Just Walk Out
A 40-Mile, 40-Person, Radically Open-Ended Experiment in Public Art
In 1990, the king of Belgium, a professed Catholic, was faced with a choice. He could oppose an abortion law by refusing to sign it or he could go against his personal beliefs and put his name to it. As a monarch in a democracy, the king, Baudouin, was in a funny position already; his signature was little more than a formality. But what he did next made a radical sort of sense: He resigned his throne for one day so that another man could take the throne, sign the law, and then restore Baudouin to his rightful position the next day. Rather than choose between bad options, the king simply walked out on his life until the moment passed. The Belgian artist Carsten Höller was inspired by the situation and wrote later:
The solution to this dilemma is ingeniously simple. It is a short-term deviation from your usual behaviour, a shift in character for the sake of avoiding producing something you don't want to produce, a refusal in time to be the professional you usually are. It is as if you would cut off a continuous line of being. Stop, and start again? Not a change in what you do, but to include an alien moment of not doing.
From this inspiration, the artist created The Baudouin Experiment: A Deliberate, Non-Fatalistic Large Scale Group Experiment in Deviation (2000), which gathered 200 people in a contained set of rooms for 24 hours and asked nothing of them but to leave their outside lives for that time, "to experience with others the possibility of getting away from what you usually are."
A new art project led by Susan Robb and Stokley Towles took the premise of walking out on your life literally, as well as figuratively. It was called The Long Walk. Forty people who didn't know each other up and marched out of Seattle two hot, dry weekends ago. We started at a Starbucks parking lot on Lake City Way and proceeded 40 miles on foot to the parking lot next to Snoqualmie Falls, the miles spread over three long, exhilarating, dehydrating, skin-cooking, tarsal-abusing days spent on idyllic trails with eagles and vistas of Mount Rainier, or squeezed on the shoulders of murderously busy roads, or following paths for miles just a block off main drags, where we could see car-repair joints and diners and drugstores—the days punctuated by crawling into tents in public parks and sleeping like stones at night.
After all that, we mounted a bus. It took 40 minutes to get home. This stretching and condensing of time and space, the great illogic of this brief move from motor to foot, shocked the brain. (Some walkers complained that the route was not efficient or beautiful enough; this griping seemed understandable, even inevitable, but somehow beside the point.) We'd become suspended in something like self-imposed snow days. "The Slow-Movement Movement," artist Jed Dunkerley dubbed it afterward. (He'd taken charge of helping people with their blisters, which was a full-time performance involving various levels of intervention, from the rubbing on of preventive paste to the cutting of elaborate doughnut shapes out of moleskin to cushion blisters-on-blisters; feet became such an obsession by day two that Robb had to request that attention be drawn upward, "at least to the loins.")
And like the king's temporary resignation, what we were not doing was as important as what we were doing. We were not producing anything at our jobs, we were not cleaning our houses or feeding pets and children—we were not living the lives we have made for ourselves, and we weren't even hiking, since hiking implies a sporting focus and a determined traipse. We were just walking, some of us barely faster than an amble, without much if any preparation or training for an endurance event. This is how we pictured ourselves: as a slow line being drawn. (We wondered, meanwhile, how other people pictured us as they drove and biked by, and a few stopped to ask; they responded mostly with bafflement. Given the normal terms for road use, we made no sense. The closest to an understanding that arose was that we were a walk for a cause, and art was the cause, though after this provided a momentary answer to inquisitive audiences, you could see their brows furrow over larger questions about the nature of art. We didn't stop long enough for big explanations; we had walking to do.)
At all times we kept maps in our pockets and in our heads—a continuous linear awareness of where we were in the order, how many people were ahead and behind, as artist Chris Engman pointed out while we sauntered into Redhook Brewery in Woodinville for lunch on the first day. Obviously, we were not purists. We weren't attempting a bragging-rights proof of Emersonian self-reliance, and despite our bipedalism, we weren't pitted against technology—we used GPS, tweeted and texted (both to outsiders and to each other), and collectively relied on a motorized vehicle, a U-Haul with our tents and food that met us every few hours.
The journey was an open-ended, open-source hybrid in every way. The eagle was equal to the truck flying by advertising "Bothell Furniture for Your Northwest Lifestyle" on a heavily trafficked suburban road called Novelty Hill; the black raspberries on the side of the trail were equal to the Snoqualmie Fallen & I Can't Get Up pizza on the menu at the Fall City Grill where we stopped for lunch on the last day. When, walking on a quiet residential street, we came across a gorgeous blond teenager standing on a lawn playing a sparkling blue guitar and singing, we said to each other, "Twin Peaks just happened." The Starbucks lounge in a QFC in some small but affluent Eastside town had leather chairs facing a fireplace, above which hung a photograph of a group of cavorting pioneer women, presented as ancestors. Meanwhile, artist Rebecca Cummins carried a miniature souvenir Space Needle with her and used it for the prehistoric practice of making sundial drawings. Everything on this trip was as mixed-up as everything is in our lives all the time: urban-suburban-rural, natural-artificial, analog-mechanical-digital, past-present-future. And by the time we came back, it felt like maybe it would be like in one of those sci-fi movies, where only a second passes on Earth while whole years have gone by on another planet.
Significantly, this was a work of public art. It was funded by public money—nobody paid to attend the trip, which was supported by 4Culture and King County Parks as part of the summer Trails Project, intended to activate the regional trails system through art—and it took place entirely on public thoroughfares. There was one tiny exception to this rule, when our group walked 20 feet on a stone path across someone's property to a trail and we were shouted at by a neighbor—passing by in a car—for trespassing. (We ignored the shouting.) That neighborhood, off Lake City Way, was full of big houses overlooking the water, and—no lie—there was a cut-off corner of a dollar bill sitting in a freshly mowed lawn where a Latino man was still pushing the mower. You can't help but become aware of land use on a trip like this. In another location, a private landowner had erected a 30-foot fence blocking the public trail, and in preparation for this trip, the county's legal department, um, influenced the landowner to remove the fence so we could pass, according to a 4Culture staffer.
"Isolation is the essence of land art," said Walter De Maria, one of the grandfathers of the form, who first started working directly on land in the Mojave Desert in 1968 and who later created The Lightning Field, a one-mile-by-one-kilometer grid of lightning rods set into the ground in the middle of nowhere near Quemado, New Mexico. People make pilgrimages to The Lightning Field, just as they do to Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake in Utah, or Michael Heizer's Double Negative on the Mormon Mesa in Nevada. Those are the classics of land art, or earth art, and they're predicated on solitude. Even if you don't visit them alone, you're aware that the work will be very much alone when you leave it—these remote locations are otherwise bereft of art and people.
But an alternative version of land art, just as classic (and illuminated in the 2007 book Land Art by Ben Tufnell), stems from British artist Richard Long's tradition—of walking. While the American De Maria's first earthwork (in 1968) was a mile-long line etched into the dry lake bed of El Mirage that had to be walked to be experienced, in 1967 Long created the humbler A Line Made by Walking. Long paced a field until his footprints had worn a path, at which point he took a photograph of the line and added the text "A Line Made By Walking." Since then, art and walking have been explicitly associated: Artists like Hamish Fulton, also a Brit, take walks as political statements. His piece To Build Is to Destroy. No Man-Made Obstacles for the Winter Winds. 14 Seven Day Walks, Cairngorms, Scotland, 1985–1999, with the title printed over a photograph of a snowy mountain plateau, refers to a fight over the construction of ski lifts in one of the few remaining wild areas in Britain.
But the association of art and walking is also related to what you might call the "verb"-ing of sculpture in the 1960s, or the transition from focusing on objects to focusing on processes. An easy demonstration of this abstract concept is Richard Serra's Wake at the Olympic Sculpture Park, a piece that has to be walked to be experienced. Meanwhile, the last 40 years have also seen the rise of urban "art walks," which serve to delineate places. Lately it seems every neighborhood in Seattle has to have an art walk, almost as if not having one would mean it didn't exist. Seattle now has art walks in Pioneer Square (the original), the Central District, White Center, Ballard, Fremont, Capitol Hill, and Belltown—and probably others too little to be noticed or remembered. (It is hard not to see them as increasingly meaningless.)
The Long Walk had the structure and appearance of a walk-for-a-cause or a political rally but the spirit of Canadian artist Kelly Mark's 2003 piece Demonstration, a rally of about 30 people picketing while carrying blank signs and yelling, "What do we want? Nothing!" It's not that they didn't want anything; they were out there asking for nothing—nothing, at least, that was already defined as a possible choice. Kind of like the king of Belgium. Sometimes a walk is just a way of drawing a line between one thing and another, a line in a place it doesn't normally go, to see what falls on either side now.
This article has been updated since its original publication.