This article was written on 26 Jul 2013, and is filled under New Ecologies.

The Best Things In Museums Are The Windows

Under the right conditions, a walk can become a critical spatial practice. Harrell Fletcher recently set up those conditions with a four-day, 40-mile trek from the Exploratorium to the peak of Mt. Diablo. This massive collaborative peripatetic extravaganza, called The Best Things In Museums Are The Windows after a quote from the painter Pierre Bonnard, took place from July 18-21, 2013.

For the latter two of those four days I trekked with a core walking group composed of roughly twenty artists and educators variously affiliated with the Exploratorium museum. Harrell Fletcher, founder and director of the Art and Social Practice MFA at Portland State University, often set the pace, while Jordan Stein, assistant curator with the Center for Art & Inquiry, made sure no one got dropped. Interspersed along our way were a number of stations that Jordan had curated, ranging from the instructive (pigeon dissections, geodesy lectures, blister presentations) to the interpretative (fossil walks, light walks, ghost walks) to the musical (impromptu concerts and site-specific sound installations). These stations lent the walk the rhythm, if not the significance, of a pilgrimage.

Harrell Fletcher. Documentation of The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows, 2013. Organized by the Center for Art & Inquiry, the Exploratorium, San Francisco. Umbrellas by Michael Swaine, independent artist who is also active with Photo: Jason Groves

It was hot. Sirius, the dog star, had risen and with it temperatures climbed into the 90s. I could not help but recall that the opening lines of W.G. Sebald’s fictional travelogue, The Rings of Saturn (subtitle: An English Pilgrimage) situate his ill-fated walk under this star.

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.

Events on this walk repeatedly recalled Sebald’s book. Strange coincidences were afoot: the isolated outpost where we lunched, Borges Ranch, happened to share its date of construction with the birthdate of  possibly the most prominent literary influence of The Rings of Saturn, namely the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). Many of Borges’ works of speculative fiction, including The Garden of Forking Paths and Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, deal with the possibility of alternate universes.  Did the path of The Windows inadvertently stumble across one of them? How is it that walking and speculation always seem to move in lockstep?

Harrell Fletcher. Documentation of The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows, 2013. Organized by the Center for Art & Inquiry, the Exploratorium, San Francisco. Photo: Jason Groves

Harrell Fletcher. Documentation of The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows, 2013. Organized by the Center for Art & Inquiry, the Exploratorium, San Francisco. Photo: Jason Groves

(This commemorative plaque might yield a few clues for a genealogist…)

Sebald’s fictional walk has been criticized from the perspective of critical ecological thought for its inability to conceive of the environment other than as the product of a destructive human culture. It’s true that the inability to imagine a world in which nonhumans have agency is disastrous. But I wonder whether the mesh-like cross-hatching of virtually everything in the novel might in fact be the literary art of ecological thinking. The day before I joined the group, a ghost train hunt in Oakland had been facilitated by Exploratorium staff Meg Escudé and Antonio Papania-Davis.  Their handheld devices superimposed historical photographs of Oakland’s streetcars onto those same streets now dominated exclusively by automobiles. This type of cross-hatching and superimposing of past and present is crucial in the political and ecological struggle against what Jared Diamond calls “landscape amnesia.” And in the struggle to imagine another (post-petrochemical) world. Sebald’s fictional walks struggle against this amnesia, as did elements of our walk.

The Ecology of the Museum

The new home of the Exploratorium is as green as they come, boasting nearly 6,000 photovoltaic solar panels supplying 1.3 megawatts of peak electricity, certified wood, and 34,000 gallon cisterns collecting rainwater from the roof for use in the toilets.  Both the project and the title The Best Things In Museums Are The Windows are somewhat cheeky, especially given that the new $300 million home only opened three months ago.

Fletcher’s project pushed the ecological thought beyond construction materials and into the thinking and performance of interconnectedness: the demonstration and enactment of the museum’s entanglement in systems and scales that extend far beyond the physical location. The peripatetic defiance of any boundary between inside and outside was instrumental in uniting  social, spatial, and ecological practices. (The leading question was: Where does the museum end and the outside world begin? No one offered an answer.) In doing so we were moved beyond the self-satisfaction of a green environmentalism and into the domain of a “dark ecology” (Timothy Morton) that celebrates the messiness of a planet pervaded by non-human agencies, open-ended systems, deep time, and the derangement of scales characteristic of recent ecological thought.

Dark Ecology

The dark undertones of this endeavor were faintly evident already in its diabolical destination. It was also clearly evident in the event where I embarked on the trip: a pigeon dissection, performed by Stephanie Stewart-Bailey, unwittingly sited between two skunk dens on the margins of Homestead Park. The strong scent of a skunk carcass rotting nearby mingled with the odor of the earth upturned by what must have been a sizable population gophers or moles. Wasps darted about, drawn, like us, to the exposed flesh in the pigeon’s yawning sternum. (The pigeon had been struck and killed by a car near the Exploratorium.) Anatomical diagrams and metal instruments functioned both as tools and props in this pop-up theatrum anatomicum.

Harrell Fletcher. Documentation of The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows, 2013. Organized by the Center for Art & Inquiry, the Exploratorium, San Francisco. Photo: Jason Groves

From there we meandered through Shell Ridge Open Space until we came across Cleveland Leffler on the Kovar trail. His presentation on the geological history of the region, given amidst the sedimentary remnants of several ancient seas and the shattered remnants of thousands of fossilized brachiopods, was an exercise in dark ecology. (Talk about psychogeography: see the  psychedelic geologic map of Shell Ridge and Mount Diablo.)

 “What’s happening?” “Wayne Grim. Six-channel installation.”

Suddenly, at an intersection of two trails, we came upon a chirping, buzzing, and pulsing assemblage of found trash, transducers, and oscillators. After a while musician and artist Wayne Grim appeared to talk about his six-channel, site-specific Sounds of Open Space. I recorded some video:

“Sounds of Open Space” (panorama)  

 “Sounds of Open Space” (detail)

“Sounds of Open Space” (detail)

Throughout the rest of the day blotches of red slowly appeared on legs overexposed to the sun or even just exposed to poison ivy. In three days already nearly 40 miles of ground had been covered on foot by 20 or so people.  It felt good, even liberating, to drift along in conversation with a group of complete strangers. No hierarchy was visible and decisions regarding the route were often made ad hoc, as no one seemed to have brought a map along.

 The Production of Space

John Cloud, for one, had brought some maps. The geographer and NOAA historian appeared at nightfall, under a nearly full moon, to give a historical overview of geodesy and land surveying in California.  Mt. Diablo, he explained in a remarkable slide presentation, was an initial point in the Public Land Survey System. The grid that extends from Mt. Diablo covers the majority of California and underlies the extent, value, and ownership of land in the state.

Watching these images of maps, meridians, and baselines flicker by, I couldn’t help but see them in opposition to the fuzzy and fragmented images of the landscape that I had formed by traversing through it on foot. There were vistas here and there, but no cartographic overviews. How to reconcile the grid of the surveyors with the fuzzy ecological relations that could not be contained in a rectilinear geometry?

The films that followed Cloud’s presentation offered tentative and sketchy answer. The program of the night, organized by the Cinema Arts Program and only incompletely reproduced here, each afforded novel ways of seeing the world : Oskar Fischinger‘s 35mm single frame Walking from Munich to Berlin (1927), Stan Brahkage’s experimental Mothlight (1963), and Marcell Jankovics’ animation Sisyphus (1974).

Later I found myself consulting Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space for his “conceptual triad” of spatial practice, representations of space, and representational space. If walking and looking out of a window are standard spatial practices, and surveyors furnish a dominant representation of space, then the digital and 16mm films that were shown after Cloud’s talk promised a novel representational space- and one that involved walking.  The revolutionary potential of art can lie in the latter. (I was introduced to Lefebvre’s work through Patrick Keiller’s films, the most recent of which, Robinson in Ruins (2012), Keiller describes this way: “a marginalized individual sets out to avert global catastrophe, hoping to trigger the end of neoliberalism by going for a walk.” A dark ecologist, Robinson’s itinerary in the film is motivated by a desire to communicate with “non-human intelligences.” The films led to the temporary formation of The Robinson Institute at the Tate Britain.)

Suddenly this Overview

Frustratingly, the panoramic viewing area at the top of Mt. Diablo was closed. In place of an overview we had to content ourselves with a miniature model of the landscape- and the tangle of images and sensations from the past days.

Photo courtesy of The Center for Land Use Interpretation. (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

See Christina Linden’s interview with Harrell Fletcher here and her observations from the first day here; more observations from Patricia Maloney here.

A big kudos to everyone at the Exploratorium for organizing this walk- and, more importantly, for not overly organizing it.

Jason Groves

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