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Roush, Paula. Francis Alÿs: The Clandestine Way. Dardo Magazine n.4 Feb.

-May (2007) 138-155

Francis Alÿs: The Clandestine Way (Pedestrian everyday under CCTV or How to walk the path of least surveillance) Paula Roush

-64 Coldstream Guards walk separately in the City of London entering through different streets and


Roush, Paula. Francis Alÿs: The Clandestine Way. Dardo Magazine n.4 Feb.-May (2007) 138-155

unaware of one another’s route. -The guards wander through the City looking for one another. -Upon meeting, they fall into step and march together looking for more guards to join up with. -When a square of 8x8 guards is built, the complete formation marches towards the closest bridge. -As they step onto the bridge, the guards break step and disperse.

As for all cultural practices centred on the everyday, Francis Alÿs body of work has for many years been pointing to the question of how to deal with the social. In his case, the street and the city space have become the articulating points around which aesthetic actions have been performed, residues for an archive of the daily life collected, and a critical spatial poetic developed. But if there is one site expansive enough to study the everyday practice of Francis, it is the city of London where his pedestrian production took off for a five years project entitled “Seven Walks.” Walking as a form of social research into the everyday is at the core of the London project, and as a strategy that allows for the mixing of fiction and empirical observation, it has the advantage of always being a work in progress. Crucially, working in the city’s commercial and financial centres raises interesting issues related with the problem of the everyday, partly due to the technoscape of surveillance and partly due to residues from other urban paradigms that coexist in ways not always visible.

In this text I will focus on a selection of these walks which culminated in an exhibition of all the collected material in an empty domestic mansion at 21 Portman Square, and a video installation in the Main Hall of The National Portrait Gallery, accompanied by


Roush, Paula. Francis Alÿs: The Clandestine Way. Dardo Magazine n.4 Feb.-May (2007) 138-155

Francis’ book “Seven Walks London, 2004-5” published by the London-based arts agency Artangel who commissioned the project. The publication positions itself between an artist’s book (with its emphasis on process and emerging typologies) and an artist’s monograph (characterised by the addition of third-party texts attempting to elucidate such practice), but of most interest is the unfolding of Francis’ working methodologies.

Everyday theory

‘The everyday offers itself up as a problem, a contradiction, a paradox: both ordinary and extraordinary, self-evident and opaque, known and unknown, obvious and enigmatic.”

In the book “Everyday Life and Cultural Theory,” Ben Highmore (2002), outlines the three axes common to theoretical approaches to the everyday. These are: firstly, the development of aesthetic strategies capable to go beyond the cliché of the everyday to expose/ reveal/ excavate the familiar and reveal the unfamiliar; secondly, the “everydaying” of the archive which consists not only in enlarging the scope of what is traditionally archivable but most crucially to keep the archive as an everyday occurrence; and thirdly, the development of a practical criticism in attending to the everyday which translates into a set of practices that somehow reverse the usually ordering of knowledge in such a way that what was background becomes foreground, and the everyday itself becomes the subject of interest.

Challenging the everyday notion of daily life as tedious and meaningless, the critical


Roush, Paula. Francis Alÿs: The Clandestine Way. Dardo Magazine n.4 Feb.-May (2007) 138-155

approaches to the everyday embraced by authors such as Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin, Henri Lefebvre, Michel de Certeau and the cultural collectives of Surrealism and Mass-Observation, became notorious for the methodologies they developed to research the unknown, the mysterious, the resistant and the revolutionary in everyday life. From this emerged a paradoxical picture of the everyday as a site for both the familiar and the unfamiliar and a terrain for research that appears at the core of Francis’ interests as well.

Unfamiliar aesthetics
The first level at which this reoccurs is precisely in the deploy of aesthetic devices and representational forms to account for the common and the uncommon, the proper and the improper aspects of the everyday. Swapping the safe institutional realm of fine art and academia where questions of aesthetics have been for the most part grounded, for the uncertain terrain of daily life, art and critical theory alike need to find forms of representing the multisensorial character of the everyday, and this means moving beyond an ocularcentric and rationalist tradition to locate the experience of modernity at a sensory and non-rational level that includes the auditory, the bodily, the unconscious and the phantasmatic, the repressive as well as the transformative.

It is within this first aesthetic concern that one can view Francis’ use of walking as an artistic strategy that allows for unexpected juxtapositions or defamiliarising situations, for example using the outdoor railings to produce sound –whilst simultaneously poetically unpacking all the spatial politics involved in the segmentation of public space and the accepted standards for proper behaviour in city squares. This happens in the work


Roush, Paula. Francis Alÿs: The Clandestine Way. Dardo Magazine n.4 Feb.-May (2007) 138-155

Railings (2004) produced in collaboration with Rafael Ortega, presented at Portman Square as a video projection of Francis walking with a stick in his hand and running it along the rails to produce a series of accompanying five sound tracks (Fitzroy Square 3’30”, Sample I 1’40”, Sample II 2’50”, Onslow Gardens 1’40” and Park Crescent 3’40”.)

In Francis’ words: “The railings function as a kind of 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 drumming a stick against it, the details of the architecture automatically generate a sound pattern (…) 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 the 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.” 1

Trash archives

Francis’ usage of archives which is introduced in this extract from a conversation between him and James Lingwood (Artangel's co-director) brings us to the second set of issues problematised by conceptual approaches to the everyday- that of a methodology to collect and select the material to include in the archive of everyday life. An archive of


Roush, Paula. Francis Alÿs: The Clandestine Way. Dardo Magazine n.4 Feb.-May (2007) 138-155

city sound, based on Francis drumming of the railings might include, as we’ve seen, all the variations resulting from the interaction between the architecture and the walker. Another suggestion for what an archive of everyday life based on the act of walking might include is the project ‘A Personal Repertoire of Possible Behaviours While Walking the Streets in London Town’ (July 2005) presented as panels of text and photography. Listed under major headings such as To Take, To Make, or To Alter, one can find a list of behaviours related to the totality of the psychosomatic experience:

TO TAKE -to collect, -to steal, -to name, -to document, -to attract, -to look, - to ask, -to beg, -to appropriate, -to kill, -to touch… TO GIVE - to add, -to salute, -to lose, -to bring, -to name, -to insert, -to spread, -to drop, -to pee, -to sweat, -to cry, -to shit, -to smuggle, -to caress, -to die, -to leak, -to fill, -to dance, -to tag, -to laugh, -to waste… TO RECEIVE: -to hear, -to feel, -to see, -to smell, -to taste.

This perspective of the artistic practice as an archive of daily life brings forward the implications of dealing with not only the totality of sensory realm, but also with the totality of the material culture, including its dejects and in a sense Francis work has been punctuated by a trash aesthetics that has a lot in common with the daily practice of the ragpicker or the homeless, characters that he has come in proximity through several of his earlier works. For example, in ‘The Collector’- a piece which resurfaced as a set of postcards in 2001 at the exhibition Walk Ways (Portland Institute for Contemporary Art)the following instructions could be read below a photo of Francis walking a magnetised collector: For an indeterminate period of time, the magnetised collector takes a walk


Roush, Paula. Francis Alÿs: The Clandestine Way. Dardo Magazine n.4 Feb.-May (2007) 138-155

through the streets and gradually builds up a coat made of any metallic residue lying in its path. This process goes on until the collector is completely covered by its trophies. Such methodological approach to culture, through what has been discarded, approaches the artist to an historian of everyday life, looking at the leftovers from a culture to get to its core.

In London, this interest for the rejected revealed itself in the work ‘Nightwatch’ (2004), twenty videos on twenty individual monitors of an urban fox walking through the paintings of the empty National Portrait Gallery at night while under the surveillance of the gallery’s own closed-circuit cameras, presented as an installation at the National Gallery’s Main Hall. Infiltrating inside one of the most secure art institutions an animal that having been excluded from the urban fabric regularly reappears in the city streets as a food scavenger, is the equivalent in Francis words of inserting a clandestine in the gallery for a night walk: “As part of my studies in architecture, I used the animal as a sign of the crucial moment in cities when the urban space was transformed from a medieval model, where there was a co-existence of humans and animals in close proximity to the old city centre, to the new kind of urban space projected in the model of the Renaissance City. Animals found themselves extra-muros, literally outside the city walls (…) We’re back to the basic mechanics of the rumour, inserting the right hero where he is the least expected but might somehow show up…”


Roush, Paula. Francis Alÿs: The Clandestine Way. Dardo Magazine n.4 Feb.-May (2007) 138-155

Critical poiesis
This strategy of ‘rumour making’ that reoccurs in his practice of mixing factual research, fiction, speculation, and empirical observation to develop an intervention, brings us back to the third element in a theory of the everyday, and that is the activation of a critical practice that intervenes in the daily life to provoke some reversal in the situations or the expectations one has of it. Against the idea that the work of art is a resolutely material project tied to managerial bureaucracy for its completion, the trick consists in using the logistics of an arts organisation like Artangel to propagate the rumour, putting it into circulation, so to speak. The rumour has the quality of a viral marketing campaign, capitalising in the power of the word-of-mouth to spread and start to happen.

‘Guards’ (2004-5) is the 28’ video by Francis and Rafael Ortega, resulting from this wish to provoke a conscious alteration in the daily life, this time the displacement of the Coldstream Guards from their usual territory – around Buckingham Palace, where they serve as the Her Majesty's Coldstream Regiment of Foot Guards (The Regiment's formal title)- into the terrain of the city of London, the financial district where the corporations’ safety is maintained by private security companies and the highest concentration of CCTV in the world. The initial idea was to work with the real-time documentation by requesting the footage from the CCTV companies operating in the city. However, in spite of the individual’s right of access proclaimed in the Data Protection Act 1998, Francis was unable to obtain the tapes, thus the détournement was re-enacted second time for the video cameras of a professional crew, and the final cut made into a video projection for Portman Square.


Roush, Paula. Francis Alÿs: The Clandestine Way. Dardo Magazine n.4 Feb.-May (2007) 138-155

‘A Section of Guards’ (2002-5) appears in the book as a series of components that include notes, diagrams, maps of the paths of most and least surveillance, drawings and photographs to articulate the practical and conceptual shaping of the video. One can follow both the associative flow, emerging from disparate sources which include literature, newspaper clips, site-visits, walking, and a lot of negotiation, operating within the parameters of an arts organisation with a reputation for large-scale, sometimes even monumental, site-specific and publically-based artistic output. Via conversations and the email exchanges between Francis and the project coordinators, it is possible to follow, the way an idea for a city action (in this case, the spreading of a rumour) was transformed into a large-scale video production, involving 64 guards marching through the Mile Square (the über-surveilled financial city centre where most UK-based corporations have their headquarters). Deeply aware of the limitations of working in the most surveilled city of the world, the work goes beyond the cultural material London to focus on a global assimetry of power partly invisible to daily life.

Evidencing the shared similarities between everyday theory and Francis’ work is different from describing him as a theoretician of the everyday which he is not as he prefers to describe his practice as one closer to a poiesis: “I’m trying to use my language, the language of an artist. It’s a poetic approach if you will, not a militant discourse…maybe it will have a social dimension or become a political comment, but that has to happen within the experience of the poetic act, when the poetics provoke a sudden loss of self that allows a distancing from the immediate situation, a different


Roush, Paula. Francis Alÿs: The Clandestine Way. Dardo Magazine n.4 Feb.-May (2007) 138-155

perspective on things, and might then have the potential to open up a political thought.” 1

Considering Francis background as an architect, the pedestrian methodology appears as a resistant approach to the problem of space as envisaged by a dominant form of knowledge production such as architecture, while it is a practical operation transformative enough to allow for interesting juxtapositions such as the fox/ National Portrait Gallery or Royal Guards/ Financial District to occur that destabilize even if only momentarily the patterns of daily life. Writing about wandering, Alexandre Laumonier advances a proposition that might enlighten Francis use of walking as an approach to the everyday:

“The wander, term at the same time explicit and vague, is usually associated movement, and singularly with walk, the idea of mislaying, the loss of oneself. However, the principal problem of the wander is anything but that of the acceptable place. The wanderer in search of the acceptable is placed in a very peculiar space, an intermediate space. To the intermediate space corresponds in fact an intermediate time, a temporality which one could describe as floating. This floating time is the time of the glance over history, where the wanderer wonders about the past at the same time as he reflects on his immediate future.”



Alÿs, Francis. Seven Walks London, 2004-5. London: Artangel. 2005


Highmore, Ben. Everyday Life and Cultural Theory, London: Routledge. 2002


Laumonier, Alexandre. “L’Errance ou La Pensée du Milieu”. Magazine Littéraire, L’Errance de

Cervantès aux Écrivains Voyageurs, Avril 1997( 21). (author’s translation)