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.

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


The rhyming kind.  (Well, almost).

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.

Friday, September 11, 2015


If you’re one of those people who likes walking, deserts and ruin (and I think you know that I do), then why not leave your sun-drenched patio, hop in the Jeep and drive to Hinckley, in Utah?  There, just a little way outside of town, you can stroll among the remains of the Delta Solar Project.  I just did it.  It’s a more or less 1100 mile round trip from were I live.  Maybe you live closer.  Maybe you live further way.  But in any case, it’s well worth the effort to get there.

I was hipped to the place by the wonderful website Atlas Obscura, a celebration of, and information source for, a great many things I love:  ruins, ghost towns, eccentric museums, curiously absurd tourist attractions, and whatnot.  The website says:  “Conventional solar energy collection is generally done via the use of fragile and expensive solar panels which require a great deal of time to collect energy in relation to the amount of usable energy returned. However the engineers with the Delta Solar Project developed a new way to harness the sun's energy using cheaper materials and a much more basic principle. Using satellite-like arrays which would follow the arc of the sun during the day, cheap plastic panels impregnated with magnifying elements would shoot intensified rays of sunlight into a crucible of combustible material which in turn created steam to power a generator.”

Well, this begs a lot of questions, the first being (in my mind anyway) what exactly do they mean by “combustible material”?  Coal?  Animal dung? My less than exhaustive research suggests that one of the proposed materials was molten sodium, but I think there were others.  RaPower3 Technology, who developed the idea, are still in business and their website talks enthusiastically about heat exchangers, jet-propulsion turbines, and photovoltaics (CPV).  It also sounds as though they'd like you to invest some money with them.  Maybe you'd like that too.

The principles sound convincing enough to the know-nothing layman (that would be me), and maybe this is the future, but right now the place in Hinckley looks more like the remnants of an overambitious piece of land art, or a neglected funfair, something futuristic from the age of wire and string.  The effect is simultaneously playful, sad, not really threatening but not wholly benign.  And the experience isn’t merely visual; a mournful groaning sound drifted through the site when I was there, not quite mechanical, not quite animal, but sentient, a spook in the machine.  The sails or lenses or whatever you want to call them, were swaying in the wind, not all that gently, and it didn’t seem impossible that some chunk of metal or plastic might come crashing down on the unwary trespasser.

And once you looked more closely it seemed that the place wasn’t so much ruined as simply abandoned, shrugged off, as though the technicians and the workers had got out of there in a hurry, leaving plenty of good stuff behind, a generator, a circular saw, construction materials, and a lot of vehicles, one of which was a crane marked as a vehicle belonging to the Marines.  

         As I was walking around the site, two pick up trucks arrived: one average size, one massive, and I wondered if somebody was coming to tell me to clear off, but no, the guys in the trucks were Mexicans, come to scavenge the site, and one of them waved to me in a cheerful way and I knew I wasn’t going to get told off after all.

For all I know, RaPower3 Technology may be a viable solution to America’s energy problems.  Their version of solar power would supposedly take up far less land than the vast solar panel farms currently eating up vast expanses of the deserts of the American West.  The Center for Land Use Interpretation (an LA based, deadpan, ironic and surprisingly fun “research organization dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge about how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived”) has been tracking these things, and the latest edition of their newsletter “The Lay of the Land” says that at current levels of efficiency solar panels would need to be covering 10,000 square miles of the landscape to take care of America’s energy needs.

I’ve tried to love these solar farms but so far I’ve failed.  They continue to strike me as a terrible desecration of the land.   However, one thing I feel reasonably certain about sooner or later, by some method or other, these things will become obsolete, the technology will improve, smaller, more efficient solar farms will be able to get the job done.  This sounds like a good thing, but it does raise the question of what will happen to all those occupied square miles.   History suggests that not all energy producers are very keen on cleaning up after themselves.  It’s easy to imagine thousands of square miles of solar ruin.   I hope I live long enough to be able to walk among them.

The Atlas Obscura website is here:

The Center for Land Use Interpretation site is here: