The Public Poems of Alain Arias-Misson
An introduction

Alain Arias-Misson is the inventor of the Public Poem, a form of urban poetry which he experimented with for the first time in Belgium in 1966, and perfected a year or so later in Spain, where he met the philosopher and poet, Ignacio Gomez de Liano, and entered into contact with the Zaj group. In the view of the poet the Public Poems were an extension of Visual Poetry, the movement he had been involved with in the early sixties – but in an extra-ordinary context. Suffice it to say these were actions outside any artistic and esthetic context linked to the ordinary world of art. It was an absolutely autonomous and singular project which succeeded in bringing Visual Poetry into the Street with an impulse witch was addressed to the polis.
In its specifity, the Public Poem s absolutely different from performance and from the happening. It consisted of a new form of artistic action, with its own well-defined characteristics.
In the performance, the artist performs a sequence of significant actions designed to convey a preestablished and univocal message of the artist himself. Bit is characterized by four basic elements: time, space, the body of the artist and the relationship between artist and audience; the performance is an artistic form in which the action of the subject, in a particular place and at a particular time constitute the work. Performances are constituted, develop, and acquire artist value, only if they are closely bound to the artistic and esthetic context which they refer to.
The happening, conceived of by Allan Kaprow in 1959 (18 Happening in 6 Parts, New York) is an action in which chance is preponderant. Following a pre-established sequence of actions, the artist brings the participants to intervene, thus creating a state of shared creativity which is not predictable before it actually begins. "The happening is a form of theater in which various alogical elements, including the stage action deprived of any matrix, are deliberately assemble together and organize in a compartmental structure."(1) Chance plays a preponderant role even if it is a provoked chance and, to some extent, controlled. As Kaprow himself underlines, the happening is not spontaneous.(2)
In both cases the central reference of the actions is the artistic-cultural context. Performances and happenings are reflected and they derive their meaning from within art venues: galleries, festivals, museums. A performance or a happening, abstracted from their context of reference, would become sterile, and at times banal, actions. Only their contextualization in the art world gives them value and makes possible their enjoyment as characteristic elements of certain avant-garde movements.
The Public Poem on the contrary is an action which finds its ideal venue in the public square, in particular urban spaces characterized by a concentrated human presence: metropolitan, streets, etc. The Public poem tears the textual fabric of the city in a specific place, making use of precise elements of the street (traffic, monuments, commercial and financial institutions, the flow of people) as the semantic/syntactic underpinning of an organic text which emerges contextually from the breaks and cracks produced in the city-text (traffic, police, etc.).
With a point of departure from Henri Lefebvre's writings in the sixties, Arias-Misson saw the city as a subject of history, that is a place of production and meditation. The city is the place of human encounter and of a simultaneity of signs, a linguistic system. The intervention of the artist is designed to render the city-text readable. So what is enacted is the revelation of a linguistic and syntactic structure through an essential work of punctuation as in the Punctuation of Pamplona Public Poem of 1970.
The city furthermore is an accumulation of multistratified significant structures. Every monument carries several messages: historical, touristic, artistic, economic, political etc. Hence the poet also acts through a choice of various linguistic levels which are conveyed by putting into play a set of substitutions which broadens the possible readings. A polyhedron freed by poetry.
This is the sense in which one of the first Public Poems done by Arias-Misson should be read: A Madrid in 1968. In this action, seven actors (as in act, not in theater), one of whom Arias-Misson, each with a human-sized letter from the title of the action, moved through the streets of Madrid producing a series of permutations of the title’s letters conceived in close association with the character of the place in which they found themselves. This itinerant action touched upon various symbolic sites of the Spanish capital, playing on the relation between the message of the text embodied by the human actors and that of the monument chosen as a site of the action. In a time when Spain was still dominated by Franco, and public action was unheard of, the seven actors succeeded in “writing” ARMA (weapon) in front of the entrance of the Parliament.
The play on the simultaneity of signifiers is rendered concrete and becomes legible thanks to the presence of the parliament as place of political administration and the exercise of power. The clear-cut of accusation, political and estranging with respect to the dictatorship, was quickly permuted to AMAR (love) by the team as the Guardia Civil followed behind them – liberating a poetic afflatus legible as aspiration an irony.
The Public Poem is defined by Arias-Misson as “a street libido” in order to underline the subversive and liberating pulsation of this action. The appropriation by the poet and his collaborators of the city space always releases a powerful charge of provocation (collisions with the traffic or the forces of order were not uncommon) as well as radically estranging. Public spaces once again become a place of encounter, thought and exchange.
But the most interesting aspect is the sense of play and fun that these actions bring about. Arias-Misson always manages to involve his co-participants in a sort of itinerant festival, a playful hilarity which quickly spreads like a virus even to the public which, in spite of itself, becomes involved and infected by this jovial-hysterical poetic representation. Arias-Misson is a sort of imp, of mocking genie, of an up-dated Harlequin. It is a masque of commedia dell’arte which promenades through the city and which, thanks to its speech-balloons, stages an exuberant, surreal, improbably poetic farce.
The Public Shamanic Chapel Sistine Poem surely was a supreme example of this quality, and which I had the honor to participate in. A true and authentic Farce, organize by Arias-Misson (and made possible through the support of the much-regretted Francesco Conz), in which fourteen actors bluff their way through the discrete but thorough surveillance of the Vatican Museums in order to subvert the recent encyclical of John Paul II, by enacting a Public Poem in the Sistine Chapel in 1990. This was an exhilarating action, culminating in the precipitant race of the participants through the halls of the Museum in an attempt to escape the (discretely) armed guards who intervened only at the end of the action. Beyond the amusement with which I recall it, I think this action allows us to analyze, as paradigmatic example, the constitutive elements characteristic of the Public Poem.
First of all the choice of the Sistine Chapel, temple of Christianity, center of influence of the Roman Catholic Church. In a word. The point of maximum expression of the catholic vision of the world, magnificently illustrated by the frescos which adorn the entire space. A space, public like that of all Public Poems, widely known and dense with significant stratifications: characteristics which made it the perfect site and which offered multiple interpretations.
In the second place the action: the fourteen actors, each arriving independently at the pre-determined point directly below the fresco The Creation of Adam, reproducing the same number of characters as in the painting, created on the floor a mirror “tableau vivant” of the fresco on the ceiling. Recreating the structure of The Creation of Adam by collapsing on the floor in the same attitudes as the figures in the painting forced the several hundred members of the public to break with the normal “nose in the air” posture of this space, in other words obliging people to break with the “orthogonal” vision (in reference to Paul Virilio, read and admired by Arias-Misson) of ratio-religious man inscribed in the humanist architecture of the Chapel – to look downwards for the first time in five centuries! The action in this case also was powerfully political and disturbing, exasperated by the masks worn by the actors on the floor and by the sound effects (broadcast from small loud-speakers concealed under the cloak worm by Arias-Misson). The masks came from the shamanic religions (ever a central interest of Arias-Misson) crushed or eliminated through the dissemination of Catholicism (and Protestantism, and Islam) throughout the “primitive” world (Maya, Aboriginal, Animist, Siberian, American Indian) and the sound-effects came from animated animal films. The masks underlined the violence and prevarication of organized religion and in particular the Encyclical of John Paul II regarding revelation through the great religious holy writings (and without any reference of the “unwritten” religions: the “gravitas” of the fall of the actors to the floor represented the shamanic daimons of the earth in direct contrast to the celestial religion floating on the ceiling of the Chapel, and the animal cries referred to the prelinguistic animalist utterances of the shaman: language and act and posture and place tightly entwined. The wildness of the animated animal sounds exalted the mocking, farcical tenor, true nucleus of the Public Poem as such.
In the third place: unpredictability. Everybody present was astonished by the suddenness of execution of the action. To begin with, the guards gaping, unable to see what was happening over the backs of the hundreds around the group, were slow to react (Arias.Misson’s theory that during fifteen minutes he can do anything he wants!). The Japanese tourist on the other hand were quick to film the entire event. The disarray momentarily created in the Sistine Chapel was symptomatic of the Public Poem and contributed to convey the subversive message which the action sought: like the improvised slap-stick of the chase at the end which entered fully into the construction of the emerging text.
These elements in their essence are present in all the Public Poems enacted by Arias-Misson over the last half-century, and they constitute the specificity, the originality and the absolute uniqueness of these poetic actions. The city, or a place similarly dense with signifiers, constitutes an enormous linguistic structure upon which this visual poet, in the best tradition of the movement, exercizes his semiological guerilla and subverts its implicit messages.
Dicembre 2010
Patrizio Peterlini
(Text translated and edited by Alain Arias-Misson)

1 - Michael Kirby - Happening - De Donato Editore, Bari, 1968 - pag. 28
2 - Allan Kaprow - Una dichiarazione - in Michael Kirby - Happening - Op. Cit. - pag. 73