Drifting and striding 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.

Thursday, September 26, 2013


(photo by Michelle Aldrege)

I’ve said this before so it must surely be true: that walking around art galleries and museums is a highly specialized, and often very odd, and sometimes downright absurd, form of pedestrianism.  If we accept that art has replaced religion for a lot of people, then art galleries become sites of non-specific “spirituality.”  Setting foot in the great Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London, or on the spiral slope of the Guggenheim in New York becomes a kind of secular walking pilgrimage.

This was in my mind even before I went to see the James Turrell retrospective currently on at the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art, but Turrell’s works create an even more specialized set of walking-related issues.  Much of his work requires the spectator to walk around a space and an environment, and sometimes that may be a dark, inchoate, Lynchian place; though admittedly some of Turrell’s other work also involves sitting in one place and zoning out, and one  piece in the current show involves lying flat on your back inside a metal sphere.

I’m pretty sure I first saw his work at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1993, which would have been an exhibition titled Air Mass.  I have very little recollection of it.  I seem to recall walking around on the flat concrete roof that they call the sculpture court, though what I was actually looking at has been erased from my memory.  I know there was nothing like the thing below, which featured in a different Hayward exhibition in 2013 titled Light Show.

Then I saw a number of his “skyspaces:” the first at MoMA PS 1 in Queens, the second in a private home in Brentwood, the third in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in Wakefield.  In each one, the spectator sits on a bench and looks up at the sky through a hole in the roof. 

You see changes in the light and the color of the sky, and more crucially you start thinking about your own perception of these changes, and about perception itself.  I suppose a person could walk around in these spaces but nobody ever seems to, and I suspect the other people in there would be mightily annoyed if you tried it.  Ditto if you take in your ghetto blaster.

The place in Yorkshire is called The Deer Shelter Skyspace, constructed in a disused 18th century deer shelter. I suppose I always knew that deer need shelter, like everybody else, but I had no idea that an 18th landowner would be inclined to build one for them.   The time I was there, it was a windy winter’s day, the sky was gray and you looked up through the aperture and saw birds or leaves or twigs flying across.  There was none of that solid, blue-field, computer screen effect that you get from a California sky, although the pictures on the YSP website show it precisely that way:

A visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park actually can involve a significant amount of walking since it covers 500 acres, with art works scattered throughout.  And when I was there looking at the deer shelter (and I suddenly realize it must have been as long ago as 2005), there was large  Turrell exhibition on there too.  Far and away the most impressive installation was a piece titled Blue Room, a pretty much self-explanatory title.  You stood and walked around in a space that looked exactly like this (that's my pal Steve on the far left):

There is something similar in the LA retrospective, titled Ganzfeld (which actually struck me as slightly over-deterministic title, with its overtones of perceptual psychology, sensory depravation tanks and what not - Blue Room seems to leave the viewer much freer). 

You’re only allowed into the Ganzfeld room as part of a small group, and for limited amounts of time, but the effect really is wonderful.  The room is essentially "featureless," a bit like a cinema, maybe a bit like a certain kind of minimalist architecture, and there’s nothing to “see,” so at first it’s completely and utterly disorienting – you feel like you’re just walking into space, into pure light.   But it’s hard to stand still, you feel compelled to walk around, noticing how the light changes, and how your perception of the space changes, you notice the structure of the room, you pace, you avoid the other people, and of course you can’t help thinking this would be so much better if you were there all by yourself.   Well, I believe Mr. Turrell is still taking commissions if you ask him nicely.  He does after all need the money for his Roden Crater Project.

Back in the 70s Turrell bought an extinct volcano in Arizona, (don’t you wish you could put something like that on your CV)?  The crater is three miles across and is part of Turrell’s 150 square miles ranch.  He’s spent the intervening years converting the volcano into a work of art, what is often described as a “naked eye observatory,” that will eventually have earthworks, tunnels, and sculptural buildings there too.  It sounds as though a lot of walking will be involved.

Obviously people must go there all the time, journalists, filmmakers, the guys who do the earth moving, but it’s not open to the public as yet, and since Turrell is seventy years old, my bet is he’ll die before he “finishes” it.  I imagine he wants it that way.

For now, however, you can walk around a large scale model of the thing (that's it above), in a room at LACMA.  I’m a big fan of all kinds of scale models and dioramas, and if there’s something faintly absurd about walking respectfully around a highly detailed miniaturized version of a lump of the Arizona desert, well, it’s the kind of walking absurdity I absolutely cherish.

Monday, September 23, 2013


As many readers will know by now, I really do like walking in the desert, for all kinds of reasons.  I’m not the world’s greatest animal lover and I certainly don’t go to the desert specifically to look at the wildlife, but even so, if you tread carefully and quietly it’s amazing what you can see. 

Still, it seems you rarely get close enough to take a really nice picture, unless as in the case below your faithful companion actually manages to (very, very gently) pick up the thing. 

That’s a horned toad, and certain species defend themselves by shooting blood from their eyes, but I guess this one was from another species, for which I was essentially grateful, though it must be quite a thing to see.

And recently I came across this from Popular Science, March 1931:

Arthur N. Pack, I discover, was a very serious and highly respected naturalist, but even so, I couldn't, still can't, believe that anybody could see him in this cactus costume without falling about laughing.  And in any case I wasn’t sure how it actually worked.  It struck me that both walking and seeing would be fairly difficult inside of that thing.  I assumed there had to be eyeholes but they’d surely give you a very limited view of the world.  And I had even less idea how you’d wield a camera.

Anyway, the Internet being what it is, I found this article (above and below) about Mr. Peck’s desert walking and photography, in an issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions, As with Popular Science, the magazine seems more interested in the apparatus than the end result: the cutaway image shows you more detail of how it supposedly worked. 

I still think it’d be pretty hard to take pictures from inside a fake cactus, especially since the camera looks to be fixed and immovable, though it does seem that Mr. Pack managed to take some pretty good, intimate photographs of desert critters.  But I absolutely don’t see how he could have taken those photographs at ground level.  Maybe he had a faithful companion, who perhaps dressed as a rock.

Thursday, September 12, 2013


I can’t remember exactly when I worked it out, but it seems that when I first arrived in Los Angeles I lived within walking distance of both Steve Vai and Robert Cray, a couple of wildly different, but indisputably mighty guitarists, admittedly ones I respect rather than love, but I did write about both them in a not quite forgotten book titled Big Noises.

 In any case, such is the nature of these things, I only realized they both lived in the area as they were moving out.  Keeping an eye on the property market is a major preoccupation in LA, even for people like me who have no intention of buying or selling a house, and of course there’s always the added value of a celebrity connection.  I only located the Vai and Cray houses because they were touted as desirable properties when they came up for sale.

Cray, it turned out, had been living in an “Enchanting one story European, private and custom home on huge lot w/almost 1 acre flat with pool. An island unto itself. 3 Bds. 21/2 Baths.L.R. has beamed ceilings. & Ariz. Flagstone F.P., Wood flrs.D.R. has adjct. patio bringing in the outdoors. Kitch. has Viking Range & Sub-Zero in pantry. Sep. office/gst.hse + office/studio. Master has secret garden w/spa. Rear patio has F.P. & B.B.Q. Huge driveway w/rm. for 8 cars. Wine cellar-Pool-Zinfandel Vines ready for harvest! Views of Griffith Observ.”  Blimey.  Who knew the blues was so profitable? Though to be fair he’d bought the house in 1997 for just $800,000.  A nice return.

Vai’s digs were “modest” by comparison, on sale for “just” a couple of million, featuring “open floor plan, views of Beachwood Canyon, four and a half baths, a den, and a patio, according to listing information. The house’s size is up for debate; public records say it measures 3,316 square feet, while listing information proclaims that it has 4,716 square feet.”  It also had a “top-of-the-line sound studio with a control room, a live room, and a mic room,” but then it would, wouldn't it?

Are Messrs. Vai and Cray great walkers?  Well, I’m guessing no, not really.  There’s an interview with Vai in which he says, “I am sort of a walking dichotomy.”  But that hardly counts. And at the end of his song “For the Love of God” there’s a voice over by David Coverdale, in which he intones, "Walking the fine line... between Pagan... and Christian.”  Vai allegedly recorded that piece on day 4 of a 10 day fast.  "I do try to push myself into relatively altered states of consciousness. Because in those states you can come up with things that are unique even for yourself.”  But why day 4 rather day 9 or 10, I have no idea.

         Cray performs a couple of walking-related songs. “I’m Walking” and “Walk Around Time” the latter of which includes the lyric
“Love can be easy
But the trust is hard to find
And all I need is some walk around time.”

Did Steve ever sling his Ibanez over his shoulder and stroll across to Robert’s place for a jam, or vice versa?   They surely could have, but I’m guessing they didn’t.  So I decided to make the journey on their behalf, to drift from the former Vai to the former Cray property. However, since this is really a pathetically short distance I decided to do a long detour that took me up to in Bronson Canyon and the “Batcave” as seen in the 1960s TV series, an old haunt for me.  I kept hoping that I’d find evidence that Vai or Cray were great Batman fans or had at least jammed together on the Batman theme.  Apparently not.

That’s Vai place above as it is now, and it presents a fairly blank and private face to the world.  On the other hand it is closely hemmed in on all side by other houses, and however good the studio’s soundproofing you have to imagine than when Stevie spanked his plank, the neighbors would have known all about it.  Still, at least you could have knocked on his front door and asked him to turn it down.

When Robert Cray (that’s his gaff above) turned it up to eleven, or even eight, you’d have had to scale a couple of fences and an earthwork before you could confront the man and try to do any “strong persuading.”

And I realized as well, that I’d walked past both these houses before, and I’d certainly not imagined that any great guitar heroics were going on inside, but that I suppose is just what you’d want if you were a guitar hero.

And so to the Batcave.  The weather report I’d read said the day was going to be comparatively cool but as I schlepped along the road into the canyon, and then along the dirt track that led to the “cave,” uphill all the way, it felt pretty darned hot.  Whenever I’d been there before, there had always been a few people around, often it seemed shooting some kind of amateur video using the Batcave as setting, but today there was absolutely nobody.  Maybe they’d all read a more accurate weather report.

But there was evidence of human presence.  Somebody, perhaps several people, with an arty bent, and at least a nodding acquaintance with the works of Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy (that's their work above) but with less lofty ambitions, had created some site-specific interventions, using the natural materials at hand.  First there was a stone circle:

And just as interesting, inside the cave, or tunnel, or whatever you want to call it, there were tiny constructions, involving piles of stones, miniature cairns,  and in one place a self-supporting arch, no bigger than your hand.  Anonymous art by unseen creators.  Clearly none of it was ancient or primitive, but it did seem somehow magical, evidence of “relatively altered states of consciousness” and also just a little unsettling.

Anyway, in due course the spell was broken.  Along came a hiker in a Batman tee shirt.  “Ah, you too have come to Mecca,” he said, and I didn’t argue with him.