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Rediscovering Utopia in Francis Alÿs' "When Faith Moves Mountains -- Quando fe mueve montañas " (2002)

Written by Riikka Haapalainen

"Many said the art project was crazy. Or just silly. To move a mountain. Why come to Peru to waste your time?"[1]

In the following I will discuss the utopian possibilities in one contemporary art work, namely Belgian Francis Alÿs'[2] participatory art project When faith moves mountains. The aim of this project for “geological displacement” was to move a surface of a sand dune 10 centimeters from its original place by volunteer students, equipped with shovels in outskirts of Lima, Peru in 2002.

The title of the artwork When Faith moves mountains alludes to an ancient myth, announcing and starting off a fable-resembling narrative and its morale. Moving a mountain is not only about shoveling labor, nor just about will, but first and foremost about faith. The art project resembles a myth: The video documenting the project begins at the moment when the artist is looking for a suitable mountain to move. After this, participants and the eyewitnesses recount what happened during the project, and only after that the actual displacement of the mountain is revealed to the audience. Mircea Eliade has stated that when a myth is being told, it becomes a steadfast truth.[3] In my reading, this narrativity also clears the path for an immaterial utopia.

Utopia translates as a place that is not; a non-place. As Bertolt Brecht defined it, utopia emerges where ”etwas fehlt”, where something is missing.[4]  Therefore, utopia is grounded on the notion of lack or absence; it is something that is not-yet, not-here. Utopia as ‘something is missing’ calls for open structures and hospitality for the unknown. In art, this could mean temporary repositioning of the familiar and insignificant. Familiar but insignificant were indeed the sand dunes in the “When Faith Moves Mountains” project.

With the project Alÿs poses a question, if an artistic intervention truly can bring about an unforseen way of thinking, or if it is more a matter of creating a sensation of ”meaninglessness” that shows the absurdity of situation?”.

The project involved hundreds of volunteers, who were assigned to move one of the dunes 10 centimetres from its original position with shovels. This one undistinguished sand dune was temporarily transformed into a significant centre, where new set of relations and potentialities could emerge.

Even though utopia is a non-existing place, it can be imagined – visited in dreams and thoughts. It is a fiction that rises from the reality: a substance that directs the attention from the routines of the ordinary towards something, that may happen or may be discovered. Hence, utopia is not a faraway place, it is an omnipresent potentiality within the everyday. It emerges from the everyday and out of the elements that already exist. Still, utopia in this sense is a process: it will never be reached – there will always be something missing.[5]

The utopian transformation implied by participatory art projects like the When faith moves mountains may be for instance a temporary shift to a new set of relations. It enables visits in thoughts, that one would normally not experience, or discovering things that would otherwise be left unnoticed.[6] Therefore, contrary to its common definition as pertaining to an inaccessible mode and time of reality, utopia could rather be understood as a here-and-now-project, which presents us what else there is in the world. In this manner, it questions the routines and similitude of everyday life. Utopia in this sense is not about bringing forth something more, or better, but about bringing up alternatives.

How, then, can we perceive the utopian aspects of When Faith moves mountains? As mentioned earlier, the project took place in the outskirts of Lima, Peru, in April 2002, after some years of preparation. In the setting, alongside a sand dune, there were hundreds of volunteers, mainly students from local universities, camera crew, police cars, buses and a helicopter, toilets and other equipment. The volunteers’ were equipped with shovels and given white shirts with the name of the project printed on them.[7] Volunteers were also told to form a single line, and advance to the top of the mountain shoveling the sand in front of them, and then come down again.

The outskirts of Lima is a part of the city structure that has never been planned, developed or rationalized by the actions of city planning. The great process of modernization had marginalized this territory, and it was merely regarded as a wasteland, an invaluable and uninteresting no-man’s-land.[8] In the pursuit of progress and modernity, such liminal or marginal non-areas appear as inevitable outcomes or surpluses of globalization. The area was also inhabited, by the poor, unemployed and immigrants.

Francis Alÿs, the artist, has said that the area reflected the current state of the entire Latin America, which – according to him – has become stuck in an eternal state of waiting for modernization to begin and its promise of progress to be realized. However, modernization, along with its promises, is always incessantly postponed.[9] Sun is burning, people are sweating, and the flying sand dust is scratching faces and smarting eyes and lungs.[11] The labor is torturelike. Or to quote Francis Alÿs’s motto of the labor: ”Maximum effort, minimal result".

After the shoveling, the mounting still looks the same. Nothing has visibly changed. The hard labor has seemingly been unproductive – a total waste of time - but could also, perhaps more productively, be read as a way of resisting the logic of capitalism and its ideals of efficiency and productivity. The heavy work in the When faith moves mountains is JUST work, without any measurable, material or permanent outcomes. The land was unfruitful and it will remain unfruitful. There is only a tiny transition or displacement of a mountain, which soon will vanish.

Then, what is the point of this useless physical struggle? Maybe it is to concretely prove how the modern or post-modern world fundamentally perceives and values labor. The shoveling could be defined as useless at least in two ways: it produces nothing, and it is being done in one of the lands of cheap labor (though this time the labour forces are volunteers that are even doing it for free).[12]

Francis Alÿs, "When Faith Moves Mountains" (2002). from Daily Serving on Vimeo.

Understanding the shoveling only as useless and immaterial, is according to Mircea Eliade a projection of the profanation process, in which the notion of work does not carry any other functions than productivity. For instance, agriculture in profane society is based only on economic profit: the land is being cultivated only for the sake of money and nourishment.[13] In When faith moves mountains, however, the question is about faith - understood as a sense of togetherness and as a shared crazy dream. And in my reading this shared faith is the utopian potentiality here.

Antropologist Mary Douglas has written about how the notions of the sacred and the profane are separated as oppositional stands. For her, the state of exaltation is the opposite of heavy labor.[14] Still, this very labor, in a shared physical struggle in severe conditions - results in a state of exaltation. It is hot, the sand is making dust, it is difficult to see and breath. Moment by moment, the shoveling becomes harder and harder. And yet, the volunteers are more and more enthusiastic and inspired: they are doing something different, something that they thought would be impossible and ridiculous. This temporary mix of hardship, enthusiasm and grandiose silliness transfers the project of the When faith moves mountains towards something that cannot be clearly categorized or named, maybe towards utopia.

To conclude, the Utopia in the When faith moves mountains is not strong or clearly articulated. It is a direction without a program or manifestation. It only requires a structure, potentiality and hope (or faith like in this case).[16]

Understood within terms of productive or rational work, the project was totally useless. Still, people were participating in it; and still the project was commonly regarded as a success.

When Faith Moves Mountains was not about creating or even imagining something that could be conceived as better or more meaningful. Materially, it was about organizing and re-organizing something indifferent into something as indifferent. What became interesting, was everything else it made visible: the joint act of simple craziness. The community of the artwork was based on porous temporality. It emerged from the shared moments, and subsided later. Volunteers and other people came together not because it was sensible, not because of reason, or hope for profit, but because of the faith and commitment for the utopian possibility.

Hence, utopia is to be found in everyday life as a tendency towards something that is not yet; a weak potentiality that is not yet articulated nor imagined.

The truth is, that the people who took part felt totally involved. And the fact that it took such a huge dimension means that it will generate one story after another. And the story will be passed on like an oral tradition. And later the ones who were there will tell the freshmen coming in. That way a memory will be built up of an event that only lasted a day. But will live on for who knows how long.[17]

Riikka Haapalainen is lecturer at the Aalto University’s Art Department and has been in 2010 in charge of the Curating, Managing, and Mediating Art (CuMMA) MA-program. Currently she is also undertaking her doctoral research in everyday utopias of participatory art in the Finnish Doctoral Programme in Art History (University of Helsinki, Helsinki). Previously she has for instance worked as head of education in the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki (2005-2007) and researcher at the Finnish National Gallery’s Development Department, Kehys (2000-2005).

[1] Anonymous participator of the art project.

[2] Francis (Alÿs) de Smedt

[3] Eliade 2005, 116.

[4] Adorno’s and Bloch’s conversation 1964.

[5] Note, that the architectural and communal utopias are not processual in this sense: they are – at least in theory – within reach. They may be constructed and monumentalized.

[6] Look also Simmel’s understanding of the disinterestedness.

[7] Note, participation was in this sense materially distributed and underlined.

[8] The beginning of the making of –video presents the process of stucturing, occypying and negotiating the urban public space (like commercial advertisements in the fences etc) – in contrast with the anonymous ‘mountain’ of the no-mansland, of the margins..

[9] See Truman’s inaugural speech and the term’underdevelopment’, ”pitäisi auttaa heitä oivaltamaan halunsa parempaan elämään ja jakaa teknistä osaamista, vapauttaa nälästä, kurjuudesta ja epätoivosta” 1949). The modernity, the so called development is being introduced here as an obligation to the west: to leed the so called third world people out from the state of underdevelopment (the process of which called for political co-operation, the rigid composition of the cold war and power struggle).

[10] See, in Romantic landscape scenery and the Spitzenerlebnis.

[11] The sand storm made by the helicopter may refer to the effectiviness and power of the modern technology in comparison with the more traditional manual labor. See also the photograpy series of tornadoes by Alÿs. 12 Medina 2007, 48.

[12] Storr 2003, 21.

[13] Eliade 2005, 116-117.

[14] Anttonen and Viljanen 2000, 20.

[15] ”Myytti ilmaisee --- perustavanlaatuisen tapahtuman. Se on siis aina kertomus ”luomisesta”: kerrotaan, miten jokin on saatu aikaan, miten se on alkanut olla.” (Eliade 2005, 116–117) . Eliade määrittää, että luominen merkitsee todellisuuden ylenpalttisuutta, pyhän murtautumista maailmaan. Ja tästä seuraa että maailman luominen on kaiken inhimillisen toiminnan, rakentamisen ja valmistamisen, arkkityyppi. (Eliade 2005, 66-67.)

[16] Nykytaiteen diskurssissa utopia-käsitettä vierastetaan; utopian korvaavana käsitteenä käytetään horisonttia.

[17] Videon loppusanat. Tämän jälkeen kuvat ovat mustavalkoisia stillejä, ikään kuin haalistuneita muistoja.

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