Boundless Fun - Part 2
You have visited crisis-ridden regions for your work, such as embedding with the Kurdish Peshmerga army in northern Iraq in 2016, sketching plein air during wartime. Do you not experience fear?
Francis Alÿs: "I had visited Iraq three or four times before, and it just seemed inevitable, or even essential, to see this aspect with my own eyes, to witness what the country was going through. This journey eventually led to the creation of my film “Color Matching” (2016), which explores the complex role of being a witness. It grapples with the futility of trying to capture the absurdity of war. Regarding your question, I want to emphasize a crucial point: No matter where we film with children, ensuring their safety is our utmost priority."
I can imagine that ensuring safety in conflict regions is quite challenging.
Francis Alÿs: "It's indeed remarkable how quickly life returns to normal in conflicts lasting longer than six months. You can be just fifteen kilometers from the front lines and find places where everyday life seems entirely ordinary. This resilience is a testament to people's survival instincts. We encountered a similar response in Ukraine. People were appreciative that we were filming children at play rather than depicting corpses or ruins. They even brought us cookies and small gifts. They were deeply touched that we offered a different perspective on their reality compared to the media."
Children's Game in 2011 in Afghanistan. Copyright: Francis Alÿs/Courtesy of the galleries Peter Kilchmann, Jan Mot and David Zwirner
How much did the concept of play influence your art from the very beginning? I'm thinking of your early video works like “Cuentos patrióticos” from 1997, where you led a group of sheep around the flagpole in Mexico City's central Zócalo Square, or “Paradox of Praxis 1,” where you pushed a block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it melted. These works seem inherently playful.
Francis Alÿs: "Games have indeed been a direct wellspring of inspiration for much of my work. In a game, you establish an initial scenario, but the evolution of the game's dynamics remains uncertain. Some parameters are predefined - who does what and when - but the rest is open-ended."
Could adopting the role of a player also serve as a strategic advantage? For instance, in 2004, for your video “The Green Line,” you walked along the 1948 armistice line in Jerusalem and marked your path with green paint. This border line no longer exists in modern Israel, and the Palestinians aspire to regain it. If the police had confronted you during this action, you could have claimed...
Francis Alÿs: ... “it's just a game.”
Exactly, "It's just a game, and in this game, I reject the reality of the border shift." In essence, a game can be an act of political resistance.
Francis Alÿs: "Indeed, it can. It offers a way to resist or mock prevailing circumstances. Take, for instance, the children in Mosul playing soccer without a ball in one of my films. They defy the 'Islamic State' decree that bans playing soccer. Their response to this absurd rule with an equally absurd performance underscores their humor and represents a potent form of resistance."
What can adults learn from observing children at play?
Francis Alÿs: "Children can reinterpret any space or place according to their needs. More often than not, these reinterpretations are more stimulating than the controlled and organized spaces prevalent in Western cities where they usually operate. Allow me to provide an example: In Kiev, I encountered a park where a Russian missile had detonated, creating a massive crater right next to a children's playground. The children swiftly appropriated this crater, transform-ing it into their playground."
»Children’s Game #31, Slakken (ratio 16-9)« filmed in 2021 in the Belgian Pa-gottenland in collaboration with Julien Devaux and Felix Blume. Copy-right: Francis Alÿs/Courtesy of the galleries Peter Kilchmann, Jan Mot and David Zwirner
I recall seeing a small oil painting in the exhibition depicting this scene.
Francis Alÿs: "Yes, I created that painting because I perceived it as an exceptional act of resistance. The children found a way to integrate their surroundings into their everyday life, infusing it with poetry and playfulness."