Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Friday, October 2, 2015


I often say (I mean often enough that it probably irritates people) that you can’t walk in the same street twice.  Then I add that you can’t walk in the same street once.  This is about as Zen as I ever get.  And there’s a street in Hollywood, Franklin Avenue THAT I walk down all the time, I mean really all the time, and suddenly a couple of days ago saw something, arguably two things, that I’d never seen, or at least noticed, before.  There was a doorway situated between a couple of eateries (Birds and The Bourgeois Pig, with mysterious stairs leading up into darkness and a sign saying Duarte Salon.

I found this intriguing, and so, being a man who expects too much, I imagined the Duarte Salon was some kind of decadent Bohemian hangout where louche types lolled on velvet couches and sipped absinthe.  Well, that’s too much imagination you’ve got the Geoff.  Duarte Salon, I discover online, is a fancy hairdressers offering, in addition to the old cut and blow, trichological services and the revolutionary technique of "X-presion Creativos."

So, not much there for me, but curiously, and maybe you spotted it at once - whereas it’s taken me about 10 years – there’s a bit of street art next to the door, that I assume is the work of Invader.

You may remember Invader, if you remember him at all, from the Banksy documentary Exit Via the Gift Shop.  He’s a Frenchman who goes around the world making and installing mosaics, some of them very small, some less so.  But in general his work is so discreet and it’s hard to imagine anybody objecting to it, which is no doubt why it tends to remain in place for so long.  Also possibly because many people, myself included in this case, don’t even know it’s there.

In fact his website suggests that I walk past his lots of his work all the time.  He’s got a couple of mosaics stuck on the Hollywood sign for instance, though admittedly not many people get to walk very close to the Hollywood sign.

But there are also these two right on Hollywood Boulevard, never seen by me till now. I guess there’s so much happening at street level there that few people ever look up. 

Anyway, having spotted the Duarte/Invader nexus I continued walking around my ‘hood and spotted another sign I’d never seen before, this one:

To be fair to myself this one actually was brand new, and similar ones had gone up all over the local streets in just the past few days.  Clearly it’s meant to stop people feeding coyotes, which are a bit of a thing in the neighbourhood – you sometimes see them walking down the middle of the street – and obviously a menace if you own a small appetizing pet. 
But it does of course beg the question of how we define “wildlife.”  Is somebody going to be going to jail for feeding squirrels?  Hummingbirds?  I have been known inadvertently to feed raccoons when the little bastards came and ate all the tomato plants.  And deer in my experience will eat pretty much everything that grows in a garden.  The courts would surely cut me some slack.  The people who put up this sign (again one I’d never seen before) seem like they might be less forgiving.

Sunday, September 27, 2015


Let me begin by quoting Homer Simpson (or at Tim Long who wrote the lyrics) and his song “I Love to Walk”  - ironic, huh?

Oh, I love to perambulate,
It's standing still I really hate.
So let me please reiterate:
I love to—

I’ll eventually explain the relevance of that remark.

I’m always interested in the odd way that people walk in art galleries – soberly, quietly, with reverence, a little hesitantly, showing off the fact that they’re serious about this whole art business.  And I’m no different.  My walking in art galleries is as inauthentic as anybody else’s.  But the consequence is that after about an hour of this kind of non-standard walking your feet are sore, your legs and back are aching, and you’re in need of a sit down in the museum cafe.  If you’d done an hour’s walking in the real world you’d be fine, but a short walk on the hard floors of a gallery just gets to you.

One “art space” I know where things are very different is the Noah Purifoy Foundation in Joshua Tree, a ten acre open air desert sculpture park (so much more fun than that sounds) where you tread the sand of the Mojave desert.  Walking around there is somehow very much easier.

Lately however, there’s been a Noah Purifoy show at the LACMA (that’s the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – a name they rarely use cos I suspect they think it sounds a bit square).  This exhibition partly involved bringing some of the outdoors in.   Certain of Purifoy’s outdoor works had been transported to the museum gallery from the desert. 

Frankly I was a bit worried about this, I thought the move to the interior of a formal art gallery might diminish Purifoy’s work.  And certainly I think the works they’ve got at LACMA look as though they’ve been seriously cleaned up, a thing that Purifoy himself never did to them.  

On balance I think the exhibition just about got away with it.  I think the sculptures look very much better out in the wilds, in their natural habitat, but they still look pretty good in a museum too. 

LACMA wasn’t crowded on the day I was there, and of course I looked closely at at Noah Purifoy’s art, but inevitably I also observed the few other people in the gallery, seeing at how they walked.  And I was looking at this one guy – surprisingly well-developed calves (maybe walkers’ calves), and with a Band-Aid on one shin. 

And blow me down – I suddenly realized it was Dan Castellanata – the guy who voices Homer Simpson.  I was far too cool to go over and talk talk to him, but I was quite uncool enough to sneak a picture of him as I was photographing some of Purifoy’s work.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


You remember me going on, some while back, about “desire lines” - also sometimes known as “bootleg trails” (a term which I like a lot) – informal paths created by walkers as an alternative and sometimes as a downright challenge to the formal paths by and planners and landscapers.  Well, once you start looking, these things are everywhere of course, and as I roam around I see them all the time.  This one here is in Salt Lake City (and actually leads to a labyrinth):

And I found this rather less developed one in Ely, Nevada (birthplace of Patricia Nixon) which runs around the side of the public library and didn’t seem actually to be very useful but somebody must think it is otherwise it wouldn’t be there (you can’t argue with desire):

 As a matter of fact Ely also has a labyrinth.  There may be something going on here, right?

Meanwhile at CalArts where I am a very occasional adjunct professor (yep, I have been known to get emails addressed to Professor Nicholson which really is unutterably cool), the landscapers (or maybe just gardeners) have been working to destroy, or at least erase, a desire line I wrote about in that previous blog post.
First there was, and is, a formal paved, in fact cobbled, path leading from the dorms and the lower parking lot up to the main buildings, and as can you see there was then a desire line somewhat further along the bank.

Well, the cobbled path is still there of course but the desire line has gone.  That area has been mulched.  I’m not sure why.  It was just a bit of grass that didn’t seem in need of mulching – but maybe it was too hard to cut the grass there. 

Anyway, it’s clearly quite hard to walk on mulch but I think the irresistible forces of desire are already at work and, to my eyes anyway, a new desire line appears to be forming.  We shall see.  And I’ll keep you informed.   
That other post is here:

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Sunday, September 13, 2015


I was in Utah to see, and walk on, Robert Smithson’s mighty piece of land art, Spiral Jetty, built in 1970 at Rozel Point on the Great Salt Lake, about a 100 miles from Salt Lake City.  It’s Smithson’s masterpiece I think, although given that he died comparatively young, in a small plane crash, in Texas, while scoping out the site for another work, who knows what else he might have achieved?

Spiral Jetty is, I suppose, an earthwork, or possibly a causeway, 6000 tons of basalt arranged in a 1,500-foot long, 15-feet-wide counterclockwise, swirl.  It isn’t always easy to see.  As the lake’s waters rise it may become invisible: 4,195 feet is the crucial number, and there’s a handy website waterdata.usgs.gov which tells you the level.  In fact it was under water for the best part of 30 years - but these days of drought have made things much easier.  Not entirely however.  I’d tried to go earlier in the year but was driven back by terrible rain and rising waters.  No such problems in September 2015 however.

The lake was low, and Spiral Jetty was a long way from any water.  It was just an arrangement of black rocks on the salt flat.  That was pretty cool too, though it affected the way you engaged with it.  If the water was surrounding it you’d be forced to walk on the rocks themselves, but since the water was out, I and the others I saw there (a total of four people) walked on the lake bed, inside the spiral, as it were, rather than on it.  It was much easier that way, and certainly one of the girls I saw there, in flip-flops, would have had an impossible time negotiating the basalt.

Of course Spiral Jetty  is big in one sense, but compared to the overall size of the whole lake it seems pretty small.  And so having walked in, or on the jetty, you inevitably start walking across the lake bed itself.  You might do this even if there was no Smithson work nearby, but its presence changes everything.  Random chunks of old wooden (non-art) jetty, and industrial detritus were sticking out of the land, but they suddenly looked very much like art too.  And earlier visitors had evidently been inspired also to become artists of a sort, rearranging rocks, writing things in the sand.  I like to think Smithson would have been perfectly happy with this.

         Smithson was at least somewhat concerned with walking.  The 1971 movie Swamp, a collaboration with his wife Nancy Holt, has the two of them tramping through the wilds of the New Jersey wetlands.  

           His essay titled “Frederick Law Olmstead and the Dialectical Landscape” (don’t you just hate it when artists use the word dialectical, unless maybe it’s ironic?) describes a walk in Central Park, where at one point he encounters a “sinister looking character” whom he fears is going to steal his camera – he doesn’t – and Smithson heads off into an area of the park known as The Ramble “a tangled net of divergent paths.”

Smithson writes, ”Now the Ramble has grown up into an urban jungle, and lurking in its thickets are ‘hoods, hobos, hustlers, and homosexuals,’ (I’m pretty sure he’s quoting John Rechy) and other estranged creatures of the city ... Walking east, I passed graffiti on boulders.  Somehow I can accept graffiti on subway trains but not on boulders  … In the spillway that pours out of the Wollman Memorial Ice Rink, I noticed a metal grocery cart and a trash basket half-submerged in the water. Further down, the spillway becomes a brook choked with mud and tin cans. The mud then spews under the Gapstow Bridge to become a muddy slough that inundates a good part of The Pond, leaving the rest of The Pond aswirl with oil slicks, sludge, and Dixie cups,”

Well, the land around the Spiral Jetty is very clean and free of litter though there is oil oozing up from the lakebed.  I guess that’s a “natural” process.  Certainly nobody has desecrated Smithson’s art with graffiti, though I imagine its guardians live in constant fear of that.
         Spiral Jetty strikes me as those great works of art that isn’t “about” anything: it simply is.   And merely by existing it raises and exemplifies all kinds of issues about land usage, time, mortality, change, nature and culture, entropy and so on.  But of course art always come out of something else.

Phyllis Tuchman who (with Gail Stavitsky) created the exhibitionRobert Smithson’s New Jersey,” at the Montclair Art Museum, in 2014 reckons that Smithson was at least partly inspired by the Lincoln Tunnel connecting Manhattan with Weehawken, specifically by its exit/entrance ramp on the New Jersey side known as (would you believe, or maybe everybody knows this already) the Helix.

We’re also told, in an article Smithson write titled “The Crystal Land” (a nod to JG Ballard no doubt) that he and the sculptor Donald Judd, and their wives, once drove though the tunnel together and admired its minimalist qualities.  Smithson writes, “the countless cream colored tiles on the wall sped by, until a sign announcing New York broke the tiles’ order”

Now, as it happens, there was a period of my life when I took a bus once a week in either direction through the Lincoln Tunnel.  I could see that the long curving ramp (I certainly never thought of it as a helix) was quite a feat of engineering, although my admiration rather evaporated as the bus regularly got stuck there in traffic for 30 to 60 minutes.  I certainly noticed the tiles, but what really got my attention as an enthusiastic pedestrian was that raised walkway you can see on the right-hand side of the tunnel. 

I always wondered in what circumstances members of the public would be allowed to walk through the tunnel: I imagined only in the event of some kind of catastrophic traffic pile up.   I assumed the walkway was used by maintenance workers but I never, ever saw one of them walking there.

         In fact there are circumstances in which the tunnel is open to pedestrians, the annual Lincoln Tunnel Challenge, a race through the tunnel from Weehawken to New York and back again.  They have about 3000 competitors.  Elephants have also been known to walk there.

I’m sure Spiral Jetty looks different every day and at different times of the day, and obviously it’s completely transformed by the presence or absence of water.  And possibly it looks best of all from a helicopter: Smithson certainly filmed it from up there, but that does mean you lose the opportunity for a good walk.