Issue 22, Past Issues
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Performing the Document in Francis Alÿs’s Re-enactments (2001)

Written By Emily Rose Lyver-Harris

On November 4, 2000, Francis Alÿs illegally purchased a gun from a shop in downtown Mexico City. [1] He then left the shop, loaded gun in hand, and walked through the streets of the city. Twelve and a half minutes later, Alÿs was pursued by the police – he was quickly apprehended, pinned against the police car, searched, and taken away for his arrest. This event constituted the first part of Alÿs’s Re-enactments (2001) – a work in which the artist sought to execute a performance and then carefully recreate it based on the documentation of the performance.

The script was simple: he was to buy the gun and move through the streets until something occurred to interrupt him. Alÿs’s initial performance, from his first grasp of the gun until his arrest, was filmed by his collaborator, artist Rafael Ortega, and this footage became the basis for the performance’s reproduction. Alÿs and Ortega replicated the initial performance the same day, a project only possible because Alÿs managed to evade punishment for his crime. Alÿs was able to both negotiate his release from police custody – ostensibly through bribery, a common practice in negotiating with the police in Mexico City – and persuade the officers to participate in the staging of the second performance. In the re-enactment of the performance, the policemen acted out their roles in the scene of Alÿs’s arrest. This time, however, Alÿs used a fake gun and Ortega took a significantly different approach to filming the performance. In the two-channel video, the footage of Alÿs’s performances are juxtaposed; labeled “Real” and “Re-enactment,” they play simultaneously, comparing the footage of the initial performance and its recreation.

A Belgian-born artist who has lived and worked in Mexico City since 1986, Alÿs is well known for his ambulatory urban interventions in which he walks through the streets, often in the Centro, Mexico City’s historic center, disrupting the daily operations of the city’s public spaces. Like most artists who work with performance, Alÿs relies on the documentation of his live performances – videos, photographs, sketches, notes, and the like – to exhibit his work in galleries, where the majority of viewers encounter the work. In his 1997 work The Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing), in which Alÿs was filmed while pushing a large block of ice through the streets of Mexico City for more than 9 hours until it dissolved into the sidewalk, the only material consequences of his labor were the video and photographic documents of the performance.

In Re-enactments, Alÿs explicitly takes up the issue of conveying performance through documentation. In speaking about the conceptual frame of Re-enactments Alÿs has said,

I wanted to address the practice of the “performance” which is characterized by something that is quite unique: its underlying condition of immediacy. I wanted to question the rapport we have today with the practice of the performance, which is usually transmitted by way of another medium, mediated exactly, and thus “delayed” by the document. [2]

Here Alÿs describes one of the central issues in the critical debate surrounding performance and its documentation: the tension between the immediacy of performance, which is responsive to and contingent on the specificities of its setting and its public, and the remoteness of documentation, which reaches its audience only after the performance has ended, and is therefore detached from the conditions of the live performance. While the documentation brings the viewer within reach of the performance, it maintains a distance from the live event. Re-enactments brings this tension to the foreground by merging the live performance and the document as central axes that are both fundamental to the structure of the work and shape its outcome. The design of the work as a whole requires both performance and the video documentation – the filming of the initial performance facilitates its recreation, which likewise produces a video; the two are interwoven and mutually dependent.

In what follows, I will explore the ways in which Re-enactments appraises the status of video documentation in relation to the live performance, problematizing the conventional relationship between the two categories. While the document is traditionally understood as a record, however reliable, that points back to the live performance, I propose that the videos that comprise this work operate beyond the documentary mode; they are not merely records of the events but are in fact formative components of the artwork. The live performance and the video documents are thoroughly intertwined in Re-enactments, and rather than framing the videos as documents of a performance, which privileges the live performance as the site of the artwork that the document tries to recuperate, I argue that the documentation in this work functions as a counterpart to the performance that is fundamental to the work itself. While, for the most part, the current scholarship on this work disregards the documentation, I aim to suggest another dimension of meaning by highlighting the performative aspects of the documentation in this work.

Carrying A Gun In Mexico City

Reflecting on Re-enactments a few years after its creation, Alÿs has remarked, “I made a fundamental mistake choosing the scenario I used. I should have picked something much more banal, like someone tripping on a banana peel…” [3] Re-enactments offers a far more risky score, as Alÿs’s preface to “Re-enactment” makes clear: “On 4 November I bought a 9 mm Beretta in a gun shop on Palma Street. At ten past one I left the shop holding the loaded gun in my right hand, and started wandering downtown waiting for something to happen…” [4] The conditions of this performance, although less humorous, are nearly as simple– there are very few controls and much is left to chance. With no end goal in mind, Alÿs’s performance was governed by few parameters: the purchase of the gun and his stroll through the streets with the weapon visible in his hand. Alÿs has since lamented his choice of subject matter because it plays into stereotypes of rampant crime and police corruption in Mexico. The videos show the artist easily procuring a gun illegally and openly carrying it through crowded streets without consequence until his arrest – in the videos, the pedestrians who seem to notice the weapon do not respond or take action to stop him. Upon his arrest, Alÿs is able to negotiate his own release from the police – even though his actions constitute a felony – and solicit their help in recreating the whole event. [5] Re-enactments seems to validate these clichés, and it is this facet of the work that has been the focal point for many critics who have read the work as an allegory for life in Mexico City’s downtown, a point I will return to.

Alÿs has said that the choice of such a dangerous scheme was in reference to Chris Burden’s famous 1974 performance Shoot in which Burden appointed an assistant to shoot him in the arm. [6] However, the circumstances of Alÿs’s performance are considerably different: whereas Burden was the recipient of a gunshot wound, Alÿs wielded the weapon himself, and while Burden brought violence into the sanitary conditions of the gallery, Alÿs performed in the tumultuous environment of Mexico City’s historic downtown, the Centro.

The setting of many of Alÿs’s urban interventions, and where he lives and keeps his studio, the Centro was once the artistic, commercial, and political hub of the city and it has a rich aesthetic history. This neighborhood was once the heart of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, housing the major state buildings, palaces, and great temples of the city. Under Spanish colonization, these structures were leveled and a new landscape of opulent colonial architecture replaced them. In the early twentieth century, the state buildings in the Centro became the site for many of the most celebrated works by the Mexican muralists. The fortune of the area, however, began to shift midcentury. In the 1950s, the government froze rents in the area, resulting in the deterioration of many of the neighborhood’s buildings. By the final decade of the twentieth century, the Centro had transformed into a poverty-stricken neighborhood with high crime rates, high rates of homelessness, and many vacant and dilapidated colonial buildings. [7] Writing in 2004, Rubén Gallo characterized the Centro as “one of the most crowded, chaotic, and animated neighborhoods in the world.” [8]

At the time Alÿs was working on Re-enactments, the Centro, as well as Mexico City more broadly, was experiencing a surge in violent crime. Mexico was undergoing major political changes; the single-party rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had maintained power in Mexico for seventy years, officially came to an end in 2000 when Vicente Fox of the right-of-center National Action Party was elected president. In his essay “Corruption, Drug Trafficking, and Violence in Mexico,” Stephen Morris has argued that although corruption has been a longstanding systemic problem in the Mexican government, the PRI was able to maintain some control over the most powerful criminals by maintaining stable, though illegal, agreements with criminal organizations. Morris claims, “Whereas corruption once coexisted and seemingly facilitated peaceful operation of drug trafficking in Mexico, today it coexists with and arguably facilitates a far more violent species of drug trafficking.” [9] Beginning in the 1990s, as oppositional parties begin to threaten the PRI’s monolithic power in government, the centralized state could no longer unanimously “guarantee its side of the corrupt bargain.” [10] Local police and officials began acting more autonomously, and criminal organizations, no longer protected under the informal agreements that had previously offered impunity, sought new pacts. This organization of corrupt political alliances often led to violent competition. [11] The number of murders, arrests, and extraditions of cartel members skyrocketed in the late 90s, and a series of high-profile political assassinations proved that violent crime was not limited to low-level cartel violence, but rather reached the very center of the government. [12]

Along with the shifts in political power, the final decade of the twentieth century saw major changes in Mexico’s economic policies, most significantly the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Although the Salinas government assured the Mexican people that NAFTA would propel Mexico into the developed world, the years immediately following its initiation were economically devastating. Instead of prosperity, Mexico experienced an economic crisis, a major devaluation of the peso, and massive inflation. Widespread unemployment and underemployment resulted in more Mexicans turning to the drug industry for income, which in turn boosted violent crime. [13]

It is in this context of political instability and increased violence that Alÿs walked through Mexico City’s streets carrying a loaded gun. Despite Alÿs’s lament in endorsing stereotypes of violence and corruption in Mexico, his choice in subject matter cannot be easily cast aside as this work both arises out of and responds to these turbulent conditions. Further, as an artist who works internationally, Alÿs’s work is circulated broadly in many countries, perhaps most heavily in the U.S. and Europe. The images of crime in Mexico City that Re-enactments produced and disseminated are not exempt from the discourse that constructs popular stereotypes of Mexico as a center of violence. [14] Re-enactments, however, takes a critical lens to these representations of criminality by demonstrating the staging involved in media depictions of crime. As I will show, Alÿs plays on the dramatic construction of his actions, demonstrating the manipulative power of mediation.

The predominant critical readings of Re-enactments, by both Rubén Gallo and Cuauhtémoc Medina, two prominent scholars of contemporary Mexican art, take this work to be in some way a direct result of its context, although their readings differ in focus. Drawing on Salvador Novo’s concept of “practicing” a city, a method of coming to understand the city by operating within it and paying close attention to its processes, Gallo characterizes Alÿs’s work from this period as a series of exercises in practicing Mexico City by “wandering through the impoverished streets of the Centro and identifying with the plight of its residents.” [15] Identifying with the residents of the Centro is something that needs to be practiced in particular because Alÿs is not native to the area. Alÿs, whose height and European appearance mark him as a foreigner in the context of Mexico City, has often explored his peculiar position as both an outsider and a resident of the city. In his photograph Turista (1997), for example, Alÿs stood among a group of day laborers that advertise their skills – Alÿs holds up a sign that read “Turista,” offering his services as a professional tourist, an outsider with a vested interest in careful observation of his new surroundings.

Gallo positions Re-enactments as a continuation of the same concerns initiated in many of Alÿs’s earlier performances, in which the artist acted out the roles of various Centro characters. [16] Regarding Alÿs’s practice of accumulating debris from the streets in The Collector, Gallo argues that Alÿs was acting metaphorically as a pepenador, a garbage picker who scours the streets of the Centro for scraps to recycle for a small profit. In paralleling the activity of a pepenador, generating income from waste – Alÿs did indeed sell his collection of scraps to an art collector – Gallo claims that Alÿs reveals the similarities between the artist and the garbage picker: ultimately, “both trades consist in taking things out of their cultural context and inserting them in another.” [17] Gallo interprets Re-enactments as Alÿs’s identification with the Centro’s residents; he says, “Since some of those residents are thugs, the artist had to experience walking through life – even if for a few minutes – as a thug.” [18] In Re-enactments, Alÿs neither heroicizes nor condemns the criminal, but his reference marks the criminal as a characteristic element of this context.

Gallo’s reading of Alÿs’s urban interventions frames Alÿs’s actions as allegorical – Alÿs embodies the characters that make up the Centro in order to reflect on the narratives of life in this area. One must keep in mind, however, that Alÿs is not only acting out a role as one of the Centro’s cast of characters; he is one of the Centro’s residents. If in Gallo’s terms Alÿs’s artistic practice in The Collector mimicked the pepenador‘s labor as a way to emphasize the similarities between the two practices, applying this argument to Re-enactments would suggest that Alÿs’s actions symbolically erased the divide between the artist and the criminal. However, Alÿs’s actions were not only metaphorical. Just as Alÿs symbolically acted as a pepenador with the result of a real profit for his artwork, Alÿs’s embodiment of a thug meant committing an actual crime and posing a real threat of danger – carrying a loaded weapon through the streets endangered the surrounding public as well as the artist himself.

Cuauhtémoc Medina is less concerned with the symbolic meanings of Alÿs’s actions than with the conditions that enabled the performance to occur in the first place. For Medina, the work’s radicalism does not lie in its hostile character, but rather in how it charts a “permissive zone” within the city by testing the limits of tolerance of criminal behavior in Mexico City. [19] Medina writes,

It seems to me that the whole piece would have been impossible to realize in almost any other place. Had Alÿs tried to do the same action in Los Angeles or New York he probably would not have only been arrested, but also shot . . . The whole action and its documentation is . . . a remarkable testimony of the laxness of the security forces in Mexico City, and the ability of artists to opportunistically take advantage of their historical situation. [20]

That Alÿs was able to successfully commit a crime without penalty and to re-enact this crime with the support of the police is not only a reflection of the negligence of the police, but also a product of it. Alÿs’s actions diagram and exploit this gap in law enforcement. Interestingly, in viewing Re-enactments, we do not witness Alÿs’s negotiation with the police after his arrest. We do not know exactly how he was able to achieve his release or persuade the police to help him recreate his performance – although Medina has suggested bribery is likely. [21] In fact, without the additional information provided in the label, the viewer of Re-enactments might not even be aware of what role the police played in the performance. The fact that these moments, which were key in successfully duplicating Alÿs’s original actions, are missing from the video documentation suggest that the narrative we witness depends on another series of actions, illegal negotiations with the police, that remain undisclosed in the videos. This behind-the-scenes labor positions the actions shown on-screen as cinematic constructions rather than as the whole truth of the performed actions.

Both Gallo’s and Medina’s interpretations of Re-enactments demonstrate how closely this work is linked to its place of production and the various ways in which the work responds to its environment: it creates a narrative of the Centro that both makes reference to crime in the area and maps its tolerance. Re-enactments has also addressed its environment in another way – its design allowed for the setting to play an important role in the outcome of the performance itself. As Alÿs has explained, Re-enactments employed “a kind of staging in which the context of the production becomes the catalyst for the setting off [of] a series of reflections and events . . .” [22] Alÿs was interested in testing how a particular setting might determine the performance, and his open-ended score allowed for a wide range of possible outcomes in response to the actions he performs. Although Alÿs carried the gun in his hand, he never attempted to use it. He postured as an armed criminal, but remained passive – as he says in the preface to “Re-enactment,” he was “waiting for something to happen.” This passivity allowed for the context, that is, the Centro, to become an active participant in the performance. Alÿs’s actions begged a reaction and they could have provoked any number of consequences. Alÿs has described this performative strategy, which he has employed in a number of his performances:

Once the axiom has been posed and the location set, the development and the outcome of the piece happen within an open field of possibilities, in the sense that any outcome of the event becomes a valid answer to the premises of the piece. Once the action is launched, there is no longer any strict or unilateral plan to be followed. [23]

This principle allows the performance to be both engaged with and defined by its environment. Beginning with a premise, in this case with Alÿs’s purchase of the gun and his walk through the Centro, the performance is then subject to the circumstances of its environment – the place indeed acts as a catalyst in spurring a sequence of events. Alÿs’s walk is uninterrupted, his authority to yield a weapon unchallenged, until his arrest. His release from police custody and the cooperation of the police determined the shape of this performance. The context of the performance is a decisive factor in the outcome of the work as whole, but it is only in complement with its documentation that the work takes shape. In looking closely at the videos of the live performance, we can begin to see that the documentation acts as another catalyst in the work, which generates additional performance.

Unfaithful Documents: “Real” And “Re-Enactment”

The two videos comprising Re-enactments, “Real” and “Re-enactment,” are projected side by side and played simultaneously. “Real” opens to a still image of a woman’s hand offering a gun from across the shop counter with the handle toward the viewer. [24] The scene is frozen as Ortega offers a short account of the performance: “On 4 November Francis asked me to meet him in a gun shop on Palma Street. I watched him buy a 9mm Beretta, load it and leave the shop holding the gun in his right hand. I trailed him with my Sony Handycam and filmed the following scenes.” Ortega’s statement courses across the screen, in tandem with his speech. A timer, suspended at zero, sits at the bottom of the screen. Upon the statement’s conclusion, the frame unfreezes and the timer begins clocking time. Alÿs’s hand reaches for the gun, he cocks the weapon with an audible click and exits the shop, moving out into the street. The camera, operated by Ortega, follows Alÿs as he walks – it sways and shakes violently with every step (Figure 1).

Fig. 1

Figure 1: Francis Alÿs, Re-enactments, 2001. Film still from “Real,” time stamp 00:56. © 2011 Francis Alÿs.

“Re-enactment” opens to the same still frame of the woman’s hand offering the gun over the counter that initiates “Real” – however, in this case, the camera has zoomed in closer to the gun, which takes up nearly the entire screen. This time, Alÿs introduces the performance, corroborating Ortega’s statement: “On 4 November I bought a 9 mm Beretta in a gun shop on Palma Street . . .” In sync with “Real,” Alÿs reaches to grasp the gun, and commences the performance.

Though both videos show the same sequence of actions, the two videos diverge stylistically. Most immediately, in “Re-enactment” the timer prominently displayed in “Real” is absent. Instead, “Re-enactment” is marked by small white text in the upper right hand corner of the screen that reiterates its label, “RE-ENACTMENT.” The videos also differ in the position of the camera relative to Alÿs’s actions. Whereas “Real” primarily tracks Alÿs from behind and appears to be excerpted from one continuous take, “Re-enactment” employs a variety of camera angles which change rapidly, often stitching together quick shots from a variety of perspectives. “Re-enactment” also devotes much of its screen time to close-up shots of the gun in Alÿs’s hand, exaggerating a short segment in “Real” where Ortega zooms in on Alÿs’s gun-carrying hand. In “Re-enactment,” nearly half of the video shows exclusively the lower half of Alÿs’s body – the camera is low to the ground and trained on the gun (Figure 2).

Fig. 2 Alÿs

Figure 2: Francis Alÿs, Re-enactments, 2001. Film still from “Re-enactment,” time stamp 01:03. © 2011 Francis Alÿs

In a cursory comparison of the two videos, one might perceive “Real” to be a more credible account of the live performance. However, the title of the work as a whole, Re-enactments, is plural – hinting that both videos, despite their individual titles, are reproductions of the original performance. The timer at the bottom of the screen on “Real” may at first glance appear as a testament to its reliability, not least because of its visual parallel to surveillance footage, but this clock also exposes that the film has been highly edited. Running at five minutes and twenty seconds, the video is missing more than half the twelve and a half minutes of logged time of the performance. Further, the timer, labeled “TCR” at the bottom of the screen, is specifically a timecode reading, a tool used in filmmaking to log and identify specific frames in recorded material for editing purposes. It is this tool that allowed Alÿs and Ortega to edit and carefully recreate the footage in producing “Re-enactment.”

The footage in “Real” suggests the testimony of an amateur witness by following the action from a distance, contrasting sharply with overwrought composition and editing in “Re-enactment.” The missing minutes of Alÿs’s walk made evident by the timer in “Real” raise the point of other absent labor, like Alÿs’s negotiations with the police in evading criminal charges and in seeking their collaboration in the re-enactment. That the videos present seamless narratives unhindered by this political labor further demonstrates that the accounts presented in the videos are cinematic constructions bolstered by behind-the-scenes work, rather than purely documentary accounts of an event.

In demonstrating that neither video is a neutral record of the live event, I do not mean to suggest that an unedited document could more faithfully communicate the original performance, but rather I want to highlight that the video documents comprising Re-enactments do not attempt to naturalize their mediation or to render it invisible. We are ever aware that what we view is a representation of an action, not the action itself. By foregrounding the markers of their manipulation – most obviously, the timer in “Real” and the label “RE-ENACTMENT” in “Re-enactment” – the videos extricate themselves from direct accountability to the original performance. Since they cannot claim objectivity, they do not need to prove their fidelity to the live event. [25] This allows a shift in focus. Rather than asking to what degree these videos offer an account of what occurred in the live performance – an impossible task, as the performance is long over – the more productive question might be to address how the document might function when it does not simply point back to the live performance.

The Entanglement of Performance and Documentation

In her influential publication Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Peggy Phelan has taken up the issue of documentation in writing about the ontology of performance art. She writes,

Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology. Performance’s being… becomes itself through disappearance. [26]

The ephemerality of performance is widely understood as one of its essential characteristics, and here Phelan has highlighted this feature by contrasting it with the longevity of documentation – the document endures beyond the moment of performance, and is thus held separate from performance itself. The performance and the document are set up as opposing forces in a strict binary – either the performance lives only in the present or it is “something other than performance.” In Phelan’s view, the performative moment exists in a particular time and space for a specific duration, after which it is lost; the document “is only a spur to memory, an encouragement of memory to become present.” [27] Separate from and subordinate to the performance, the document for Phelan is merely a way to recollect the original event. It continuously gestures back to the performance, never fully capturing it.

Philip Auslander has challenged Phelan’s arguments, contesting the basis of her claim – that the document and the performance can be held as separate entities. In Phelan’s construction, the performance event precedes its documentation and is privileged as an authentic moment, subject to contamination by mediation. Auslander destabilizes this binary by insisting that the live and mediated are not opposing forces, but rather coextensive and mutually dependent. [28] In restructuring the temporal relationship of performance and document, Auslander shows that the document is not restricted to referring back to the original performance, as a record to which we must compare the event. The document is endowed with the possibility of functioning beyond the descriptive mode. Drawing on J.L. Austin’s concept of the performative utterance, in which the statement is itself the enactment of an action rather than merely its description, Auslander argues that “the act of documenting an event as a performance is what constitutes it as such.” [29] Whereas for Phelan the document is a hazard to the ontological purity of the performance, Auslander claims that it is through documentation that we can understand a performance as an artwork.

In arguing this point, Auslander begins with the premise that “no documented performance is performed solely as an end itself: the performance is always at one level raw material for documentation.” [30] Here Auslander positions documentation not as a secondary effect of the live performance, but as an integral factor in the performance’s design. This is particularly clear in the case of artworks that have no audience at the time of the original performance who understand the work as performance. Auslander cites the example of Vito Acconci’s Photo-piece (1969), in which Acconci walks down a city street snapping photographs each time he blinks. Auslander argues that the documentation in this performance accomplishes more than merely the conventional tasks of the document. On top of proving the performance occurred and allowing the viewer to reconstruct it, the photographs are also “produced as (or perhaps by) the performance.” [31] The photographs do not merely depict Acconci performing, but instead show the result of the performance. In this way, the photographs are thoroughly ingrained into the structure of performance itself, and the viewer of the photographs is the privileged viewer of the performance, despite their physical absence at the time of the performance.

In the case of Re-enactments, those present during the live performance played an important role. As Alÿs meant to provoke a disturbance in the street and solicit a reaction, the present audience was implicated as a necessary and determinative factor in the outcome of the performance. Those who were physically present during the live performance were both subjected to the potential hazards of the performance and endowed with the unique opportunity of potentially shaping its outcome. However, like Photo-piece, Re-enactments privileges the subsequent viewer of the documents: as the audience was both uninformed about the nature of Alÿs’s actions and viewership of the performance was fragmentary and incomplete. Unlike the viewer of the video installation, no spectator present for the live performance could witness it in its entirety; Alÿs winds continually through the streets with no pre-established routes and thus does not provide a stable viewpoint.

Also like Photo-piece, Re-enactments employs documentation as a structural element. In Re-enactments, the second performance and its documentation are based on the footage of the first. This is evident in the many sketches exhibited alongside the two-channel video, which show the storyboarding of the second video based on the timecode readings of the first video. The first film becomes a springboard for the propagation of further performance and further documents. In fact, “Re-enactment” is more accurately a re-performance of the documentation of the first performance, rather than a recreation of the performance itself. In attempting to mimic the footage of “Real,” the actions in producing “Re-enactment” would have differed dramatically from the actions of the first performance, as Ortega set up the camera to capture Alÿs from many different angles. Alÿs does not re-perform the sequence of actions precisely, but rather accommodates the filming of those actions to simulate the footage. The performance and the document are intricately connected – performance generates documents, and the documents generate more performance.

The entanglement of performance and document in Re-enactments is further demonstrated in the performative approach to the filming of the live performance. Although his body is unseen in the footage, we cannot forget that Ortega is co-present as Alÿs performs. Ortega traces largely the same path as Alÿs, typically within a few meters, and like the performer, he also holds an instrument with which to “shoot,” the Sony Handycam he films with. His presence is perhaps most noticeable in “Real.” It is Ortega’s voice at the start of the video where he corroborates Alÿs’s statement describing the actions in the video, and it is his step that jolts the camera as he moves through the streets. Ortega’s actions are so close in kind to Alÿs’s it is difficult to designate him as merely a documentarian. A more apt classification of his role might be a co-performer, as his actions are vital to both the live performance and its mediation.

The line between the performative gesture and the documentary gesture dematerializes here, as Ortega performs through the act of documenting. Likewise, Alÿs performs to be documented – the filming of the performance is one of the few constraints of an otherwise open-ended schema. From its outset, the performance was conceived to be filmed; it is this very factor that facilitates the meticulous re-staging of the performance for the second video.

While in Phelan’s conception Re-enactments might be better suited strictly to the category of video art rather than performance, as she argues that the document of performance art belongs to the medium of its transmission rather than to the genre of performance, I argue that Alÿs’s live performance does not need to be held separate from Re-enactments as a video work. Rather than framing the videos that comprise Re-enactments as documents of the performance, we can instead consider how the live performance works in tandem with the videos and how the documentation, in this case, completes the performance.


In the Museum of Modern Art’s 2011 exhibition “Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception,” Alÿs displayed an assortment of other documents alongside the videos of Re-enactments, including three news clippings featuring images of Mexican criminals, each anonymous, captioned only by their accused crime. [32] In one photograph, a man stands in the center of the frame wearing a black vest and grey hood pulled over his head. The caption reads, “Así, con estos modos, este individuo se la abalanzó a otra persona y ni tardo ni perezoso la apuñaló; los hechos, en Naucalpan; el lesionado se debate entre la vida y la muerte” (Figure 3). [33] The man smirks, looking directly forward with his hands held out menacingly as if threatening to lunge at the viewer as he did at his victim. Another clipping shows two men with the headline, in bolded, capitalized font: “ELLOS MATARON A LAS HERMANAS EN IZTAPALAPA” (Figure 4). [34] These men stand with their backs against a wall, clothing disheveled, and hold their palms toward the viewer as if to attempt to halt the pursuit of the photographer. Yet, their faces are firm – unfazed and unrepentant. These news clippings offer a sampling of sensational headlines that publicize violent crimes. They each frame the criminal as hostile and unapologetic, defined only by the horrific deeds of which they are accused.

Fig. 3 Alÿs

Figure 3: Francis Alÿs, Untitled, 2002. Newspaper clipping exhibited with Re-enactments in “Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2011. © 2011 Francis Alÿs.

Fig 4 Alÿs

Figure 4: Francis Alÿs, Untitled, 2002. Newspaper clipping exhibited with Re-enactments in “Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2011. © 2011 Francis Alÿs.

With the inclusion of these images, which are dated a year after Re-enactments, Alÿs explicitly addresses the characteristic of this work over which he has since expressed regret – the “ingredient of urban violence” that endorses the stereotype of Mexico City as a hotbed of crime. [35] These images question the ways in which these stereotypes about criminality are constructed and reinforced in the media. The images all share a formal similarity; in each photograph, the criminal stands with his hands reaching outward in some manner, either as a threat or an expression of bravado. Just as the videos that comprise Re-enactments exaggerate the markers of their mediation to call attention to their framing, this collection of photographs stresses the hands of these criminals, not just as the instruments of their offenses, but to foreground their theatrical quality.

Positioning these images alongside the videos of Re-enactments extends the scope of Alÿs’s investigation into the function of the document within the artwork to comment on the effects of mediation more broadly in popular mass media. If Re-enactments brings to light the determinative force of documentation in shaping a viewer’s understanding of an event, these images further demonstrate the performative function of media by stressing the staged quality of these images. These photographs perform the cliché of the criminal that buttress the stereotypes of Mexico as a hub of violent crime.

The critical readings of Re-enactments by Gallo and Medina that I have outlined in this paper consider the cultural implications of Alÿs’s performance – both how the judicial system responded to this criminal behavior and what symbolic meanings this action carries – but neither offers a formal or in-depth reading of the videos comprising the work. Gallo and Medina comment exclusively on Re-enactments as a performance acted out in Mexico City; neither writer takes the videos into serious consideration in their analysis. Disregarding the documentation, which I have argued is integral to the work, severely limits the possible readings of this work. Beyond the symbolic consequences of Alÿs’s performative criminal act, this work also functions as a study in the representation of criminality.

In the two-channel video, we encounter two familiar models in the portrayal of crime in the media. “Real” visually invokes both surveillance footage, via the timer, and the amateur footage of a first-hand witness, which is increasingly included in mainstream news broadcast. “Re-enactment” draws on the model of dramatized recreations of crime, popular in entertainment programs that take on sensational crimes as subject matter. As I have pointed out, neither of the videos in Re-enactments can be held as a faithful record of events to which they refer; rather, they reveal the staging involved in any method of documentation. Additionally, Re-enactments rehearses the repetition and proliferation of images of crime in popular media, as news broadcasts commonly disseminate the same images of crime and replay video clips of crime repeatedly. Re-enactments plays out the crime in double and on a loop; we watch as the crime is committed over and over again. The videos are supplemented by even more images of the same crime in photographs and video stills, demonstrating how a single crime often propagates a mass of repeating images.

The news clippings exhibited with Re-enactments highlight the theater of sensational crime as it is played out in the media. The association of Re-enactments with these images demonstrates, to some degree, Alÿs’s collusion in circulating spectacular images of crime. The still images of the performance exhibited alongside, for example, feature dramatic images of Alÿs from his performance – in one, a diptych, Alÿs is shown from behind, the silhouette of the gun is cast in shadow. Below that is a close-up image of the gun in Alÿs’s hand, held at his waist. However, Alÿs’s works bring to the fore the performative qualities of these images – they are not presented as transparent documents, but rather as staged scenes. In dialogue with the videos of Re-enactments, these documents are presented not as evidentiary records of crime, but rather as materials that likewise perform their manipulation.

1. Alÿs’s purchase was illegal both because of the type of gun he bought, a 9 mm Berretta which is restricted to military use in Mexico, and because he purchased it outside of Mexico’s one legal gun store, the Directorate for the Commercialization of Arms and Munitions – a military-run store on a base just outside Mexico City. Further, openly carrying a gun is only legal with a special permit issued by the Secretariat of Defense under special circumstances. For a summary of Mexico’s gun laws, see Philip Alpers and Marcus Wilson, “Guns in Mexico: Facts, Figures and Firearm Law,” Sydney School of Public Health, The University of Sydney,
2. Francis Alÿs, “La Cour des Miracles: Francis Alÿs in Conversation with Corinne Diserens – Mexico City, 25 May 2004,” in Walking Distance from the Studio (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2004), 93-95.
3. Ibid., 95.
4. This statement is delivered at the commencement of “Re-enactment” and is reiterated in a sheet of Alÿs’s notes, a document that accompanies the two-channel installation in its exhibition.
5. Cuauhtémoc Medina, “Zones of Tolerance: Teresa Margolles, SEMEFO, and Beyond,” Parachute 104 (Winter 2001): 48.
6. Alÿs, “La Cour,” 97. With this reference Alÿs meant to evoke the way in which the charged live performance becomes crystalized into the images of its documentation. I will discuss the role of the documentation in the following section.
7. The Mexican government has since funded revitalization projects in the Centro, see “Centre of Belated Attention: An Effort to Revive a Historic Slum,” The Economist, September 12, 2002 and Geri Smith, “Mexico City Gets a Face-Lift,” Business Week Magazine, May 23, 2004.
8. Rubén Gallo, New Tendencies in Mexican Art: The 1990s (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) 93.
9. Stephen Morris, “Corruption, Drug Trafficking, and Violence in Mexico,” The Brown Journal of World Affairs 18, no. 11 (Spring/Summer 2012) 35.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid., 36.
12. Ibid., 37. In the mid-90’ss Cardinal Posada, the Archbishop of Guadalajara, Luis Donaldo Colosio, the PRI presidential candidate, and José Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the PRI’s secretary general, were all assassinated.
13. Julien Mercille, “Violent Narco-Cartels of US Hegemony? The Political Economy of the ‘War on Drugs’ in Mexico,” Third World Quarterly 32, no. 9 (2011): 1642.
14. Alÿs is represented by David Zwirner gallery in New York and London.
15. Ibid., 101.
16. Gallo, New Tendencies in Mexican Art, 93.
17. Ibid., 97.
18. Ibid., 100.
19. Cuauhtémoc Medina, “Zones of Tolerance: Teresa Margolles, SEMEFO, and Beyond,” Parachute 104 (Winter 2001): 48.
20. Ibid., 48.
21. Ibid., 51
22. Alÿs, “La Cour” 93-95.
23. Francis Alÿs, “Russell Ferguson in Conversation with Francis Alÿs,” Francis Alÿs, ed. by Cuauhtémoc Medina, Russell Ferguson, and Jean Fisher (New York: Phaidon, 2007): 25.
24. Images omitted to meet length requirement. A PDF with images is available upon request.
25. It is commonly understood that documentation of performance art is subjective and fragmentary in nature, and Alÿs’s work is not unique in bringing attention to this fact. The manner in which he does so, however, allows another level or meaning to be gleaned form the work.
26. Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London; New York: Routledge,1993), 146.
27. Ibid., 148.
28. Philip Auslander, “Liveness: Performance and the Anxiety of Simulation,” 199.
29. J. L. Austin, “Lecture I in How to Do Things with Words,” Performance: Critical
Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies
, ed. Philip Auslander. (London:Routledge, 2003), 93; Auslander, “The Performativity of Performance Documentation,” 5.
30. Auslander, “The Performativity of Performance Documentation,” 3.
31. Ibid., 4.
32. This show originated at the Tate Modern in 2010 and also traveled to the Weils Contemporary Art Center in Brussels in 2011. Re-enactments has also been included in major exhibitions at the Hammer Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in recent years.
33. In English: “So, with these methods, this individual rushed at the other person and neither slowly nor lazily, he stabbed her; the events took place in Naucalpan; the injured is hovering between life and death.”
34. In English: “They killed the sisters in Iztapalapa.”
35. Alÿs in “Russell Ferguson in Conversation . . .” in Francis Alÿs, 42.

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