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Francis Alÿs, The Thief 

Launch date: March 11, 1999, Artist Web Projects


For his first project for the web, Alÿs has created an animation, available as a screensaver, as his response to the computer, the network, and the ubiquitous Windows metaphor. The process by which he came to this emblematic clip has been documented in a series of short arguments where Alys investigates the parallels between contemporary interface design and "Alberti's Window," a method of linear perspective drawing encoded and canonized during the early Renaissance through Leon Battista Alberti.

Funding for Dia's series of artists' projects for the web has been provided by the New York State Council on the Arts. Thanks to Pip Day, Steven Dean, Rike Frank, Karen Kelly, Mezcal, Rafael Ortega, Jorge Romo, Kitty Scott, and Sara Tucker.

Special thanks to Cuauhtemoc Medina for his collaboration on "From Alberti to The Thief."

In 2020, this project was reprogrammed in HTML5 because Flash is no longer supported by most browsers. The initial Flash version can be viewed here.

Launch project

Download The Thief screensaver

With his systematization of a one-point perspectival system for illusionistic representation, Leon Battista Alberti offered painters a method of constructing a space that was coherent and cohesive when viewed from a single position: painting thus came to simulate a window onto a world beyond, a fictional yet mimetically convincing milieu. For the Belgian-born artist Francis Alÿs, the momentous influence of Alberti's codification on subsequent methods of visual representation finds a telling contemporary analogue in the spatial tenets embodied in today's ubiquitous electronic technologies. Arguably, Windows 95 may embody and consequently canonize for virtual space much of the revolutionary potential that Alberti's model did for those illusory worlds first limned in the early Renaissance.

Alÿs took this hypothesis as his starting point when invited to make a website project at Dia. For this, his first engagement with the medium of the internet, he has proposed a screen saver, accompanied by an website component that expounds his thesis. Originally devised to prevent the transparency of the computer screen from being blemished by static pixels burning into its surface, the screen saver has become almost anachronistic, a decorative mask, a prelude to entry into the electronic matrix proper.

The Thief presents a black field in which an obliquely angled window gradually is revealed, giving on to pure light. Emerging slowly from the penumbrous foreground recesses, the shadow of a figure approaches the window and nimbly clambers through. Some ambiguity surrounds this exit, however, for the final moments in this sequence can also be read in reverse so that the figure seems to fall forward, dropping out of sight into the uncharted nearer depths.

Shot in film then manipulated for the computer screen, this episode carries within cinematic echoes, which are reinforced by the introduction of a filmstrip as the key to eliciting the texts that amplify Alÿs's thesis within the web component of his artwork. This confirms, retrospectively, the hint that the white frame of the isolated window, prior to the appearance of the figure, should also be read as a movie screen, as a projection in short. Looping at short intervals, the brief action mimics those compulsive, scatter-shot forays into new terrain that have come to characterize browsing in this boundless, immaterial realm.

Trained as an architect, Alÿs turned to a visual arts based practice in the early 1990s as a more immediate, direct, and effective way of exploring issues related to urbanization, to the ordering and signification of urban space and to the semiotics of its use. As in his previous professional undertakings, he continues to prefer to work collaboratively, or when this is not appropriate, to operate within a public arena. For some of his best known works, he initiates a design, which is copied and reworked by a team of trained sign painters in Mexico City, where Alÿs currently lives. Other projects, presented as video projections, have involved making journeys through the city with some appendage or prosthesis conditioning his passage, as he tracks or inscribes a provisional cartography onto its generic forms. When conceiving this piece for Dia, he not only drew on specialists for technical assistance but sought through visual and verbal quotation to engage once more with multiple, related voices and viewpoints.


Francis Alÿs

Francis Alÿs was born in Antwerp in 1959. He lives and works in Mexico City and London.

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