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The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

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MAR 2020 Issue
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Walking as Praxis

Julie Poitras Santos, Still from <em>The Conversation</em>, 2019, 12:30 minute video. Courtesy the artist.
Julie Poitras Santos, Still from The Conversation, 2019, 12:30 minute video. Courtesy the artist.

I started walking as an artist in 2005 as a way to experience a kind of freedom, to feel my body as an agent of transport and discovery in the world. This “world” involved not only a research-oriented approach to site-specificity but the communitas found with other walkers, with groups on the move together, and the potential of learning from each other through storytelling and other knowledge-sharing practices. Walking is one of the best ways I know to learn a place; it allows me to slow down to the pace of three to four miles per hour and, given alertness in the senses, register more. It is also one of the best ways I know to have a conversation, to allow for the rhythms and pauses of ideas to be exchanged and unfold in real time. This exchange operates whether cultivating stories as an artwork in relationship to site, or walking down a main street with a collective in protest; it has something critical to do with the human scale of walking and its relationship to our agency as human beings.

Walking appears to inscribe itself in the horizontal movement across spaces, a form of inscription readily aligned with mark making and drawing, a kind of writing with the body. Simultaneously, that writing is also inscribed on the body; the subject who makes the mark is also marked. It isn’t a huge leap to recognize the arrogance of colonial mentalities that approach place as a kind of blank for this inscription, yet I’ve begun thinking about how walking can perform a resistance to those claiming texts and the relentless race to fast approaching end-horizons by reading what is already there; to consider instead the potential of walking to enact a slower, more vertical approach to space and time. For one, walking does not provide the speed-induced high of airplane travel or accelerating cars on the highway and all the consumptive, resource-wasting realities of these faster modes of transport. Walking instead might be said to offer a means toward a deeper, more personal engagement with the sustaining contexts we inhabit, one that considers the presence of meaningful, historical layers and our communities.

In two recent works, I have investigated the potential of the vertical as a tool for thinking about site. Walking the forest imaginary: a breath between us (2019) is a permanent site-specific audio artwork in Alingsås Nolhaga Park in Sweden that regards the ancient and present role of moss in creating oxygen and storing carbon. The artwork invites participants to wander mossy pathways through the woods while listening to a hybrid essay culled from research, on-site investigation, and poetic fragments. A parallel work, The Conversation (2019), is a 12-minute video that places an intimate philosophical conversation between friends in the context of a forest, and in particular the alternate spaces and time scales of the miniature worlds of moss. Inviting viewers to slow down, both works explore our most intimate and dependent relationship with this small organism underfoot, and consider alternate ways to envision our relationship to time. Each work regards the way in which ancient mosses contributed to the oxygenated environment that made mammal life possible and how contemporary mosses register air quality, providing legible accumulations—inscriptions—within the organism. The Conversation also reveals the action of moss in building stratigraphic soil layers over time, the very earth we walk on.

In these recent works, the intimacy of our breath operating as a form of dialogue with bryophytes is revealed to participants and viewers through the act of slowing down to the pace of walking, and as a means to intuit the timescales of moss. One is reminded of the animate layers of soil we walk and live on daily. While the extractivist tendencies of commercial forms of geology cannibalize the vertical landscape in an extremist form of self-destruction that we are all witting or unwitting participants in, thinking through the vertical as a temporal and spatial tool can offer us a means to stop and reflect on earthly histories in place. Thinking through the vertical reveals the importance of those histories to our literal livelihoods and presents clues to moving forward as we encounter increasingly radical shifts caused by climatic changes. Walking can offer a means to understanding our intimate relationship with the contexts we live in that sustain us. Paradoxically, the act of going slow can address a real urgency to learn from the world in order to navigate the changes we will inhabit in a radically uncertain future.


Julie Poitras Santos

is an artist and writer living in Portland, ME. She is the Director of Exhibitions in the ICA at Maine College of Art.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

All Issues