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The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project
Colin Marshall

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23. Francis Alÿs' When Faith Moves Mountains (2002)
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This is less a piece of video art on the displacement-by-volunteer of a big Peruvian sand dune than a mini-documentary on the displacement-by-volunteer of a big Peruvian sand dune. Though I do find the effort itself fascinating, there isn't much going on here in the form department. It's footage of the preparation, footage of the process, interviews with participants and shots of the gaunt, none-too-in-place-looking AlØs staring up at the immobile dune that is his rival.

Should I stop right here? Is it my place to comment on the project documented, or should The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project concern itself only with the specifically audiovisual elements of these pieces, or go further? I suppose I could spill a healthy amount of digital ink on some of When Faith Moves Mountains' most striking images, but it won't mean much without context.

In order to move the dune, AlØs and his collaborators recruited 500 locals, many of whom seem to be college students, to don identical t-shirts, form a line and slowly advance across it, shoveling all the way. The video gives a final dune-displacement distance of 10cm, which is small enough to be plausible. Provided a close look at the line's actual technique, though, it's still somewhat difficult to believe. But hey, it ain't about literally getting an enormous pile of sand from one place to another, very similar place; it's about mobilizing the humanity and firing the will to give it a shot.

The "faith" of the title seems ambiguous. This is South America, yes, and I understand a certain amount of religion goes on there, but direct references to god in the video are few, if there are any at all. (And AlØs himself is a Belgian, one of those nationalities that I just can't picture doing anything god-y in this day and age.) The faith could equally be faith in oneself and one's collaborators to pull off neato art stunts, or, as Tao Lin said, "doing really 'retarded' things in order to relieve boredom, like buying a large billboard on Houston street and putting a hamster drawing on it."

Plus, they also created something that is, aesthetically speaking, pretty damn cool. At one point, someone mentions the purely geometrical difficulty of getting a line to move over the surface of a cone, but the striking picture of a thin, white-and-blue (most of the diggers wear jeans) arc gradually crossing a vast brownness as hazy sand clouds blow across turns out to have been well worth the blood, sweat and sandpants.

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