Artist Introspectives

The Practice of Walking: Somewhere Near Zabar’s

W 188th Street, Manhattan, 2017. Image credits: Pascal Troemel.

I’m sick as a dog at noon on a Sunday. Though I haven’t ventured far from the bed, walking is still on my mind. Earlier this month, on Friday, April 14th—otherwise known as Good Friday—I walked the length of Manhattan from dawn until dusk, following Broadway from its start at Bowling Green to the northern tip of the island in Inwood Park, a distance of approximately thirteen miles.

I have integrated durational walking into my practice for years as a framework for seeing, using photography as a catalyst and tool. New York is an ideal city for walkers, one characterized by the duality of anonymity and hard-won sites of personal significance. “Space is a practiced place,” as Michel de Certeau writes in The Practice of Everyday Life; it is a reminder of the personal maps we create for ourselves as we navigate the city on a daily basis. By walking the length of Broadway in one day, I continued a yearly tradition started in 2014, where historically the only parameters have been a set route and heightened awareness, embracing the intersection of chance and habitual action.

Beyond seeing, I have also come to understand the importance of walking as a practice in or critique of being seen. Garnette Cadogan writes about discovering the freedom of walking as a kid in Kingston, Jamaica, and the realities of his adapted movement when “Walking While Black” in America. Listening to a radio show recently, I also heard a male author (and insomniac) of European descent describe the self-assured quiet of his late-night walks through Manhattan—a feeling unknown to others because of gender or race. As a white woman, there are certain subjectivities I cannot claim. But this year I planned to move a step beyond the experience of observer, to create a more visible separation and possibly unsettling effect, emphasizing the shift to witness.

Walker Street, 2017. Image credit: Erin Sweeny.

Walking as a poetic and, at times, political act is widely recognized in the approach of contemporary artists such as Francis Alÿs, Janet Cardiff, and Richard Long in works using symbolic gestures, audio tracks and natural materials, respectively. Such works were an entry point for me, revealing how the experience of movement could be framed in a myriad of ways. While the resulting works may be concrete, the presence of the artist is fleeting by design. In stark contrast lies the walking—crawling, rather—projects of William Pope.L, whose primary intent was to move slowly and painfully in situations uncomfortable for both artist and viewer in order to “provoke acknowledgement and reconsiderations of social inequity, homelessness, and abjection.”

While the resulting works may be concrete, the presence of the artist is fleeting by design

The best known of Pope.L’s crawling performances is The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street (2001-2009), which is notable in relation to my own practice as Pope.L followed a similar route to the one I walked last week—though he would travel it dressed in a Superman costume with a skateboard strapped to his back in lieu of a cape, crawling the entirety of Broadway in segments over the course of nine years. In explanation, Pope.L noted that, “In New York, in most cities, if you can remain vertical and moving you deal with the world; this is urban power. But people who are forced to give up their verticality are prey to all kinds of dangers.” The title of his project references the socio-economic contradictions of Broadway, blatantly addressing the underbelly of a street more often recognized as a symbol of the city’s wealth, glitz and glamour.

While my own costume and approach were far more understated, the core aim was similar in terms of the desire to witness and absorb the spectrum of realities in this practiced place. I dressed in black, my face vaguely painted with a ghostly wash of white. Around my neck I’d wrapped a sizeable bundle of fabric to be knotted along the route, a means of tracking distance that also served as a large scarf to hide behind in the early hours of the walk (and on the J train at 5am as I felt others’ eyes on me). Walking from the subway to Battery Park, I arrived at The Sphere just before sunrise, noting the quiet of the plaza that would soon be filled with a throng of tourists in their foam Lady Liberty visors. Then I was off, slowly and silently, heading out of the park and up Broadway towards the Charging Bull and his newest foe.

Untitled, 2017. Image credit: Pascal Troemel.

In past years, I’ve documented or gathered materials as a means of synthesizing the experience and encounters of long walking. This year, while it lasted, the knotted material served as its own record of those first hours as I walked through Wall Street, TriBeCa and SoHo. Small knots for each block, double knots for major intersections: Canal, Houston, East 14th. In addition, there was the surprising freedom of silent interactions with both strangers and friends along the route, including one MTA employee in his bright orange vest who just needed an ear on the corner of Broadway and W. 125th. As I passed through Times Square, another woman with teased hair and frosted lipstick pointed me out to her friends as “the rosary gatherer.” While some eyed my presence with skepticism and most with indifference in a city that has seen it all, others embraced it as an invitation.

While some eyed my presence with skepticism and most with indifference in a city that has seen it all, others embraced it as an invitation

But the experience is distilled down into one interaction for me, somewhere near Zabar’s on Broadway and W. 80th. An older gentleman was walking with a rolling cart containing his few groceries. He wore a newsboy cap and walked slowly—very slowly—slightly bent forward over his cart. My intention had been to walk at a similar pace, but I needed a reference point to slow down. Following at a respectable distance, I matched my gait to his. Separately but together, we walked. I tried to put myself in that body, feeling the pull of his shoulders and the slight tilt of his head, his slow but steady way. I continued that way for a few blocks, before breaking step and soon passing my unwitting teacher with a silent word of thanks.