Listen carefully, as our menu has changed
The ideas of conceptual
artist Francis Alÿs usually relate to a specific local
context, but his methods suggest a network of
possibilities that is global. He has used the basic human
activity of walking to generate works that are remarkably
diverse, including instructional performances, photo
documentations, videos, slide projections, animations,
and paintings. Schooled as an architect in his native
Belgium and in Italy, Alÿs has lived in Mexico City for
the past fifteen years. Much of his work has taken
inspiration from the chaotic, sensuous, and brutal
streets of that city. For his first solo museum
exhibition on the East Coast, Alÿs has created a new
work: It's an interactive telephone system in which
museum goers can call a toll-free number and connect to
an animated system of the artist's own devising.
Alÿs's epiphany followed an abortive telephone call to a leading art museum. Failing to make contact with a human being, Alÿs experienced "that feeling of loss and slight humiliation of talking only to a machine." [i] In a gesture of reversal typical of Alÿs's approach to art, he undertook to "re-enact" this experience of alienation through an intervention that matches creativity and subversion in equal parts. 1-866-FREE-MATRIX marks a departure in Francis Alÿs's art as it charts new territory in both media and content. Nevertheless, it clearly emerges from earlier work, which includes paintings, drawings, videos, animations and, in particular, walks, which are his most conceptual pieces.
Alÿs, who trained as an architect, has long been concerned with how we inhabit spaces. More particularly, his work over the past decade has taken urban spaces in the Americas and Europe, from So Paulo to Venice, as the tableaux for his interventions. His home since 1987, Mexico City, that sprawling anarchic megalopolis, has been the site for numerous works that reflect on place, subjectivity and the nature of artistic practice.
Walks are one of Alÿs's chief creative activities, each one following a simple narrative. The Collector (Mexico City, 1991-92) involved a small toy on wheels made from a magnet: "For an indeterminate period of time, the magnetized collector takes a daily walk through the streets and gradually builds up a coat made of any metallic residue lying in its path."[ii] Alÿs's walks are generally solitary affairs, documented by photographs, notes or occasionally video. The discontinuity we often feel between physical and mental space is investigated in Narcotourism (Copenhagen, 1996): "I will walk in the city over the course of seven days, under the influence of a different drug each day." While the city may be a place for anonymous and introspective wanderings, it is also a locus for social gatherings and interaction. This is nowhere truer than in a city square, which in Mexico City is the ancient plaza known as the Zocalo. What came to fascinate Alÿs about this vast open space in the midst of an extraordinarily crowded city was the flagpole at its center. Like a giant sundial, the flagpole affords a narrow strip of slowly shifting shade that Mexicans find a pleasant place to pass - quite literally - the time of day. Alÿs recorded this changing scene for a full day in the twelve-hour video Zocalo (Mexico City, 1999).
Playfulness and a touch of whimsy are always present in Alÿs's work. Invited to participate in the prestigious Venice Biennale this year, he sent The Ambassador instead. During the opening festivities one could see the artist's representative, a preening peacock, strutting between the international pavilions. Even at its most "philosophical," Alÿs's work has a lightness of touch. Paradox of Praxis (Mexico City, 1997) is a meditation on the observation that "sometimes making something leads to nothing." In this work, the artist pushes a gigantic block of ice through the city streets until it has melted completely, leaving nothing but a small patch of moist footpath at the end of the day. As we begin to see, displacement, ambiguity, metaphor and paradox are among the recurring motifs of Alÿs's art. He has commented, "Each of my interventions is another fragment of the story I am inventing, of the city that I am mapping." [iii] As a storyteller, Alÿs is ultimately concerned with the space of memory and imagination; to this extent, his fabled city is a virtual one.
In this era of high-tech global networks, the telephone remains the most ubiquitous and democratized form of electronic communication in the world. For this reason perhaps, the telephone in some ways belongs to an earlier period. What technophobe is intimidated by the conventional telephone? Nevertheless, telephone technology has been transformed by the digital age in which, for example, the touch-tone phone has opened a new world of interactive possibilities. Which returns us to where we began, with Francis Alÿs's epiphany borne of frustration.
Alÿs came to realize that the digital technology of automated interactive attendant telephone systems could provide him with the means to create "a virtual walk into virtual space."[iv] What had been up to this point a strictly terrestrial investigation could have its virtual counterpart.[v] As with his other walks, the artist could construct an itinerary that calls for the repetition of certain actions within a given system. Different, however, is the status of the "walker," who is no longer the artist, but has become the participant. The caller leads the narrative, choosing to move through the given options at will. Of course it is the artist, via the technology, who is ultimately in control of the possibilities. This experience of a simultaneous sense of the freedom to make multiple choices and the restriction of those choices within a circumscribed range of possibilities is analogous, it seems to me, to our relation to new technology and to the very experience of contemporary urban life.
Toll-free calling, first introduced in the 1960s, has become synonymous with successful telemarketing. Since 1996, when the original block of 800 numbers was exhausted, new toll-free prefixes have been introduced, 866 most recently. Last year more than 20 billion toll-free calls were made in the United States. In a subversive twist, rather than trying to sell something, Alÿs's toll-free number is all about giving something away. While museums across the United States implement new programs to promote access and outreach, Alÿs has actually devised a way to give art away to anybody who can make a phone call. The paradox of this 1-866-FREE-MATRIX praxis is, of course, the irrelevance of the museum as a physical site. Like the melted ice cube, there is no there, there.
With this exhibition, Francis Alÿs invokes the radical innovations of conceptual art of the 1960s. 1-866-FREE-MATRIX is the perfectly dematerialized art object, existing only in virtual space, resisting the logic of commodity capitalism.[vi] In its democratic deployment of new technology and advanced mass-marketing strategies, 1-866-FREE-MATRIX is a twenty-first century parallel to early conceptualist works like the exhibition-as-publication Xerox Book. [vii]
For Francis Alÿs, the Wadsworth Atheneum's Matrix program "the oldest of its type and one of the most respected in the country" was the ideal occasion on which to realize this work. The very title "Matrix" already suggested to Alÿs a kind of intercellular network. Alÿs also noted that while the program is known nationally, many people are yet to make the trip to Hartford to see a Matrix exhibition. With 1-866-FREE-MATRIX Alÿs has made both a free exhibition and an exhibition free of geographical limitations.
[i] Francis Alÿs in conversation with the author, August 2001.
[ii] Francis Alÿs, The Collector, 1991-92, notes by the artist.
[iii] Francis Alÿs in Walks/Paseos, Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico, 1997, p.15.
[iv] Francis Alÿs in conversation with the author, August 2001.
[v] Alÿs had, in 1999, made a foray into the Internet with The Thief, a screensaver web page project for DIA Center for the Arts, New York.
[vi] See Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (New York: Praeger), 1973. The telephone was used as a method of distancing the hand of the artist from the work of art in an exhibition titled Art by Telephone held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in 1969. Organized by Jan van der Mark, forty-one artists from the United States and Europe were invited to phone in to the museum ideas to be executed on their behalf. Thanks to Mel Bochner, a participant in Art by Telephone, for this recollection.
[vii] Seth Siegelaub published the Xerox Book in 1968. It featured projects made for the publication by seven artists using the photocopy machine, a then new technology that made it possible to easily produce inexpensive reproductions in large volume.
Courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum.