Reviewed by Sarah Bay Williams
Most neighborhoods around the outer parts of Philadelphia where I grew up had some sort of “forest” to walk through nestled between the blocks of houses. These woody glens were appendages of the sprawling and often surprisingly beautiful Fairmount Park system, the biggest city park in the United States. The forest in my neighborhood of West Mount Airy, called Cresheim Valley Park, had not turned up any dead bodies yet by the early ‘80s—as others nearby had. A rope swing hung over the steep entrance next to the train tracks, usually dangling some bad-ass kid I was afraid of.
Deep inside the park, I’d forget civilization. I occasionally found–buried between the sedges, ferns, and shrubs–cracked brick foundations, remnants of disappeared colonial cottages, or so I imagined, despite the bits of sunburst and goldenrod linoleum and other rusted whirligigs from blasted appliances.
I never stopped wandering.
Throughout college I grew very fond of the urban walk, a fledgeling flâneur wholly ignorant of Charles Baudelaire. A follower of the Situationist dérive before I knew that “Guy” wasn’t just some dude. Now, I’m more inclined to walk back into the forest—though in Los Angeles there aren’t very many. Scattered, dusty and vertiginous, I hikes through Griffith Park, Malibu, Topanga Canyon, and this is fine with me too.
Of course I was immediately drawn to a book called The Art of Walking: a field guide. Editor David Evans has gathered together a compendium of well-known artists who use walking as part of their artwork—Richard Long, Francis Alÿs, and artful walkers that are new to me, such as Rut Blees Luxembourg and Chloé Regan. It’s a great idea for a book.
“Nobody walks in LA,” crooned the Missing Person back when I was still meandering the forests of Philadelphia, but now lots of somebodies assuredly promenade, prowl, and perambulated the streets of LA. Artist, writer, and filmmaker Ken Ehrlich recently organized a series of walks for Machine Project, the LA-based conglomeration of artist/performers, educators, and event-makers who have several assorted poetry hikes and walking fruit forages already under their belt. Los Angeles Walks has been around since 1998 organizing group walks and helping make the city more pedestrian friendly. And the A+D museum has a series of Urban Hikes to learn about the aesthetics of forgotten parts of Los Angeles. I love a field guide, and I was excited to find David Evan’s contribution on walking, with its handy size and rounded corners, just like a real field guide.
As I have now spent some solitary (and relatively immobile) time with The Art of Walking, I am simultaneously glad and frustrated by its existence. Glad because Evans introduced me to several new artists and projects of which I was unaware; frustrated because I feel that Evans wants to do something different with this book—but, there’s something left out.
In concept, Evans wants to create a new space for creative culture through publishing. In his brief introduction he lays out three aims for The Art of Walking: it’s “an indicative survey of contemporary artwork dealing with walking”; “a series of guided tours, seven visually-led ‘Walks’ that allow the armchair walker to experience the breaks, continuities and surprises associated with an actual walk”; and “a conventional guidebook, The Art of Walking aims to encourage readers to get up and go into the field.”
He is successful in the first and maybe third of these goals. This book does focus on the most contemporary of contemporary walking art—mostly 21st century artists—whereas other precedents in the “canon” mentioned by Evans, such as Rebecca Solnit’s chapter, “The Shape of a Walk,” in her history on walking, Wanderlust (London and New York: Verso, 2001), and exhibitions such as “Les Figures de la Marche: Un Siècle d’Arpenteurs” at the Musée Picasso (Antibes, France, 2000) and the Louisiana Museum’s “Walking and Thinking and Walking” (Copenhagen, Denmark, 1996) stay close to the traditional safe-zone of “contemporary” art that deals with works made post-WWII until about thirty or so years ago.
Evans also encourages the reader to get up and walk, if they care to actually do so, by commissioning London-based artist Peter Liversidge to make a series of proposals about walking. They begin in a loose typewriter-courier font at the front endpaper of the book with Liversidge’s proposal “to take up the invitation from David Evans to produce a small group of proposals” that the reader might actually do. “I propose that we walk together,” reads proposal number two, and number three is a proposal about Liversidge going for a one-kilometer walk and taking a photo every 27.77 steps. Perhaps we are to do the same? Number four reads: “I propose that you put down this book and go outside,” (to which I proudly noted in the margin: I am outside! having read half of The Art of Walking in my friend’s hammock.)
Evans wants to encourage and introduce new work while exploding the typical art book and analytical text forms. He writes in his introduction, “The Art of Walking is a book that seeks to blur the usual distinction between exhibition and its catalogue…. emphasis is on picture editing that acknowledges the proximity of the pages of a book and the walls of a museum.” I’m not sure what he means by this latter claim, though I empathize with the desire to make a farrago of the art-viewing experience on paper and exhibition space. I would say he has somewhat succeeded when Evans also writes: “A major preoccupation has been the editing of the images and texts of others that aims to be more stimulating than the standard art surveys that tend to foreground an authoritative text, with the artworks under discussion treated as supplementary illustrations.”
Alright, let’s be honest though, I was kind of looking forward to reading more text about walking and artists. I was seeking visuals and ruminations as I lay down in my non-armchair-hammock to take in some “visually-led ‘Walks,’” or themed chapters, such as “Footprints and Lines,” “Writers and Philosophers,” and “Marches and Processions.” I found that indeed the book is heavy on images and light on text beyond the introduction and I was certainly visually-led, but felt little of the peregrination I was told to have through this visual experience. I began to sense that I wanted more words.
To his credit, Evans makes the point very clear that this presentation is not about writing. He mentions the key writerly precedents to his research on walking: Rebecca Solnit’s “Wanderlust” and the catalogues for the exhibitions mentioned above as well as Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), libraries of information on the derive of the Situationists, automatism of the Surrealists, and the flâneur of Walter Benjamin’s thinking on Charles Baudelaire. He wants to focus more on the visual and artists on the cusp of current art-making.
My concern is: how exactly does one experience a creative work on walking when they were not there for the walk? Are images with extended captions, or even a series of images and creative sketches, sufficient? As Solnit writes in Wanderlust, Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking, though “breathtakingly beautiful at times” and “profound and elegant,” “asks the viewer to do a great deal of work, to interpret the ambiguous, imagine the unseen. It gives us not a walk nor even the representation of a walk, only the idea of a walk and an evocation of its location (the map) or one of its views (the photograph).” (Wanderlust, 271) And this is what an analytical text can do in tandem with Long’s documentation. For instance, Solnit writes a bit about what it’s like to physically understand what it means to measure ourselves against the earth. I’m curious what Evans—or other thinkers he might have brought on board—would have written about Rut Blees Luxembourg’s Chance Encounters or Marcus Coates Stoat. Instead, the reader is privy to a selection of brief paragraphs by Evans and chosen artists, as well a few longer contributions by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Dara Birnbaum, Simon Pope and a few others, but, as Evans writes, this book is not about pondering. It is quite good for the short attention span, though.
Ultimately, The Art of Walking has a good base of information—you may need to do some investigations to find out more. In this way, perhaps it really is a field guide, just the beginning, waiting for you to read into the hearts of those who walk creatively to find your own understanding through your own personal wanderings.
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David Evans, Ed., The Art of Walking: a field guide, (Black Dog Publishing, 2013)
Cover and interior images from The Art of Walking: a field guide