My wife and sometime collaborator Stephanie Burke and I recently completed a 140-mile walk as a perforance piece called “Walking to Mordor.” The walk was based on an Easter egg introduced in Google Maps three years ago: if you asked it for walking directions from “The Shire” to “Mordor,” instead of the usual “Walking directions are in beta” warning, a pop up announced, “Caution: One Does Not Simply Walk Into Mordor.” The line is Boromir’s, from The Fellowship of the Ring. Ignoring his naysaying, the two hobbits Sam and Frodo proceed to do exactly that.
The line, as spoken in the 2001 film, spawned an Internet meme which consisted of a still image of Boromir, hand in mid gesture, coupled with a line of text reading, “One does not simply…” followed by whatever the author wished to decry. Instances date back to at least 2004. In 2011, Google Maps joined the party by adding the Easter egg to their walking directions. Along with the warning, however, Google actually did provide a map and directions, from a restaurant called “The Shire,” in Chehalis, Washington, to a tattoo shop called “Mordor Tattoo,” in Arlington, Washington, 138 miles away.
When I showed Stephanie the joke, she mentioned that, coincidentally, she has family in Chehalis, and had spent some time there growing up. It didn’t take long for us to decide that it would be fun, and funny, to take Google Maps’ directions at face value, and walk the route. Almost immediately thereafter we realized we had to commemorate the journey by getting tattoos at Mordor, and that the tattoos should be of the map of the route. We documented the project with a series of photographs called “Instagram vs. Holga.” Stephanie, a trained photographer, shot on the cult classic crappy medium format film camera, while I, with no more than a couple of undergraduate photography classes under my belt, used my phone’s camera and the everyman’s favorite app.
As has happened with more than one previous project, we didn’t set out to make art. Our process is more often that we have an idea for something we’d like to do, and then, almost against our wills, we realize that it is starting to look quite a bit like art. Or at least like things that other people call art. And certainly, going for a long walk has quite a history as a form of performance art. It has spawned books, blogs, and even a society. Well-known examples include Francis Alÿs,Regina José Galindo, Simon Faithfull.
The history of walking as a form of performance art can never be severed from its history as a form of protest. Galindo’s 2003 walk from the Congress of Guatemala to the National Palace, her feet dipped in blood to leave red footprints, was intended as a protest against Guatemala’s former dictator, José Efraín Ríos Montt. Montt had formerly led a military regime known for widespread human rights abuses, and at the time of Galindo’s performance was running for President in a democratic election.
Not all of those who have walked in protest have identified as artists. Perhaps the most famous example, internationally, is Ghandi’s Salt March or Salt Satyagraha. By directly and pointedly disobeying a British law against domestic salt production in India (forcing Indians to buy imported British salt), the march essentially started what became the international Civil Disobedience Movement.
Inspired by Ghandi, A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march itself covered barely more than a mile, from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, though the 250,000 participants (60,000 of them white) had traveled from much farther away by bus, rail, and plane. Some spent 20 or more hours on buses traveling as far as 750 miles. Two years later, voting rights activists marched 54 miles, from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery. The Selma to Mongomery marches are commemorated by a National Historic Trail.
America’s racial history (obviously still in the making) continues to inspire performance artists. In 2009 I reviewed Meg Onli’s Underground Railroad project for Art Talk Chicago. (Five years later, her work holds up better than my early efforts at writing.) Presented as part of Twelve Galleries Project and curated by Jamilee Polson (who is also this blog’s managing editor), Onli’s project consisted of her retracing, on foot, the route of the Underground Railroad: a 440-mile journey, in Meg’s words, “in search of blackness.”
Exploring another form of blackness entirely, Chicago-based curator Amelia Ishmael co-edits Helvete, a journal of Black Metal theory, in the first issue of which was published David Prescott-Steed’s “Frostbite On My Feet: Representations of Walking In Black Metal Visual Culture.” (If you’d like to read the article for yourself, the entire journal is presented for free, as a downloadable PDF, at the above link. A print edition, also available, is well worth the price.) “Frostbite” tracks a few reference points linking walking with Black Metal culture. Principally, it finds the common ground between a grueling trek into the Norwegian tundra, led by Gaahl (former Gorgoroth frontman), and the author’s own experience walking the mundane streets of an Australian metropolis while listening to Burzum:
In this case, “blackened walking” is seen to be less about the activity of walking itself and more about the circumstances under which one can move through space—walking not just for the sake of exercise, pleasure, or getting to the shops on time. With the modern world (invested in trains, planes, and automobiles), the slow, simplicity of a walk (Walking? How pedestrian!) seems to have lost some of its value. However, walking is capable of bringing one’s focus back to a fundamental question of what a body physically needs to do in order to transition through, and therefore go on, in the world. Perhaps mourning the forgetting of the existential significance of walking, “blackened walking” pays respects to walking as the chance to explore self-determination and a readiness for the unknown.
We hadn’t conceived of the “Walking To Mordor” project initially in terms of its connection to Black Metal, but as we walked, Prescott-Steed’s phrase “blackened walking” echoed in my mind. The connection, however ephemeral, clarified itself in my mind as I looked over Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth, and researched his languages. Two of the bands mentioned in “Frostbite” take their names from Tolkien’s writing. Gorgoroth is an arid plateau in the northwest corner of Mordor, surrounding Mount Doom; the name comes from Sindarin (the Gray Elven tongue) and means “dreadful horror.” The name of another band, Burzum, means “darkness” in the Black Speech of Mordor.
Far from the tradition of protest marches, whether as performance art or otherwise, “Walking To Mordor” was in some was a playful exploration of what happens when a joke is taken 138 miles too far. A linguist became an author. His book became a movie. The movie spawned a joke. The joke became a meme. The meme became an Easter Egg embedded in the principal means by which Americans today naviage their world. With every breath spitting in the face of Alfred Korzybski, originator of the phrase, “the map is not the territory,” most of us today confuse a glance at Google Maps, followed by a drive in the car, with exploration. We think of distances first in minutes of driving, or hours of flight. The landmarks we note are gas stations and Starbucks locations. Google Maps has become the average person’s understanding of the world. Moreover, our culture is becoming one of remakes and mashups. References have taken the place of wit: “that’s clever” has been replaced with “I have heard that before.” Tolkien has been reduced, in the public imagination, to the origin of nerd-chic Internet memes, and we have tried in our way to be true to his work by dragging a piece of derivative humor, kicking and screaming, into meatspace.
As I mentioned yesterday, there is a great performance festival taking place called IN>TIME. Organized by artist Mark Jeffrey,Â IN>TIME features both international and local artists exhibiting in 14 diverse venues across the city between the months of January and March. Bad at Sports will be posting a mini-series of interviews and essays about this festival, including an upcoming interview with Mark Jeffrey himself. This particular post is dedicated to two concurrent exhibits atÂ threewallsÂ that are also part of Jeffrey’s festival. On January 11th,Â Mary Patten’s performance/sound/video installation,Â PanelÂ opened in the main space.Â Mathew Jinks’ began screening his new 73 minute, single-channel HD video,Â The Unreliable Narrator,Â in the project space. While these artists are distinct from one another, exhibiting independent projects, I was interested in facilitating a conversation between them, particularly as both negotiate film, performance, history and collaboration. These exhibits will be on view until February 23rd, with an artist talk from Jinks on January 31st at 7pm,Â as well asÂ a performance,Â SCHIZO CULTURE: A Collaborative Reading, and publication release of the catalogue associated with PANEL.Â On February 9th, there will be another performance,Â SCHIZO PANEL,Â at 7 PM.
Caroline Picard:Â You both call on speculative fiction in your respective projects. What does it mean for each of you to employ the fantastic?Â
Mathew Jinks: The idea of alternate histories is very resonant for me, not necessarily in the reconstruction of various alternative spaces, but aiding in imagining that sense of an â€˜otherâ€™ space that can be inhabited by a narrative. Fictive narratives do not interest me. They seem too comfortable as a source of abstract inventionÂ in some way,Â which I see as an escape from reality and a dead end street; a more complex and evocative device for me is to sow seeds of doubt, to introduce situations and characters with a set of dynamics which have been loaded from the start and see how they play out. The origination in my practice was at the point of departure from personal histories and the evolution of expansive political histories.
Mary Patten:Â Mathewâ€™s articulation ofÂ alternate histories,Â his desire toÂ â€œsow seeds of doubt,â€ the leaking or trespassing of â€œpersonalâ€ histories into the territory of â€œthe politicalâ€ are all-compelling to meâ€¦ and describe sensibilities or impulses that have shaped my own work for many years. Itâ€™s very difficult, maybe even pointless, to draw an easy divide between â€œfactâ€ and â€œfiction,â€ despite persistent claims of â€œobjective journalismâ€ or â€œscientific truth.â€ This is well-trodden territory: what â€œweâ€ (in the most capacious sense) collectively and cumulatively â€œknowâ€ is subject to constant revision and reconstruction. We understand that â€œfacticityâ€ doesnâ€™tÂ equal truth, and that what passes as fiction is not a series of falsehoods. One of the oldest cultural practices, the oral tradition â€” often taking the form of what we call fables or myths â€” has been a crucial element in constructing â€œhistory.â€ And yet â€œtelling storiesâ€ is still a euphemism for telling lies.
â€œSpeculativeâ€ introduces the possibility of wonder, a wandering imagination, the work of invention to heal or bridge inescapable gaps in any historical record. It is a kind of affective, archaeological process to make empirically un-provable connections between obscure, unknown or little-known histories. â€œSpeculativeâ€ need not connote the fantastical, however â€” at least not in the â€œspectacularâ€ sense. These words are funnyâ€¦ so interconnected, but full of paradoxes.
In the case ofÂ Panel,Â I was drawn to an obscure transcript, photocopied many-times over, given to me by the only participant still living, my friend Judith Clark,Â herself a survivor of a barely-remembered radical history, serving a 75-to-life sentence in Bedford Hills prison in New York State. (Judyâ€™s story deserves its own independent telling; I would ask readers to please check out judithclark.org.)
Judyâ€™s memory of the â€œpanel on prisons and asylumsâ€ at Schizo Culture is that the three men â€“ Foucault, Harp, and Laing â€“ did most of the talking. Thatâ€™s contradicted by the transcript, which is itself very odd, characterized by breaks and ellipses. We know from SylvÃ¨re Lotringerâ€™s accounts that the entire Schizo Culture conference was rife with outbursts and interruptions, including this panel discussion, although thatâ€™s not evident in the transcription.
In attempting to re-stage a little-known but somewhat exotic event, I wanted to resist any impulse to reconstruct or â€œnarrativizeâ€ the episode in any kind of â€œrealisticâ€ way. I didnâ€™t want a performance designed to dissolve the distance between the â€œoriginalâ€ event and its contents, both very marked by that moment of the mid 1970s, and yet eerily (and depressingly) prescient of our current traumas of the â€œsocieties of controlâ€: diagnosis, punishment, imprisonment, and torture. I didnâ€™t want to blend or unify these four amazing characters and social actors, two of whom (Foucault and Laing) possess an iconicity shimmering with all kinds of aura, with the people reading and inhabiting their words now. I am compelled byÂ bothÂ the â€œconnectsâ€ and â€œdisconnects.â€
CP: You share an interest in collaboration, but also work independently.Â How do you negotiate the role of an author who is also dedicated to fostering relationships in your work?Â
MJ: I have always felt uncomfortable in a lonely practice, with the idea of the studio Artist who appears after years of hermetic work with a portfolio under the arm. I began working for other artists in Chicago because I had always been a part of a DIY scene which to me was about skill sharing and enabling others to achieve their goals whilst you achieved yours, doing this I witnessed the evolution of a work through multiple creative minds first hand and this stayed with me. I introduce performers and artists into my works to have them re-interpret my ideas, for them to take the work in directions unknown to myself or to the work. It is quite stressful in many ways to work with others, although I am not precious about my projects I do have creative demands and I like to try to keep the overall affect of the work under my thumb. In return I try hard to become a tool for them to use, whether I am recording sound as I did for Maryâ€™s Piece, working as a Cameraman for Kirsten Leenars, or doing sound for Melika Bass. I simply try to gel with the process at hand.
The most important elements of my practice that I feel need to be under my control I will do myself, The Unreliable Narrator was shot, edited and mixed by myself, with voiceover recordings, studio shoots, post image production all done in my studio. I decided to use a colorist to step up my game a little and he really did a great job, I wanted some animation work for the chapter titles and again I used a great animator Han Han Li â€” the big key for this work was to employ a Producer, Parveer Singh Sohal. Without Parveerâ€™s connections in India the work would not exist, so that was an integral decision. I needed access. But Parveer is not a Producer, he is a Graphic Designer and so there were many discussions about what I needed and what he was bringing to the project.
MP: Mathewâ€™s discomfort with the notion of a lonely, hermetic studio practice and artistic identity is of course very much in sync with my own ideas, feelings, and historyâ€¦ although not without risks â€”Â losing oneself in the collective, for example. A good friend who shares a similar collaborative history once commented that itâ€™s possible that no one will know or remember that her labor and creativity helped form some of these projects, since individual authorship is so often dissolvedâ€¦ Iâ€™m obviously not talking here about the art worldâ€™s current embrace of â€œrelational practicesâ€ and the career building that goes along with that. But as Iâ€™ve said elsewhere, I continue to be drawn to collaborative ways of working, such as the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project, because itâ€™s urgently needed, and impossible to realize by a single or even a handful of authors. Most importantly, collaborations embody the kind of collective labor and passion necessary to any project thatâ€™s trying to makeÂ change.
As you, Caroline, and Mathew make very clear, the project of film and videomaking, like so many art forms, isÂ necessarilyÂ collaborativeâ€¦ Chris Marker makes this point beautifully during the ending credits of â€œGrin without a catâ€ which he dedicates to the anonymous and unnamed artists and technicians without whose clips, shots, sequences, and documents that epic film would have never been realized, seen, or distributed. To that point, I would like to acknowledge the thoughtful labor, participation, and support of performers Darrell Moore, Mikal Shapiro, Matthias Regan, andÂ Mark Jeffery; Directors of Photography Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke; Mathew for such great sound engineering; Alex Brown for assisting with camera; Ilan Gutin for helping with the large prints; and the lovely, hardworking, and brilliant Joey Carr who has worked as producer, compositor, and hardware/software engineer.
CP: You call on various histories, whether philosophical or psychological traditions, fortune telling traditions, Â â€” is it possible to collaborate with disciplines? Or do you think about the way you engage those traditions differently?
MJ: This is a wonderful question; tradition by nature is a stubborn legacy and confronting it head on is an antagonistic strategy. If you lay the threads down together: personal history and its discipline of remembrance, familial oral history, musical traditions as in Jazz, Cheiromancy, Homeopathy, Metallurgy, then these lines will touch and intersect like magnets picking up each other. It is a naÃ¯ve want to reshape these lines to any sort of permanence. I think of Francis Alys work,Â The Collector â€”Â with the magnet on wheels that he pulls behind him collecting metal from the street as he goes â€” the street will fill up once again with shards and paperclips. Francis creates a moment of being present, and itâ€™s this re-presenting and laying down with traditions in new almost aleatoric ways.
MP: I consider myself a visitor, a curious student, an interloper or trespasser in many disciplines, an auto-didact, or rather someone who has learned from many teachers and texts, â€œnegativeâ€ as well as exemplaryâ€¦
CP:Â How do you all think of beginnings and endings? Are those narrative touchstones useful to you?Â
MJ:Â No, I instinctively move away from creating narrative structure, arcs and so forth. I find the idea of conclusion quite arrogant in non-fiction. The episodic device is interesting because it introduces the idea of the â€˜false startâ€™, or the hidden track at the end of an album, or the prologue as in Bergman’s Persona, or â€˜rewindâ€™ in Jamaican dance hall, the stutter. This is why gallery installations are so useful: people enter and leave as they wish; this is a very considered position for my work, the ideal position.
MP:Â There are no real beginnings. Weâ€™re always starting in the middle, picking up someone elseâ€™s traces and tracksâ€¦ For me, in the realm of ideas, relationships, as well as many projects over the years, there are so many interruptions and breaksâ€¦ things are â€œleft for nowâ€ and unfinished or deferred. I find it much more habitual to abandon something, rather than â€œendâ€ it. Like Mathew, I am drawn to the episodic, to â€œfalse startsâ€ and â€œstuttersâ€â€¦ but when Mathew talks about resisting narrative arcs, I think he is perhaps referring to â€œmainstreamâ€ or what we used to call â€œHollywood narrative cinemaâ€â€¦ for me, there are so many wonderful, rich and complicated examples of â€œnarrative fictionâ€ that escape these constraints â€“ the films of Robert Bresson and Chantal Akerman, for example, but also so many more â€“ in cinema and literature, in expanded forms of the essay, in experimental non-fiction and media formsâ€¦
CP:Â How do you conceive of utopia? Is such a thing possible? Is it a condition of being? Or a place?Â
MJ:Â More than a construct, a Modernist ideal, pathological, LSD induced? I never conceive of utopia. Utopia and dystopia to me are devices, but they are not very interesting devices. They suggest spaces of utter happiness or utter sadness and isnâ€™t that a psychological state? Bi-Polar? There is no tension in these extreme spaces and it is too easy to create heroics from such static dynamics. This is exactly what popular culture thrives on. The fine-line-in-betweens, and the slippage that occurs within those minimal gradations is what art production responds to. The Â entertainment industry responds to thoseÂ other extremes. Even in a spiritual sense â€” in Buddhism, for instance, elements are in a balance, whereas in cults, the utopian ideals are offset by the leader sexually prowling its herd for ultimate control. Conceiving of utopia maybe undermines an art making practice? Desire is a more interesting space to work from for me. It has the same goal as utopia â€” the perfect space â€” but it is much more psychologically complex. Desire is fixated on process, and the moment. There is presence in desire without conclusion.
MP:Â Unlike Mathew, I donâ€™t think that utopian impulses can be reduced to mere devices, or that they areÂ necessarilyÂ tied to dangerous heroic narrativesâ€¦ maybe this is just a difference of language, because I find that his conception of desire as a transformative force is very akin to what I would call utopian longings.
Until fairly recently, itâ€™s been fashionable to dismiss â€œutopiaâ€ because of its attachment to so many terrible and failed agendas that promised brave new worlds and then delivered totalitarianisms. We know now that we should dislike and mistrust master narratives, totalities of certainty, and teleological schemes. However, I am drawn to utopian impulses not just because I was formed through my engagement with them â€“ to the point of political lunacy, perhaps â€“ but also perversely because they have been a despised or at best suspect category for so long.
Contemporary social movements and revolts against globalized capital, the fleeting â€œoccupys,â€ the movements of the squares, the queer utopias of so many interesting artists today, all embody what people call â€œprefigurative politicsâ€: â€œBeÂ the change you want to make.â€ The emphasis is on the here and now,Â againstÂ telos, embracing not only possibility, but doubt. Recognizing that we, and all matter, is/are in a constant state of becoming, that small and invisible shifts and changes are always (potentially) occurring, whether or not they are seen or recognizedâ€¦ this is what intrigues and provokes me. Brian Massumi is an extremely useful thinker and writer here.
Paradoxically, thereâ€™s a lot of interest in reclaiming utopian thinking now because of how hopeless and scary the world has become, how reduced and flattened to information, to bits and bytes everything seemsâ€¦ and all the ways that capitalism forecloses the imagination and desire, except as an instrument of and for the commodity, no pleasure outside of consumptionâ€¦ or the deadliness of an actuarial life, with its endless assessment debits and creditsâ€¦
CP:Â What does it mean to come from somewhere? What role does memory play in that reality?
MJ:Â The transition is interesting, to come from somewhere to go to somewhere else, and the translation from one meaning to another. There is a great deal of nostalgia and longing for previous inhabited spaces, especially if you have been formed by them in some way; that complicates memory. A new space can act as a lens from which to view the previous space and this is truly a unique position. You no longer belong to that place but the memories are attached to you, somehow the filtration from one’s current position gives a sober screen. I think it is essential but painful, and again that tension of knowing you need separation while at the same time being in touch with a sense of longing is the drive for this â€˜otherâ€™ space to be imagined in my work.
MP:Â Again, we return to the problem of originsâ€¦Years ago, I made a piece provoked by Courbetâ€™s â€œThe Origin of the World.â€ I was very influenced by Linda Nochlinâ€™s pivotal essay on that infamous painting, and the difficulty, if not impossibility, of locating an originary point â€” whether in relationship to that picture, which existed in several versions, disappeared, and re-surfaced over a long stretch of timeâ€¦ as well as the funny ridiculousness of imagining the universal vulva-cunt as the origin of us all, the Great Motherâ€¦ how much better to use the term â€œbeaverâ€? or just ordinary womenâ€™s names: a succession of beaversâ€¦
A more recent project was instigated by theÂ notes, translated from Arabic into English, allegedly written by Mohammed Atta in preparation for the hijackings and attacks of September 11, 2001.Â When I read these, all sorts of problems immediately presented themselves. Was this an actual document? Were the notes, in fact, â€œfoundâ€? or were they a fiction, invented to â€œproveâ€ a rationale as incomprehensible as the acts that followed? Was this a reliable translation?
The idea that translation is often slippery and inexact, and sometimes impossible, is widely acknowledged. Yet we like to pretend that complete transparency is within our reach, that vast differences of culture, language, and history can be breached, if only the right tools, technologies, and â€œmindsetsâ€ are available. And translation, like everything else, has undergone a renewed politicization in this ever-encapsulated world.
In a lot of my work, I explore spaces and distances between a â€œhereâ€ and a â€œthere,â€ a presumed â€œcenterâ€ and its â€œperiphery,â€ to work off the grid to the point of falling off a map completely. I work with images drawn from public, although possibly ephemeral archives â€“ things like newspapers, outtakes, margins of the marginsÂ â€“ to fictionalize them, at the same time as undermining the authority of â€œauthenticâ€ or alleged autobiography. Like Mathew, Iâ€™m preoccupied with the instability of memory,Â very enamored of the idea, the necessity of the unreliable narratorâ€¦ or the mute, opaque, or invisible one.
There is a fox in the museum. It is the only thing that moves in the whole space: is this why the fox’s presence is so striking? Because it alone is unpredictable within the camera frame? Because it might do something to the paintings? No one else is present. Nighttime is inferred. The title of this work The NightwatchÂ suggests some kind of threat. Perhaps we are witnessing footage from anÂ apocalypse. More likely, the museum is just closed. The stillness of the room adds to the potency of our fox. It passes like a shadow through the National Portait Gallery â€” the only representative of flesh and blood. It doesn’t notice the fine work hung on its bounding walls. And why should it? It has no relation to these figures, or at least it didn’t before it entered the museum. It stops and pokes its head through what might be a fireplace. Looking for a way outside? When one discovers a mouse in a high rise apartment, one imagines an unknown, or secret, exit. One, perhaps, not built to the human scale. In the case of our fox, the artist is the entrance and the exit. This is the fox of Francis AlÃ¿s â€” the man who ties magnets to his feet and walks around Mexico City collecting metal. He has similarly pushed a giant block of ice around until it melted to a nub the size of a stone. There must have been a crook in his back by then. He also chases tornadoes and has lead a flock of sheep around a city square like a Pied Piper. The Nightwatch Â was one of seven works commissioned by London-based Artangel, wherein AlÃ¿sÂ was asked to make work in response to the city. I saw a striking video at PS1 last summer that was part of this same series, in which AlÃ¿sÂ videoed the English guard marching, at first alone, though the deserted city, and then slowly finding one another, growing every more comfortable as their number grew. The sound of their feet grew louder and louder, echoing through the empty corridors. Yet, I am most interested in his fox at the moment.
The fox articulates a non-human space within the cultural architecture of humanity. It is not simply that the museum was built by human enterprise, but that it functions as a temple of sorts, a house for historical works. The museum is a proper place, full of oil paintings and serious faces, poised with solemn and practiced grace. These works have survivedÂ the test of time. In that respect their presence is partly due to chance, for it is likely some have travelled great distances, across the sea for instance, barring wreckage, flooding, fires and sunlight. They hang now, like static vampires in gold frames, very much preserved. They are representatives of posterity: examples one might find inspiration in. The fox disrupts their solemnity, destabilizing whatever authority they might possess. The animal is so dynamic by comparison, trotting around with speed and self-possession. What is that statistic? In a matter of weeks the jungle would encroach upon New York City if human kind were not present to fend it off. It would take so little time to be gobbled up by trash, vines and rats â€” and then the larger beasts would come to sniff through our bodegas.
Joseph Beuys brought a coyote into a gallery in 1974. The interaction between Beuys and the coyote became a work of art, the performance of a developing relationship. It illustrated the process of equilibreum as it was discovered between a four-legged beast and a human being. Between two cultures, one wild, the other civilized. The coyote, of course, is endemic to American mythology â€” a trickster, a mirror, a scavenger. AlÃ¿s’ fox, on the other hand, is closer to English lore. There are any number of pubs named after it. For Sunday sport, English gentry used to set out on horseback to hunt it. But foxes are also tricksters, though these (apparently) can sometimes climb trees. InÂ Nightwatch, the artist is absent. Instead the fox interacts with the object of art-space; that physical space becomes a conduit for history, not, as in the case with Beuys, the artist and his props.
AlÃ¿sÂ began his project with the idea of using CCTV footage from surveillance cameras all over London. While it is legal for any member of the public to watch the footage, it is illegal to use it for some other purpose. AlÃ¿sÂ adjusted his plan and focused instead on the National Portrait Gallery as a site. They have state of the art surveillance cameras. To test this, to engage our interest in the strangeness of animals, he set a fox called Bandit loose in the museum at night. What is it that we are looking for when we watch this fox? Go here to watch an excerpt from this piece.
Hui-min Tsen:Â Building the boat was an unexpected experience for me â€” it was not something I ever thought I would do. When Jim and I first started collaborating, I had been working with ideas of urban exploration where I was exploring the city (calling it an expedition) and referencing explorers of the past. Jim had been dreaming about building a boat and the initial plan was that he would build the boat, I would lead in sailing it, and we would collaborate on all the side projects. As the project progressed, though, it became evident that one person couldn’t build a boat alone and that we were collaborating fully on every aspect of the project â€” it no longer made sense to divvy up tasks to one person or the other. I did not have a lot of previous woodworking experience, so a lot of what I was working on, especially at first, was the less intricate work like cutting pieces to size, planing down wood, routing. A lot of the building process was new to both of us, though, so we worked together on testing the epoxy, figuring out how to read the plans, and eventually developed our own working methods and rhythms in the shop for techniques like getting all the screws in before the epoxy set, etc. Â To be honest, I often had mixed feelings about the amount of time and labor building took â€” it’s not the kind of work I naturally decide to do â€” but at the end of the day, I was always so proud and happy with the results and the experience of learning, that I was really glad to be there. I especially enjoyed it when I had my own tasks to figure out, like making the mast, boom, and gaff, the centerboard and rudder. So much of the project wound up being about the everyday act of learning and discovery and building the boat was at the crux of that discovery.
We always thought of the boat as both a functioning boat that we would sail and as an art object. It first and foremost had to float and handle well, but we also thought a lot about the conceptual tie-ins of the materials we were using, the act of making and documenting the construction, and how the boat would live when we were finished with it. Normally I tend to have a casual relationship with the craft of an object â€” I come from a photography background so the craft of the image has always been important, but the creation of a sculptural object was something new to me. Since the object was a functioning boat, the building and documentation of it was still very oriented around process and not just about the beauty of the final object.
In terms of working independently versus working with a partner, they are both methods I enjoy. I very much enjoy collaborating, whether it’s with other artists or making work that relies on an interaction with the public in order to take form. Jim and I would often talk about how we wound up doing things collaboratively that individually we would never think of doing and how much stronger the project was for that. Having such a long a involved collaboration pushed me as an artist in directions I wouldn’t have been comfortable with or thought of alone. When you have to work through ideas with someone else, you are forced to explain them far more precisely than you might be persuaded to do for yourself. Jim and I had very similar philosophies about art-making and how to exist within the art world.
There are times, though, when you really want to just dive into your ownÂ quirkyÂ interests. A project like the Pedway which very much followed my ownÂ train of thought, would have been difficult or impossible in a collaboration.
CP:Â What made you consider the Pedway as a site of artistic exploration? And how did you come to make the Pedway tour?Â
HMT:Â When I first came across the Pedway, I had been working on urban spaces and the mental constructions surrounding them such as fear, attachment and belonging. These projects often involved mapping and walks â€” but I kept searching for the perfect vehicle to work with. One of the things that had first attracted me to Chicago was its role in the history of American industrialization and modernization â€” the tension of optimism and fear that came with the late 19th and early 20th century boom. In my mind, Chicago had come to symbolize the Mythic City, a site which, like the Mythic West, lives primarily in the imagination. I read all about visions of futuristic cities, urban planning, the history of Chicago, and fictional representations of cities from silent movies and novels. When I first moved here, I kept looking around for traces of that Mythic City.
When I stumbled across the Pedway, I saw in it my Atlantis â€” the elusive city born of fantasies. I began exploring it, looking for secret passages and connections and the possibilities of what lay at the other end. The more I explored it, the more I saw that it had a clear beginning, middle and end. After I walked through it for the first time, I loved the way the corridor unfolded so much I wanted to show it to everyone else! I knew that the temporal and spatial experience of transitioning through all these unique locations all strung together would never translate to a 2-dimensional piece and that the path was so difficult to navigate, there needed to be a guide to help other people through.
Since I had been working on projects involving mapping, story-telling, and walking, I had been looking at artists such as Stanley Brouwn, Emily Jacir, and Francis Alys, as well as photographers such as Sophie Calle and Joel Sternfeld’s project “On this Site.” Â These artists were influential in showing how action, text, and photograph could be used to address issues of site and memory. I had also looked at tropes from travel and tourism such as how guidebooks use points-of-interest to tell a story. Since the Pedway unfolds as one path, or line, in time, it seemed perfect for playing with how a story of history and place can unfold as a tour. I realized we are often led to experience a tour (even something as simple as a self-guided nature tour through a park) as if we are the protagonist walking through a 3-dimensional play where the land is the stage set and the points-of interest are the plot points. I used this idea of tour-as-narrative as the guiding principle when writing the Pedway tour. I tried to loosely construct it as a three-act play where the guide is the narrator, the Pedway is the protagonist, you are the main character, and historical figures such as Cosimo, Potter Palmer, and Clara Bow are the supporting characters.
CP: Didn’tÂ copyright issues play a role in your publicity materials? Can you talk about that?Â
HMT:Â Â I’m not sure it is as formal as copyright; no one has used that exact word with me, but some businesses have definitely taken issue with my photographing and how I’ve referred to them in some of my materials. Understandably they want to have control over how they are portrayed. When I was doing research for the project, I purposefully avoided interviewing the businesses in the Pedway. First, I didn’t want to be tied to their “official” histories and secondly, I didn’t want them to know me â€” I wanted maintain the luxury anonymity while moving through the spaces â€” sitting and observing the comings and goings in hotel lobbies and such, without people asking me questions about what I was going to use my observations for and when they could see the results. I had horrible visions of asking permission, being turned down, and then being banned from one of the buildings! Once I put the project out in public, I knew it would be much harder to remain anonymous. If you’re leading a group of 35 people through a lobby, security will notice you. Some business’ took issue with my photographing and a few have approached me about content. For instance, the Renaissance Hotel was unhappy I referred to them by an incorrect name on the map and asked me to change it to the “Chicago Renaissance Hotel.” Â I had kept their name a little more generic to blur the line between the Renaissance and the original hotel, the Stouffer-Riviere, calling them the Stouffer Renaissance Hotel on the first iteration of the map. I decided not to test the copyright issue, and changed it on later maps as per their request. For a while I was nervous that I would have to either conform to all the corporate histories or start omitting points-of-interest.
On the flip side, an unexpected and exciting result of bringing the project into the public is how it has lived in the public imagination and how my interpretation is helping to define the space. There is not much information about the Pedway out there, so when doing an internet search, my website comes up pretty quickly. Â Most of the hits I get are people looking for a map of the Pedway. I love the idea that people are walking around the Pedway holding maps pointing to the “Subterranean Parking Lot,” “The Descent” and “The Garden of Merchandise.” Â I keep wondering how it comes across to them â€” do they wonder why the portion they are walking down is labeled “The Medici Corridor”?
One building caught on to what I was doing was using my tour on their website as a selling point for their building! Â They thought it was good to be part of a mythologized space, saying I would lead them “through a historical dreamland unlike any you have imagined before.”Â Â Ironically, this was a building that had asked me not to photograph in it, so I don’t really have them as a point-of-interest on the tour.
By choosing to make it a public art piece,Â chance encounters like these became possible.
CP:Â How has the Pedway Tour transformed your idea of public space?
HMT:Â As someone who enjoys using the world-at-large as a studio, wandering the streets and photographing, I have often encountered the tension that can exist between public and private, ownership and invasiveness. With the Pedway, I encountered some unexpected issues of public/private. It turns out most of the Pedway is not actually public space, it is private space. This can create weird questions about access. However, I think the fact that it is a private space is part of the fantasy of a hidden corridor â€” it is your secret corridor. If it were just like walking down a public street, it would not be as fun.
During the two miles, the Pedway moves through varying degrees of public/private spaces as it passes through food courts, office lobbies, government buildings, the subway… Once you’ve gotten used to being in the private space of a hotel lobby, moving to the very public space of a subway platform can feel jarring. As I began noticing these shifts of private and public within the enclosure, I wanted to include that feeling of passing from one to another as part of the story. I let the experience help guide the narrative. In the first stage, the privacy of the corridor can be equated with your ownership of the space â€” it is a regal, luxurious, safe home that is yours and you can go wherever you want. The second stage (part 1) is a sudden thrust into the public government buildings. You are no longer separated and removed from the street â€” you are mixed in with the hustle and bustle, which can be intimidating. There are crowds and security cameras and the buildings exert an oppressive power above you. You feel much smaller and the presence of an external power is much greater. Here the story leaves the early urban history of the first stage and introduces turn-of-the-century ideas of Utopian planning. In the second stage (part 2) you are still with all the crowds, but this is a friendlier urban culture â€” more glamorous, more leisurely. It is more about the pleasures of moving within a public crowd. You ride mass transit, go shopping for mass produced goods in the department store, and enjoy a huge old library in the Cultural Center (the People’s Palace). The final stage, stage 3, is east of Michigan Avenue. This part of the city used to be a large railyard and was not developed until the 60s and 70s. I think of it as the suburban portion of the Pedway. There is a slight removal from the city, you are separated out again â€” it is clean, sanitized, comfortable and again you have a feeling of privacy, a feeling that no one will bother you as long as you behave according to code.
It is fun, while leading the tours, to watch other people encounter the surreal line between public and private that exists in the Pedway â€” many people ask me if we’re really allowed to be there. At one very disoriented part of the tour, down near Point-of-Interest #13, I draw attention to the fact that, although we are surrounded by the grid aesthetic, the normal lines of public space and the squares of private space normally associated with the grid, are no longer present. This, I feel, is one of the things that makes the Pedway so fascinating.
CP: Can you talk a little bit more about how you weave history through your work?Â
HMT:Â For some reason I find this question difficult to answer. Although history is constantly a part of my work, I often think of it as secondary to themes of exploration, travel, and the idea of elsewhere. And yet I keep coming back to it as the context and framework for almost all of my projects. I guess, I think of it as a form of Elsewhere, of another place, intangible but ever present â€” a place that exists as a force on the imagination and our collective or individual sense of self. History has a real influence and impact on the present, and yet that impact is laced with projected ideals. Like many locations and cultures that are not physically located where we are located, history can be an origin â€” an often mythological origin to be revisited and played with. Coming from a multi-cultural family, I am used to looking for cultural origins and seeing, instead of one version, a plurality of versions. I think this has had a big influence on my outlook and can explain why I keep looking at how strains of history and experience canÂ simultaneouslyÂ layer on top of one another.
When I am working on a project, the research and project usually have a give and take. With the Pedway, I had already done a lot of research before discovering the Pedway. I then allowed the space to determine the rest of the research â€” looking up particular buildings or related topics like the history of the geodesic dome. Ultimately, what I choose to use is what I find intriguing and what excites my imagination. Some things you just keep returning to without quite knowing why. I guess if I really knew why it was so mysterious, I wouldn’t have to make work about it!
CP: That makes me want to ask more aboutÂ exploration. You’ve talked to me a little bit about a forthcoming project where you’re documenting the lake over an extended period of time, and then drawing out ideas of geographical exploration. It seems to me that the Pedway tour is also about exploration, as is the Mt. Baldy expedition. How does exploration play out in your interests?
HMT:Â Yes, the project was for the show “Hecho en Casa/Home Made” at Cobalt Art Studio. Â The show was about acts of domesticity, localness, and home so I decided to take a trip at home, following in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt, an explorer I first came across while researching for the Mt. Baldy Expedition, but someone that we never used. I walked down to my local beach every day and looked out across the water, recording the weather conditions visible for as far as the eye could see. These observations were interwoven into a slideshow with the stories of Humboldt, Elisha Kent Kane, Margaret Fox, and the idea of north (the north pole and the northern islands of Lake Michigan).
I have always been attracted to photography’s ability to aid in exploration and looking. As you point the camera at something, the picture is attaching you to the distant. My recent projects have become more focussed on the act of everyday exploration. As globalization increases and we have more and more mobility and immediate contact with distant places, the predominant everyday experience remains one of being in one place and looking outward from there. It makes me wonder about how other places and times impact what and how we see. What is just over the horizon? What is just beyond the visible? What mental constructions are layered onto the world around us? Exploration is synonymous with curiosity, learning, looking and discovery â€” a lot of my motivation with these projects is simple curiosity about what lies over there. It seems that even with new technologies and globalization allowing us to see around the world via webcam and satellite and to eat foods or watch tv shows from anywhere in the world, our relationship with the unknown and the distant will always be part of our experience of being located.
Off-Topic invites artists, curators, writers, and cultural workers to discuss a subject not directly related to the practice of making art. We would like to welcome Caroline Picard as our latest guest with her post, â€œSmells like a Movie Starâ€. Caroline is the director of Green Lantern Gallery and Press. She is an artist and writer currently based in Chicago.
SMELLS LIKE A MOVIE STAR
Celebrities always line supermarket check out lines, always peering at you from glossy magazines dedicated to the torrential madcap folly of their lives. Their faces, bodies, lifestyles wallpaper not just culture but also the basic practice of obtaining foodstuffs. The ubiquitous presence of persona/brands like Jennifer Aniston, Johnny Depp etc., reinforce particular moirÃ©s about success, beauty and sexuality. Where repetition and familiarity elicit desire, the repeated surface of the celebrity remains the poster child of consumer society, reinforcing the criteria with which non-celebrities (thatâ€™s us) measure their own legitimacy, accomplishment and worth. Celebrity provides a filtered perspective through which we view and interpret immediate experience, history and cultural production. The celebrity exemplifies a model for success which, while applauding the individual in an immediate sense, further stabilizes predominant hierarchical structures of society. To consider the influence such a model has on the contemporary art world is of particular interest because of its function as an historically transgressive and transformative force in culture.
Despite the art worldâ€™s (partially self-inflicted) reclusiveness, it has an inextricable relationship to the economic market. That relationship is no doubt reinforced by the ever-increasing number of art students who graduate from secondary institutions and, understandably, expect their respective art practices to afford some semblance of a â€œcareer.â€ The very idea that oneâ€™s status as art marker can be â€˜taughtâ€™ is already far from the modernist perspective of artist as a vessel of inspiration.Â Similarly the sense of the struggling, starving, or â€œcrazyâ€ Van Gogh type-artist also feels old hat, a dusty model which, while adopted by some, nevertheless has been replaced by a new concept, i.e. artist as entrepreneur. Today the artist is expected to negotiate practical obligations in the world, she is encouraged to make a website, to show up on time, to write courteous letters to gallerists, and even developâ€”consciously or notâ€”a public persona. While I tend to prefer the latter attitude of art as â€˜learnableâ€™ (because as a learnable occupation it is denied some of its precious mysticism), it is all the more difficult to see how art can provide new ways of thinking if its modus operandi is dependent on the closed system career-ism of work-as-commodity.