Wander: on wilderness and walking

By Sarah Davidson

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I have a second life.  Well, not so much a second life, as a non-city one.  Often for a month at a time, I disappear into remote wilderness. This is part of a job that I get paid to do, teaching leadership courses to youth. It’s hard to communicate what this job is like, especially because when I say remote wilderness I don’t mean popular hiking routes. I mean getting dropped off by the side of the road in the Yukon, with no cell phone reception, no trails, no built structures and often no other signs of human life. I do this for weeks at a time.

Lots of people have hobbies, which may or may not have anything to do with their professional lives. For instance, I met an engineer the other day who was deeply enamored of hang-gliding. Beyond understanding how it was theoretically possible that he might not plummet from the air, his 9 to 5 had no relation to the hang-gliding. They were separate.

I’m not entirely sure whether wandering in the wilderness is itself a part of my art practice, but it certainly shapes the way I think, and how I relate to space. That was the premise I started with when I came up with Wander, a little artist book project based on a topographic map. I rounded up some photos to add to this post which give some context for the project, and I’ve captioned them to explain a little of what was going on.  All of the photos were taken this summer in the Yukon and Northern British Columbia, where I spent a month off the grid, wandering around with a coworker and a group of 9 young men.

Walking itself has at this point established its own place in contemporary art practice. Perhaps most famously, Richard Long has made walking a central medium for communicating his ideas of (in his own words) “place, locality, time, distance and measurement […] my human scale in the reality of landscapes.” Performance artist Marina Abramovic spent 90 days walking the Great Wall of China in The Great Wall Walk. Francis Alÿs has also done a series of walks. Janet Cardiff and George Bures, who recently had a show the Vancouver Art Gallery, go for walks as well.

There are books on the topic of contemporary art and walking, and the spring issue of C Magazine was devoted to it. Some other reference points include Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, which takes up the history of walking, and the experimental novel The Rings of Saturn, which is loosely structured by a walk across England.

Walking as a singular artistic act, and walking as a job are different, but in my own case, I do think the physical act is a way of framing the material one. With that said, here are some photos from the wilderness which informed the making of Wander:

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Getting set to begin another day of hiking

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Spotting a student on a patch of steep snow

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Discussing the next day’s route with my coworker

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Students planning our trajectory using a topographic map

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Wander, 2014, available at Satellite Gallery

Wander borrows from the form of one of the topographic maps we used in Northern BC. It retains the legend, title, and formatting. The actual map image, however, has been replaced by a layered digital collage, wherein I manipulated visual elements of the map. The jarring breaks, textures and depth within this new image  rupture any coherent understanding of the space the map portrays. The new image refers instead to an embodied understanding of place, to the nature of observation while walking: to glances at the ground and the mountains. Beyond that, it mirrors the often incomprehensible barrage of information that makes up an experience of a place.

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