‘What if I just don’t stop?’ I proposed to the counsellor. Genuine question veiled in rhetoric.
We had been talking through the difficulties of art and life. We agreed both were difficult, and not just for us – the difficulty was a common human problem – at once private and shared.
Those elongated pauses, those moments of solitude and silence – those pauses, the slowing of the pace, that was where the difficulty surfaced, where wounds and worries poured open.
The musician Bill Callahan said in an interview that “movement is life” (I think he mentioned someone else told him that), and I have always agreed (how important it seems to hear another verbalise your own feelings so succinctly – the importance of that reassurance that you are not alone or terrifyingly unique), so it makes sense to me that the proposition and possibility of death is strongest in our pauses.
From that one-hour session, things got serious. The work. The running. The two started to entwine and form their own relationship. I was the catalyst. Life (survival) the driver. Running the medium.
Geographic positioning is intrinsic to life (survival). We position our houseplants within our homes according to their wants (needs) – our best intentions played in order to encourage life (survival). We position ourselves according to our needs (wants) – our best intentions played in order to encourage life (survival). There is success and failure associated with the survival (life) of houseplants and us. I have never willed a houseplant to death (unsurvival).
Our existence owes to our planetary position within the solar system. Relatively, therefore,it should be difficult to believe that one is incorrectly physically positioned. It is even more difficult to believe that one has left part of themselves elsewhere. An important piece left on an island, sitting latent, on hold (engaged) – a body of emotion stranded approximately one hundred miles west-northwest.
It was the original intention for this piece of work to address these emotional and geographic inconsistences. The emotion was to be circled and enclosed. Boxed-off and compartmentalised. There was to be some artful cleverness (art ego-stroking interplay) linking physical and artful displacement with the need to displace oneself from living in the incorrect circumstance. That feeling of unstopping, of movement, was also due to be an integral part of the work, which would have seen the coastal path of the Isle of Anglesey being plotted, displaced (fig.1), and run in the Midlands. Satisfying the physical action. Tackling the feeling of displacement. Addressing and questioning the possibility of addressing the possibility of emotional distancing through a physical action performed at and of distance.
A migratory bird does so as it holds the belief (consciously or sub–) that its seasonal movement is its best geographical positioning for its survival. Sara Baume writes “The birds who cross great oceans have no gauge for measuring distance travelled; they can only determine where they are based on the amount of time that has passed. Some of them, the birders say, are able to read the surface of the sea as if it were a map. A map of no obvious contours or symbols. A massive, restless, churning map – its marks heavily congested, hieroglyphic.” (p.151, 2020)
I plotted my map, transposing the coastal route, forcing it into the post-industrial rises and falls (both economic and physical) of the West and East Midlands. The map became an important symbol, the mapped route intrinsic to the work – as Richard Long wrote of maps, “I can look at the planned future and the completed past. A map is light. A map could save my life.” (p.300, 2017) – although we might mean in different senses regarding maps saving lives, myself and Long both agree at least on the fundamental principle of that concept.
I planned. I would begin at this time on this date. I would arrive here. I would meet you here. I would stay there. I would leave at this time. I would arrive at this. I would rest here. I would eat there. I would sleep here. I would see this. I would experience that. My art would be this. My art would mean that.
It became too much. The process of planning timings, planned starts and stops, rests, periods of movement – it was at odds with my natural attraction to art, and I was losing sight of the reason for running and for being involved – but also, these attempts to alter those natural impulses were useful in informing and justifying to myself why I approach these matters in the way that I always have. It has never been about the result, but about the results of reaching the result. I find the act of living to be more important than the having lived – survival more important than having survived.
I stated previously that the work had become serious. Studs Terkel wrote in his introductory text to his book Working, “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body. … To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.” (p.xi, 1972) – my work had become serious out of necessity – without it, surviving the day (every day) was a precarious uncertain proposal.
For me, that violence against the spirit that Terkel described is a necessity for continued living – it is the contrast of that violence against spiritual hope that makes each day the next, and as Robert Adams said of art and hope, “Art has traditionally been the intuition, however incomplete, of a larger perspective, one that allows hope.” (p.24, 2006). We can also link hope to beauty, and again looking to Adams, in his book Art Can Help (itself titled an excellent understatement), “More than anything else, beauty is what distinguishes art. Beauty is never less than a mystery, but it has within it a promise.” (p.9, 2017)
My planning and consideration of physical practicalities did not feel beautiful –if anything, they were a barrier, a binding rope constricting the development of metaphor – and I hold firm the belief that the most beautiful art is metaphoric in both its meaning and physical properties. Abstraction is the space in which metaphor (and therefore beauty) both grows and resides, and of abstract art Agnes Martin wrote “…abstract art is thematic. It holds meaning for us that is beyond expression in words.” (p.124, 2015)
To achieve the meaning that Martin alludes to, I realised that I needed to seek abstraction. I cast away the plans. I would address my interest in emotional geography by acknowledging my disinterest in physical concerns.
I ran (fig.2).
Over the course of seven days, I ran a non-predetermined route (fig.3) – stopping to rest when my body required (as opposed to when I expected it to require rest), taking stock and pause at those times that felt correct, emotionally and spiritually, and moving geographically according to nothing except will and hope, feeling the beauty held within a daily life being lived as art.
Returning to Baume, I was a migratory bird, my “massive, restless, churning map” held within, internal, and crossing my own great ocean (houseplants watered – no desire for those to die) with nothing but a sense of self-imposed purpose, the violence that Terkel described being performed as only a positive action – the reconfiguring of a spirit worn down by daily tasks, being willingly violently altered by uncomplication, purpose, beauty, and hope – an alteration only possible for me through truly living life as art – being and feeling truly present is itself a work of art.
Life, as art, is a process. Robert Fritz writes “One way painters develop their ideas is through sketching. Before they begin to work on the full and final canvas, they often do many sketches to learn more and more about their vision. As you begin to develop your ideas about your life, you can conduct little experiments similar to an artist making sketches.” (p.23, 2003) My work is not complete. Each work continues from the last, building upon it, contradicting it, developing new work and understanding the purpose of the previous more – each work is a sketch of survival, and I am learning with each how to continue to live.
Returning home, I reflected upon my action, the run. I was taken back to the counselling session. For the seven days, I had not stopped living artfully. Every action I had performed, the running, eating, resting, washing clothes in hotel room sinks, developing systems for drying clothes within those rooms, had been performed as part of the work. My basic survival had become the work.
“What if I just don’t stop?” I asked myself. Genuine question, rhetoric surrendered.
“You’ll never fall.”, my reply.
Although the idea of continuous movement equates, for me, to sustained artfulness and survival, I am aware of its shortcomings. As humans, we require some degree of stability to fall in love. That is, to fall in love with a place to settle, to fall in love with a person to settle with – as a practice for life, continued running, and its associated geographic upheaval, would not allow these things to occur. This is a point of running being a physical action that is in opposition to walking. Walking, one is allowed to enjoy their surroundings, to examine them, to take the time to fall in love with them. (Take Hamish Fulton’s Seven Days Walking and Seven Nights Camping in a Wood Scotland March 1985 (fig.4) – which offers the viewer an opportunity to (relatively) slowly fall in love with the act and specific pieces of it – the quantity of information placed within his lines offers an initially slower piece than my own, which is stripped of such information – an attempt to echo my quickened act, which relies on reflection afterwards, rather than during.) Running, with its quickened pace and heightened heart rate and flowing adrenaline does not allow such a thing to occur. Should running become the mantra for one’s life, love will not occur.
Contradiction therefore was essential. I required the piece to celebrate survival, to appreciate the beauty within sustained physical activity (as a means for survival, as a means for being truly present), and to allow the viewer space to consider the metaphor of the action of the run. I also required the piece to be critical of itself and of running (as art and life practice). Most importantly, I sought to make the physical manifestation of the metaphor something that the viewer could take pause aside and within, despite the process behind the piece requiring that no pauses be taken, again contradictory as it is pauses that could be severely dangerous with regards to survival (of artist and the work).
I recorded my mantra for the piece. (fig.5)
“You’ll never fall. You’ll never fall if you don’t slow down. You’ll never fall in love if you don’t slow down. You’ll never fall in love with a place if you don’t slow down. You’ll never fall.”
I took the soundwave of the recording, measured the distance between its peaks and troughs – the action and the pause – and drew my lines (sometimes erroring – acceptable (in that acceptance/allowance of flaw is important to me), not encouraged) – this repetitive, systematic action echoing that of the act of running.
The resulting physicality (fig.6), which is the representation, the trace, and the reflection of the work, offers both pause and movement, balance and calm. There is consistency and distance. Information and space. Literality and metaphor. It is an attempt to offer language to an act that strikes a deep emotional chord within my being. It is a continuation and continuance (of work and life) – my lines are pencil drawn in the interest of temporality. Meditation and mediator of life and death. The lines and the work are both framed (literally, physically) in isolation – a conscious choice to introduce geometric borders around a wandering act/idea, the experience of which bears enough weight to me to warrant compartmentalisation, but only with the understanding that I will look to further my language and relationship with the prospect of survival. The frame is temporary, I hope.
Adams, R., (2004), Along Some Rivers, Aperture Foundation (New York)
Adams, R., (2017), Art Can Help, Yale University (Connecticut)
Baume, S., (2020), Handiwork, Tramp Press (Dublin)
Fritz, R., (2003), Your Life As Art, Newfane Press (Vermont)
Fulton, H., (1985), Seven Days Walking and Seven Nights Camping in a Wood Scotland March 1985, Screenprint on paper, 61.4x94.7cm, Tate Britain (London)
Long, R., (2017), Stones Clouds Miles - A Richard Long Reader, Ridinghouse (London)
Martin, A., (2015), Agnes Martin, Tate Publishing (London)
Terkel, S., (1972), Working, The New Press (New York)