Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Urban Echo-systems



Shhh . . . listen up. And listen down. Sidewalks are rich with the sequesteredand often surprising sounds of the city. A droning rattle rises from the subway beneath the streets; horns or jackhammers emerge like percussive drums; the click and clack of heels generates a rhythmic pulse; crosswalk signals summon us to slow down, stop or pick up the pace; pigeons flutter and take flight like the soft trill and roll of cymbals; a passing car radio seizes the tempo and briefly hijacks our attention. You are moving in a polyphonic and hybridic space, one teeming with the music—and, yes, jarring noise—of growling machines, agitated or inspired voices, and intrepid interlopers from the organic world. A conductor-less orchestra in search of a tune. A strange echo-system indeed.       
(Photo: near Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Walkers and Watchers: Eyes in the Sky




In the cultures of the ancient Etruscans, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, gargoyles watched over the lives of walkers, wayfarers and wanderers who picked their way through the alleyways and public squares. Assuming the form of fantastic animal figures, glowering human countenances, or grotesque chimeras, they gazed down upon the hoi polloi and oversaw the energy of the bustling city street.

Gargoyle is related to the word “gargle,” as in the gurgling waters that coursed through these architectural adornments, which were often shaped to serve as decorative but functional drainpipes.

Now, of course, most pedestrian thoroughfares are surveyed instead by faceless cameras that register and record our every movement, conversation or purchase. We’ve come a long way, but sometimes it’s difficult to admit that we have not always taken the best route.  As you walk about, remain aware to what you might happen to visually discover, but also try to attend to who (or what) might be observing you.  To be sure, sight is usually a multi-directional event.  To see is to belong to a world in which you will also be seen and revealed.

Here (above) on the wall of a church in Barcelona, you can catch a glimpse of the historical juxtaposition and transition from stone-faced eye-witnesses to the disembodied electronic eye of modern technology.  And here (below) some living "gargoyles" in a delightful flight of fancy have taken over the drainpipe on a temple wall in India.  

Be alert, walkers, the world is watching.


Monday, August 19, 2013

Seed Bombs!




They've replaced gumballs with Seed Bombs (aka Green Grenades) on the sidewalks of San Francisco. A la Johnny Appleseed, you can now walk around the city and bury these globlets in sidewalk cracks, abandoned lots, or derelict urban sites.  Then amble about and watch native plants blossom and reclaim the city.

Try it in your town.   Grow the green in the gray!

(Photo:  Mission District, near Delores Park, San Francisco)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Taking a Line (or a Curve) for a Walk . . .


Our eyes and legs enjoy a swerve. A serpentine turn or luscious curve. We live in a tyranny of straight lines, in a universe of square boxes. Ours is an age ruled by perpendicularity. But we also need voluptuous swirls, sensuous spirals, looping swerves, sumptuous swooshes, and fanciful whorls. They help us to enter into and conduct ourselves through the flow of things and to establish or recover bodily rhythm.


Start counting the number of straight lines in the room you occupy right now, and you may be sitting there until kingdom come. They likely govern the patterns in the ceiling and floor, the structure of the furniture, windows and doors, and so much more from the hundreds located in the configuration of a single razor blade to those found in the format, composition and content of books, to the lines inherent in the very construction of the building itself.


Now, step outside on a path with alluring curves, and you just may be drawn into a world of ever-proliferating wonder and probably a few surprises and hidden secrets. Rarely, in fact, does one encounter a distinct right angle in the natural world, except perhaps at a less perceptible, more microscopic level: in, say, the veination of leaves or the cleavage of minerals and rocks. Nature, we could provocatively claim, appears to abhor a straight line.


The English painter, printmaker and critic William Hogarth first speculated that an undulating or serpentine line provides the basis for a powerful experience of—and hence theory about—visual beauty. He studied reactions to a range of shapes in women’s corsets and discovered that people often prefer those with a particular curvature. From such a perspective, an “S-curve” can generate a seductive aesthetic tension between variety and uniformity. Too great a deviation from such a norm is exhausting for the eye; to little courts the risk of monotony. The serpentine line can be found in a great range of aesthetically interesting phenomena from the decorative elements in fashion to the curves in a woman’s body, and it may be responsible, in part, for creating a type of more objective—or at least inter-subjective—beauty.


Artists and architects, of course, occasionally challenge the hegemony of the straight line, right angle and square frame by introducing curvature into their works. Both Antoni Gaudi and Friedrich Hundertwasser employed playful curvilinear forms in their buildings to great success and delight. Hundertwasser, in fact, authored a “Mold Manifesto” that critiqued the proliferation of straight lines, bland functionalism, and blind adherence to rationalism in architecture and, in turn, celebrated the fluidity one finds in more organic shapes and materials. “It is time people themselves rebelled against being confined in box-constructions, in the same way as hens and rabbits are confined in cage-constructions that are equally foreign to their nature,” he wrote. He added: “This jungle of straight lines, which increasingly hems us in like prisoners in a jail, must be uprooted. Until now man has always uprooted the jungle in which he found himself and set himself free. But first he has to become aware that he is living in a jungle, for this jungle has grown up surreptitiously, unnoticed by the population.” Hundertwasser extended this perspective to include physical movement as well:  “The line I trace with my feet walking to the museum is more important and more beautiful than the lines I find there hung up on the walls.”


With sidewalks and other walkscapes, alternatives to or disruptions of the uniformity and predictability of the grid plan can serve as welcome aesthetic features in an urban environment, introducing novelty or the unknown into the experience of place. In rural areas, some streams that have been straightened (de-meandered) to expedite the goal of efficiency in water delivery have been later re-meandered so as to return previously existing curves because of strong local protests and reactions against the straightening of the water flow, which leads inadvertently to “blandscapes” or a sense of boredom in travel by boat or foot.


In a broader sense, what we are here considering is the “shape” that a walk takes, the particular geometric form, experiential path or dynamic pulse that it follows, responds to, or amplifies as one journeys through place. Thoreau, for example, confessed to walking frequently in a parabola, “like one of those cometary orbits, which have been thought to be non-returning curves.” 


“A line is a dot that went for a walk,” the artist Paul Klee once proclaimed. Indeed, this very point (claim) seems designed to set static points (dots) in motion and to link them with other geographical positions or aesthetic dispositions. The video below is one short illustration inspired by Klee’s proclamation:


Klee, too, spoke of drawing and, by extension artistic creation, in terms of “taking a line for a walk.” Here, the hand assumes the role of the foot in movement across paper, generating a path that evolves into an image or picture. What the remark likewise gestures toward is the notion that there are vastly different kinds of lines just as there are sundry styles and types of walks. A penciled or painted line, like a walk, can ramble and wander or proudly strut about or dawdle in minute, impressionistic details, or rush headlong to a pre-given destination. 

Interestingly, one artist has combined the actions of the hand with those of the foot into a piece he styles, “Walking Drawing.” Essentially, Tom Marioni strolled back and forth between ends of a long horizontal sheet of paper affixed to the wall while drawing utensils were attached to his body at the hip. The work both records his actual walk—his paces across a measured space; his repeated comings and goings—and also depicts a rolling landscape via a series of undulating brown and green lines, intimating an autumnal scene.  It invites us to ponder the question, “Did the walk fashion the work (and the landscape itself make a picture), or did the work inspire a walk (and the resultant picture form a landscape)?” In either case, the conscious activities of the walker (artist), though initially intentional and directed, are downplayed, subordinated to the activity of walking itself, which asserts its own creative potential. The title of the work—composed of two present-tense verbs, walking and drawing—redoubles the ambiguity and suggests the chiasmatic and bivalent aspects between walker and walk; art and earth; motion and static representation, and even reader (critic) and landscape (text). The drawing is accomplished via the line of walking and is itself a drawing of walking. The work reminds us quietly, too, that walking involves a form of cyclical rolling—from heel to ball to toe of foot and back again—as one old English etymology for walk, from “to roll” or “roll up”, suggests.


In San Francisco, I once chanced across and followed a purple painted line that snaked and wended its way along the sidewalk through the Mission District of the city for quite a few blocks.  As I pursued the continuous marking, I was in a sense also “drawn” into the neighborhood myself, anticipating a possible surprise or revelation at its eventual terminus.


In New York, an artist known as Momo painted a thin orange line that travels around the city for eight uninterrupted miles—through SoHo, Greenwich Village, and the Lower East Side—spelling out his name in the process on the streets and sidewalks. Apparently, New Yorkers have walked upon the colored trace—the world’s largest graffiti tag—for years without realizing it. Momo put together a short film (below) of the line, which was inspired by a series of purple footprints emblazoned on the sidewalk that he had seen and followed as a child. The path they formed stretched around the city and led to a community garden space named “The Garden of Eden” which the city, unfortunately, had bulldozed.


Another artist, Eve Mosher, has used a winding waterline as a way to show the dangers associated with rising seas caused by global climate change. She walked and chalked seventy miles of New York City to generate a line that indicates where the floodwater will be when it rises ten feet.  As she walks the line, she learns about and speaks directly with members of local communities concerning the effects of global warming. Recently, I had the chance to speak with her at The Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum in Philadelphia, where the second of the following two videos was produced:



Walking, then, involves both predictable choices and unusual chances for exploring placescapes in either straightforward or more meandering ways.  When you are finished reading this brief meditation on ambulation and done with stationary “surfing” on the Internet, you might consider stepping outdoors and taking a line for a walk . . . or maybe going for a slow stroll with a curve.  Enjoy!



Photos:  (i)  Walking path on Route 352, near Penn State, Brandywine campus  (ii) Floor patterns, Lima, Peru  (iii) Clark Park, Philadelphia  (iv)  Gaudi architecture, Barcelona, Spain  (v) Hundertwasser building  (vi) Sidewalk, St. Petersburg, Florida  (viii)  Galway, Ireland  (ix)  Tom Marioni, "Walking Drawing" (x)  Painted line on sidewalk, San Francisco, CA. (xi)  Road, Northern Ireland. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Car walking



Here’s my small rant and photographic gesture of support for “car walking” and pedestrian power. When a vehicle encroaches onto or idles in a crosswalk at an intersection and doesn't back off or acknowledge your presence and his or her mistake with, say, a tip of the cap or another humble sign of recognition, I advocate walking on up over the hood of the car and continuing on your gallant way. If the driver happens to exit the vehicle with the intent to harm (because, well, some people seem to imagine their autos to be extensions of themselves), then they have just surrendered the perks of about 4,000 pounds of power, and you can choose from a repertoire of possibilities to put them comfortably on the road, preferably in either a supine or prone position. A well-placed boot usually does the trick. 


In Munich, Germany, one advocate for pedestrian rights has taken to the practice of car walking when vehicles park on the sidewalk.  He has also proceeded to challenge unruly motorists by walking slowly in the street to calm overzealous and speeding drivers, who threaten the safety of walkers and bikers.

Here are two videos about his actions:



What do readers think?  

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Walking Within Walking: On the Dilemmas and Delights of Repetition


As is wont to happen, we often find ourselves walking the same paths, treading well-worn trails to school, work, and the store, or setting out over recognizable sidewalks and streets for exercise or enjoyment. For some individuals, this recurrence can generate a form of boredom from which there is no apparent escape, while for others it seems to offer the quiet pleasures and familiar consolations associated with the rhythms of circadian life. How might we best think about and interpret these routes and routines? How do our personal and daily walks open a portal into the larger world that is walking, which may be governed by its own order and internal logic? 






At the very heart of human ambulation is repetition. Walking is by its very nature a repeated physical action. It is a perpetually revisited “falling,” coupled with an inveterate catching and “re-collection” of our tumbling momentum. In terms of biomechanics, there is always a cycling—or recycling—in operation of both the churning legs and turning arms.  The body, and the lower limbs especially, might even be envisioned as an unorthodox organic wheel that carries us across the unfolding landscape. 





Internal to the container of our own corporeal form, there is also a repetition of the beating heart and the pulsing breath, which moves through an incessant cycle of inhalation and exhalation. As the poet Jean Tardieu puts it, “In order to advance, I walk the treadmill of myself/Cyclone inhabited by immobility/But within, no more boundaries.”

Along the way, distinct styles of ambulation emerge through the force and frequency of our reduplicated steps. Repetition becomes the hallmark of the way we appear, the signature that we author each time we saunter—more “foot-writing” than “hand-writing” perhaps—as a continuously exhibited and soon-erased trace of our fleeting presence. Indeed, we recognize friends, family members, and “familiar strangers” at a distance by the manner in which they repeatedly walk, much as we identify and come to know them through their characteristic voices and gestures or the movements they manifest in other activities like eating, talking or dance. Style is our peculiar way of showing and issuing forth in the world, a trait involving individuality, affect, habit and nuance. There are, for example, those who demonstrably shuffle or bounce or sashay or strut, to name but a few styles. Monty Python’s skit, “The Ministry of Silly Walks,” is a humorous twist on this point.  Here is the episode:




We learn to recognize, too, the footfalls of those whom we may initially know more visually through their vertical posture or bodily comportment: that is, by the distinct sounds they generate in particular kinds of pacing or, say, the unique pressure of their heels clicking and clacking on wooden floorboards or the repeated squeaks and squishy glide of their approaching sneakers parading proudly down a tiled hallway.

Interestingly, we can pick out ourselves as well when viewing ambling styles on a video monitor, but as we walk we cannot generally see our own gait (even in a mirror) since the observing eye interferes and alters our natural movement. However, because we can recognize it on a screen (as silhouette), perhaps we have an immanent sense of the way our walk looks from the inside, so to speak. There is, in other words, a deep bodily connection at work. As the philosopher Alphonso Lingis has observed, “the body is the locus of a primary reflexive circuit doubling up into inner motor diagram and externally observable thing, each inscribing itself in the other.”




Repetition also occurs by way of the fact that we stride through particular and unique locales on a regular basis. We walk to the same subway or bus stop each day. We amble again down the halls of our work environments dozens of times every morning and afternoon. We stroll through our gardens, or we walk to our favorite cafés, parks or bars again and again. We take the dog out for his—and our—turn around the block once more. This repetition not only serves to conduct us across ground—to cover space as extension—but to deepen our engagement with and understanding of lived place, our inhabited and meaning-bearing surroundings. What from the “outside” (observer’s point of view) seems to be mere repetitiveness, from the “inside” (an experiential vantage) may suggest something else, or something more. Over time, it might lead to a transformation of consciousness—through discipline or a kind of askesis (ascetic practice)—and a new view of the world.

The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, was known for the regularity and predictability of his daily walks.  So reliable were his trips on foot through Königsberg that the eighteenth century residents of his neighborhood set their clocks to his passing. Although never traveling more than fifty miles from his birthplace—despite lecturing on the field of geography—Kant walked up and down a narrow half-mile street near his house up to eight times each day beginning exactly at 3:30 PM for nearly sixty years of his life. Breathing deeply with his mouth closed, wearing a long coat and cocked hat, and waving a rattan cane to both increase circulation in his body and to fend off talkative locals, he strolled on what cab drivers in the city (now Kaliningrad) presently call “The Philosopher’s Walk”.


“The purpose of walking in the open air,” Kant writes in The Conflict of the Faculties, “is precisely to keep one’s attention moving from one object to another and so to keep it from becoming fixed on any one object.” One may be tempted to speculate nevertheless that in Kant’s case we find an instance of what Freud diagnosed as “repetition compulsion” and later theorists extended into other formulations involving fixation.  After all, he did walk the very same route over and over again hundreds of thousands of times. But another way to perceive his repeated walks might be relative to either Kant’s philosophical approach or his personal temperament, both of which were given to extreme discipline, assiduousness, and attentiveness. Thinking and walking are decidedly different actions for him—the former having a clear and distinct object of focus and the latter none in particular—and when they occur in tandem, Kant believed, they can produce a dizzying, disorienting vertigo.


Like Kant and other philosophers such as Rousseau and Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard was an enthusiastic traveler by foot. The great Dane sauntered the streets of Copenhagen as a way to address or sublimate his experiences of melancholy and alienation and to compose many of his written works, which are now part of the Existentialist tradition. “Health and salvation can only be found in motion,” he proclaimed. “If anyone denies that motion exists, I do as Diogenes did, I walk.  If anyone denies that health resides in motion, then I walk away from all morbid objections.” Kierkegaard was also fascinated by the phenomenon of repetition, which may help to account for some of his passion for walking. “The love of repetition is the only happy love,” he confessed. Kierkegaard viewed repetition and recollection as sharing in the same movement although happening in different directions since “what is recollected has been, is repeated backward.” And whereas repetition is conducive to happiness and transition into the future, recollection causes us to be unhappy and is tied to the past. Similarly, with bodily ambulation one can discover and indulge in one’s bliss. As Kierkegaard avows, “If one keeps walking, everything will be all right.”



Repetition serves as a defining mark or essence of an entity or process. It involves a trait or quality that is identifiable—or seemingly so—over time: the refrain, mantra, image, or word that seizes our senses or settles into our memories and imagination. In the case of walking, such repetition can alight and express itself through the medium of the body or the vessel of place. But repetition need not be interpreted solely as numerical (as opposed to qualitative) sameness or self-sameness. Change is always in play and at work.  In a walk, however much we strive to recover, return to or recreate earlier conditions, it will be true that the path or weather or temperature are sure to be slightly distinct, as will be our evolving state of mind and subjective feelings. Therefore, as Kierkegaard notes, the only true and exact repetition is to repeat “the impossibility of repetition.” 




Repetition-with-difference provides a twist. In this regard, the coil or curve is perhaps somewhat akin to a Möbius strip, where the inside subtly turns and transitions to become the outside. There is continuity but also change, commonality as well as testament to difference. Gilles Deleuze, in fact, proposes a model of repetition as a system of relations that is similar to a spiral (as opposed to a simple circle), making possible new formations and metamorphoses rather than merely duplicating singularities or patterns or, alternatively, subsuming particulars under a universal—what he terms “bare repetition”. For Deleuze, repetition is related to a unique series of events or objects. He thus distinguishes a “qualitative order of resemblances,” which is represented by the image of a cycle, from a “quantitative order of equivalences,” which finds its symbol in equality.



Experientially, a sense of enchantment and a suggestion of the sensuous seem to be bound up with encounters of repetition.  We take delight in the presence of discernable patterns, colors, textures, sounds and smells. But we are also charmed by surprises that break the order, disrupt the familiar so as to interject wonder, awe or curiosity into our pathways.



One interesting instance of repetition is provided by the artist, Richard Long, who has devoted himself since the late 1960’s to exploring the aesthetic aspects of walking in the landscape through his environmental sculptures. The connection between sculpture and walking, in fact, is what art historian and critic, Lucy Lippard, claims as the source for considering walking to be an art rather than merely a performance. One of Long’s works, Line Made by Walking, for example, is a black and white photograph that depicts a path in the grass running through the center of the picture. It was “drawn” with his feet—via the repetition of his steps so as to suggest walking within walking itself—and appears both commonplace (pedestrian, ordinary) and yet oddly ambitious at the same time in marking the earth itself. In this regard, it gestures implicitly toward Robert Smithson’s well-known “Spiral Getty,” which itself is a walkable “pedestrian scale” path of rock and earth in the Great Salt Lake.



Playing on a sense of ambiguity through the intellectual beauty, singularity and visual clarity generated by a simple straight line, the work raises the question for us of whether the line is an enactment of walking—a performance in effect—or a sculptural trace of the repeated walking and, it demands of the viewer to engage in some interpretive thinking. Without describing the surroundings, a walk or anything else for that matter, the work also suggests some of the differences between traditional art-based aesthetics and emerging environmental aesthetics: first, it occurs outdoors (a larger context than the conventional art world of indoor museums and galleries); secondly, it is impermanent and temporary (in contrast to a typical striving for permanence in the art world); and, thirdly, it is practical in that one can put to use the path made by the walking (unlike most paradigmatic artworks.  

How, then, might we best find delight in the repetition afforded by familiar walks without succumbing to the trap of monotony? The poet W. H. Auden observes, “the ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition.” Whether this opposition is fully justified or not, varying walking surfaces and the times of day in which we amble about can surely contribute to a deepening sense of engagement with the surrounding landscape and place. The desire to repeat is often tethered to the desire to affirm, to say “yes” again and again to what we have experienced once before. But this same desire can also be yoked to a longing, a yearning for what is past and long gone. How we relate to the world of repetition depends in part upon whether we perceive ourselves as backpedaling, progressing forward creatively, or simply stepping sideways in the ever-fluctuating stream of time.  



Monday, July 15, 2013

Walking the sheep


This is the way we walk our sheep, walk our sheep, walk our sheep . . . so early in the morning! Apparently, some enterprising folk are renting out these wooly creatures as inexpensive and sustainable lawn mowers! One dollar per hour I've heard.  The sheep receive some healthy exercise while they freely feed.  And you get your grass cut along with a complementary conversation piece or a pleasant distraction for motorists and pedestrians who might pass by.  Here is a photo I snapped of some women walking their sheep near The Nature Institute and biodynamic farm in Hawthorne Valley, New York which I visited with friends.