Interview and introduction by María Sprowls
Cover image from “Wide Details, on the traces of Francis Alÿs” (2006) by Julien Devaux
Photographs by Julien Devaux and María Sprowls
After a long and rainy day in New York City, while waiting for the 1 train to arrive, one of Julien Devaux’s Instagram posts makes me laugh and confirms my desire to interview him for IMMATERIAL. The photograph shows a woman in Mexico City walking a chihuahua on leash and a man next to her walking a cabbage down the street, also on a leash. I find this image humorous, but mostly, it makes me wonder about the instant Devaux decided to capture it. Later, when I meet Julien in person, I mention this image to him. He explains to me that walking a cabbage on a leash is a remedy for depression in China. Researching this ritual, I encounter an article on The Huffington Post covering a collective performance art piece that took place in Beijing on May 10th, in which dozens of teenagers walked around the city with cabbages on leashes.
“Paseando Ensalada y Chihuahua” (2014) — Instagram @juliendevaux
This photograph was not my first contact with imagery captured by Devaux. When the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened the exhibition Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception (2011), I rushed over to 53rd street. The first element of the exhibition was a screen located next to a window facing 54th street which had a little bench pressed against the glass. On that bench, I sat for two hours and watched Devaux’s documentary Wide Details, on the traces of Francis Alÿs (2006).
Francis Alÿs’ art centers around the complexities of urban life and the recontextualization of everyday actions often taken for granted. Born in 1959 in Antwerp, Belgium, Alÿs trained as an architect, and then moved to Mexico City in 1986, where he continues to live and work. Traveling to Mexico to help rebuild after the devastating earthquake of 1985, Alÿs encountered a Mexico City whose unique character and complex socio-economic dynamics profoundly influenced his development as an artist. His multidisciplinary practice includes performance, public actions, videos, paintings, installations, and drawings. Through a variety of media, Alÿs presents his distinct imaginative and poetic sensibility targeting political and anthropological concerns.
In Paradox of Praxis (1997), Alÿs pushed a large block of ice along the streets of Mexico city until it melted completely, a visually striking public action which took nine hours to complete. This piece alludes to the almost Sisyphean day-to-day labors of working class Latin Americans, underscored by poignant overtones of ephemerality and immateriality. In When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), Alÿs (in collaboration with Cuahtémoc Medina and Rafael Ortega) mobilized 500 volunteers in Lima, Peru. Wielding shovels, this collective of organized manpower shifted a 500-meter sand dune 10 centimeters away from its natural position.
There to document Alÿs’ artistic practice, quite often, is Julien Devaux. Wide Details, on the traces of Francis Alÿs eloquently portrays the relationship between an artist, a city, and the people that inspire his artistic vision — all while silently conveying the intimate connection between a filmmaker and an artist whose work often lives only as a moving image.
I interview Julien Devaux at his Mexico City apartment. We sip orange juice and talk about the professional relationship he has developed with Francis Alÿs for close to one decade, their collaborative process, and how Alÿs’ long durational pieces are paralleled by Devaux’s long durational documentation process. This leads to a conversation about Devaux’s practice as a filmmaker in his own right, and his reputation as an irreplaceable member of a fellow artist’s practice. Or, as Alÿs once said to The Economist in 2010, “[He’s] crucial to how the stories are told.”
MARÍA SPROWLS: Can you tell me who you are and how you met Francis Alÿs?
JULIEN DEVAUX: Who am I? How formal. I don’t know. My name is Julien Devaux, a Belgian film director that lived in Paris for many years, who worked… [Laughs.] I should speak in first person. I worked for ten years in Paris as a film editor, working on everything from documentaries to narrative fictional cinema. Through this, I realized I wanted to start directing my own documentaries.
I met Francis when I was five years old. He was studying architecture and he arrived at my father’s house to stay as a guest in the studio apartment in the backyard of my parents’ house. He stayed there for two or three years. I would visit him and we would talk, and even though I was a kid, we had a great connection, me as a child and him as a young adult. We would spend a lot of time together playing ping-pong. I was very tiny and he was already as tall as he is now. [Laughs.] We used to have a lot of fun. We might need to ask Francis as well, but for me it’s a very strong memory because he was my older friend at the time and I got to spend hours hanging out with him.
MARÍA SPROWLS: After this long séjour of Francis at your parents’ house ended, did you keep in touch? Did the connection remain?
JULIEN DEVAUX: We lost touch completely. Francis didn’t really use his real name anymore — which is Francis De Smet — and moved to Mexico to perform his civil service. It’s during this time that he discovered the Centro and started to make drawings and that series of small paintings that are so characteristic of him. Soon after that, he had his first exhibition. Mexico City was in the midst of an important moment in terms of art. There was a wonderful energy produced by groups of emerging artists who were starting to think and work differently. Francis actively participated in this re-generation of the art world in Mexico. He stopped being an architect, stayed in Mexico for good, and found his artist name: Alÿs.
I knew he had become an artist because, from time to time, he would come to Belgium and present his work there. Those would be the only times I would see him. We did not call or write each other. Later, I thought of reconnecting with him before a trip to Mexico and Central America. I decided to stop by his studio located in the Centro Histórico of Mexico City. The first time I visited, he wasn’t there, and I slept at his atelier by myself. I saw all of his objects, the artifacts he had accumulated in that space, and that certainly had an impact on my trip.
I realized that I had never seen these objects and I became very interested in his work. I was familiar with his practice but we had lost touch once he moved to Mexico. I decided to return to Mexico because I wanted to make a documentary about his work and its relationship to the Centro Histórico. The documentary I envisioned would portray his coming and going from the Centro to his studio, how he reacted and responded to his surroundings.
A couple of years later, I had written a project and was ready to start filming. At the time, Francis was starting to work a lot with video. It was the perfect moment. I started to film for him and participate in his work. Of course, I needed to be able to use this material for my documentary. Plus, it was a way for me to start making a living in the country. We shared material. Some footage became scenes for my own film, while, simultaneously, I would edit video pieces for his own use. After all, editing was my first occupation. I started to collaborate with him in a very general sense — as a cameraman and an editor — participating in the production of several of his pieces.
Francis had developed his artistic practice so deeply, and he was creating so many pieces that, luckily, I had a lot of chamba [work] to do, which constituted practically half of my own work for the year. I would divide my time between Europe and Mexico, with alternating three-months long stays: three months in Mexico making art with Francis Alÿs and three months making films and documentaries in Europe.
I MAKE AN EFFORT TO NOT LIMIT MYSELF TO JUST DOCUMENTATION, BUT INSTEAD TO BE A WITNESS OF AN ACTION.
Working with Francis provided a strong feedback process with respect to my concerns as a documentary filmmaker. We would discuss how his actions should be documented. I make an effort not to limit myself to just documentation, but instead to be a witness of an action. It’s daunting making this kind of work, because it’s so easy for it to become just a mere documentation of the piece itself. Francis and I would talk about what he wanted as an artist and how I could be of help both as documentarian and filmmaker.
Even though Francis had lived in Mexico for the past 30 years, the collaborative process worked well because we have a similar background and are both from Belgium. It helped, I think. I was able to understand his connection and reasons for liking Mexico. It simply clicked. Our connection was reestablished when I was 24 years old during that trip to Mexico and Central America I mentioned earlier. And ever since, well…
MARÍA SPROWLS: You have been inseparable.
JULIEN DEVAUX: Something like that. [Laughs.] And I started following and documenting his traces after this encounter.
MARÍA SPROWLS: What is your relationship to Mexico?
JULIEN DEVAUX: I discovered my relationship to Mexico by doing Wide Details, on the traces of Francis Alÿs (2006). That was the starting point of everything. I left Belgium when I was 17 years old. I spent some time in England, and later on in France, where I worked in the world of films. In a way, I’ve always been a foreigner, regardless of the United Kingdom and France being relatively close to my home country.
Upon my arrival in México, I was quickly drawn to the sort of mess or desmadre that you find here in a very unique way. In a way, Belgium is also particularly messy. It is a small country, but it’s culturally rich due to the three communities that inhabit it. At times, people do not understand each other due to language diversity. There are rules and laws that apply to a particular region and not in others. It may seem a little bit disorganized but Belgium actually works very well as a country. Recently, it stayed a long period without government and it worked quite well like that. [Laughs.]
Here in Mexico, everything you could hope to do is possible; it’s a place full of possibilities. However, the difficulty with Mexico is that it is an ambivalent country. Still, in the end, things can be done. Maybe it is because there are fewer rules. This gives me a great sense of freedom that is essential to me. This is why I decided to stay in Mexico.
By working with Francis on his productions and simultaneously on my own film, I discovered the artisans’ world and the street vendors of the Centro Histórico. In fact, that is how I learned to speak Spanish. When I first arrived in Mexico, I did not speak it at all, but filming alone in the streets downtown, I was forced to speak, so I learned. I grew very fond of the people, the country, and the language.
Also, I have always been drawn to the Pre-hispanic cultures of Mexico. Since I grew up in Europe, I gravitated towards their particular aesthetic and towards the idea of lost civilizations. I’m sure the first image I ever saw in my life was a Huichol painting / embroidery that my father brought back home from a trip he took through Central America. This painting hung in front of my bed and remained there for ten years, maybe even fifteen. Until I was a teenager. I believe that this instilled in me a very natural inclination towards Mexico, and also towards the Spanish language. I love it.
IN A WAY, I’VE ALWAYS BEEN A FOREIGNER
MARÍA SPROWLS: I learned from your film that Francis works many projects at a time. I imagine that the amount of people that collaborate with him is proportional to the scale of the project and according to the needs that may arise.
JULIEN DEVAUX: Yes, absolutely. Now that Francis is well-known, he needs an assistant to handle everything regarding relationships with galleries, collectors, etcetera, and there are always two or three artisans. Someone prepares the canvases and frames of his paintings and makes the rótulos [signs]. There are also art restorers, but mainly two or three artisans from the Centro.
For everything that concerns video work, there is me, and Rafa Ortega, Elena Pardo. Rafa has been working a bit less with us recently but he is still part of the team. At first, Francis and Rafa did everything together, but when I came in I started to take some of his workload. We work with a French audio engineer, as well, Félix Blume. He did all the audio design for Francis’ video piece Tornado (2000-2010) as well as the projects we did in Morroc and Afghanistan, and many more. There is always a lot of work to do and a lot of productions to handle, so we definitely need everyone. Félix as well is now installed in Mexico.
MARÍA SPROWLS: Francis is a prolific artist.
JULIEN DEVAUX: Yes. He never stops. He is always producing, always working. If you go to the beach with him, he is always drawing. Everything you tell him or anything you show him, he responds and reacts to it. He is a true artist, never wasting time. Even when he is resting, he is working. I sometimes take a break, but I know that he is always producing something new, even in his head. I have learned a lot from him, like how to handle my ideas better. You need to know how to manage ideas, and sometimes you have too many.
For example, films and documentaries take a long time to produce. Scripts and binders need to be written and prepared, you need to do scouting, start filming, find the funding. It’s a process that can take years. So when I’m invited to produce an art piece for a museum or gallery that takes two months, I accept without hesitation. It’s a very different process.
Francis has taught me that I don’t need to finish every single project to be able to start generating a new idea. That way, when you are done with the first one, you already have something on queue to work on, an idea that you are able to engage with on a deeper level. This has greatly benefitted my practice. I don’t waste time second-guessing which project I should work on next.
MARÍA SPROWLS: Can you tell me about your collaborative process with Francis?
JULIEN DEVAUX: It depends on the project that we are working on. Sometimes I arrive “late” to a production, but most of the time, I’m there since the moment of inception — from the very start.
MARÍA SPROWLS: I know you worked extensively in the production of Tornado (2000-2010). How did you collaborate on this particular project? How was it developed? Does Francis typically come to you with an idea and you work together on it from the start?
JULIEN DEVAUX: Francis started Tornado by himself, taking a camera with him and recording the whirlwinds in the countryside. He did this for fours years before I started helping him with it. I knew the footage would be great for the documentary I was making, so I suggested I go with him on his whirlwind search. I would film him from the distance so he would be able to include the landscape. I never myself got into a whirlwind. My framing allowed him to have a new perspective on the material because he was recording only from his subjective point of view. When I started to be part of the piece, we were able integrate both points of view, giving a new dimension to the work.
I followed him for four years while he was doing this piece. The editing process took a long time since we wanted to achieve a perfect balance between abstraction and narration. Tornado is a piece that finds its raison d’etre in a repetitive action: the chasing of these whirlwinds. My job was to convey Francis being asphyxiated by these masses of wind and dust.
During the production time of pieces like these, it’s difficult to know how the work will be displayed in the end. We tried to explore several options. Maybe it should be a single projection or maybe several screens surrounding a space, each one playing a different tornado — in Tornado’s case both could have worked.
This train of thought is different than my usual practice as a filmmaker and documentarian. In video art production, before the editing process, the final form of presentation of the piece is very uncertain.
TORNADO IS A PIECE THAT FINDS ITS RAISON D'ÊTRE IN A REPETITIVE ACTION: THE CHASING OF THESE WHIRLWINDS. MY JOB WAS TO CONVEY FRANCIS BEING ASPHYXIATED BY THESE MASSES OF WIND AND DUST.
MARÍA SPROWLS: I perceive Francis’ pieces to be quite physically demanding. Does this physical effort, which is fundamental to his work, translate to your own collaborative process with him? Do you mirror his actions in a way? You are a perpetual witness of his actions.
JULIEN DEVAUX: I am always behind him, so yes, it is my job to follow him and document every single one of his actions.
MARÍA SPROWLS: So it is just as demanding for you as it is for him.
JULIEN DEVAUX: Yes, but perhaps in a different way. I need to run and walk behind him with a camera at all times. Besides, I need to do so at a lower level, almost ground level. His onda — his thing — is to film his feet while walking, the ground that he walks on, so that requires an extra effort on my behalf since I need to be [Julien mimes crouching while holding a camera with both hands over his shoulder]. I follow him like this.
MARÍA SPROWLS: So when you record all of these actions done by Francis, is it you and him only?
JULIEN DEVAUX: It depends. He does a lot of filming as well. We could say that I am first camera when he is the one performing an action. However, at times, we do not film only Francis, we also film other people. When we do so, Francis operates the camera as well.
For instance, the work Francis did in Afghanistan, Reel/Unreel (2011), was a project on which he invited me to collaborate from the very beginning. Francis came to me with a set of ideas and I tried to bring to the table an array of framing options that could be used to tell the story he envisioned in the best way. We throw ideas around. Francis loves to film, when he is not in the frame of course.
MARÍA SPROWLS: You collaborated on the piece The Green Line (Jerusalem, 2004), wherein Alÿs retraced in green paint the armistice border established between Israel and Jordan in 1948. This border shifted as a result of the Six Day War (1967), after which Israel occupied Palestinian-inhabited territories to the east. Can you tell me what it was like to work on this project?
JULIEN DEVAUX: It was incredible. It was a very unique collaboration. Francis wanted to physically repaint this green line on the ground and my role was mainly to direct the camerawork that would record the action. We worked with a cameraman based in Israel and I did all the sound design for the piece. I co-directed the filming while Francis performed this action in Israel. During the editing process, the main conversation that surrounded the piece was the fundamental concept that prevails in Francis’ work: how the political becomes poetical and the poetical becomes political. This concept is crucial in Francis’ practice. He is always very interested in pursuing and portraying these ambivalences, so in order to convey this through the piece, we would show interviews with people from both Israel and Palestine, all of them from very diverse political and ideological backgrounds. This diversity allowed us to portray a plurality of perspectives on the subject matter.
Our objective was to create the same feeling that one would have while zapping through TV channels in Israel — a mixture of points of view and a spectrum of intimate testimonials provided by individuals who speak about the separation that this green line brought to their lives and countries. Among these testimonies, we have one of an architect who was forced to cross so many checkpoints daily that it was almost impossible for him to get to work every day. Or a boy from Israel who would cross through them to be able to go play soccer with his Palestinian friends.
The piece works as an interactive installation that uses the film as a point of departure. There is a list of everyone we interviewed and a GPS installed that shows Francis’ trajectory on the map and the viewer can listen to a series of testimonies that intertwine with the film.
The main conversation that surrounded the piece was the fundamental concept that prevails in Francis’ work: how the political becomes poetical and the poetical becomes political.
MARÍA SPROWLS: For this piece, how permissive and fluid was the movement of both you and Francis in the terrain? Did you encounter any problems going through the checkpoints?
JULIEN DEVAUX: If you are a foreigner, there is always a better chance that you will work your way through these checkpoints. Fortunately, we also had the local support of a production company whose focus is on documentary films. We got stopped at a couple of checkpoints, but once we would explain the artistic nature and purpose of the work, we would be allowed to keep going. In a way, art opened up a lot of doors for us.
When the police or the authorities notice that you are doing something strange or out of the ordinary, they naturally stop you to inquire about it. But once you explain that it is for the purpose of making art, most of the time they allow it. At least in Mexico, this has worked for us in all of our years working here.
MARÍA SPROWLS: Where you involved in Francis’ piece Barrenderos [Street Sweepers] (2004)?
JULIEN DEVAUX: Yes. We actually filmed that piece for my documentary. I think I started collaborating with Francis at a crucial time. He had many projects happening outside of Mexico, and my documentary’s main interest was to focus on the Centro Histórico as his source of inspiration, so I said to him: “it’s great that we get to work on all these places like Israel and Puerto Rico, but if we don’t produce anything in the Centro, there is no material for Wide Details to be made.” Francis told me about the Barrenderos project, which he had wanted to do a long time ago but had not yet had the time or team to film it. That was the moment when that piece came to production.
MARÍA SPROWLS: Francis’ idea to work on this piece already existed but if you had not catalyzed it, maybe it would have never been recorded?
JULIEN DEVAUX: Exactly. The piece was completely his idea. I needed the piece to have more material to for my documentary, not just to film another one of this actions or performances. The piece exists as it is thanks to both of us having a particular need for it. It was crucial for the solidification of my script for Wide Details.
MARÍA SPROWLS: In the Wide Details extract you sent me…
JULIEN DEVAUX: Did you watch it?
MARÍA SPROWLS: Yes, I did. Francis doesn’t speak much. Close to nothing. I love that.
JULIEN DEVAUX: He was not very fond of the idea of speaking much in front of the camera. He is not necessarily shy, but he shies away from the spotlight. Maybe this is why he started to film his own feet when he started recording his actions. Francis is always walking, therefore to film his feet while doing so, as well as the path he follows during these strolls was imperative. Walking is Francis’ signature action.
MARÍA SPROWLS: I understood that completely. His feet are the visual leit motif of his video work and of your own recordings of his actions. What I’m trying to say is that you successfully painted a portrait of who Francis is from the work he does, rather than through his words.
JULIEN DEVAUX: That was the game. To create some sort of puzzle — finding clues, traces, testimonials, and then reconstructing a character in his own environment without isolating him from this process. I wanted Francis to be in the middle of everything. I was not interested in making a traditional portrait of who he is because it would go directly against what he does as an artist. My job is to try to explain and show Francis’ origin as an artist through cinema and through its very particular vocabulary — to tell a story without having the need to fully explain it, but instead to allow the viewer to construct it from his understanding of what the artist is doing.
MARÍA SPROWLS: That comes across in your film. The sequence where Francis is walking or trying to walk through the crowded streets in the Centro, filled with street vendors of all sorts, with music playing and changing every 10 seconds from all the bootleg music stands, and you, filming everything from behind … It’s one of my favorite sequences in the film. It portrays a very genuine side of Mexico and how this chaotic environment has become an inspiration to Francis.
JULIEN DEVAUX: Yes, exactly. I also feel like the documentary developed an anthropological aspect, particularly in this scene. Street vendors are disappearing from the social landscape of Mexico City. For quite a while now, the government has been trying to get rid of them and banish them from subway stations and from the streets. They haven’t completely cleared these areas, but you see less and less of them. This scene would not look like it does if it was filmed today. The streets then where unwalkable.
MARÍA SPROWLS: The sense of claustrophobia is obvious.
JULIEN DEVAUX: And I had to walk behind him while filming. The camera was not very well received by the street vendors. I had to be careful. But it was a lot of fun. I had thousands of people around me who were insulting me. They are all informal vendors, which is illegal in this country, and they were quite uncomfortable with my presence and with the camera. I was insulted throughout the entire thing. [Laughs.]
MARÍA SPROWLS: I can imagine! Now, changing the subject a little bit, and keeping in mind that one of MAI’s interests is performance art, I would like to ask you: do you consider Francis Alÿs a performance artist?
JULIEN DEVAUX: [Long pause.] Mhhmmmm …Yes. I don’t think he is only a performance artist, but he is one indeed. He has done many performance-based pieces. In fact, Francis never stops performing. Perhaps I would call him an action artist rather than a performance artist. He did a piece in 2005 called Politics of Rehearsal and I believe he presented it at a performance event in New York City.
MARÍA SPROWLS: Performa?
JULIEN DEVAUX: Yes, I think so. For that piece, I only did the editing. I didn’t film it; it was Rafael Ortega who did. It’s a performance directed by Francis that takes place in a theater in New York City. A stripper is there, and an opera singer and a pianist as well — the latter are rehearsing in the space. Every time the opera singer starts to sing, the stripper starts taking her clothes off, and when the music stops, she starts to dress up again. It operates as a kind of infinite loop and it taps into the subject of American political views toward Latin American politics. This idea of taking two steps forwards and then three backwards. [Laughs.] Something like that.
MARÍA SPROWLS: A kind of cha-cha-chá.
JULIEN DEVAUX: Something like that.
MARÍA SPROWLS: It reminds me of the video piece Rehearsal I (1999 – 2001), with the VW on the border of Tijuana, between Mexico and the USA, where Francis drives it up the hill to try to cross the border, while a band plays. Whenever the band stops playing, the VW stops accelerating and goes downhill.
JULIEN DEVAUX: Yes, exactly. It’s the same premise, with the sound as commander of the image. It dictates the action.
MARÍA SPROWLS: Considering that you document a great deal of performance art works and that you mirror Francis’ actions while doing so, would you consider yourself a performance artist?
JULIEN DEVAUX: Me? Not at all. I would like to. Sometimes. I’ve done a sound installation that I have been thinking of presenting as a live piece — a reconstruction of a sound landscape. But I am definitely not a performance artist. I’m a filmmaker and I am starting to develop my own practice as an artist. But I plan and construct things ahead of time. I’m someone who finds his place behind the camera and not on stage. [Laughs.]
MARÍA SPROWLS: Francis speaks about the concept of the poetic in his art. What does the poetic mean to you?
JULIEN DEVAUX: The poetic is the way we have of looking at things. It’s a way to find a personal point of view towards things, and by finding it we are able to establish a poetic relationship with the world. That is my definition of art — to see the world through our own filters, react to it with our own poetry, and bring it to the light.
MARÍA SPROWLS: How would you describe Francis’s relationship with the audience? How would you describe yours?
That is my definition of art — to see the world through our own filters, react to it with our own poetry, and bring it to the light.
JULIEN DEVAUX: I think Francis can be shy even though he is visually present in many of his works and pieces, performing or doing his actions. He likes to be a kind of shadow and to be in hiding. Actually I’m not even sure it’s because of shyness — it’s more about him being simultaneously present and absent in the work. It’s hard to keep him in the frame. He always tries to get out of it, he is always moving. He is too speedy and energetic for someone who performs for and in front of the camera. He is always standing up and disappearing. That works very well for him.
MARÍA SPROWLS: I wonder how two people who do not like to be in front of the camera can film so many videos.
JULIEN DEVAUX: [Laughs.] Well, I’m always behind the camera. I made another film I’m not sure that you have seen called Trait pour Trait [Stroke by Stroke]. I did it in 2012 and it is about the French painter Mélissa Pinon, and her relationship to Jean-Baptiste Chardin’s painting La Raie (1725) which is at the Louvre, and which she repaints in the documentary. It’s not a film solely about her, but instead, what I tried to do was to paint a portrait of her as an artist by means of a journey through art history and what it is like to practice painting in a classical milieu. Through this I wanted to deal with what it means to be a painter nowadays. I spent a lot of time filming her neck and her hands while she was painting and I must say that she did not always like it very much. She had agreed to do a documentary, but painting is a solitary and individual endeavor, an intimate practice. She said to me one day as a joke, “If you film me, I’ll do your portrait.” And I said, “If you do my portrait, I’ll have to film you.” There is a scene in the film in which she paints me and, at the same time, I’m filming everything. It was a bit like a game with mirrors, like the “Meninas de Velázquez.”
MARÍA SPROWLS: Something dealing with reciprocity.
JULIEN DEVAUX: Yes, exactly. An act of reciprocity in our professional interaction. So, there I am in front of the camera. [Laughs.]
MARÍA SPROWLS: Now I have to watch it.
JULIEN DEVAUX: But I do not speak. I only speak when behind the camera and I prefer it that way. That’s the way I work. I get close to my subjects and the themes that I want to tap into. That is my chamba [job]: to get close in with the camera and direct from behind it the things that happen in front of it. That is the way in which I’m present and visible in my work, by asking questions or sometimes by making a simple gesture that will trigger an action.
MARÍA SPROWLS: You are not merely a witness, but also a catalyst.
JULIEN DEVAUX: Yes, always. I believe that when documentaries — or even film video art pieces — are being made, there is no such thing as a neutral eye. You are always looking for something personal that belongs to you. So I’m in constant search of answers, and these answers are often what you expect to be given, but you try to stretch the action and the topic as much as possible. There is a level of manipulation.
MARÍA SPROWLS: Considering that MAI is interested in long durational works, I wonder if you think the audience has the attention span and interest for pieces that last six hours long? Operas, dance performances, video art that lasts six hours or maybe even longer?
WHEN DOCUMENTARIES — OR EVEN FILM VIDEO ART PIECES — ARE BEING MADE, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A NEUTRAL EYE. YOU ARE ALWAYS LOOKING FOR SOMETHING PERSONAL THAT BELONGS TO YOU.
JULIEN DEVAUX: I have to examine that question from my point of view as an editor, as a filmmaker, and as a cameraman. As I said earlier, I think that when editing video art or performance documentation, we need to keep in mind that there is a beginning and an ending to the piece. When these videos are displayed in a gallery or museum, it’s very likely that the audience will walk in during the middle of the projection. The piece needs to be able to speak to the spectator, to convince him immediately to stay and watch the rest. A narrative film operates in a different manner. The challenge with long durational work is to make it compelling at any given moment that the spectator might start watching it.
MARÍA SPROWLS: I think Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) does this successfully.
JULIEN DEVAUX: Yes, you’re right. It works perfectly. I believe a problem also ariseswhen video art has a narrative. Then, it may be appropriate to establish when the video starts, and to recommend an audience to watch it from the beginning. It all depends on how the piece is made.
The piece that Francis did in London called The Guards (2004) is a piece that needs to be watched from the beginning because it’s a performance action piece in which one guard needs to find a second one, start a formation, and then find a third one, and so on. The formation is comprised by 64 guards in the end. Francis decides to present this piece as a 30-minute video.
The guard outside the screening room closes the door and then opens it so people can only start watching it from the beginning, like a movie in a movie theater. The video synthesizes the action performed by the guards, which serves as reference to the long durational performance piece.
It all depends on what the artist wishes to do with the work and how he wants it to operate. If the public wants to sit through a six-hour-long performance, to have an intimate moment with the piece — a life-changing moment almost — it’s a very interesting phenomena. I believe the public needs to prepare itself for this endeavor; make room in your calendar, turn off your cell phone regardless of how hard this might be nowadays. If the public allows this and is conscious of what it implies, it can be an amazing experience. I think of this in terms of seeing a live performance piece.
About filming a six-hour performance piece, it’s best to be able to see it for yourself in a live setting. The film serves as an abbreviated reference of the piece. Filming it is an art testimony, and a testimony is not an action. So, if the action itself lasts for six hours, the testimony should be a synthesis of it. It operates as a punctuation mark — something that helps you remember the action that was witnessed.
THE CHALLENGE WITH LONG DURATIONAL WORK IS TO MAKE IT COMPELLING AT ANY GIVEN MOMENT THAT THE SPECTATOR MIGHT START WATCHING IT.
MARÍA SPROWLS: Like The Duet (1999), a piece Francis did in Venice in collaboration with Honoré d’O. The video is edited in such a way that it’s not necessary to watch three days of material, but instead carefully chosen fragments that lead to the result of the piece.
JULIEN DEVAUX: Yes, and I think it’s stronger this way. You can perfectly understand the piece and it does not need to be three days long. Something similar happens with The Green Line. We walked for two whole days, from the South end to the North end of Jerusalem, and it’s probably not interesting to show all of this. The final piece is 12 minutes long.
Francis was invited to show Tornado at the Sundance Film Festival in the experimental section. It has a Don Quixote air to it. But for Tornado to work properly in a movie theater, and with a sitting audience, we decided to shorten it by 15 minutes, more or less. The piece as it is works perfectly as a loop in a museum or a gallery environment. Of course there is a beginning and an ending, but the spectator is able to get what is going on.
MARÍA SPROWLS: Exactly. The audience is able to understand what is going on. We spoke earlier about the accumulation and repetition of gestures. This mechanism in Francis’ pieces allows the viewer to understand the piece, the narrative of the action. I’m interested and intrigued by the fact that these performances, actions, or gestures, are all ephemeral and temporary. The tornados vanish, the green line disappears, the ice block that Francis pushes in the Centro melts down… All these actions are immaterial and transient. If it weren’t for the work that you do, there would be no record of them. The materialization of what is inherently immaterial happens thanks to you.
JULIEN DEVAUX: Yes, through Francis’ recordings, and my work too, I guess. My job is to record and film the testimonials and the traces of what happened, so it’s not necessary to show all of what I film, only the essential. The amount of material that should be shown should be proportional to the duration of the piece that it portrays so the viewer can connect to it and get a sense of the intention, physical state, concept, and, of course, the exhaustion of the artist. For me, video art is a tool that serves as witness of what an artist can do. It’s a testimony.
After the interview, we take a cab from his studio to the Centro Histórico of Mexico City. The radio is playing the first match of the World Cup: Brazil against Croatia. We talk about Instagram and how addictive it can be. “If you were not here, I would probably be scrolling down the screen,” he says. We stop at the street of Donceles at an old camera shop that a friend recommended to him. We are there to buy a Polaroid camera to shoot with during the rest of our day together.
Julien Devaux (Belgium, 1975) lives and works between Paris and Mexico City. He is a documentary filmmaker and collaborates with various contemporary artists. He has directed two documentaries: “Wide details, on the tracks of Francis Alÿs” (2006) and “Stroke by stroke, from Jean-Baptiste Chardin to Melissa Pinon” (2012). He has collaborated in the video work of artists like Francis Alÿs, Carlos Amorales, Melanie Smith, Etienne Chambaud, Cyprien Gaillard, and Sophie Ristelhueber among others. He has 12 years of experience as a film editor. He graduated from the Ecole du Louvre in Paris after a Foundation Course in Fine Art in Bristol, England. He co-edited with filmmaker Natalia Almada’s the documentary “The Night Watchman” (2011), and most recently, Devaux was awarded an étoile by the SCAM (Société Civile des Auteurs Multimedia) for his film “Stroke by stroke, from Jean-Baptiste Chardin to Melissa Pinon” (2012).