Francis Alÿs' Children's Game 10/ Papalote [Kite], 2011

Children’s Games portrays a naive vision of kids at play

Some questionable choices were made in the creation and presentation of Francis Alÿs’s exhibition of videos at the MAC.

I will admit to instantly bristling at the curatorial wall text for Francis Alÿs’s Children’s Games, one promising “life-affirming unity and an implicit and valuable social cohesion.” Both condescending and fascistic, that phrase is unfortunately an apt reflection of the underlying attitude of the videos that comprise Alÿs’s exhibition at the MAC, on until January as part of MOMENTA Biennale de l’image.

Each video in Children’s Games presents children around the world playing. The show proposes “an intimate yet political view of the universal and unifying nature of games.” Yet in order to fulfill this supposedly global thesis, there are some glaring absences in who’s playing, and how.

To begin, with very few exceptions, the children at play are members of the Global South, a decision that smacks of a simplistic invocation of poverty as beauty. The children are incredibly compelling to watch, sure, blithe in the way professional performers dream of, but in their nearly ever-smiling games there is a reek of forced benevolence. Even during a gun game in Baja — depicted in the video “Revolver,” in which kids scamper in sand with gun-shaped pieces of driftwood — no one resorts to rule-breaking violence outside the bounds of the game.

None of the games portrayed are even as brutal as Red Rover, dread of thin-armed children everywhere. No, just marbles and skipping rope and a game of hide and seek that only hints at violence, where boys in Juarez use shards of glass to “hit” with light. Like some international Boyhood, Alÿs seems to have sought out innocence and therefore found it, obfuscating difference, hostility and intrigue along the way.

Children’s Games proposes a different, less bleak take on globalization, but if this is an attempt at a global perspective, why did Alÿs choose to omit all team sport (competitive?) and all games played alone (depressing?) and all games involving technology? Surely for every child playing with a kite, building a sandcastle or skipping stones, there is at least one child engaged in basement first-person-shooter bloodshed, or at least hours deep in some multi-person computer game with a network of avatars/friends in places like Seoul and rural Nebraska? I suspect these games are excluded because to broaden the scope of his footage would render the world of Children’s Games less narrowly whimsical, its view of “humanism” more ambiguous and fraught. 

This is too bad, because Alÿs has a nice cinematic eye and an obvious ease with his subjects, all of which could have contributed to a more nuanced portrayal of what play can mean. Watching children giggle and hit a piñata of Superman, I thought, ah, we’re approaching a metaphor here, but one that’s too tenuous to bear scrutiny.  

One final nagging question about Children’s Games, addressed to the MAC: When you decide to show time-based work, aka videos, is there a reason you don’t have adequate seating? Is there some aesthetic impulse that makes you think nine school stools are sufficient for visitors trying to watch 16 videos? What happened to those black upholstered stools (of which there were still critically too-few) that you used for Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto? Did the artist decree that even the most able-bodied gallery-goers should uncomfortably fidget and daydream about their knee-alignment instead of focussing on the videos in front of them? Is this wanton inconsiderateness, callous ableism or some bizarre sadistic urge? All of the above? Please find it in your hearts and budget to get more seating already. ■

Children’s Games continues at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (185 Ste-Catherine W.) until Jan. 5, $6$15, free for children under 12 and MAC members. See here for the full pricing breakdown.