When I first heard this issue’s title, ‘Paths made by Walking’, two pieces of western contemporary art from the 1960s came to mind. The first, Richard Long’s A Path Made by Walking (1967) and the second, Yoko Ono’s Walking Piece (1964). As the titles suggest, these artworks focus on the act of walking in nature. I wish to critique these works (and the issue’s title) for the discourses they contribute to, ones that are able-ist and uphold the division between human and nature which originates from Enlightenment thought. Working to make environmentalist discourse inclusive and attuned to humanity’s position as a part of nature is of dire importance given the moment of an impending climate catastrophe. The need to critique and transcend exclusive and limited views of nature which are presented and permeated in culture is an essential step to working to create a future together, responding to oncoming catastrophe in order to mitigate its effects is a pressing task and one I wish to contribute to here.
Paths Made by Walking
Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking is a black and white photograph that documents a line of flattened grass in a field. The line, symbolic of the artist’s presence, trails off until it meets a not too distant tree line. Below the photograph are the words ‘A Line Made by Walking’, the works title, as well as the date and place that the photograph captures, ‘England 1967’ is handwritten in graphite. Long created this piece after boarding a train at London’s Waterloo Station, travelling 20 miles from the city to find this field, and walking back and forth along it until he had caused the line of grass to flatten and thus display a mark of his presence. Thus, although the artist’s body is not presented in the piece, it is documented through the way he walked through the field. The artist’s body appears to be in solitude, experiencing nature: a man out there, away from the city, away from the train, away from others, a careful solitude he is in relationship to, experiencing, and influencing nature in a way he deems desirable.
If I look deeper into my contemporary art knowledge of walking paths, a work that I am more fond of arises: Yoko Ono’s “Walking Piece” from 1964, from her book entitled Grapefruit.
Grapefruit is Ono’s book of instruction pieces, which are perhaps better understood as a mixture of instructions and poems– perhaps best described as poetic instructions. Each page of the book has a different set of instructions, each titled, and dated by year and often also the season. Walking Piece is one of many, others include: Conversation Piece (1962 summer), Collecting Piece (1963 autumn), Snow Piece (1963 summer) and Tuna Fish Sandwich Piece (1964 spring).
Each instruction piece presents directions for the reader to follow, which often seek to impede on, challenge or mystify one’s daily life by suggesting actions not considered normal. Though the instructions are optional and at times simply impossible, they present an opportunity to reflect on life’s routines and draw out the strange, absurd, joyous and humorous ways that such habitual routines can be challenged.
Ono’s Walking Piece reads,
“Walk in the footsteps of the person in front.
Try not to make sounds.”
Walking Piece asks the viewer to walk through nature following specific instructions: to follow the footsteps of the person in front of the participant, through various terrains, and being conscious of their bodily presence through a heightened attention to sound. Although the work is inviting, humorous and attentive to the relationship one has with different forms of the earth, the interaction with nature it describes remains similar to Long’s. Once again, nature is rendered separate from social or cultural aspects of life, it is thus a space to be walking in for personal gain, a personal experience of reflection, insight and joy.
The problem with the ideas embedded in the works and the title above is that they contribute to an understanding of who and what actions are expected and accepted in nature. These two are co-constituting. Evaluating ‘who’ and ‘what’ actions are considered normal are important factors required to evaluate humanity’s relationship to nature.
The first and most easily observed problem with the discourses above in relation to the works is the essentiality of the action of walking. These artworks create a normative idea of who can experience nature in this way, specifically an able-bodied subject. Alison Kafer, a disability and environmentalist scholar, writes in her work ‘Bodies of Nature’ how the default of able-bodiedness and able-mindedness influences the power relations embedded in experiences of nature. An example of this is the lack of accessibility accommodations for wheelchairs on hiking trails and the debate which occurs alongside requests for such accommodations. Whereas constructed spaces for able-bodied people, such as walking paths, are often considered apolitical interventions, when interventions are proposed for disabled people such as wheelchair paths, these ideas become debatable due to their framing as ‘unnatural’ (Kafer, 216). Kafer’s argument focuses on analyzing texts which hold an underlying view that the able-body is expected to experience nature. Due to the focus of walking present in the issue’s title, the issue presents the same faults. Further, through using the examples of contemporary artworks, this piece contributes to Kafer’s argument through documenting how discourses are also perpetuated through visual culture. Namely, through the construction of a subject who is deemed as appropriate to walking in nature.
Who is in nature?
Both of these works are considered examples of conceptual art, art that primarily considers the idea behind a work over the final product. Thus the idea of walking is essential to each piece. However, since neither piece shows the body of the performer(s), the viewer must construct an image of an able-bodied subject who is able to walk, in order for the piece to be understood as a performance that did or can occur. As with text, the ideas behind these artworks force the viewer to imagine the subject who is completing the piece. This active imagining contributes to Kafer’s idea of the imagined subject in nature as able-bodied and able-minded, this is who is expected and accepted as a person experiencing a walk within nature.
Although these cultural artefacts evidently exclude bodies that are disabled, they also do larger work in terms of the conceptual framing of a natural environment, and the human/nature divide at play within it. As Kafer mentions in her work, the construction of the able-bodied and able-minded human as well as the actions that this human is expected to do in nature is determined by social and cultural constructions. It is also essential here, as Kafer does, to highlight how different bodies, marked by race, gender or sex, do not experience nature the same (Kafer, 203). What we believe to be nature itself is socially constructed and the discourses that we accept as normal influence how we have come to understand the environment in a large sense (Kafer, 204).
These understandings are vital given the current moment of environmental collapse. Discussions on climate justice and how exclusive and constructed narratives are embedded into our culture are extremely necessary and relevant for future survival. From the question of who is expected to be in nature arises another question; what is that person expected to do and what in turn does this relationship render to be considered ‘nature’ and for what purpose? As Kafer ties these problems together, she notes how the able body and mind is needed to “transcend the essential separation between human and nature” (Kafer, 211).
This essential separation between human and nature has its origins in enlightenment thought. Through the enlightenment, man was separated by nature through his ability to know science and reason. Man could thus use nature as he saw fit, usually doing so in the name of progress. ‘Man’ in this enlightenment sense is a white, Christian male. Most other people were excluded from this concept of man. This is evidenced by slavery, and colonialism, both of which involved the dominating, cultivating and extracting of nature and the rendering of specific humans to the category of nature (Moore). As Indigenous scholar Kim Tallbear states, through colonization Western men maned, managed, and set the terms for what was a legitimate way to encounter nature (Tallbear, 235).
As anthropologist Anna Tsing writes, “women and men from around the world have clamored to be included in the status once given to Man. Our riotous presence undermines the moral intentionality of Man’s Christian masculinity, which separated Man from Nature.” (Tsing, vii) Although her claim is correct, I want to draw attention to the environmental discourses that continue to uphold these notions of nature as separate from humanity in order to critique and improve them. This is especially important given the time of environmental collapse which is often critiqued in the name of capitalism.
What does capitalism have to do with walks in the park? Today the nature and culture divide remains heavily evident, most notably in relation to capitalist extraction, the continuance of cutting down trees and burning fossil fuels despite overwhelming evidence that such actions are detrimental to human survival in the near future. However, it is also important to realize how cultural norms and narratives continue to promote discourses which are unhelpful to overcoming dominant power relations of some humans over others and over nature.
As Jason Moore writes, capitalism must be seen as working through different ‘webs of life’: not only through “systems of market and production” but also creating, reproducing and operating through,
Thus, the processes of excluding certain individuals, as evidenced through able-ist discourse, as well as the deeming of what is appropriate in nature, such as walks, are inherently connected with the capitalist system of extraction which is currently risking life on earth. Presenting walks in the park as the way to understand and experience nature upholds power relations and fails to challenge such ideas.
In Kafer’s work on the problems of environmental discourses she mentions nature presented as “spiritual enlightenment” throughout her essay. Although I am not sure that Long and Ono’s work suggest a spiritual enlightenment, I believe they do indicate that the experience of walking in nature is enlightening and reflective, or at the very least, joyous and interesting. These artworks continue the enlightenment tradition, embedded in capitalist frameworks, of organizing nature as separate from humanity.
Although Long and Ono’s pieces do not suggest extraction, they suggest nature be used for reflection or enjoyment: a framework deemed appropriate within the capitalist idea of nature as ascribed by Western man. This too is a commodity form in which nature does not receive anything in return and humanity does not recognize its relational position in the world. Continuing to promote these limited, constructed and able-ist views of nature, we do not stop to consider who fails to be included and what other species are entangled in this interaction. We do not resist the forces of exclusion and violence which have gotten us here and as I’ve argued, these discourses continuously produce power relations.
Where is here?
The ideas mentioned above have led us to the present moment, where one is aware of the impeding horrors of climate change, if action is not undertaken. Climate change has already caused drastic effects all over the world and displaced many, it is becoming growingly apparent (if not already) that human cannot dominate nature nor can it simply continue to take. Still, trees continue to be cut down and fossil fuels continue to be burnt. World leaders continue to meet at conferences like COP26 and do not commit to implementing measures for real change. They do not dedicate their efforts to planetary survival. Changing our ideas about environmentalist discourse and thinking through how we can relate to the world and foster new understandings in our local environments is thus up to us. Through thinking, analyzing discourses, reflecting and imagining new ways for the future, we can begin to save the earth. Luckily, there has been much work done by individuals who care for the planet and the future, they have provided many places to start this process.
Ghosts, Monsters and Transcending Limits
A quote I find myself returning to often in thinking-through the current crisis is by scholar Joanna Zylinska in her book ‘The End of Man: A Feminist Counter-Apocalypse’. Zylinska asks “if unbridled progress is no longer an option, what kinds of coexistences and collaborations do we want to create in its aftermath?” (Zylinska, 44) In this section of the paper I will turn to the theoretical frameworks proposed by scholars like Zylinska, along with Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway, all of whom work on different tools for re-framing our ideas about nature in terms of ‘relationality’, defined as understanding our relation to other beings in the world. This work derives from Indigenous knowledge which has been dismissed, in the name of Enlightenment thought, since colonization. As Kim Tallbear writes in ‘Indigenous Reflection on Working Beyond the Human/Not Human’, Indigenous people have always viewed nonhumans as engaged in social relations, contributing to and shaping human life (Tallbear, 236).
Here I would like to conclude this paper with the work of Anna Tsing, who along with scholars such as Donna Haraway, have spent much time thinking of new and creative ways of thinking about ourselves in the world– or as they phrase it “the arts of living on a damaged planet”. In Anna Tsing’s book ‘Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Monsters and Ghosts’, Tsing suggests borrowing the figures of monsters and ghosts in order to talk about our relationship with the natural world. While monsters help us expose the ‘monstrosity of man’ by looking at our entanglements: what have we made into monsters? Tsing writes that ghosts on the other hand, “help us read life’s enmeshment in landscapes… against the fable of Progress, ghosts guide us through haunted lives.” (Tsing, M3)
While both Long and Ono’s works can be read as having a semi-ghostly undertone: the trace of a body once there in Long’s, or the proposed silence while following the leader in Ono’s, Tsing’s ghosts and monsters are aimed at perceiving the more-than-human, the histories that have gotten us here, the ecologies that have brought us into being, the relations which constitute and continue life on earth, of which we must remember, humans are only a fragile part.
Here I will briefly describe an artwork that I thought of successfully exemplifying the strength of noticing these types of ghosts. The work is artist Jonas Staal and writer, academic, lawyer and activist Radha D’Souza’s 2021 ‘Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes’. Staal and D’Souza’s multi-disciplinary work (performance, architectural, conceptual) consists of holding a hearing in which actors will take the stage in order to draw attention to intergenerational climate crimes and intergenerational conceptions of justice through bringing evidence of “prosecutors and witnesses relating to intergenerational climate crimes committed by corporations and states acting in concert.” The work expands on D’Souza’s academic work detailing the fault of the linear working-nature of the legal system. The art performance holds space for conversations around climate justice which considers both history and future.
Where do the ghosts come in? For this project, Staal and D’Souza created posters which were placed around the room/court during the trials. The posters were also collated in a publication, entitled ‘Comrades in Extinction’, 2020-21. These comrades were extinct animals, plants and fossils. On each poster, or page in the book, there is a drawing of the extinct species with the word “comrade” in a different language written below it. These animals are ghosts that disrupt the progress narrative of history. Through deeming them as comrades and honouring them in this space, the Court recognizes not only the reality of nature and humanity: all tied up and co-constituting the other, but also dangerous and detrimental. Through honouring these ghosts, or comrades, attention is paid to those who have not been paid attention to. If only for recognizing our situatedness within the natural world and our own species precariousness, which is a result of false beliefs of domination and unending progress, I enjoy the artists’ inclusion of the comrades at the court. Their ghostly presence reflects on the unspoken truths of history, their victimization and distinction a historical cost of human action and neglect.
They also help to identify the many actors who make up the ecosystems of the world, the many tangled relationships and how we can trace not only progress but destruction, mistakes, and detrimental behaviour and thinking over time. Such mistakes must be identified in order to move past them. I want to follow Staal and D’Souza in honouring the ghosts of extinct animals, but I don’t want to have to honour any more”
I also want to categorize the works mentioned in the start of this essay as our 1960s, old, conceptions of nature– before we transcended such limitations and started to take note of what nature is and what we need to do to save it (and us). Once we realized that we have always been a part of it. This article has attempted to respond to Alison Krafer’s call to “uncover the assumption of able-bodiedness and able-mindedness in writings about nature” as a way of understanding our unhelpful and unequal ideas about nature. Instead, I follow Kafer’s suggestions as she draws out the framework for a feminist, queer, crip ecology, one she describes as approaching nature collaboratively: drawing attention to loss and ambivalence, seeing the beauty in the brokenness of the earth and care for it as it is right now, together (Kafer, 223).
There are many ways to go from here, and many reasons to believe that positive change can occur, if not only from the dedicated environmentalist actions of Indigenous leaders, youth actors and committed scholars, working to draw attention to our world and shift our discourses within it. In conclusion, I follow the work of scholars such as Kafer, Tsing, Harraway, and Zylinska and urge that we need to transcend ideas and actions based on paths made by walking alone. Instead, we need to look at different ways of thinking of ourselves as a part of humanity, which is also a part of nature: all tangled up and living on the earth in co-habitation.
“Exhibition: Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes.” Framer Framed, 28 Oct. 2021, framerframed.nl/en/exposities/court-for-intergenerational-climate-crimes/.
Kafer, Alison. “Bodies of nature: The environmental politics of disability.” Chapter 6 (2017): 201-241.
Moore, Jason W. “World accumulation and planetary life, or, why capitalism will not survive until the ‘last tree is cut’.” IPPR Progressive Review 24.3 (2017): 175-202
Ono, Yoko. Grapefruit: A book of instructions and drawings by Yoko Ono. Simon and Schuster, 2000.
TallBear, Kim. “An indigenous reflection on working beyond the human/not human.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 21.2-3 (2015): 230-235.
Tate. “’a Line Made by Walking’, Richard Long, 1967.” Tate, 1 Jan. 1967, www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/long-a-line-made-by-walking-p07149.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World. Princeton University Press, 2015.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt, et al., eds. Arts of living on a damaged planet: Ghosts and monsters of the Anthropocene. U of Minnesota Press, 2017.
Zylinska, Joanna. The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse. U of Minnesota Press, 2018