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.
At the risk of sounding like a shill for Google, I will dedicate this post to Google Books. Actually, itâ€™s now
called Google Play, but Iâ€™m old and find this concept confusing, so Iâ€™m going to ignore it. I suggest you do too. It is possible to purchase contemporary titles from Google Books and read them on your device, but so what? Everyone sells digital books. You can even check them out from the library. What I find most compelling about Google Books is the access to periodicals, old ones that Iâ€™d never encounter on my own. Admittedly, Iâ€™m pretty infatuated with old magazines. I bought 54 years of Gourmet off eBay, co-edited the New Art Examiner anthology, and interviewed Bad at Sportser Meg Onli for Art 21â€™s Centerfield post. Onli is currently working on a project about Black World/Negro Digest. Sheâ€™s accessing all of her material through Google Books. I realize people use Google Books all the time, but I want to reframe it from just another place on the interweb trying to part me from my money, to an invaluable tool for artists.
Google calls all text, books, even magazines, even pamphlets, so keep that in mind. A simple search on â€œartâ€ and restricting the results to free, yields only 47 titles, but what interesting titles they are. The first hit is The Art of the Moving Pictureâ€¦: Being the 1922 Revision of the Book First Issued in 1915. Well, thereâ€™s just so many curious things about this book, I hardly know where to begin. The Art of the Moving Picture makes some excellent assertions, that still ring true. For instance that the pace of the â€œaction photoplayâ€ leaves no room for â€œfull grown personal passionâ€ (12). Think Die Hard or Con Air. Some things have not quite stayed the same. For instance â€œwhen a moving picture house is set up, the saloon on the right hand or the left declares bankruptcyâ€ (207). I wonder what the author Vachel Lindsay would think of todayâ€™s upscale brew and views?
Because itâ€™s Google, you are able to search within individual titles. Starting with magazines, restricting results to free, and searching â€œartâ€ brings crazy random articles like this one from Vegetarian Times, called â€œVegetarianism in Art.â€Â There are more popular periodicals as well–hundreds of issues of Life. A browse of December 28, 1936, reveals a story about the first panda coming to the US and workers for the WPAâ€™s Chicago theatrical arts project striking at the Merchandise Mart. The American Art Directory Volume IX (1911) has advertisements for art galleries on its forepages, is lousy with statistics, and names of artists and curators of the moment. And in case you didnâ€™t know, back then all the high-end Chicago galleries were on South Michigan and admission to The Art Institute was twenty-five cents.
Besides book and magazines, you can also find other, more sundry reading material. There are many museum and exhibition catalogues, gallery brochures, bulletins from art organizations, but these charmers are a little more shy and require quite a bit of coaxing. Perhaps a bottle of rose and a bouquet of peonies would help.
Obviously, there is little contemporary art represented here, at least not for free. â€œModernâ€ in Google Book world lingers somewhere around 1912, which is kind of fun because searching a word like â€œsculptressâ€ yields dozens of hits. Be warned, there are serious issues with meta data. Clicking on â€œMagazinesâ€ does not bring you to all of their magazines, it brings you to items scanned as individual issues. Most of what I read comes from bound volumes, that although look quite bookish, arenâ€™t. Most of these are classified as books, though theyâ€™re still just magazines. Donâ€™t expect the date Google gives you be correct, because it often isnâ€™t. Read the title page. Even with these limitations, I still recommend spending some time on Google Books and exploring what these old magazines and books have to offer.
Written and overseen by Meg Onli, our beloved BAS teammate, Black Visual Archive is a terrific new blog/website dedicated to contemporary black and post-black visual culture that launches this week. What’s more, the website is designed by another invaluable BAS colleague, Martine Syms, who as you all know also runs Golden Age. I love the crisp look of this site, and the range of subject matter, which promises to be pop-y, eclectic, smart yet fun, too. Right now, Black Visual Archive has a beautifully written review of Kerry James Marshallâ€™s exhibition catalog Mementos from his 1998 exhibition at the Renaissance Society in Chicago, which looks at the thematic and conceptual implications of the book’s design and content. Theyâ€™ve also posted on a performance of Nina Simoneâ€™s â€œFeelingsâ€ at the Montreau Jazz Festival and the Berry Brotherâ€™s Fascinationâ€™ Rythym.Â A brief excerpt from “Kerry James Marshall | Mementos” follows:
Historically, a souvenir painting is a literal interpretation of an event, however, instead of painting the march from Selma to Montgomery or a portrait of the Little Rock Nine, Marshallâ€™s â€œSouvenirâ€ paintings all depict the interior of a middle-class household. In Souvenir I, (1997) the home becomes sanctified with the souls of black folk who hover above a couch. Their visages, reproduced with screen-prints, which are a sharp contrast to Marshallâ€™s hand, are of deceased men, women and children with angel wings. In gold glitter the phrase â€œin memory ofâ€ is scrawled just below them. Is this our souvenir? The ability to ascend to a higher social status? Are these men and women our post-Movement saints? Powell notes, â€œone gets the sense that the â€˜Souvenirâ€™ paintings have just as much to do with process of memorializing as they do with the â€˜ideaâ€™ or â€˜themeâ€™ of the memorial: painting likeness and building effigies to the one-time mortals-but-now-gods; creating a functioning, commemorative alter in oneâ€™s home; and constructing a hierarchy of African-American sainthood.â€
There’s much more to come, so check out the site on a regular basis, or subscribe to the RSS feed for more.
Over the past two months everyone at Bad at Sports has been in a frenzy preparing for the exhibition, “Don’t Piss On Me And Tell Me It’s Raining” at apexart in New York. The show was a bit of a last-minute golden opportunity, so details have been scarce, but we now have the full scoop on what’s in store, and it’s pretty awesome. (You can keep up with Meg, Duncan, Amanda, Tom and Richard throughout the show’s installation and opening events by following Bad at Sports on Twitter and the hashtag #basapex.) The exhibition features over 100 objects, images and ephemera that will serve as a visual complement to Bad at Sports’ considerable audio archives, submitted by Bad at Sports contributors and guests of the show, including:
Carol Becker, Britton Bertran, Temporary Services, Adam Brooks and Mathew Wilson, Ivan Brunetti, Tom Burtonwood, David Coyle, Death by Design, Elizabeth Chodos, Miguel Cortez, Tony Fitzpatrick, Rob Davis and Michael Langlois, Jeremy Deller, Lisa Dorin, Jim Duignan, Dan Devening, Cody Hudson, Jason Dunda, Fendry Ekel, James Elkins, Anthony Elms, Pete Fagundo, Mary Rachel Fanning,Tony Feher, Rochelle Feinstein, Pamela Fraser, Liam Gillick, Helidon Gjergji, Michelle Grabner, Dylan Graham, Madeleine Grynsztejn, Sarah Guernsey, Terence Hannum, Anni Holm, Brian Holmes, Astrid Honold, Christopher Hudgens, Meg Onli, Amanda Browder, Tom Sanford, Duncan MacKenzie, Christian Kuras, Ben Tanner, Scott Hug, Richard Holland, Carol Jackson, Paddy Johnson, David Jones, Alex Jovanovic, Atsushi Kaga, Mark Staff Brandl, Vera Klement, Peter Saul, Gregory Knight, Monique Meloche, Leo Koenig, Chad Kouri, Steve Lacy, Caroline Picard, Jose Lerma, Laura Letinsky, Kerry James Marshall, Ed Marszewski, Eric May, Dominic Molon, Anne Elizabeth Moore, David Morgan, Julian Myers, Gavin Turk, Liz Nofziger, Jamisen Ogg, Neysa Page-Lieberman, Trevor Paglan, Raymond Pettibon, John Phillips, Allison Peters Quinn, Lane Relyea, Lawrence Rinder, David Robbins, Thomas Robertello, Julie Rodriguez Widholm, Elvia Rodriguez, Nathan Rogers-Madsen, James Rondeau, Marlene Russum Scott, Alison Ruttan, Dan S. Wang, Stephanie Smith, Deb Sokolow, Scott Speh, Chris Sperandio, Lisa Stone, Shannon Stratton, Randall Szott, Christine Tarkowski, Tony Tasset, Tracy Marie Taylor, Ron Terada, Philip von Zweck, Hamza Walker, Chris Walla, John Wanzel, Chris Ware, Oli Watt, Tony Wight, Anne Wilson, Jay Wolke, InCubate, Curtis Mann, Michael Velliquette, Clare Britt, Shannon Stratton, Damian Duffy, William Conger, M N Hutchinson, Mark Francis, Annika Marie, the artists of Blunt Art Text, and more.
The exhibition also features three related exhibition talks, all of which are free and open to the public.Â They’ll all be rebroadcast on upcoming episodes of Bad at Sports’ podcast, for those of you not able to catch the events in NYC.
Thursday, April 8, 6pm. On the eve of Deitch’s departure from New York, Carlo McCormick will talk to Jeffrey Deitch about his time and legacy as one of the most visible, dynamic and controversial players in the New York art world.
Wednesday April 28th, 6pm. Tom Sanford will moderate a panel of five other painters who will talk about painting, including: Kamrooz Aram, Holly Coulis, David Humphrey, Dike Blair and Deborah Kass.
Tuesday, May 18th, 6pm. Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts is a membership organization for those who make experimental or conceptual work with obsolete technology.
You can download the exhibition brochure, which features a conversation between co-founders Duncan MacKenzie and Richard Holland about the history of Bad at Sports, here.
Last but not least, the all-important details on the opening reception! This Wednesday night!
Don’t Piss on Me and Tell Me It’s Raining
Organized by Bad at Sports
Opening: Wednesday, April 7th 6-8pm
291 Church Street
New York, NY 10013
“Pilgrimage is one of the fundamental structures a journey can take–the quest in search of something, if only one’s own transformation, the journey toward a goal–and for pilgrims, walking is work,” writes Rebecca Solnit in the book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Last summer artist Meg Onli (who, as you all know, blogs here at Bad at Sports and is an associate producer of the Podcast) discovered this for herself. Inspired by the perilous journeys taken by fugitive slaves along the underground railroad, Onli undertook her own pilgrimage by setting out on a 30 day, 440 mile trek that began in Montgomery County, Maryland, the birthplace of Josiah Henson (who inspired Harriet Beecher Stoweâ€™s 1852 novel Uncle Tomâ€™s Cabin) and ended at Dawn, a settlement in Dresden, Ontario that is the site of the cabin home Hensen eventually built for himself after his escape to Canada.
Onli’s pilgrimage has both historical and personal significance; she undertook it, she has explained, “in search of my blackness.” Her resulting Underground Railroad Project is both a record of that search and a conscious attempt to reenact and reconstruct a Black historical identity that has been (and is still, in Onli’s case) realized in part by the act of walking.
Before and after the journey, Onli worked on a series of drawings that featured a “doppelganger” version of herself beset by fears and anxieties about the road ahead.Â On the project’s website Onli notes that this fictional version of herself makes reference to fugitive slave posters that typically depicted runaway slaves as solitary figures who, as Onli describes it, are “careless and literally running for their lives.” The reality, of course, was that the road to freedom was made up of people helping other people, an informal network of human connections that required foresight, planning, ingenuity and steely resolve on everyone’s part to succeed. The Underground Railroad was anything but a mad dash for freedom; to successfully navigate it, it was necessary to walk, not run.
Consisting of drawings, photo documentation and performance relics, Onli’s The Underground Railroad Project will be on view in Chicago this Saturday, July 25th as part of the Twelve Galleries series of exhibitions. The opening reception is from 7 to 10 pm this Saturday evening at this address:
2156 West 21st Place, 2nd floor
Chicago, IL 60608
If you live outside of Chicago, you can view photo documentation and extensive artist-authored commentary from this remarkable project on Meg’s website here.
A postscript: prior to beginning her walk, Onli wrote a series of letters to companies such as AIG, Union Pacific and CSX that have profited from Antebellum labor asking them for project sponsorship. Onli saw this as a potentially symbolic gesture on the part of these companies, akin to that of reparations to African Americans for slave labor and its aftermath. A total of twenty companies received letters, but none agreed to participate.