The Nature of the Game
On Francis Alÿs’ Children’s Games
Three title cards follow in quick succession: “Children’s Games #1:” – “CARACOLES” - “Mexico City 1999.” Then comes an initial image, which seems unframed, as if the camera is recording unintentionally. We recognize a street on which the sun casts a sharp shadow. Across the street, we see a man. A red pickup truck drives by, but even this vehicle does not provide any clue. Then a bottle rolls by, and the image suddenly comes into focus. The camera follows the bottle rolling down the steep street. A boy appears in frame. He kicks the bottle up the street, after which it rolls back down and he can start again. Here is the first cut in the montage. The camera is now behind the boy who kicks the bottle back up the road. Until it reaches a dog lying in the sun. The boy hesitates and looks at the cameraman, as if asking for help. The dog won’t budge and snarls at the cameraman.
The video did not come about by chance. The cameraman clearly organized the situation and gave the boy instructions. Yet he also did not control everything. The street was not cordoned off for the filming; the scene is completely part of life in Mexico City.
A new image shows a man with a bell crossing the street, with a glittering city in the background. We return to the bottle. The camera now coincides with the viewpoint of the playing boy. Francis Alÿs’s Children’s Game #1: Caracoles (1999), a short video of under five minutes, is not just a recording of an accidental moment. The “scene” is set up and edited, re-filmed from different angles. Except for the dynamics of the editing, which mainly has a basic rhythmic function, little changes in the setup of the video itself. The premise remains basic: a boy enjoys himself kicking a bottle up a steep road. Until another dog clips the bottle in his mouth and runs away with it. Soon he drops the bottle, and the boy can continue. He kicks the object uphill again. When one of the kicks misses its target, the bottle rolls down the slope and the little film comes to an end.
Alÿs did not make this first little film with a whole collection of “children’s games” in mind. It connected with El ensayo (The Rehearsal (1999–2001)), a reflection on the notions of “repetition” and “rehearsal.” Children’s Game #2: Ricochets, the second film in the collection, was shot eight years later. It is only in the following years that the project of the Children’s Games was born, with a trip to Afghanistan as the main catalyst. Today, almost 20 years later, the collection counts more than 30 videos, each focusing on a single game. The concept is as straightforward as the title suggests: the collection presents the great diversity of children’s games worldwide. For Alÿs, the Children’s Games represent a seeming caesura with his previous work. Alÿs himself is no longer on view. The performative character so central to his earlier videos has here given way to a pervasive focus on the world in front of the camera. Yet the “disappearance” of Alÿs is not a radical break and results in an intensified exploration of some of the guiding principles of his oeuvre.
On first view, the “goal” of the Children’s Games seems uncomplicated: an inventory of children’s games around the world. The project brought Alÿs and his team from Mexico to Afghanistan, from Belgium to Morocco, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Hong Kong. Even the presentation of the videos is conceived that way. They are carefully numbered, named after the game they document, and then brought together in exhibitions and on the artist’s website. The collection did not end with the Biennale exhibition in Venice (2022), the exhibition at MUAC-UNAM in Mexico City (2023), or the exhibition at WIELS in Brussels (2023), all of which form the backdrop for this book. New videos are still being added to the collection. Systematically, with the resoluteness of a curator, Alÿs preserves bits and pieces of global heritage. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he absolutely wanted to document the Kisolo game, a “count and capture” game that is at least 3,000 years old (Children’s Game #26: Kisolo (2021)). It is a part of an immaterial heritage that is in danger of disappearing. It proved a difficult task to find children today who could still play the game. The current collection includes both globally known and lesser-known games. Usually, Alÿs looks for games that are connected to a particular place. For example, he films skipping rope in Hong Kong (Children’s Game #22: Jump Rope (2020)), building sandcastles on the beach in Knokke-Le-Zoute (Children’s Game #6: Sandcastles (2009)), playing marbles in Amman (Children’s Game #8: Marbles (2010)), hopscotching in Iraq (Children’s Game #16: Hopscotch (2016)), tossing in Nepal (Children’s Game #18: Knucklebones (2017)), snow games in Switzerland (Children’s Game #33: Schneespiele (2022)), and so on. Some games have a name and follow a set of fixed rules. In other games, children share the action with one or a few objects.
As an archivist, Alÿs’s input remains at first glance rather minor. The games are recorded with a certain directness, without linguistic intervention, commentary voice, or informative captioning. We learn nothing about the cultural specificity or pre-history of the games. The videos are not manuals to instruct the viewer how the game is played. Yet they aim for a distinct transparency and readability. Unlike some of his earlier, acclaimed works (Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing) (1997), Re-enactments (2000), A Story of Deception (2003–2006), The Green Line (2004)), Alÿs does not assume the role of protagonist in the Children’s Games. Nor does he engage with the children’s games in an explicitly artistic manner. The mise-en-scène is modest, at the service of what takes place in front of the lens. The Children’s Games are not technical feats but a collection of “small” videos with limited “production value.” Alÿs and his small team – a regular crew for years (Rafael Ortego, Julien Devaux, Félix Blume) – invoke tropes that could to a certain extent be described as “amateur-like.” The rather small camera is hand-held, yielding shaky, searching imagery and a certain leniency towards technical glitches. This approach is obviously not the result of incompetence but of a deliberate relationship to what is being filmed. Alÿs records small, striking events and actions that take place in the small circle of a community and reports on his travels through his videos. For this amateur-like filmmaker, the camera is there for everyday use, less for a predetermined artistic purpose. Camera angles and editing rhythm are dictated by a concern to fully record and render the play in its intent. This desire to document asks for a direct, uncomplicated form. Thus, in a seemingly systematic manner, a worldwide archive of children’s games takes shape.
This archival impulse is not in itself without risk because it can lead to superficial generalizations and a shallow form of humanism. In 1956, for example, the photographic exhibition The Family of Man landed in Paris, co-curated by the photographer Edward Steichen. The photographs presented, by 273 photographers from 68 countries, focused on the similarities that connect cultures around the world, as an expression of a restored humanism after the horror of World War II. A year later, Roland Barthes, in his Mythologies (1957), reproached Steichen for naturalizing humanity’s behavior with his exhibition, labeling cultural and historical differences as secondary and accidental. In the show, “man” is almost hypostasized into a divine abstraction and presented as a being that remains untouched by the course of history. Such facile poetics perpetuates for Barthes a false, sentimental impression of unity, which also immediately makes it impossible to explain how the horror of World War II had been possible at all. Against this “classical” humanism Barthes puts forward a “progressive” humanism, which starts from the realization that biological processes such as being born, dying, working, and playing always carry a historical dimension and are culturally variable. These aspects are crucial for Barthes. Only those who also put their finger on the differences that divide the human species from within can assume “that one can transform them, and precisely subject their naturalness to our human criticism.”1
Alÿs escapes these facile generalizations and the sentimental humanism that might result from them. This achievement is in large part due to the distance he himself maintains, which makes the viewer primarily an observer as well. The road to empty identification is closed, and the children appear in a tangible environment that can be fundamentally different from that of the spectator. The Children’s Games by no means show an ideal or idealized world in which everyone is fundamentally “the same.” Rather, they reveal the extent to which cultural, geographical, and historical variables have an impact on and intersect with human behavior. This expression results in an exploration of the uniqueness of some games and the determining role of, for example, climatic conditions and urban development: no Schneespiele in Afghanistan, no Kisolo on the asphalted city squares in the West. The sum of the collection does not serve to erase differences, but points them out as “signs of an historical writing” (Barthes). Alÿs’s progressive humanism does not revolve around the observation that each individual, as a human being, contains a shared, essential core that relates them to all other individuals. It lies in the modesty of the act of observing and paying attention, which is always temporally and spatially anchored. Alÿs shows how people all over the world produce cultural products as a response to their specific living conditions. Play is not an expression of a purely natural process but an activity with, in many cases, delineated rules that people have agreed upon throughout history and which, at best, are passed down from generation to generation. By following these rules in their turn, the children inscribe themselves in these histories: they have learned these games and made the rules their own. They play the games that their parents, too, once played.
Alÿs seeks out the most diverse children’s games and in this way redraws the map of the world. Yet exactly what world does he allow to appear here? Alÿs is not the artistic explorer from the West he is sometimes considered to be. He is not a globetrotter artist who constantly traverses the world and has become “border-blind” in the process. And he does not put his work at the service of globalization, the “universalization” of cultural traits, or the overcoming of histories. Alÿs’s work does point out how the world is in danger of shrinking. Will children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Hong Kong soon all be playing the same games, on their smartphones or otherwise? The images of children’s games created by Alÿs during his many travels call attention to a world that remains above all concrete and sensory, despite the equalizing dynamics of globalization.
Through this cultural and historical perspective, Alÿs escapes the persistent tendency to glorify children. Often children are seen as “exceptional” beings with a natural innocence and spontaneous open-mindedness. The child then becomes almost a noble sauvage who is in the antechamber of reality and not part of the “real” world. The child would not (yet) be corrupted by civilization and would have a pre- or apolitical access to a more authentic, originary reality. In such a view, the child first and foremost needs care: it must be protected from the harsh world of adults. The blissful isolation by which the child remains somewhat immune to the outside world must be extended as long as possible. Not infrequently, this glorification of the child goes hand in hand with a glorification of the classic, mostly Western family structure and its customary gender roles. This glorification of the child and domestic safety underlies many well-intentioned artistic projects. Not only Steichen’s Family of Man, but also explicitly socio-artistic photo series and portraits such as Jacob Riis’s famous The Children of the Poor (1892) or Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936) essentially reduce the child to an object of care and protection and de facto isolate it from society.
The Children’s Games distance themselves from this tradition of glorification. In doing so, unfortunately, there cannot always be blissful isolation for the child either. Many of the children in these videos face, and are even more vulnerable to, the same injustices that affect the adults in their communities. Alÿs thus puts his finger on the many forms of structural violence that make entire regions of the world unsafe today. In Children’s Game #19: Haram Football (2017), Iraqi children are forced to play soccer with an imaginary ball because a real ball is banned by the fundamentalist regime in which they are growing up. In Mexico’s Baja California and Ciudad Júarez, children play a shooting game with broken branches or shards of glass (Children’s Game #5: Revolver (2009) and Children’s Game #15: Espejos (2013)). Consciously or unconsciously, they mimic the violence of the drug cartels operating in those regions. Yet from the behavior of these children, wherever they are in the world, rings out more than an urgent call for care and protection. The Children’s Games are above all a testimony to the resilience of children. In one of his notebooks, Alÿs makes this observation: “Through playing transform terror into mastery/control.”2 Indeed, the Children’s Games bring out the specific form of action embedded in children’s play. These children are not merely the object of care and protection but a very distinct subject of response and interaction. Moreover, in many of these games a community emerges that will not easily yield to traditional, pedagogical patterns or to the propensity of the classic, Western, self-reliant family for turning inwards. These children first and foremost need each other to play the game. Every game allows itself to be played only together, among children. Adults are here above all a disruptive, not a “nurturing” or protective factor. Elias Canetti describes such a community as a “rhythmic mass,” characterized by the desire to grow: “Man’s feeling for his own increase was always strong.” Unlike the traditional nuclear family, the “rhythmic” community of playing children is not self-reliant or inward-gazing but desires “large numbers.”3 In principle, these games are open to ever new, and different, participants. This creates a special situation: rather than a group of isolated individuals who encounter each other by virtue of certain similarities, the community of playing children is one of radical equality, and it is this way because everyone participates in the same activities. For this reason, children’s play creates a space where society’s codes of behavior, hierarchies, and gender roles may become visible but can be dealt with somewhat more freely.
In this community of “equal” and playing children, then, it is striking that the center of the action often shifts from the individual children to the interplay of their bodies or, more precisely, their body parts. In many cases, the game revolves around a specific encounter of bodies and an interaction of limbs (Children’s Game #11: Wolf and Lamb (2011), Children’s Game #14: Piedra, papel o tijera (2013), Children’s Game #20: Leapfrog (2018), Children’s Game #21: Hand Stack (2019), Children’s Game #24: Pandemic Games (2020), Children’s Game #25: Contagio (2021), Children’s Game #28: Nzango (2021)). Therefore, many games do not even require a prop. In Canetti’s words, in a
“rhythmic mass, it is important that [all members] should all do the same thing. They all stamp the ground and they all do it in the same way; they all swing their arms to and fro and shake their heads. The equivalence of the dancers becomes, and ramifies as, the equivalence of their limbs. Every part of a man which can move gains a life of its own and acts as if independent, but the movements are all parallel, the limbs appearing superimposed on each other. They are close together, one often resting on another, and thus density is added to their state of equivalence. Density and equality become one and the same.”4
Perhaps the playing children in Children’s Game #28: Nzango are the finest example of such a “rhythmic mass.” In this Congolese game, which has become a national sport, participants imitate and anticipate the movements of each other’s legs. Its rhythm is indicated by the unison singing and clapping of the bystanders. The video that Alÿs made with Rafael Ortega, Julien Devaux and Félix Blume begins with a solitary child staring in front of him in a sandy plain. Slowly, a group of children gathers around him and a beautiful choreography of dancing bodies unfolds. The video ends with close-up images of rhythmically moving lower legs and feet so attuned to each other that they almost seem to belong to one and the same body. The magic of the play lies in each individual child gradually being immersed into a larger whole.
Much more than Steichen’s series or the social-artistic work of Riïs or Lange, it is the oeuvre of American photographer and filmmaker Helen Levitt (1913–2009) which constitutes one of the artistic precursors of the Children’s Games. In 1948, she wandered the streets of East Harlem, New York, with her camera to shoot the film In the Street. We see adults with dogs and mothers with strollers but, above all, children playing and dancing as they toy around with materials they find on the street: old socks are filled with sand and stones, newspapers and cardboard boxes are used as dress-up clothes and hats, a fire hydrant rigged up as a water sprinkler provides much needed cooling. The adults standing by don’t take too much notice of these frenzied, interlocking bodies until one of them intervenes and stops the game. Levitt prefaces her film with an artistic statement that could just as well apply to Alÿs’s project: “The streets of the poor quarters of great cities are above all a theater and a battlefield. There, unaware and unnoticed, every human being is a poet, a master, a warrior, a dancer and in his innocent artistry, he projects, against the turmoil of the street, an image of human existence. The attempt in this short film is to capture this image.”5
As one expects of a lyric poet.
We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory.
– Louise Glück
In one of his books on cinema, Gilles Deleuze distinguishes two notions of childhood. On the one hand, there is the obvious, “horizontal” notion, in which childhood refers to a certain stage of life that passes irrevocably: “the horizontal succession of presents which pass outlines a route to death.”6 A memory of that lost phase is like an “image” of the past coming back to life. Such a memory is accompanied by the sweet mix of joy and sadness that we usually call “nostalgia.” In addition, according to Deleuze, there is a “vertical” notion that associates childhood with a surprising “coexistence” and “simultaneity” between past and present. In such a notion, childhood is not merely a stage of life that we must one day irrevocably leave behind. Here childhood represents an exceptional view of the world that remains intact and accompanies us throughout our adult lives: “the child in us ... is contemporary with the adult, the old man and the adolescent.”7 Remembering this particular perspective of the child does much more than merely revive an “image” of the past, however pleasant such a nostalgic experience may be. According to Deleuze, the second, “vertical” notion of childhood revolves around a memory that remains “pure”: for a moment, our childlike view of the world actually returns in its fullness, and we realize that we had mistakenly considered it lost. “It is not in the recollection-image but in pure recollection that we remain contemporary with the child that we were as the believer feels himself contemporary with Christ.”8 The Children’s Games are rooted in this second, “vertical” notion of childhood. These videos are primarily meant to be viewed by adults, but many of them retrieve from these short films an unexpected sense of rejuvenation, as if the child they once were has resurfaced for a very brief moment. That feeling cannot be fully captured by the term “nostalgia” because it is much more immediate and, indeed, “pure.” The Children’s Games remind us of our own childhood, but they have nothing to do with the sense of lack and the awareness of loss that lie hidden in nostalgia.
So what exactly does this childlike perspective that seems to resurface ever so fleetingly consist of? And why might watching children at play be important for a “pure” memory of our childhood? In the Children’s Games, Alÿs brings to view how the temporal dimension of childhood is linked up with a spatial dimension. Indeed, in many of the Children’s Games the children interact not only with each other and each other’s bodies or body parts but also with their immediate environment and with the many objects, small animals, and materials they retrieve within it. For example, the children make small holes in the ground and play a game with haphazardly found seeds (Children’s Game #26: Kisolo). Small pieces of wood serve as revolvers or fence off a miniature playing field for shooting marbles (Children’s Game #5: Revolver, Children’s Game #27: Rubi (2021)). Stones are the material of choice for skipping across a body of water, playing a hopscotch game, or tossing (Children’s Game #2: Ricochets, Children’s Game #16: Hopscotch, Children’s Game #18: Knucklebones). A bottle, a bundle of leaves, or snow can be used as a ball, and sand can be used to make a sandcastle (Children’s Game #1: Caracoles, Children’s Game #17: Chunggi (2017), Children’s Game #33: Schneespiele, Children’s Game #6: Sandcastles). Grasshoppers, in turn, are launched into the air like helicopters, mosquitoes outsmarted with an ingeniously mimicked sound, and snails deployed as racing vehicles (Children’s Game #9: Saltamontes (2011), Children’s Game #30: Imbu (2021), Children’s Game #31: Slakken (2021)). Out of an old tire, these children manage to make a rolling toy or a vehicle (Children’s Game #7: Stick and Wheels (2010), Children’s Game #29: La roue (2021)). So it is almost as if the children in these games have made a mysterious pact with the place they are in. For a moment, it seems, the world presents itself to them just as they had desired it. These children find exactly the object or material they needed. Things become keys to the world. Furthermore, apparently the children have even unlocked one of nature’s secrets, for the animals, too, now readily comply with the rules of their game.
That surprising alignment with the place in which the children live makes the Children’s Games akin to fairy tales and fables, despite the references to all-too-real injustice and violence. Authors such as Walter Benjamin, Alexander Kluge, and Hans Blumenberg have pointed out that the core of fairy tales and fables can be found in a shrewd relationship to elements of nature. In contrast to myths, which typically feature the hubris of heroes and the antagonism between man and nature, the protagonists of fairy tales and fables no longer want to dominate or control their environment. Walter Benjamin describes it as follows: “Reason and cunning have inserted tricks into myths; their powers cease to be invincible. Fairy tales are the traditional stories about victory over these forces.”9 Through ruses, the main characters of fables and fairy tales make sure that their environment will come to their help when needed. They see nature as a possible ally that can strengthen their abilities at critical moments, rather than as an enemy to be feared. Alÿs has long been fascinated by this power of fables and fairy tales and by the possibility that the material things that surround us can help us out of trouble at crucial instants. In the performance Fairy Tales (1995), he wandered through Mexico City in a sweater that gradually unraveled due to a single thread that had come loose. With a nod to the story of Hansel and Gretel, he thus left a trail that would allow him to orient himself in the city chaos, and as with Penelope, the unwinding of a garment marks an ever-repeated moment of hopeful delay and respite. The performance was accompanied by the statement: “Whereas the highly rational societies of the Renaissance felt the need to create utopias, we in our times must create fables.”
In the Children’s Games, La roue is one of the finest examples of this fairy-tale pact between people and things. In this video, a Congolese boy first painstakingly pushes a tire up the hill only to crawl into it and roll down at dizzying speed. It is replete with references to the mythical hero Sisyphus, who twice sought to overcome death and as punishment had to keep pushing a rock to the top of a mountain only to see it roll back down time and again. La roue, however, is nothing less than an annulment of this ancient Greek myth. Unlike Sisyphus, the Congolese boy of La roue has managed to join forces with the object that initially cost him so much effort: when he swiftly descends the hill after his long climb, it is precisely that heavy, rubber tire that gives him the pleasure of play he had been seeking all along. Moreover, La roue also addresses the essentially modern myth that man is lord and master of nature and can dispose over it as he pleases. The hill on which the boy plays is in reality a pile of waste from a mine, thus constituting tangible evidence of the plunder of natural resources and child labor. The playing child transforms precisely this place of exploitation and injustice into a vast space for play. In this video, nature is no longer an “outside” to be dominated and controlled but a participant in the game.
Such a pact with the place in which the children live does not come about for no reason, of course. If the world gives these children just what they need, it is because the children, in turn, know how to value that world and give it its due. For the children in the Children’s Games literally anything can be made of use in play. They do not elevate themselves above things or pass judgment upon them. For them, there is no essential difference, let alone a hierarchy, between objects that have cultural or social significance and trash or goods that have become unusable. Benjamin also pointed out that children are
“irresistibly drawn by the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring, or carpentry. In waste products they recognize the face that the world of things turns directly and solely to them. In using these things, they do not so much imitate the works of adults as bring together, in the artefact produced in play, materials of widely differing kinds in a new, intuitive relationship. Children thus produce their own small world of things within the greater one.”10
In the “small” world that opens up in play, the opposition between the children and things is no longer essential. Alÿs therefore records the children in the same way as the objects they use. In Caracoles, the bottle receives as much attention as the little boy who kicks it up the hill. In La roue, the tire and the boy’s body are not hierarchically set apart: Alÿs shows us how the boy’s body folds to the curvature of the tire rather than vice versa. In Children’s Game #10: Papalote (2011), we see how the gestures of kite-flying come about partly at the behest of the kite in the air: they are not merely the result of the Afghan boy’s actions. In his discussion of children’s intense “alertness” to “surrounding things,” the French filmmaker, poet, and educator Fernand Deligny already pointed to the desire of children to become themselves a thing among things.11 Children want to merge into the world. In this way, they do away with a purely practical and efficiency-oriented attitude. Deligny distinguishes between two forms of activity: the faire, which aims at productivity and efficiency and is organized according to a means-end rationality, and the agir, which has no goal in itself and accomplishes nothing essential. We find a key example of agir in Deligny’s desire to be able to capture the endlessly slow melting of an iceberg on pellicule: “[H]ow much time that takes, this mass of which there will be nothing left but an ice cube, first the size of a fist, then nothing at all; nothing more than the sea.”12 Play clearly belongs to the category of agir: after all, play has no proper, practical use and is primarily a response to the many possibilities that lie embedded in our immediate environment. The games from the Children’s Games are located somewhat outside our everyday activities. They cannot be fully absorbed by the consideration for usefulness and efficiency that is dominant in day-to-day existence. The type of children’s game that Alÿs documents often consists of a set of rules that indicate a goal to be achieved and delineate the means and objects that can be used to that end. Even so, that goal is in fact only an improper part of a game, because it is the very success in a game which immediately brings it to an end: it leads to nothing.
Nevertheless, play is oftentimes a monomaniacal activity that is taken extremely seriously. When children play they can be completely immersed in their game. Play provides a zone of concentration where relationships and the interdependence of people, bodies, body parts, objects, materials, and even small animals are established purely on the basis of a set of agreed-upon rules. Without those rules, which seem to be of no value in the world outside the game, the game does not exist. Take away the rules, and the reality that founds the game goes up in smoke. That concentration and demarcation isolate the players from everything that does not belong to the space for play. They constitute a trait that play shares with fiction, which equally refers to a very distinct and different “world within the world.” Like fiction, play is governed by a certain, independent logic and by a set of fundamentals that dictate laws.
These are “made up” in all aspects (Latin: fingere: form, shape) and thus should, in theory, remain without direct consequence in the real world. Children at play create geographies with fictitious boundaries and demarcations: behind the couch begins the sea, and so as a participant in the game you are not to go there. Still, the frenetic reaction of children when you carelessly cross those imaginary lines already indicates that the internal “emptiness” of the game does not prevent it from creating a reality. Break the rules of the game, and you transgress the prevailing laws of a world, however imaginary these may be.
With the Children’s Games, Alÿs is adding a new chapter to his voluminous oeuvre, even though they are nevertheless closely related to his earlier projects. The proper status of fictions and legends, along with the ‘added’ reality they can establish, plays a major role in his work, the most well-known project being the performance When Faith Moves Mountains (2002). The artist invited five hundred volunteers to the outskirts of Lima to collectively move a sand dune by a few inches. Back in 1997, moreover, he realized Deligny’s thought experiment when he pushed a large block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it had melted completely. He gave this performance the title Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing). Perhaps the apparent purposelessness of agir can even be called the guiding principle of his oeuvre. Indeed, in the apparent insignificance of many of his early works, Alÿs was already establishing a renewed interaction with the world, including the trash and supposedly unusable objects that are an integral part of that world (The Collector (Colector) (1990–1992), Housing for All (Vivienda para Todos) (1994), Magnetic Shoes (Zapatos Magnéticos) (1994), Seven Lives of Garbage (1995), Barrenderos (Sweepers) (2004)). In this way, he opened reflection on modern dogmas such as efficiency and progress and the relationship between time and labor. These themes remain unquestionably relevant in the Children’s Games, as they, too, mark an imbalance between the great effort of global travel and its result, the “small” videos of children’s games.
Alÿs travels all over the world filming children’s games. He films the same thing everywhere: children playing. In doing so, he emphasizes that the children’s games initially came his way through chance encounters and that the videos are usually created in the wake of his other activities as an internationally oriented artist. The Children’s Games are deceivingly uncomplicated. They oscillate between something and nothing, almost nonchalantly, as if they were trouvailles, “ready-mades.” The artist retains a childlike attitude himself, as it were, and effaces himself as a maker. The films are so straightforward that they might seem to have little artistic merit: there is no sought-after beauty or pretentious stylization, no explicit “message.” It is this attitude that makes Alÿs’s oeuvre in general so elusive. Where is it really? Is it Alÿs’s performances, even if most often there were no “professional” spectators present there? Or is it the videos? Or are those mere registration?
This straightforwardness opens a hunt for intentions and interpretations. The rudimentary form and “down-to-earth” presentation of the small videos of children’s games can even lead to a kind of distrust, compelling many to search for their “meaning.” Yet the series has no secrets to give away. Alÿs essentially has nothing special to say. The appeal of the Children’s Games results from how they bear witness to a specific response to the world. They are not created in support of this or that belief or conviction. Alÿs’s gaze is attentive, not visionary. Such persistent attentiveness prescribes a certain aesthetic poverty. It results in a resistance to the artistic utility value that defines so much of con- temporary art. Both at the level of the creative process and at the level of interpretation, the Children’s Games traverse the expectations of many viewers. They resist both the anticipated virtuosity of the artist and the sought-after communicability of interpretations and meanings. Moreover, they are made available for free on the website, which makes for an interesting “devaluation.” In a heated art market, exclusivity is fundamental for the work to retain a certain aura and (financial) value. Far from a conceptual masterstroke, this aesthetic poverty is above all the result of a desire for transparency and clarity. The French filmmaker Robert Bresson already distinguished two forms of artistic simplicity: as a “starting-point” and as an “end-product.” Where the first is “sought too soon” and therefore remains vacuous, the second is the “recompense for years of effort.”13 For Alÿs, that second form is of great importance, as demonstrated in the animated film Bolero (Shoeshine Blues) (1999– 2006). In this eight-minute film, we only see a hand polishing a shoe. Alÿs and his team worked on it for no less than eight years.
Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, whose work is an important point of reference for Alÿs, also points out the difference between simplicity and dullness. He substantiates this with a story by Milan Kundera that greatly impressed him. Kundera describes how his father’s lexical range narrowed with age, until at the end of his life only three words remained, which he kept repeating: “It’s strange. It’s strange.”14 Of course, this repetition does not mean that the man did not have anything to say anymore, but rather that he had reached the point where he could express an entire life with one single sentence. Perhaps, Kiarostami concludes, that convergence of simplicity and completeness is the true story behind minimalist aesthetics. This perspective was already behind Kiarostami’s first short film, Nan va Koutcheh [The Bread and Alley] (1970). Kiarostami has called this short film “the mother” of all his films, not only because it was his first film, but also because in miniature form it foreshadows his full body of work. The first images show a boy kicking a can. He wants to go home but runs into an unfriendly-looking dog. Kiarostami thus presents narrativity in its most stripped-down form: a character wants to get from one place to another and stumbles upon an obstacle. Nothing more and nothing less. With Kiarostami, this trajectory has become both the content and the form of the film. For the film as well just moves from a starting point to an ending point. This movement is neither psychological nor plot-driven. Narrativity does not in this case revolve around a character following a complex, emotional trajectory, nor around a causal sequence of events, but around the meticulous recording of an unexpected moment of change. Indeed, in the end, the boy manages to overcome his fear, tempts the dog with a piece of bread, and then continues his walk with the dog. In terms of psychological development or plot structure, nothing extraordinary has happened, but by the end of the film, the child and his world have undergone a transformation: the antagonism between the child and the dog, with which the film had started, has now been undone and overcome in an uncomplicated manner. To effect this change nothing else was needed but a mere piece of bread.
The kinship with Kiarostami’s pared-down narrativity goes far back into Alÿs’s oeuvre. In 1996, Alÿs shot a video in Mexico City with the telling title If You Are a Typical Spectator, What You Are Really Doing Is Waiting for the Accident to Happen. In the video, the cameraman follows an empty plastic bottle that is caught by the wind, blown across a square, occasionally held up, and then continues its journey. The bottle has become the real main character in this film. The film bears many similarities to a late work by Kiarostami, Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003), which is composed of five long minimalist sequences filmed on the Caspian Sea, all focused on the water, almost without camera movement. In the first sequence, we watch a piece of driftwood on the shore being swept along by the waves and all but falling apart. If you are a typical spectator, what you are really doing is waiting for the piece of wood to be smashed by the waves. This work is Kiarostami’s most radical attempt to present narrativity in its reduced form: there is nothing but set-up, anticipation, and outcome.
Kiarostami’s cinema also exerted a particular influence on the Children’s Games. Alÿs has even called this series an attempt to continue Kiarostami’s artistic project.15 In both the Children’s Games and Kiarostami’s films, the objects partly escape human will. They are often propelled by chance or nature, and when it is man who sets them in mo- tion, he can never unilaterally impose his rhythm on them. “You are my polo ball / running before the stick of my command / I am always run- ning along after you, / though it is I who make you move,” Kiarostami quotes the Persian poet Rumi.16 Caracoles, the first installment of the Children’s Games, bears an obvious, visual resemblance to the opening images of The Bread and Alley, and in many of Kiarostami’s other films, too, we see how things are carelessly set in motion by a variety of characters: in Solution (1978), someone rolls a tire down the highway; in the later Close-Up (1990), a spray can goes spinning when a man is kicking it down a steep road. Yet the affinities between Alÿs and Kiarostami are of a more fundamental nature. Alÿs, too, strips narrativity of the ballast of psyche and plot, so as to reduce it to its most basic building blocks. Thus each game can be seen as a specific trajectory to get from a start to an end point, doing so by means of clear rules and agreements that function as obstacles. Like Kiarostami, Alÿs wants above all to catch an unsuspected possibility of change. Children’s Game #23: Step on a Crack (2020) is a wonderful illustration of this. A girl is making her way through the busy streets of Hong Kong, leaping with great strides over the yellow stripes of crosswalks and the joints of paving stones. There is no more to see here than a child moving from one place in the city to another, imposing a number of obstacles on herself. Yet this film, too, revolves around a renewed promise of transformation. With every step she takes, the girl skillfully detaches herself from the world and its limitations: for a split second, over and over again, her feet let go of the ground. Each yellow line or joint she jumps over marks a hurdle that can be taken almost carelessly. Thus Step on a Crack acquires a power of expression that extends far beyond its minimalist appearance. This video tells us as much about a girl at play as about the sense of opportunity, change, and possibility that pulsates along in the urban bustle of a metropolis.
The medium of film occupies a special place in such pared-down narrativity. “Cinema’s realist destiny – and its congenital photographic objectivity – is fundamentally equivocal,” wrote French film critic André Bazin.17 Through its photographic capabilities, film is “of itself” a metaphor for reality. Indeed, the shot creates access to the real and distance from it at the same time. As a medium, it is a form of “immediate” imagery: film is at once literal and figurative. It reflects the world but also re-produces it into and as something else, an image, with one and the same gesture. Perhaps it is therein precisely that lies the undeniable poetic and even social dimension of film, of Alÿs’s oeuvre, and of the Children’s Games in particular. The poetry of the series unfolds as a poetry of definition, a “zero degree poetry.” It arises from the realization that the mere existence of the world should suffice for us to radically rethink it. In other words, there is no need to further burden the world with meaning. Rather than meanings or truths, Alÿs seeks a perspective that illuminates our environment, in one and the same moment, both as it is and as it can become. The child’s gaze is above all that: a combined sense of proximity and distance which, without negating reality in its current shape, always also looks further. It makes us realize that a window is required for whoever wants to retrieve a view of the world. Perhaps that is the true, and only, place of a poetry that does not reveal meanings or truths but gives us novel eyes to experience the world and its possibilities. It is through this form of poetry that the world can be brought out as changeable. The Dutch poet Willem Jan Otten put it this way:
“Perhaps you had to say narratively what poetry is. For example: one December day in 2015, Christmas trees appeared in the Colombian jungle, along the path that led to the hidden headquarters of the terrorist movement FARC. Fully decorated Christmas trees, with angel hair, lights and a spike. With each Christmas tree was a sign: ‘If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Put down your weapons. At Christmas, anything is possible ...’ From this example (which explains that a poem does not necessarily have to be of language) it can be seen that a definition of poetry, especially if it is narrative, can have the character of a creed, you profess that this – Christmas trees in the hostile jungle – is ‘it’. These poems (Christmas trees) I believe.”18
A passage from Walter Benjamin’s autobiographical essays makes us understand why such a form of poetry is indeed linked to childhood and the activity of play. He describes how as a small boy he became fascinated by an extremely banal piece of clothing, a rolled-up stocking, and could not get enough of putting his hand into it as deeply as possible. Again and again he was overcome by the expectation that there was “a little present” hidden inside the stocking. Of course, each time the stocking was unrolled, it turned out that nothing was hidden within it. For Benjamin, though, this moment was by no means disappointing. For it was precisely the unexpected transformation of “a little present” into an ordinary stocking that provided him with the pleasure he was looking for. Indeed, that surprise meant that the stocking itself could now be received as a kind of “present.” “I drew (the anticipated “little present“) ever nearer to me, until something rather startling would happen: I had brought out “the present,” but “the pocket” in which it had lain was no longer there. I could not repeat the experiment on this phenomenon often enough.”19 The little game with the stocking made Benjamin realize that the most insignificant things can be the site of unannounced metamorphoses and innovations. According to him, this experience is characteristic not only of “poetry,” but also of childhood. Children feast on the mere there-ness of things by drawing from them an unexhausted potential. This allows for pure presence to be experienced as “sufficient,” and it cancels out the longing for radically different things or faraway places. “(R)olled up in the laundry hamper, (the stocking) is a “bag” and a “present” at the same time. (C)hildren do not tire of quickly changing the bag and its contents into a third thing – namely, a stocking.”20
In such an experience, the world as a whole offers itself to us as accessible but also “new.” It is this primarily poetic yet multifaceted interaction with the world around us that we find at the heart of the Children’s Games. They have traded the search for extraordinary meanings or deep truths for a sensitivity to repetition. The children’s games in Alÿs’s videos revolve around certain actions and gestures that in most cases are unremarkable but can, and should, be repeated. From the bottle that is kicked up the hill over and over again in Children’s Game #1 to the snowy descents in the recent Children’s Game #33: these children perform the same activity time and again, but the surprise effect and joy remain undiminished. These repetitions go hand in hand with a sense of temporality. Even the most enjoyable play must at some point come to an end. The children are tired – or are tired of it. An argument breaks out, or an adult brings the game to a stop. These interruptions, however, are never final: a game demands to be played over and over again. Children are driven by the desire to invest time again and again with new but identical actions that enable the activity of play as such to remain unexhausted.
This combination of ephemerality and repeatability is duplicated at the level of the medium of video. Unlike paintings, sculptures, or buildings, the duration of a video is unavoidably interrupted and limited in time. Alÿs not only meticulously specifies the duration of each Children’s Game, but the loops in which the videos are viewed, too, cannot but come to an end at some point. At the end of the day, the LED screens in the exhibition space are turned off one by one, and after watching a number of Children’s Games, we close our laptops. The next day, though, the LED screens come back on and our laptop goes back open, and it appears that the videos have undergone no change whatsoever, as if they have become detached from the passage of time. This inability to endure or, expressed positively, the ability to be repeated, is essential to both the children’s games and the Children’s Games. It brings with it an unmistakable fragility. After all, the existence, and survival, of these games, and of these videos, depends entirely on the children who keep repeating them, and on us who keep watching the videos. As a result, both these games and the videos are permanently threatened with extinction. Even so, the repeatability of these games and videos reveals a stubbornness and persistence as well. They manage to thrive on the frayed edges of a globalized world, nestling comfortably within the vast amount of footage that races through the ether at all instants.
- 1Roland Barthes, “The Great Family of Man,” in Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, (London: Vintage, 2000), 101.
- 259th Biennale di Venezia, Francis Alÿs: The Nature of the Game (Berlin: DCV Verlag, 2022).
- 3Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, trans. Carol Stewart, (London: Phoenix Press, 1988) 31.
- 4Ibid. 32.
- 5In the Street (Helen Levitt, 1948)
- 6Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2. The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989) 91.
- 7Ibid., 92.
- 8Ibid., 91–92.
- 9Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka. On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death,” in Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (eds.), Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings. Volume 2. Part 2. 1931–1934, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999) 799.
- 10Walter Benjamin, “Old Forgotten Children’s Books,” in Marcus Bullock & Michael W. Jennings (eds.), Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings. Volume 1. 1913–1926, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 408.
- 11Fernand Deligny (2017). “Les détours de l’agir ou le moindre geste,” in Sandra Alvarez de Toledo (ed.), Fernand Deligny. Oeuvres, (Paris: L’Arachnéen, 2017), 1290. See also Fernand Deligny, “Singulière ethnie,” in Oeuvres, 1472.
- 12Fernand Deligny, “Camérer,” in Oeuvres, 1743.
- 13Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, trans. Jonathan Griffin, (New York: Urizen Books, 1950–1958) 36.
- 14Abbas Kiarostami, “Kiarostami on Ten,” 2002. Retrieved May 5, 2023.
- 15See the interview “Interview with Francis Alÿs and Rafael Ortega, Nov. 9, 2022. On the Children’s Games,” Gerard-Jan Claes and Stéphane Symons, Sabzian, 4 October 2023. Originally from Francis Alÿs. The Nature of the Game, edited by Gerard-Jan Claes and Stéphane Symons (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2023).
- 16Kiarostami, interviewed by Mehrnaz Saeed- Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, in Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa & Jonathan Rosenbaum, Abbas Kiarostami. Expanded Second Edition, (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2003) 72.
- 17André Bazin, “Every Film is a Social Documentary,” trans. Sis Matthé, 1947. Retrieved on May 6, 2023 from Sabzian. Also included in Hervé Joubert-Laurencin (ed.), André Bazin. Écrits complets, (Paris: Macula, 2018)
- 18Willem Jan Otten, Wil je mij poëzie leren?, (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Van Oorschot, 2022) 27. Translation authors.
- 19Walter Benjamin, “The Sock,” In Howard Eiland & Michael W. Jennings (eds.), Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings. Volume 3. 1935–1938, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002) 374. Trans. modified.
- 20Idem. “On the Image of Proust,” in Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland & Gary Smith (eds.), Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings. Volume 2. Part 1. 1927–1930, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999) 240.
This text appeared originally in Francis Alÿs. The Nature of the Game, edited by Gerard-Jan Claes and Stéphane Symons (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2023), available in paperback and OpenAccess.
(1) Children’s Game #1: Caracoles (Francis Alÿs, 1999) | Mexico City, Mexico [Still]
(2) Making of Francis Alÿs, Children’s Game #7: Stick and Wheels (2010) | Bamiyan, Afghanistan [Photo by the artist]
(3) Making of Francis Alÿs, Children’s Game #2: Ricochets (2007] | Tangier, Morocco [Photo by the artist]
(4) Francis Alÿs, Children’s Game #10: Papalote (2011) | Balkh, Afghanistan, 2011 [Still]
All images are courtesy of the artist.