Dossier | When Faith Moves Mountains: Ethics and Relational Art | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | When Faith Moves Mountains: Ethics and Relational Art

  • Francis Alÿs (en collaboration avec | in collaboration with Cuauhtémoc Medina & Rafael Ortega), When Faith Moves Mountains, Lima, 2002. Photo : permission de | courtesy of David Zwirner, New York
  • Francis Alÿs (en collaboration avec | in collaboration with Cuauhtémoc Medina & Rafael Ortega), When Faith Moves Mountains, Lima, 2002. Photo : permission de | courtesy of David Zwirner, New York

When Faith Moves Mountains: Ethics and Relational Art
By Amanda Burstein

Inspired by the political turmoil he witnessed on a trip to Peru in October of 2000, Belgian artist Francis Alÿs executed a work in 2002 in which he had 500 people, equipped with shovels, move a 1600 foot-long sand dune mere inches. The volunteers, mostly engineering students, received no monetary compensation for their participation in Alÿs’ artwork, nor were the inhabitants of the shantytown in the Ventanilla dunes outside Lima, where the event took place, remunerated. According to Alÿs, the work was an attempt “to translate social tensions into narratives that in turn intervene in the imaginal landscape of a place” in order to “infiltrate the local history and mythology of Peruvian society... to insert another rumor into its narratives.” (1) Alÿs attests that the work is “an active interpretive practice performed by the audience, who must give the work its meaning and its social value.”(2)

The work of contemporary artist Francis Alÿs can be analyzed within an increasingly popular artistic model. The possibility of an interactive, participation-based practice — or what French curator and art critic Nicolas Bourriaud refers to as a relational art practice — has been explored by a number of contemporary artists and critics. For Bourriaud, relational artworks are those that take interhuman relationships and their social contexts as their theoretical basis. (3) Alÿs’ work When Faith Moves Mountains is an intriguing example of a relational artwork as defended by Bourriaud; however, in light of an examination of this work in relation to Bourriaud’s theory of relational aesthetics, there emerge a number of ethical questions that Bourriaud’s model fails to address. I am compelled to question how Alÿs’ audience benefits — if at all — from its participation in his artwork. In the exchange between artist and audience, what is gained on the part of the collaborators? Given the imperceptible, intangible, and contingent success of the project, the ethical problematics of this exchange must be considered. An analysis of Alÿs’ work by means of Bourriaud’s methodology, in contrast with those of Claire Bishop and Grant Kester, reveals the ethical blind spots of Bourriaud’s vision of relational art, and the potential ethical difficulties that reside within collaborative exchange, brought into perspective by relational artworks like Alÿs’ When Faith Moves Mountains.

For Bourriaud, “Contemporary art resembles a period of time that has to be experienced, or the opening of a dialogue that never ends.” (4) Applying Bourriaud’s criteria, relational artworks must include aspects of duration, experience, and exchange. Artist Alÿs has created a “space-time,” in Bourriaud’s terms, where the volunteers share in a common experience for a period of time and receive in turn what the artist refers to as a “social allegory.” (5) Critic Grant Kester, interested in dialogical relational art, argues that these types of artworks facilitate dialogue and exchange in order to “[link] new forms of intersubjective experience with social or political activism.” (6) Though Alÿs’ work is not properly dialogical by Kester’s definition — it is not based upon an immediate dialogical exchange between participants — When Faith Moves Mountains implies or incites a dialogue through its product, according to the artist. Kester’s perspective compels us to ask how the dialogical aspect of Alÿs’ work contributes to values of exchange and whether the participants benefit from the opening of this dialogue. This implied dialogue, the main aspect of exchange in Alÿs’ artwork, is of great importance, for it is here that the ethical questions raised by the work rest. For Kester, it would be the narrative ignited by this event that sparks consideration of the social and political issues that inspired the work. Thus, from the perspective of Kester’s model, what Alÿs’ participants gain from their contribution is the potential to effect social change, or ways of thinking about that change, through the creation and perpetuation of the work’s narrative. It is, however, important to note that this gain, on the part of the participants, is only potential.

Alÿs says of his work, “If the script meets the expectations and addresses the anxieties of that society at this time and place, it may become a story that survives the event itself.” (7) The ethical issue lies in that the dialogue facilitated by the artist, though it possesses the potential to link intersubjective experience with social and political activism, exists only within the realm of possibility. It is the potentiality of the work that throws the ethics of the project into question. Its success, as the artist would see it, is left in the hands (or the mouths) of its collaborators. While Bourriaud asserts that “the production of gestures is more important than the production of material things,” we cannot neglect to consider whether these gestures produce an effect — if they affect. (8) Bishop argues that it is the artist’s responsibility to provide a dissenting voice, to disagree with a situation as opposed to simply facilitating communication. In the case of When Faith Moves Mountains, Alÿs comments upon a political situation by facilitating a dialogue, as he would see it, though I am not sure his responsibility as an artist, in Bishop’s terms, has been met.

In her article “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents,” Bishop challenges Bourriaud’s position in Relational Aesthetics, arguing that “this emphasis on process over product... is justified as oppositional to capitalism’s predilection for the contrary.” In Bishop’s view, this approach almost completely disregards the aesthetic value of such works because “aesthetic judgements have been overtaken by ethical criteria.” (9) Bishop also takes issue with how the markers of success often have less to do with aesthetic considerations than the ethical righteousness of process: “Artists are increasingly judged by their working process — the degree to which they supply good or bad models of collaboration — and criticized for any hint of potential exploitation that fails to ‘fully’ represent their subjects.” (10) As with Bishop’s objections and Kester’s position, my concerns with the ethics of Alÿs’ project lie not with the working process but with the product and the effect of the work — the exchange between artist and audience. In emphasizing the ethics of process and intent, the ethics of the product itself may not necessarily be secured and, as a result, the exchange overlooked.

While Bourriaud argues that “being a human activity that is based upon commerce, art is both the object and the subject of an ethic: all the more so in that unlike other human activities, its only function is to be exposed to that commerce,” he views relational works as isolated microcosms. He is interested more in the political significance of the momentary interstice within the contemporary social system than in the potential effects of that exchange: “[Intersubjectivity and interaction] are at once a starting point and a point of arrival.” (11) Claire Bishop is critical of the “DIY, microtopian ethos [as] the core political significance of relational aesthetics,” and elaborates on this issue, criticizing the means-over-ends — or perhaps, means-as-ends — approach taken by Bourriaud. (12) Kester’s model as well breaks from the process-oriented nature of Bourriaud’s and emphasizes the product, the after-effect, as the main site for exchange within (dialogical) relational artworks. It is this post-production exchange wherein the ethical difficulties of Alÿs’ work rest, an aspect that Bourriaud’s theory fails to consider.

Curator and art critic Maria Lind distinguishes between collaboration, that is, “the diverse working methods that require more than one participant,” and cooperation, or, “working together and mutually benefiting from it.”(13) In light of Bourriaud’s criteria it is clear that Alÿs’ work is collaborative. Yet, in consideration of Bishop’s and Kester’s respective positions, it is not necessarily cooperative as well. That is, in their emphasis upon considering both the products of relational works and their working methods, the contingency and potentiality of the success of Alÿs’ work — whether the participants will in fact mutually benefit from working together — is problematized. It is thus crucial when evaluating relational artworks to consider not only process but also product (a significant oversight of Bourriaud’s model), for, as in When Faith Moves Mountains, the latter can function as the site of exchange.

The potentiality of the work’s success prompts me to question, with the exchange within politically-motivated relational art, is it enough to simply teach a hungry man to fish, so to speak, instead of giving him a fish? Is it enough for Alÿs to provide his audience with the inspiration to create a dialogical legacy? Does this legacy then have the power to become myth, to inspire and effect social change? Given the manpower and resources the project required — not only from the labouring, shovel-wielding engineering students, but also from the impoverished and destitute villagers who guarded the site from interference throughout the process and those who donated food, drink, transportation, and tools — and the imperceptible product and its intended effect, I see ethical difficulties within the exchange aspect of this relational work. Who is benefiting more from this project — artist or audience? It is a critical question that merits thorough consideration with respect to this work and to relational art generally. In this case, the response will come belatedly, the effect will remain to be seen — though therein lies the issue. I am not calling for the immediacy of exchange, nor for solely tangible forms of exchange, but for critical intervention into sites wherein lie the potential ethical difficulties inherent in relational art.

(1) Francis Alÿs, “A thousand words: Francis Alÿs talks about When Faith Moves Mountains,” Artforum, (Summer 2002): 147.
(2) Ibid., 147.
(3) Nicolas Bourriaud, “Relational Aesthetics,” in Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art, trans. David Macey (London: Cambridge: Whitechapel: The MIT Press, 2006), 160.
(4) Bourriaud, “Relational Aesthetics,” 160.
(5) Bourriaud, “Relational Aesthetics,” 161; Alÿs, “A thousand words,” 147.
(6) Grant Kester, “Introduction” in Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 8–10.
(7) Alÿs, “A thousand words,” 147.
(8) Bourriaud, “Relational Aesthetics,” 170. v (9) Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents,” Artforum, (February 2006): 180.
(10) Bishop, “The Social Turn,” 179.
(11) Bourriaud, “Relational Aesthetics,” 162, 166.
(12) Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (Fall 2004): 54.
(13) Maria Lind, “The Collaborative Turn,” in Taking the Matter into Common Hands, ed. Johanna Billing, Maria Lind, and Lars Nilsson (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2007), 17.

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