Bolero (Shoe Shine Blues) and Politics of Rehearsal

Hamza Walker, 2008

By the early Twentieth Century, urbanization was a stock part of European modernity come again as a master narrative. Elsewhere the story was just beginning as cities in developing countries, notably those of Latin America and Southeast Asia, grew exponentially during the middle of the last century. The emergence of the megacity, however, has a postmodern corollary, namely the passage from the megacity to what is now referred to as the global city. Unlike the designation “megacity,” with its emphasis on a totalizing sense of urbanity forever in crisis of collapse, “global city” refers to the sub- yet transnational character of the world’s largest metropolises, as they are hubs of economies that are at once domestic and global. A prime example is Mexico City, poster child for the megacity.

Between 1940 and 1990, its population grew ten fold from 1.4 to 14 million. Emblematic of economic globalization, Mexico City has become susceptible to a post-Fordist paradigm no longer exclusive to advanced industrial nations. The structural dynamic linking Mexico City’s regimen of corporate headquarters to the quality of life for the city’s working-class poor is one defined by a decline in manufacturing and an increase in service sector employment. The result is a growing inequality gap and a shrinking middle class as factories either close or relocate. Given that more than half the world’s population now live in cities whose fates belong to the boom and bust cycles of a deregulated global economy characterized by the international ebb and flow of capital, to speak of “how the other half lives” in Mexico City is to speak of conditions that are global indeed.

When Belgian native Francis Alÿs (b. 1959) moved to Mexico City in 1986 he had no plans to become an artist. Trained as an architect, Alÿs was inspired by a city overwhelmingly accessible at its street level and utterly incomprehensible in its demographic scope and historical layers: pre-Hispanic, colonial and modern. But Mexico City is less the subject of Alÿs’ work and more his laboratory, if not muse. Insofar as Alÿs could be said to have a medium it would be walking, making Alÿs the consummate post-studio artist. Accordingly, the majority of his work has taken the form of photo/video-based documentation of events (some staged, others a species of verity) all transpiring in the street. In this respect, Alÿs is heir to that most Latin American of genres, namely the “action,” a gesture falling somewhere between performance and intervention.

Enacted in the public realm, “actions” were historically the front line of assault on the barrier between art and life. When Alÿs arrived on the scene, however, that barrier was next to nonexistent, making his foray into the genre organic rather than ideological. If anything, art and life had become a two-way street. Just as art had found its way into life, so too life had found its way into art. In a manner beyond question, Alÿs ongoing photodocumentary slide shows of Mexico City denizens caught unaware in their quotidian lives (Ambulantes, 1992-present, Sleepers, 1999-present, Beggars, 2002-present) share equal billing with his actions whose subjects have included crime (Re-enactment, 2000); the economy of trash (Barrenderos, 2004, The Seven Lives of Garbage, 1995); and a vicious pack of stray dogs (Gringo, 2003). Despite the contrast between the actions, which have a strong allegorical bearing, and the photodocumentary work, which is grounded in transparency, both bodies of work signify a marginalized agency and subjectivity that is a staple of city life.

In an economy of scale, however, marginalized living in Mexico City is anything but marginal. Mexico City’s various forms of disenfranchisement, social, political, cultural and economic, are part and parcel of the city’s texture, giving its street life a quotient of immediacy. As a result, Alÿs work derives its poignancy from gestures that although specific allude to more general conditions in which a tenuous sense of human worth is accepted as a structural part of modernity. This coincides with visual art’s well-cultivated suspicions as to its own use value. Unable to categorize itself as a discrete form of either manual or intellectual labor, art would instead count itself a friend of futility, and proudly so where Alÿs is concerned. But Alÿs’ purposeless yet critical expenditures, whether it is pushing a large block of ice through Mexico City streets for the nine hours it takes to melt (Sometimes making something leads to nothing, Paradox of Praxis 1, 1997) or gathering an army of individuals to shovel an immense sand dune a few inches (When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002)?achieve their legibility in a context whose significance to the global economy as a reservoir of cheap labor cannot be disregarded. In light of these circumstances, Alÿs’ crafting of a tangible futility highlights a purposelessness that in its socioeconomic entrenchment has paradoxically acquired what is perhaps its only use value, namely that of a sign value, making it ripe as a subject for art.

Alÿs’ Renaissance Society exhibition features two works installed in an ambitious two-story exhibition design by the artist. Politics of Rehearsal, 2005-2007, is a thirty-minute video made with frequent collaborators Rafael Ortega and Cuauhtémoc Medina, and Bolero (Shoe Shine Blues), 1999-2007, is an installation featuring a short animation and approximately four hundred of its attendant working drawings.

Alÿs has described his work as “a sort of discursive argument composed of episodes, metaphors, or parables, staging the experience of time in Latin America.” The idea of the “rehearsal,” with its stops, starts and repetitions all aimed at perfecting a performance, is one such metaphor. As its title warrants, Alÿs has returned to it on numerous occasions, and Politics of Rehearsal builds directly on three previous videos. Rehearsal 1, 1999-2004, recasts Sisyphus as a red Volkswagen Beetle that, syncopated to a musical rehearsal, repeatedly attempts but fails to ascend a hill on the outskirts of Tijuana. R.E.H.E.A.R.S.A.L, 2000, is a short, animated video featuring a hand spelling the word “rehearsal” across the top of a piece of paper. And Rehearsal 2, 2001-2006, is a fifteen-minute video in which a professional striptease is performed to a rehearsal of Schubert’s soprano/piano duet Lied der Mignon (Song of Longing). Alÿs describes Rehearsal 2 as: “a scenario in which the development of a mechanic such as two steps forward, three steps back, four steps forward, three steps back and in which, although the progression is not linear and occurs in a different temporality, there is some kind of progress at the end of the day. It’s just a different pace. Postponement or delaying does not mean stagnation. There is always a progression, but through a different mode.”

Politics of Rehearsal consists of four distinct components, two of which (the Schubert rehearsal and the striptease) are drawn from Rehearsal 2. The remaining two components are a film excerpt from Harry Truman’s 1949 inaugural address, and running voice-over commentary by art historian and cultural theorist Cuauhtémoc Medina being interviewed by Alÿs, whose voice has been subtracted from the tape. A statement at the beginning of Politics of Rehearsal describes it as a “metaphor of Latin America’s ambiguous affair with modernity.” To call Politics a metaphor is something of an understatement. Not so much a mixed metaphor, it is a mixture of metaphors with Medina’s non-diegetic voice-over as a binding agent. The combination of historical material, performance, and most importantly, voice-over commentary, make it an explicit illustration of Alÿs’ ideas, the literal construction of a metaphor in which the performance is presumed to have an illustrative connection to Medina’s verbal disclosure. The performances and Medina’s words, however, neither confirm nor clarify one another. The result is a brand of latter day surrealism where high art, “tittytainment,” and intellectual reflection coexist in equal measure and free of contention, which is perhaps the most apt of metaphors for Latin America.

Bolero is one of several animations Alÿs has made in the past decade. (Time is a Trick of the Mind, 1998, Song for Lupita, 1998, De Fluiter (The Whistler), 1999, and The Last Clown, 2000). All illustrate a simple and singular act of larger allegorical significance, which in Bolero’s case is a shoe shine set to a short musical phrase whose melody and lyrics are written by Alÿs. In contrast to the saturated production values of today’s digital animation, Alÿs’ output is resolutely artisanal. While its vogue in the sphere of the visual arts could be attributed to the rise of video and digital media, animation has always been tethered to the fine arts through the practice of drawing, even as technical proficiency in figurative rendering was relegated to the professional illustrator/ cartoonist. Tellingly, Bolero is animated in a style of spare line drawing whose clarity belongs to commercial illustration. In that regard, Bolero is indebted to Alÿs’ rotulista (sign painter) paintings, a body of work executed between 1993-1997 in which he collaborated with Mexico City sign painters to translate his small figurative compositions into the sign painters’ larger, stylized tableaux.

But more important, Bolero, as an exhibition of process and product, converts animation into a site where drawing is not only privileged for harboring artisanal skill, but for translating that skill into a display of labor that, like that of its subject matter, has been marginalized. Here, as with other work, Alÿs’ penchant for futility cannot help but mirror the plight of an artistic labor that since the early Twentieth Century has remained haunted by the anxiety of its obsolescence. In form and content, Bolero represents the crafting of a self-worth that is being insisted upon through a manual repetition now substantially devalued by automation. Yet despite its monumental scope of over five hundred drawings, Bolero’s subject lends it a humility recalling animation’s roots in the flipbook. More than simply capturing it, Bolero dissects the palindrome-like polishing movement, as the back and forth action is syncopated to the signature rise and fall of the musical form that is its namesake. Though set to lyrics that center upon the invisibility of shiner and shining, Bolero is actually a motion study, in which Alÿs makes visible a labor usually classified as far less than skilled. He even went so far as to give the movement sculptural form, which resembles a diagrammatic structure, declaring the shiner’s act a sort of molecule on which a macro-economy is built.

If, however, the Mexico City shoe shine trade qualifies as invisible, it does so only through its ubiquitousness, making it a trenchant example of that city’s ever burgeoning informal economy, which some experts say accounts for half of the city’s jobs. Whereas those who make a living through unstructured and unregulated activity are by most accounts considered “passive economic agents” who “lost out in the struggle for jobs,” clearly Mexico City gives pause for thought. The relationship between its formal and informal economy is such that they are complementary. The informal economy is not something outside of the city’s economy, it is the city’s economy, and something with and to which Mexico City officials must reckon if not resign themselves. Given its size and the crucial role of many of its services, they have no choice. Distrustful of the formal economy, many informal sector workers are proud of having survived Mexico’s various economic crises (1976, 1982, and 1994 being the major ones), not to mention the earthquake of 1985. While the shoe shine trade cannot fail to signify the relationship between have and have-not, for Alÿs it also represents an agency in one’s survival that perforce becomes an ethos defining the character of his adopted city. But as an allegory of globalization, the shoe shine trade hardly speaks to Mexico City alone. It could just as well be Cairo, Jakarta, or Karachi to name but a few cities where poverty knows no line and wages know no minimum.