Found Art From a Short Walk, Part II: by Dr. Peter Trnka

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arts and environment

Found Art From a Short Walk, Part Two:  Nature Walk

St. John's NL

by Dr. Peter Trnka

     I.     Introduction

Part one of this work, ‘Town Walk’, aimed to assemble images and text to document a method for finding art. The method has three rules: (a) take a short walk, leaving from and returning to your home; (b) remain outside; and (c) take quick photographs of any object or scene that you like. I continue the aim and method in this second installment of the series.

From the start, I thought a single walk would not do: a series would show how the method could generate very different results. The second walk should take place, I proposed in part one, ‘in as wild a natural place as possible’ or at least a ‘”natural-type” landscape.’ I also stated with certainty - given that I knew I was going to be carrying out the second piece -  that a nature walk ‘would generate a very different set of objects and scenes, but with more formal overlap with the urban series than one might expect’. I leave it to you to compare and judge.

The images were created with my cellphone camera. Quick snaps, originally 45, from which, after the walk was done, 27 were selected, cropped, light adjusted, and color fixed. The town walk took 40 minutes and had a precise step count of 3,551 from the cell phone app. The nature walk started also at my apartment, but then I had to drive to my choice of a ‘natural-type’ landscape: Middle Cove beach. After taking many pictures on the drive, the power on my cellphone battery began to die. I managed to get as far into the woods as I had planned but I was not able to take any pictures on the return journey (unlike in part one). So, only one direction – going there - was documented by photographs with time signatures (and other features of a working cell phone such as a step counter and kilometer measure). I left my study at approximately 2:20 p.m. on Monday, December 11, then drove 40 minutes or so to Middle Cove beach, stopping along the way to take pictures. I then walked on the beach and the trail for about 30 minutes, leaving again in my car at 3:32 p.m. (as my car clock informed me) and arriving home at 3:45.

I confess my phone was not fully charged when I left, only about two thirds or so. The reason for this has something to do with the collaboration between agents in the environment that is required when it comes to making and finding art. Let me explain. It all has to do with light. I had been waiting for light to photograph in, and St. John’s can be grey in the autumn, and foggy. The forecast for Monday was sunshine. The morning brought snow and rain. I gave up once again my plan to go shoot nature. Then the sun began to stream through my living room windows sometime after lunch. It would be going down again at 4 p.m. so I had to run, but my main technical apparatus was at 22%. There was light but no power. I charged as much as I could while giving myself – I hoped – an hour of sunlight for the nature walk.

 The images are in serial temporal order accompanied by textual commentary. As in part one, the commentary is a free riff on the everyday experience of art in the lived context of an environment.

     II.     Leaving My Study, 2:20 pm, 3 slides

The walk, this time and last, began with contemplating the walk in my study. I used the previous opportunity to show something of myself and my home surrounds, primarily in terms of images of children’s pictures on the study walls. I start with another of the same, that does double duty by giving you a portrait of the author as well:

IMAGE 1: DADDY JUMPING (Drawing by Lily Blue) (2:20 p.m.)

'Daddy Jumping' by Lily Blue :: Courtesy of Peter Trnka

Contemplation this time focused on a correction and a development, with a difference from last time. The images and descriptions of home base in part one did not include any samples from nature, as the outside images did; but my study and home has plants and flowers:

IMAGE 2: ORCHID FLOWER (2:20 p.m.)

'Orchid Flower' by Peter Trnka :: Courtesy of the Artist

Nature, whatever it is, if anything definite (any more or ever), is both outside and in, there and here. When I think of flowers and photography Robert Mapplethorpe comes immediately to mind, and the show of his I saw in Washington D.C. before the scandal of the Corcoran gallery cancelling his scheduled 1989 show (due to concerns about the graphic sexual content of his gay bondage photographs, the twin series, so to speak, to his flower images). Taking photos of nature may be dangerous, it seems.

I’ve made a correction, now allow me to add to my thoughts from last time, from the ‘Town Walk’, where the found art included Andy Warhol’s soup can images and I made mention of Duchamp’s urinal. The image of Duchamp’s piece was in my imagination during the first walk:


Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

It is numbered X as it was only imaginary on my walk. Why I had it in mind is well-explained by Kojin Karatani in his excellent book Transcritique: ‘When Marcel Duchamp submitted the urinal on a pedestal signed “R Mutt” and titled “fountain,” to the exhibition of The Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917, he questioned what makes art as a conceptual and institutional analysis.’ (113) I suggest we carry this question with us on our walk, as well as Karatani’s further suggestion: ‘...Duchamp is not commanding viewers to see the urinal as an artwork by bracketing their daily concerns; instead, the context – being installed in an exhibition – is itself commanding viewers to see it as artwork.’ (119) The art world here speaks in terms of commands (how to see), of bracketing (what not to see), of daily concerns (what it isn’t), and of installations and institutions (how and where it appears). The art of the everyday world also has its orders, frames, and constructions - and the institution of signing, nominating, claiming, appealing, insisting, or assuming that something is art because someone or something says it is.

I did not install a urinal in an art gallery but I took a picture of one. It’s on my phone so can it count as art found on my walk? What would happen if I kept searching on my phone as I walked, or drove, or walked near cliffs? The urinal used to be, until recently, in the washroom of my favorite St. John’s bar:

IMAGE 3: BAR URINAL (July 2016)

Photo Courtesy of Peter Trnka :: Urinal Courtesy of Barnone

Perhaps I duplicate urinals here as a purge of the dark unconscious of educated art before plunging outside. And to say, that finding a rock is, perhaps in odd ways, like finding a urinal. It all depends, one might say, on sensibility. As Clifford Geertz says, art is a matter of sensibility: ‘…to study an art form is to explore a sensibility … [S]uch a sensibility is essentially a collective formation and … the foundations of such a formation are as wide as social existence and as deep.’ (‘Art as a Cultural System’)

     III.  Drive to the Beach, 2:22-2:58, 5 slides

We start our walk by heading to the car, parked on William St in Georgestown, and driving north east to the coast. I should not forget the art of the automobile:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

The speedometer image shows some of the aesthetic of the highly designed car I am fortunate to occupy and have the right to drive, but also the fact that I stopped to take the photograph (as indicated by the zero speed) and, crucially, that there is sunlight, in this case shining across the dash. In other words, we are given good hope on the drive that there is and still will be light. There will be light if we can get out of city traffic, itself, especially in official uniform, resplendent in lights, order-signs and order-words:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka 

Order-signs are images that command. Order-words are words or strings of words that command: tell us to do, something. The basic point here is that there are many, many commands. Language primarily commands. Images, also, command. Not always, everywhere, but a lot, and intensely in particular places.

Almost free from the city, at its perimeters, we are helped along the way by a municipal sign (note the territorializing power of signs, their use in marking out what is and is not mine or ours and where this lies):


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

St. John’s is behind us now, though we are still driving, but now mostly with green trees on our sides, with occasional houses. Houses here, like city houses, are decorated, this way and that, though many cannot be seen, hidden by long driveways and trees. Mostly what appears, or has been framed or assembled to appear, are the driveway-meets-the-road areas. These, like giant garage doors, are the modern pre-faces, the faces before the face: façades to the house façades (where façade as front of the house means face). These very first faces – appearances or announcements of residences or ‘homes’ – are points of entrance and also areas of waste disposal:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

In this case, waste is covered over with an image of the outside, the ocean down the road, from which whales do often peek and jump. Beauty in the form of an image of unsullied nature covers over trash, while trash in the form of dirtied nature covers over beauty. We are almost free of the car but first we take advantage of a high vertical overlooking the beach we are about to descend upon:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

     IV.     Middle Cove Beach, 2:58-3:06 p.m., 11 slides

The car is now parked and we are outside, at Middle Cove beach. It is early December, 5 degrees Centigrade, we are one of few. The beach is an ever-changing beach, dramatically so, due to the river that runs through it. Today the river is strong and has divided the beach in two halves, making the southern side inaccessible unless you don’t mind cold wet feet and clothes. I should note I have known this beach and walk, for over twenty years, and so this walk, like the Town Walk, is, in part, a walk in and of memory. But the river configures the rocks and the beach itself differently each time, sometimes only a little, sometimes massively, as do other of the many, many variables in this environment (for instance, whether the ocean is calm or wild – today it is on the calmer side). The beach also changes in terms of how much or how little official attention it is given. Over twenty years or so the intensification of signage has been continuous and one is now greeted at the edge of the beach by an information sign:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

It seems the beach, like any ‘thing’ one goes to see, needs words and images to represent itself to you, to announce itself to you, before you come into contact with it, or so it seems, here and there, and more and more everywhere. The supposed division between the everyday and art, and that between the everyday and nature, is more and more mediated by signs, words and images, of passage: manuals for how to navigate from realm to realm. Is there more ‘out there’ than the virtual navigation between here and there? That is, if inside and outside, made and found, technology and art, subject and object, are not, in fact, exclusive dichotomies, but matters of degree, then isn’t everything in between? We had better get to the thing directly. Start walking.

Like most Newfoundland beaches, this is a beach of rocks and pebbles, some of them indeed odd and stretching the boundaries of ‘natural object’:

IMAGE 10: YELLOW ROCK (3:01 p.m.)

Courtesy of Peter Trnka

How did the rocks and pebbles get onto this beach? We can imagine for much of what is around us a totally ‘people-free’ history of the ‘natural objects’ that surround, but clearly not this one. I choose this one to begin with to note the error of assuming a ‘people-free’ history for any of the objects or scenes to follow, especially the ‘natural-type’ looking ones. All the objects and scenes have been selected. How did they get here, how were they placed in exactly the location they are – given this photographer but also perhaps others, given children, and adults, that play, with rocks, given that there are numerous fire-pits around built with rocks, that there is, on the other side of the stream a sculpture made of rocks, and so on. Our mistake would be to assume that anything we find has not previously in some way been touched or formed by a human. This is, after all, a good pebble-throwing beach:

IMAGE 11: PEBBLES (3:01 p.m.)

Courtesy of Peter Trnka

What distant ships on the water have contributed somehow to the patterns of these waves?

    IMAGE 12: WAVES (3:02 p.m.)

Courtesy of Peter Trnka

I did not arrange the seaweed in this seaweed installation – in fact, I did not arrange, that is, touch or reposition, any of the objects or scenes that I photographed, though I framed and cropped each one:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

But how do I know that someone walking along previously did not? On purpose or by accident. Playing or foraging perhaps, or shuffling along with their feet. What difference does it make if none of the strands was arranged except by the water? Or if the only agent involved was a gull?

What acts, what is responsible for acting, is some agent or agency. Such agency has or is given value due to its bringing about what it is able to bring about (as in the art world where agent=artist). It appears that agency also has time or timing. Distance in time and space is a problem for the agent. Closeness is more likely to reveal agency and distance obscures it. We are now, so to speak, contemplating slow agencies that may have been disregarded. Consider, for example, a second yellow rock:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

A single object is here composed of various diverse layers or times. The rock’s proximity to the water allows it to shine its yellow. Unlike the first yellow rock, this rock will fade if it is installed further up the beach away from the ocean. It will dry and grey. Is this rock an installation? Or a happening? Pictures are framed, sculptures and other scenes are installed. Happenings were staged, starting, I believe, in the 1960s, to stretch, once again, the ‘frame’ within which artwork could be conceived to fall, and took various forms, combining various media (e.g., talks, parties, theatrical scenes, work). What action best describes the coming-into-appearance of this wet glistening yellow rock, at this moment on this location at Middle Cove?

On our town walk we were almost constantly in the presence of graffiti. There was a fair bit of it on the rocks in the beach parking area. The beach itself is not free:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

Just to the right of the ritual mark of Eros we find a natural kinetic sculpture, water moving over stone (how much did the East Wing of the Modern Art Gallery in Washington D.C. pay to install such a water sculpture?):


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

Where is the water coming from? What does it matter? So what if someone runs their finger through it, or has the power to turn it off or on, or run it this way and that? How (much) does it matter?

The water could absorb us. We could get lost down here but there is a trail I wanted us to climb.

     V.     Silver Mine Head Path, 3:08-3:20 p.m., 12 slides

On the north side of the beach the cliffs slope gradually up to a small grassy plain, where a farm meets part of the long East Coast trail:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

We still have light on our walk and we now have, as our explicit focus of attention, the lines that have in many ways been accompanying us from the start. Lines of direction, lines of travel, lines of communication, and lines of territorial markings, nature carved out and apportioned by lines of words, lines of wire, lines of wood. Our walking line is barred in one direction and indicated by others:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

Follow the pointing line, it promises safety with an image of a previous, prototypical walker and the comfort of measured distances and named destinations. I never knew I had been walking the Silver Mine Head Path before and I’m not disappointed in this name, it suggests an historical inquiry.

Just beyond the pointing sign we meet our first official trail steps, themselves marked with design:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

We are looking down, at our feet, at the paths put there, presumably, to allow us to look at other things (like the pointing sign that points by moving out of itself). Behind-the-scenes stage-craft is often rich in art and design. But let us take in one of those views, seemingly naturally suggested or framed by the trees – allowed by them certainly, as mostly their thick cover blocks:

IMAGE 20: TREE FRAMED VIEW (3:10 p.m.)

Courtesy of Peter Trnka

Who is doing the framing? The trees or me? Have the trees been cut? Ever?

The logs that frame the trail path have been cut and shaped and sometimes marked. The shapes and designs of the trail vary. We move from wooden marked boxes holding rocks to abstract lines of logs:

IMAGE 21: LINES OF LOGS (3:10 p.m.)

Courtesy of Peter Trnka

Lines are simple patterns, elements of pattern. We have lines and light. We have lines of light and lines of shadow. There is still light and there is still battery power.

What culture does, nature does and what nature does, culture does. There is more shared between the poles we have pushed apart than there is sense in keeping them apart. Is it mimicry, reaction, or symbiosis? We mark rocks with graffiti, we piss on them (the becoming-urinals of oh so many rocks). If we could extract ourselves from nature would it still do the same without us? A self-graffitid rock:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

There is apparent installation and also apparent graphic marking. Being-apparent heightens the appearance. The blur between real and apparent, between natural and manipulated, is shown sometimes by accident. Consider the following scene of juniper berries, which attracted me for the vivid colors I was beginning to see in the woods:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

The colors came first, followed then by memories of picking berries and mushrooms. How do the more formal ‘aesthetic’ elements of the image combine with its, say, ‘emotional’ elements to generate a combined value? There is a stick in the picture also which I only noticed when enlarging and cropping the image at home. The stick adds something to the composition of the image. It could be ‘natural’ but is also the most likely candidate for manipulated object. It occupies a zone of indiscernibility between found and installed, real and apparent. Such zones are more and more typical. Consider another case:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

Something was framed. Something is always framed if presented visually as an object or scene of attention. Was it also installed? The berries fell and the tree grew. For some, none of that is enough in terms of the creation of a work of art: there has to be a human hand, or at least some thoughtful intention or emotion. But what difference does it make if I throw another dogberry in? They have already been walked over.

The purple and pale green of the juniper, the red and white of the dogberry and the violet of the winter flowers forms a color series for our walk:

IMAGE 25: WINTER FLOWERS (3:15 p.m.)

Courtesy of Peter Trnka

The path itself is now descending or dissolving into its oldest, deepest, and perhaps most natural, tree-like form: a path of roots:

IMAGE 26: ROOT STEP-PATHS (3:15 p.m.)

Courtesy of Peter Trnka

Installed by trees and people in collaboration, growing and framing, providing mass and structure, clearing and putting in context, the root system of the trees doubles as our cultured trail.

Profound, below ground, but our battery is acting strangely, we’d better make haste. From underground adjust your gaze to the ceiling which is no ceiling:

IMAGE 27: SKYSCAPE (3:17 p.m.)

Courtesy of Peter Trnka

Pure play of lines of light.

What else are we in danger of missing? What image will capture the capture in which our cultures are held by ideas of ‘nature’ and in which nature is always limited, demeaned? The lines of wood, of trees and logs and posts, have been soft, and in the form of roots have been curved and knotty and messy. The wood lines are often joined with lines of wire and steel, sometimes pegs, sometimes wire fencing, and these are often adorned with colored strips of cloth, often marking territory or giving warning:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

Cellphone loses power. These edges of cliffs used to carry no warnings and no barriers. The wire of the barriers now seems to fuse with the branches of the trees. We are captured.


© CUSS Journal