For Alÿs, studying the streets is more than an intellectual parlor game. At its best, his performance recalls the words of the great French writer Georges Perec: “Contrary to the buildings, which almost always belong to someone, the streets in principle belong to no one.” For Perec, as with Alÿs, the contemplation of streets isn’t about streets themselves, so much as it is about the people who inhabit that space, each of whom has as much right to be there as anybody else. The Paradox of Praxis video begins with a shot of the sidewalk, but over its five minutes, you begin to notice the passersby, many of whom are manual laborers carrying heavy loads of their own, and not for art’s sake. Nobody stops to ask the artist what he’s doing with a block of ice—they appear to be numb to the sight of people pushing things here and there, that there seems to be no point in learning more. People can be invisible, Alÿs suggests, in the same sense that streets are; seeing one allows you to recognize the other.
It’s no coincidence that the object Alÿs chose to push through the streets of Mexico City was, quite literally, a white cube—a term coined by Brian O’Doherty to describe the default venue for displaying art. One way of interpreting Paradox of Praxis (and, for that matter, a lot of other artworks that take the street as a subject) is to see it as a conflict between two different ways of thinking about art. On one hand, the white cube view: object-based, institutional, not exactly renowned for its inclusiveness. On the other hand, the street view: transient, unpredictable, populist. While Alÿs’s work can’t be easily reduced to one or the other, you can’t help but notice that after a day of hard work, the streets are still intact, while the white cube is a puddle of water.
It would take another 20 articles, and a couple MAXXI-fulls of art, to address all the ways artists have addressed the streets in their work. Even so, it’s possible to pick out a few recurring features of this kind of art. Performing art in the city streets is utterly different from—and even antithetical to—the typical Western way of displaying art: hanging it in a fancy building and charging people to buy or see it. So it’s not terribly surprising that much of art performed in the streets comes across as a rebuttal to the institutional art world. Consider the artist
, who in 1983 spent a winter’s day selling snowballs on a New York street corner. A photograph from that day shows a passerby studying Hammons’s products, seemingly unaware that she could walk a couple steps away and make her own for free.