dog through Mexico City, gathering debris along the way. Yet a slightly later take on the same idea suggests a possible grounds (conceptual and topographical) for thinking such projects. His work for the 5th Havana Biennale Magnetic Shoes (1994) reveals the specter at work within these pieces. The project, captured on video, sees the artist traverse the city in the titular magnetic shoes; a ghostly collector of the communist remainder’s (metallic) residue, Alÿs brings about the figuration of a trace of a past remnant.[26]

Writes Rancière: “When art is no more than art, it vanishes”.[27] Its existence beyond an art-world, as Schiller proposed in an origin story, is the Urszene of the aesthetic: “…primitive man,” Rancière recalls, “gradually learns to cast an aesthetic gaze on his arms and tools or on his own body, to separate the pleasure of appearance from the functionality of objects (…) the self-education of mankind is its emancipation from materiality, as it transforms the world into its own sensorium”.[28] Such a gaze converts what is visible into a generalized field of objects-for-appreciation. What is visible finds itself, under the purview of this gaze, always within a potentially aestheticized topography. Within what Rancière calls the aesthetic regime of the arts, the line between commodity and art-object is only ever temporal. The object, such as it is –whether or not there is an “object”– submits itself to this twin face in the same body, whatever its appearance: “Any object” he writes, “can cross the border and repopulate the realm of aesthetic experience”.[29]

This thin membrane of the aesthetic sphere is what creates the conditions of avant-gardes. They arrive on the scene to defeat this duality, to suggest the impossible response to the non-autonomy of art, to reclaim or recover, as it were, a “power” for art. Says Rancière: “Whether the quest is for art alone or for emancipation through art, the stage is the same. On this stage, art must tear itself away from the territory of aestheticized life and draw a new borderline, which cannot be crossed”. This scene is the site of an “enframing”; the line that cannot be crossed is the frontier between commodity-form and art-object. From this perspective, Alÿs might be said to pursue a fundamentally worthless artwork whose use-value is not purely aesthetic. The autonomy-effect that might be gleaned resides in the vertiginous tension between two heteronomies.[30] On one side of this line, says Rancière “…the spirit of forms is the logos that weaves its way through its own opacity and the resistance of the materials…to become the smile of the statue or the light of the canvas”.[31] In this case the logos of the work presents the highest concentration of its form, basing itself in a chronologically previous ontology of the work that always precedes its material realization.

To be sure, this inscription, any inscription (like the ice-trace, like footwear penetrated by metallic residues, like the green line, like, as we shall see, the line on the hill that moves the sand), must overcome the medium and the material upon which it acts. The idea or concept arrives with difficulty to achieve its visibility through a mere surface of inscription (a procedure that becomes almost too literal in the work of Alÿs). Such a surface imposes, always, certain limitations (particular to the surface in question –a sidewalk, a dune, a canvas). Crossing this line of resistance imposed by the material, the work achieves visibility; indeed, it has no other way of doing so.

On the other side of this line, writes Rancière, the work “is identified with a pathos that disrupts the forms of doxa, and makes art the inscription of a power that is chaos, radical alterity”.[32] From the perspective of logos, the task undertaken by the artwork is a kind of conquest. The work, in its purest moment, must be inscribed. Yet from the perspective of pathos, the work resides in complete disharmony, as much in relation to itself as to the surface upon which it becomes visible. This inscription is always provisional and preserves both the alterity of the material upon which it is inscribed as well as that of the force that inscribes it. It is not mediated by the form; rather it is a spontaneous link to what is close. That is, each work is a will to inscribe itself, despite the recognition of its eventual, impure materialization.

Benjamin begins his reflection on “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” with a preface that links the essay to a Marxian prophecy, to the future projection of capital’s self-abolition [Abschaffung]:

When Marx undertook his critique of the capitalistic mode of production, this mode was in its infancy. Marx directed his efforts in such a way as to give them prognostic value. He went back to the basic conditions underlying capitalistic production and through his presentation showed what could be expected of capitalism in the future. The result was that one could expect it not only to exploit the proletariat with increasing intensity, but ultimately to create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself.[33]

A future unfolding promises the eventual truth of a “reactivation”, the logic of “reactivation” [aktualisiert] is intrinsic to the technique of reproduction.[34] Such a future logic organizes the work’s becoming.

Art and living labor

Alÿs’s production might be placed in the context of a number of such works of art from this period in Mexico. Among the infamous works of the Spaniard Santiago Sierra count 1998’s Blocking the Freeway. Sierra pays a truck driver to use his rig to block traffic on one of the city’s main arteries, tracing another artistic intervention into corruption, socio-economic inequality, and urban mismanagement. The works of Teresa Margolles and SEMEFO, based on the found-object of the corpse, find their conditions once again in the disastrous outcomes of the neoliberal cityscape: poverty, corruption, violence, and impunity. These works, like those of Sierra, do not merely represent such outcomes, but seek to reveal their own complicity with the very cultural and economic logics that produce such a world. Yoshua Okón’s (b. Mexico, DF, 1970) works from this period likewise explore their own exploitative potentials, in a bid, it seems, to confront the spectator with spectacular injustice.

A series of Okón’s videos bears the title Oríllese a la orilla, a joke on the poorly spoken Spanish of the undereducated police officers who inhabit the pieces.[35] Okón’s website describes the installation as “a series of nine videos in which Mexico City policemen are documented in situations with variable modes and degrees of manipulation.” The pieces in the series all follow much the same formula. In Poli I, Okón provokes a cop into a verbal fight. Poli IV features a police officer’s perverse and sexually-charged demonstration of his nightstick. In the obligatory Poli IX the cops arrest Okón and we see him bribe his way out of trouble.[36]

Poli V is a particularly striking example. It features a police officer square-dancing to the once widely popular tune “Payaso de rodeo” by the group Caballo Dorado. Okón paid the officer 200 pesos for his performance. The composition is both spare and careless. We notice the artist’s hand (in a metaphorical sense) as the piece ends: when the officer moves to escape the frame, Okón forcefully repositions the camera to pursue its object. It is Okón’s voice that we hear yelling “Bravo!” as the video’s violent punctuation. The putative protagonist of this study in humiliation, is not the noble subaltern; he is rather the man we might sometimes fear, who is a nuisance or a threat to us, whose limited power is predicated upon cruelty. We bear witness to something like an inverted victimization. Accordingly, the police uniform allows the viewer to laugh at the subject’s humiliation because it makes present the scenes of police life, in which, we must imagine, this officer has acted as aggressor or, perhaps more likely, a nuisance.[37] We are permitted to laugh at the police officer despite poverty, despite “ethically” grounded, not to say properly political concerns for the violent injustices of today’s capitalism. The laughter we are permitted is an “equalizing” laughter, but only in the most ideological sense possible: most viewers of this piece, regardless of their social class have had a run-in with the cops and this is our collective chance, to point the gun in the other direction, as it were. We witness, thus, the return to the familiar metaphor of the camera-as-gun and even more to the paradigmatic scene of the Western, in which one cowboy points his gun at the feet of the other and demands that he dance.

The western tonalities of “Payaso de rodeo” only underline this peculiar orientation of the work. Indeed, Okón’s selection of a song and accompanying dance popular at the social events of Mexicans from distinct socio-economic classes itself refers to something like a cultural ground of social reconciliation. The inclusion of this particular song recalls the role of culture as a point of minimal national articulation and intelligibility: the song is one place at which the disparate actors (and non-actors) of the social converge, if not in material space, then at least in the simultaneity of the soundscape. At the same time, the wide popularity of the song is also clearly part of the wider trend, particularly strong in contemporary Mexican culture, of an ironic appropriation of the vulgar, the popular, or the lumpen.[38] The way, then, that this shared cultural referent circulates through different social classes intensifies the officer’s subordination by shortening the gap that separates the cop and the artist. In other words, the song, as the sign of mutual intelligibility, impedes the officer from maintaining a safe distance from Okón and simultaneously invokes Okón’s mastery of the impoverished materials of low and popular cultures as counterpoint to the officer’s own out-of-placeness in the gallery setting. The violence here is thus irreducible, for even as the subject moves out of the frame, Okón pursues him violently with his weapon, capturing the cruel spectacle despite the subject’s unspoken, bodily protests.

This point deserves further consideration. The officer at times grants himself a reprieve from this rather unforgiving spectacle by strategically dancing himself out of the frame. In a move of almost defiant laziness –a turning over of labor to his subordinate and servant, the officer– Okón makes only occasional minimal camera adjustments to account for his object’s increasingly fancy footwork, which seems to undermine the presumed purpose of the piece, that is, to visually dominate an agent of the law. Yet what this movement further suggests is a kind of indifference towards the officer, a kind of equivalence between his body and the other objects that stand within the visual frame–wall, floor, boombox. This mise-en-scène only significantly changes as the piece ends, and the officer begins to walk out of the frame. As I noted earlier, here the camera moves dramatically as a kind of artistic signature that, simultaneously, underlines the objectifying indifference through which the spectator/artist’s gaze is constituted and assures the inescapability of this most uncomfortable encounter. It is at this point, when the piece starts over, that we come to understand that the violently inequitable relations that convene the social field are being played out repeatedly, on looped digital video, despite the fact that our “Poli” received compensation for only one show.[39] There thus seem to be two ways of reconstructing the work as a political intervention. The first, and most superficial, revolves around the extent to which this work is a playful comment on corrupt authority in Mexico. The second would be to read in the very scene of humiliation, in the moment of the relation between the artist and his subject, the formation of a politics or of a non-politics. Here the artist aligns himself with the spectator and places himself on the other side of a line that, both visually and conceptually, the officer cannot cross (again, the most forceful action Okón commits in the realization of the work appears to be his denial of the officer’s desire to leave the frame). The work stands thus as a cruel demonstration of the world as such (distribution of the sensible), making visible what is already perhaps too visible: the vicissitudes of labor and capital.

Writes Marx “…the collective working organism is a form of existence of capital”.[40] The quotation already features the effacement of the individuated subject, and further, its collective existence as the mediation of capital. Capital appears insofar as it is mediated through the subject’s collective, participatory body.[41] In the sixth chapter of Capital, Marx formally forecasts this new kind of body: “…instead of being able to sell commodities in which his labor has been objectified, (the possessor of labor-power) must rather be compelled to offer for sale as a commodity that very labor-power which exists only in his living body”.[42] Marx describes a process which coextends similar transformations that occur in capitalism qua logic: the body is a vessel in which capital is extended and reproduced. This very act of collective labor that constitutes the social totality is now increasingly thought as an instance which occurs not only in the factory. Under late capital’s expansive purview is it clear that the subject’s effacement as alienated labor, which is constituted by the (social) mode of production, cannot continue to be thought as a distinct social relation belonging only to distinct spheres and times, and accorded discrete purposes. It is rather, as our digital lives alone will attest, part of everyday experience.

Marx writes “The knowledge, judgment and will which, even though to a small extent, are exercised by the independent peasant or handicraftsman (…) are faculties now required only for the workshop as a whole (…) the capitalist represents to the individual workers the unity and the will of the whole body of social labor”.[43] The body of the worker, from which labor is extracted, is figured as the incarnation of “knowledge, judgment and will.” These categories, human attributes, or the attributes that define what is “human,” are not left intact by capitalism (according to the Rousseau-inflected line of Marx’s thought), as a logic of totalization of the social under the purview of a generalized field of fetishization. In the former, and, for this line of Marx, slightly “humane” forms of artisan labor, the human qualities are not appropriated by labor itself, because labor is still labor in-itself. Artisan-labor is not yet formally constituted in the service to some broader cultural-economic logic. In order to make visible such a transition, Marx deploys an image of a singular intelligence and will, which both constructs and commands “the workshop as a whole” or of the “will of the whole body of social labor”. Alÿs’s turn to the topography of the dune is not merely a contingent circumstance; there is something quite artisanal in the phantasy of the dune, outside the city, surrounded by neighborhoods of improvised houses that are the residue and the excess of capital. There is something savage and difficult in the terrain but at the same time, the material of which it is composed appears smooth, light: sand. Sand, to be sure, properly disposed, configures the registration of time –the hourglass but also wind on the dune face. And in this time and place, a line of workers assembles, their social relation or “sociability” configured by and mediated through the art object that they produce.

Faith: “the workshop as a whole”

In an interview on BBC HARDtalk by Stephen Sackur, broadcast on 24 March 2009, the journalist asks the philosopher Alain Badiou whether his communism is nothing more than a kind of faith. Rather than granting the refusal one might expect, Badiou’s response simply affirms the question: “Faith is a great thing sometimes”. Sometimes, to be sure: sometimes a faith –faith in the to-come of communism– is a great thing. “Sometimes,” said Badiou, in an unintentional echo of the titles of one of Alÿs’s projects, Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic. In both cases, action encounters its own temporality, its occasion, its juncture or moment. Such tonalities resonate as well in the “when” of When Faith Moves Mountains. The “when” of this faith awaits its effectivity, perhaps not confined to ritual and rehearsal, but as a kind of practice that extends the possibility that there is faith.

The very first failure of such collective actions is inscribed before the event took place: 1000 t-shirts and 1000 shovels were purchased for the project. Thus, for each participant, for each volunteer that holds the line, there is the phantasm of another whose “wasted” effort refused to record itself in the action. A specter haunts the work: 500 specters follow the 500 participants over the hill, specters of the other 500 individuals who are elsewhere, not together, but in different locations, taking up distinct activities, each and every one. Nothing to hold this group together but faith. Faith in what moves the mountain?

As we can see from the displacement: there is not a displacement. A helicopter hovers overhead during the action to assure that its survey-plan is recorded. At some point, it comes too close to the line on the ground. Its spinning blades raise and move far more of the dune than the participants with their shovels. This accident –whether or not it is an accident– questions any possible separation between the action and its recording –there is only this recording. Yet at the same time, it sets apart the most work-like aspect of the work: faith. Our faith that there is or will be a work, our faith that there is or will be a land displacement, our faith, finally, in the collective nature of the faith we hold as a line, standing in the sun, over the dune in a shared and mutual project. In this regard the work returns to the assembly line of the factory; it recreates or reenacts the scene of alienated labor. And to be sure, it is also precisely an example of alienated labor. Here “the workshop as a whole” is deployed in the demonstration of its own expropriation, despite the artisanal phantasy that the work extends about its own working-out. When Faith Moves Mountains reproduces –reenacts– the site of a now impossible political subjectivation.

Yet there will not be work, much less a work, despite all faith, for anyone outside the line, except in its technological reproducibility.[44] Writes Eduardo Cadava, “What makes an event an event is its technological reproducibility”.[45] There is no event that has taken place as an event –beyond this line of 500 witnesses– if it is not a series of images of light and sound. “In other words,” as Benjamin once put it, “the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value”.[46] The line is the original site of this ritual, or it recalls this ritual –the possibility of a rite. The very convocation of a ritual, that is, today, in the era of technological reproducibility, which nevertheless can be accessed only through its recording and repetition, dramatizes the division between orders or epochs at the center of the work. The unique event-ness of the work will always be lost; as one of the participants bears witness: “That part was lost, I think, in the shot. It wasn’t seen” [Esa parte se perdió, me parece, en la toma. No se vio]. The most secret aspect of the ritual (or pseudo-ritual), the most unique moment of the work is the political subjectivation on which it turns. This pseudo-auratic lost moment is the moment of collective faith in the work itself. The visibility of action obeys an inverse relation to the invisibility of the faith held by the volunteers on the line. And yet rather than a ceremonial object, “destined to serve in a cult”, as Benjamin put it, what is here produced is the ceremony itself, but because worthless, useless, and also labor-intensive, a ceremony destined to be unique.

The tension between two sides of the work turns on an exploration of the way in which, as Benjamin put it, “…mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual… Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice-politics”.[47] The ritualistic theme of the work is betrayed precisely by the lack of an object through which to center the work, by means of which to delineate it; it would seem to possess neither material nor endgame. A disappearing, ironically sincere faith, the wasted effort of a march sans effect over the dune face, the extensive documentation of what never properly occurred (endurance upon endurance), or if it occurred, the thing that truly occurred was never filmed, never witnessed, only felt along the line; all of this points to some other more immaterial practice: politics, a communism –the symbolic working out of a being-in-common– unburdened by its failure, held together by faith in the process of the highly hypothetical form it extends. An arduous task has turned into a game, a peculiar ritual into a politics. It is, indeed, the appearance of a possibility that Alÿs has himself suggested, the “counterpart” to the axiom that guided Paradox of Praxis I: sometimes making nothing leads to something.[48] The turn of a truly political art: immaterial.

“On the one hand,” writes Rancière, “the ‘community of sense’ woven together by artistic practice is a new set of vibrations of the human community in the present; on the other hand, it is a monument that stands as a mediation or a substitute for a people to come”.[49] The work divides itself and reunites itself for the people present and the people future. It constructs the possibility of the contingent and temporary reunion of our contemporaries. And yet it is also, necessarily, an immaterial monument, a monument constructed immaterially, directed toward an as-yet unconstructed people: “The images of art do not supply weapons for battles. They help sketch new configurations of what can be seen, what can be said and what can be thought and, consequently, a new landscape of the possible. But they do so on condition that their meaning or effect is not anticipated”.[50] What is truly needed is not to critique the artist but rather the prevailing conditions of thought and action that do not open any figure for the semblance of a program; for the artwork cannot be a politics as a semblance, it must commit itself to action. The nature of that action, then, is what is essayed in the works of Francis Alÿs rehearsals for a future moment in which the practiced effectivity of the “social” intervention will no longer be at stake, but rather the very success of political action, the working out of a hypothesis, the accidental return –as reenactment– of communism.


01. Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. by Gregory Elliot, London, Verso, 2009, p. 19.

02. Badiou, Alain, The Century, trans. by Alberto Toscano, Cambridge & Malden, Polity Press, 2007, p. 102.

03. Cuauhtémoc Medina, “Francis Alÿs:‘Tu subrealismo\’ (Your subrealism)”, in Third Text, vol. 11, n. 38, Spring 1997, p. 39.

04. Marcus Verhagen, “Wasted Effort”, in Art Monthly 327, June 2009, p. 15.

05. Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, op cit., p. 19.

06. Ibid., p. 49.

07. Writes Benjamin: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be”. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, in Illuminations, trans. by Harry Zohn, New York, Schocken, 2007, p. 222.

08. Laddaga’s conception here avoids naming precisely the conditions of the present out of which such works emerge–for perhaps they have no name before us, or perhaps there is no faith left in the line of thought that might have hoped to accord a name to the present crisis, but he does mention some of the phenomena that characterize the present in which he writes (the book was published in 2006) as aspects of the signifier “globalization”. Reinaldo Laddaga, Estética de la emergencia: la formación de otra cultura de las artes, Buenos Aires, Adriana Hidalgo, 2006, p. 10.

09. Gustavo Buntinx, “Illusion is also Power”, in When Faith Moves Mountains, Madrid, Turner, 2005, p. 42.

10. Reinaldo Laddaga, Estética de la emergencia…, op. cit., p. 10.

11. I have in mind here Grant Kester’s critical reading of When Faith Moves Mountains, which I will explore more fully below. Writes Kester: “Although the video includes comments by several (unidentified) student volunteers, Alÿs’s installation does little to convey the nature of their participation, or their particular investment in the Sisyphean task that he has assigned them. They have been summoned by Alÿs not as collaborators but as bodies to illustrate a ‘social allegory’ about the inevitable failure of Latin America to modernise successfully”. Grant Kester, “Lessons in Futility: Francis Alÿs and the Legacy of May ’68”, Third Text, vol. 23, n. 4, 2009, p. 414.

12. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. by Gabriel Rockhill, London, Continuum, 2004, p. 12.

13. Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, trans. by David Macey and Steve Corocan, London, Verso 2010, p. 1.

14. I again have in mind the exemplary case of Bourriaud’s “Relational Aesthetics”.

15. Grant Kester, “Lessons in Futility…”, op. cit., p. 412.

16. Ibid., 180.

17. Ibid., 414.

18. Bruno Bosteels, “The Speculative Left”, in South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 104, n. 4, 2005, p. 753.

19. See for example the title of a 2009 exposition in Colombia also shown at the Hammer (2007), “Francis Alÿs, política del ensayo” (“politics of rehearsal”).

20. Luis Camnitzer, Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2007, p. 183.

21. For a thorough exploration of Alÿs’s “urbanism”, see Rubén Gallo, New Tendencies in Mexican Art: the 1990s, New York, Palgrave, 2004, Chapter 4.

22. Writes Hélio Oiticica: “What would the object be then? A new category, or a new mode of being of the aesthetic proposition? As I see it, while possessing also these two meanings, the most important proposition of the object, of the object-makers, would be that of a new perceptive behavior, created through an increasingly higher level of spectator participation, leading to the overcoming of the object itself as the end of aesthetic expression”. Quoted and translated by Pedro Erber, “Theory Materialized: Conceptual Art and its Others”, in Diacritics, vol. 36, 1, 2006, p. 3.

23. Marcus Verhagen, op. cit., p. 15.

24. Godfrey’s observation is true in spirit, but I am compelled to add certain qualifications: the “Israelis” in question are most certainly what are known as “Israeli Jews”. So too, the “left” mentioned here must be understood as rather the more centrist “Labor” party (or more to the point, its remnants and allies), understood as the “left” party only with respect to the far right Likud. Indeed, there is another Israeli and even Israeli-Jewish left that does not countenance the idea of a “United Jerusalem”.

25. Cuauhtémoc Medina, op. cit., p. 47.

26. “This”, says Rancière, “is what Godard calls the fraternity of metaphors: the possibility that a face drawn by Goya’s pencil can be associated with the composition of a shot or with the form of a body tortured in the Nazi camps captured by the photographic lens; the possibility of writing the history of the century in many ways by virtue of the dual power of each image–that of condensing a multiplicity of gestures signifying a time and that of being combined with all those images endowed with the same power”. Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, op. cit., p. 129.

27. Jacques Rancière, “The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcomes: Emplotments of Autonomy and Heteronomy”, in New Left Review, trans. by Gabriel Rockhill, vol. 14, 2002, p. 142.

28. Ibid., p. 136.

29. Ibid., p. 144.

30. Ibid., p. 147.

31. bid., p. 148.

32. Idem.

33. Walter Benjamin, op. cit., p. 217.

34. The point of reference is again Benjamin, who writes that “…in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, (the technique of reproduction) reactivates the object reproduced”. Walter Benjamin, op. cit., p. 221.

35. “Oríllese a la orilla” is the command officers are known to employ to compel a driver to pull off the road. The phrase relies on the transformation of the noun “orilla” into a verb; the direct translation would be something like “Curb yourself over to the curb”.

36. Indeed, an amoral reflection on the power of money, the objectification of the other, and the violent nature of the social seems to traverse Okón’s production. A propósito, an early video installation produced in collaboration with Miguel Calderón, documents the artists’ theft of a car stereo. In Rhinoplasty, the artist’s foray into “narrative” video, Okón’s wealthy subjects snort cocaine and drive around Mexico City harassing poor people.

37. A friend once noted the anthropological logic of the series: each officer’s uniform betrays their position in the police hierarchy. To be sure, these are not the most fearsome agents of the law, but are rather much more the easily-bribed beat-cop variety.

38. On this score see Esther Gabara.

39. This move once again recalls Santiago Sierra, whose video Person Saying a Phrase (2002) records a peculiar and perverse moment of contradiction: a beggar utters a phrase that describes a minimal compensation for their work against the amount of abstract value the work would potentially produce: “My participation in this piece could generate a profit of $72,000. I am being paid five pounds”.

40. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1, trans. by Ben Fowkes. London, Penguin, 1976, p. 481.

41. Indeed, the tendency towards speaking about “the Body” as such mediates both the radical registration of “the death of the subject” as a euphoric opening up of the corporeal frontiers at the delimitation of exteriority —which we can see figured at a certain historical juncture by Deleuze & Guattari’s “body without organs”— as well as a technology infused form of capital-driven expropriation of the body under the logic of intensified forms of “dehumanization” (and we should note that this “humanity” is that furnished by humanism).

42. Karl Marx, op. cit., p. 272.

43. Ibid., p. 482.

44. Speaking in an interview, Alÿs himself put it in the following terms: “It’s really two different moments. Two different, consecutive lives of a single piece: the events and the transmission or translation of the events”. Francis Alÿs and Cuauhtémoc Medina, When Faith Moves Mountains, Madrid, Turner, 2005, p. 66.

45. Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1997, Chapter xxiii.

46. Walter Benjamin, op. cit., p. 224.

47. Idem.

48. Anna Dezeuze, “Walking the Line: Interview with Francis Alÿs”, in Art Monthly, Vol. 323, 2009, p. 6.

49. Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, op. cit., p. 59.

50. Ibid., p. 103.

Works Cited

  • Alÿs, Francis, and Cuauhtémoc Medina, When Faith Moves Mountains, Madrid, Turner, 2005.
  • Badiou, Alain, The Century, trans. by Alberto Toscano, Cambridge & Malden, Polity Press, 2007.
  • Badiou, Alain, The Communist Hypothesis, trans. by David Macey and Steve Corocan, London, Verso, 2010.
  • Benjamin, Walter, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, in Illuminations, trans. by Harry Zohn, New York, Schocken, 2007.
  • Bishop, Claire, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents”, in Artforum, February 2006.
  • Bosteels, Bruno, “The Speculative Left”, in South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 104, n. 4, 2005.
  • Bourriaud, Nicolas, Relational Aesthetics, trans. by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods, Paris, Les Presses du Réel, 1998.
  • Buntinx, Gustavo, “Illusion is also Power”, in When Faith Moves Mountains, Madrid, Turner, 2005.
  • Cadava, Eduardo, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1997.
  • Camnitzer, Luis, Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2007.
  • Dezeuze, Anna, “Walking the Line: Interview with Francis Alÿs”, in Art Monthly, vol. 323, 2009.
  • Erber, Pedro, “Theory Materialized: Conceptual Art and its Others”, in Diacritics, vol. 36, n. 1, 2006.
  • Gabara, Esther, “Fighting It Out: Being Naco in the Global Lucha Libre”, in Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, vol. 26, 2010.
  • Gallo, Rubén, New Tendencies in Mexican Art: the 1990s, New York, Palgrave, 2004.
  • Godfrey, Mark, “The Artist as Historian”, in October, vol. 120, 2007.
  • Kester, Grant, “Lessons in Futility: Francis Alÿs and the Legacy of May ’68”, Third Text, vol. 23, n. 4, 2009.
  • Laddaga, Reinaldo, Estética de la emergencia: la formación de otra cultura de las artes, Buenos Aires, Adriana Hidalgo, 2006.
  • Marx, Karl, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1, trans. by Ben Fowkes, London, Penguin, 1976.
  • Medina, Cuauhtémoc, “Francis Alÿs:‘Tu subrealismo\’ (Your subrealism)”, in Third Text, vol. 11, n. 38, Spring 1997.
  • Rancière, Jacques, “The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcomes: Emplotments of Autonomy and Heteronomy”, in New Left Review, trans. by Gabriel Rockhill, vol. 14, 2002.
  • Rancière, Jacques, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. by Gabriel Rockhill, London, Continuum, 2004.
  • Rancière, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. by Gregory Elliot, London, Verso, 2009.
  • Verhagen, Marcus, “Wasted Effort”, in Art Monthly, vol. 327, June, 2009.