What is left behind? The connection between walking and the traces it leaves is shown by artists whose practice incorporates moving by foot as a key element.
A muddy footprint. A squashed cigarette butt. A few tangled feathers. We encounter traces of human and non-human presence almost everywhere, without always perceiving them. We are generally preoccupied with other things: On the way to the subway, my gaze is directed forward, actually half at my cellphone, and my mind is already where I am yet to go. Only when the walk is no longer aimed at a specific destination can our gaze be free to see what the traces around us might tell us about our surroundings. It’s no wonder, then, that in the WALK! exhibition, the collecting and processing, producing and laying of trails play such an important role. Many artists who make walking part of their practice are at the same time concerned with the forms that traces take, what we can learn from them, and what we can do with them. The walking and the traces seem to be connected to each other in very different ways.
Between orientation and speculation
Historian Carlo Ginzburg once suggested that tracking is not only a cultural technique with which knowledge is produced, but that herein also lies an origin of storytelling: One of his examples is the millennia-old tracking involved in hunting. From tracks, hunters construe a sequence, a series of small events with which they infer the past – first the animal passed here, then it rested there, and so on. When we look at tracks, we make connections, speculate about how they came about and what they might tell us. In this way, they are a means of orientation for us in decidedly more everyday situations than hunting: for example, when we follow the footprints with which others have marked the path before us on trails. From these, we draw conclusions about specific circumstances, assess situations, and spin our own narratives.
Yuji Agematsu has been on the hunt for traces every day since 1997: Each day, he goes on a walk through New York, picking up discarded and lost items, small things that people have left behind on the streets. He prepares the found objects in the studio and documents them in a notebook. Then, one day, Agematsu arranges the objects into filigree sculptures, which he puts into the transparent cellophane wrappers of cigarette packets. Finally, for the exhibition presentation, the ensembles are presented in a grid like the days of a calendar page, like the results from July 2003, for example.
Even though Agematsu’s process is rather like a forensic scientist precisely documenting a search, the collected traces are not there for the purpose of reconstructing a situation. While looking at the found objects, one is tempted to imagine how they got to where the artist picked them up. And yet from the same objects, new stories could be invented again and again – some of them more probable, some less so. They refer us more to the viewers’ imagination than to the original situation itself. Instead of being mere references, in aesthetic terms they now exist as objects in their own right. In their transparent envelopes, they become fascinating, surreal miniature landscapes.
On the trail of one’s own process
Agematsu’s process is reminiscent of those artists who, as long ago as the 1970s, combined the search for clues with a kind of field research. Following scientific procedures, they documented their forays in writing and pictures, classified the items they collected, and exhibited them in glass cases as if in a museum of anthropology or natural history. Yet they undermined this purported objectivity with a playful and free approach to scientific conventions. Their practice showed that they were less concerned with the end product and more with the process of searching and observing, which extended equally to themselves. Walking, as an ongoing activity, is also not an outcome in the first place, but rather an open-ended activity. Instead of collecting traces, walking can also invite us to record our own process.
Helen Mirra, for example, uses walking as an activity that allows her to step back, observe, and linger with things. For the series “Field Recordings” (2010), she produced a graphic imprint on a cloth for each hour of walking, using a branch or stone she had picked up on walks in Bonn, Zurich, and Berlin. In this context, she coated the objects with ink, pressed them onto a piece of cloth, and rubbed their shape onto it. She then sewed the pieces of cloth together. The twigs link up to form something like a path; stones form patterns that resemble an unpaved road. At the same time, these “traces” from Mirra’s walks are nevertheless abstract: They do not constitute pictorial documentation of her action or a map, and yet there is a close conceptual bond between process and imprint.
The term “field recording” alludes to the recording of sounds of the environment, for example by natural scientists. In Mirra’s case, it becomes a poetic process that does not evaluate and interpret, but first listens, opens the ears (and the other senses) up to the environment. For the artist, this way of working is key: “I’m committed to being in the world, not as an explorer or a researcher but as a witness, especially listening to the non-dominant, non-humans.”
I’m committed to being in the world, not as an explorer or a researcher but as a witness, especially listening to the non-dominant, non-humans
Markers: walking to imprint oneself
Walking, however, is not only about hunting for, collecting, or capturing traces. It is also an activity with which one inscribes one’s presence. Leaving behind traces and markers can become a political action – particularly where history runs the risk of being suppressed and forgotten. This might involve something as simple as a footprint.
With their action “Land Mark (Foot Prints)” (2001-2), the duo Allora & Calzadilla teamed up with some activists to draw attention to the controversial activities of the US military on the island of Vieques off Puerto Rico. There, from 1941 to 2003 the US Navy operated a site for bomb testing, military maneuvers, and weapons storage. Numerous studies concluded that the consequences for the population and nature were severe, simply due to the high presence of toxic heavy metals in the soil. The activists reacted to the markings on the land with their own imprints. With shoe soles they designed themselves that bore slogans and images, they traversed the restricted area in an act of civil disobedience. The messages they left there with their feet contained not only protest, but also ideas for repurposing of the site. The ephemeral traces were captured in photographs, but what counted was the physical imprinting in the sand, whereby they occupied the land for a moment and reclaimed it for themselves.
In its function, the trace is somewhat paradoxical: In terms of its presence, it bears witness to something that itself has just become absent. Bodies withdraw, step by step, while their imprints remain temporarily. For political action, leaving behind these kinds of markings may be a way of showing presence that still functions in absence. At the same time, reading traces holds a certain experience for us because of this dialectic, writes media philosopher Sybille Krämer: “It is the experience that in the visible we become attentive to the invisible, in the present we trace the absent, in the present we reconstruct the past [...].”In walking, there remains the possibility of (continually) looking out for what may lie on and beyond the edge of the path.