Walking, Over and Over: A Walking Tour of a Walking Tour in Chicago

Walking, Over and Over: A Walking Tour of a Walking Tour in Chicago

Photo, Brittany Laurent

Photo, Brittany Laurent

In the spring of 2018, I was in the library looking for books for a research project on biking and art, and I stumbled upon a thin, falling-apart book in the Chicago History section titled “Walking with Women Through Chicago History.” I checked the inside of the cover, and the book had been published in 1981—just a few years before my mother moved to Chicago. At the time when I found the book, I had been thinking about my work in conversation with histories and documents and learning about how my practice intersects with the rich history of walking- based art practices. This book felt like a fortuitous discovery. I took the book out in the streets of Chicago and started walking the route of the tour from 1981, following paths and finding places that didn’t exist anymore.

When I started walking this tour, I thought about this movement as a generative practice leading up to the work. As I continued this practice, I started realizing that walking was part of the work itself. The landmarks and wayfinding markers were gone. I couldn’t find any signs that the organizations included in the tour were existent, or even were there in the past. It was frustrating. The first time I did this tour, I was out on a windy spring day, the kind of day in Chicago when the sun is shining and people are out enjoying the weather. I wore my headphones and carried a camera around my neck. I turned on my Voice Memos app on my phone and recorded myself talking about everything I saw and everything I experienced, in the hope that it would become content for further work. I took photos of all the locations on the tour, whether or not I knew they were the right ones. When I stopped walking, I was exhausted and my throat was scratchy. I had been talking and walking for two hours straight, searching for the locations of organizations that the writers of the tour had deemed important to Chicago history in 1981.

Photo, Travis Mitzel

Photo, Travis Mitzel

At first, my questions were those of a historian: what perspective does this tour betray? What is not included and why? How could I be critical, thoughtful, and analytical in this work?

I also approached this tour from an artist’s perspective. I wondered how I could bring the viewer into this space of uncertainty, productively; I wanted to talk about absence and confusion and loss, what it means to stand in a space where a historical event happened without having any visual evidence of that event.

The work evolved. I walked the tour over and over. I had previously never had the kind of time to pursue a work on a larger time frame — this enabled me to be more relaxed, and to let the work become what it would become. I followed the movement of the tour online, and started researching the sites and looking for archival materials related to the tour. I read books about books, and I thought about what it mean to experience movement through the city as a book—as a series of spaces, “read” in sequence, containing a variety of visual material. I began to think about what book this work could occupy: this book of a book, this tour of a tour. The recursiveness proved obtuse and hard to explain. I kept walking the tour over and over, bringing people along with me. They shared questions and observations, and pointed me in the direction of clues to the past that I had overlooked previously.

The final iteration of this work exists in three parts: a series of photographs, a book, and a walking tour. The photographs are layered explorations of space corresponding to sites on the 1981 tour; printed, cut, folded, and re-photographed. The environments created are improbable, strange, abstractly urban and detached. The book contains these images as well as poetic text drawn from archival documents relating to sites on the tour. These documents were all found on archive.org, a repository of digital archives and libraries, and home of the Wayback Machine, a famed Internet Archive where one can access websites that don’t exist anymore.

Photo, Brittany Laurent

Photo, Brittany Laurent

As I traversed the digital archive looking for scanned documents that related to the sites in the 1981 walking tour, I noticed the AI-generated typos and mistakes that amounted to a poetic kind of abstraction. I thought about what it meant to “read,” and how so many different pieces of information can be found in a digitized version of a document. The removal of the reading experience from the original paper document to the screen echoed the removal I felt from the sites on the 1981 walking tour. In both cases, their origins were obscured, and their function was lost. I collected the moments of misinterpretation found in the digital archive, taking screenshots of lines and paragraphs. I made that text into a book. An excerpt is included below:

We begin our walking tour in a Recordak checkout system in a red brick building in a plaza on the site of the Apple Store. This system, invented by Gertrude Gscheidle, had a profound effect upon manual literature searching.


This library was founded six months after the fire of 1871, from the original document.

Remarks: integrated into the library of the future. It’s in for drastic changes.

These historical perspectives are intended to exist and continue

user fees, which

is borne of the demand for the information as to realize pur humanity.

*misspellings are products of digital transcribing errors and are an integral aspect of the bibliographic irregularity of this document.

Before you continue to the bridge, look across the street to the piped-in music, free coffee and NCR paper

The answer is YES!

The first time I did the walking tour from 1981, out in the city of Chicago, on a beautiful spring day, I was frustrated by how little remained of the past. I was unable to find any signs that the organizations covered in the tour — the National Women’s Trade Union League, the Jane Addams Bookstore, Women Employed — had existed in the locations they once occupied. I didn’t know if this lack of evidence constituted a work of art at all. But when I started to research some of the sites and to have conversations with individuals who experienced these places in the 1980s, I began to see this uncertainty as productive. I began to take note of every absence in the current fabric of the city, every time a history wasn’t visible, and every plaque that was missing. I realized that what isn’t saved reveals almost as much as what is saved. I began to see the stories that Chicago prioritized over the ones that I was reading.

Photo, Brittany Laurent

Photo, Brittany Laurent

As I kept walking this tour, I brought people with me and had many conversations with people in the process. I learned that a solitary discovery is not as fun as a discovery made with someone else. This work became somewhat like a historical quest to find clues to these past organizations in the Loop, and having people with me as co-conspirators became a bonding experience. Additionally, I had conversations with security guards and building workers in all of the sleek skyscrapers whose lobbies I occupied, asking them if they know about the history of the buildingv or about any of the organizations for women which occupied the space in 1981. On the first day I did this tour, I stopped in the lobby of the Mallers Building on Wabash and had an extensive conversation with the woman working at the desk, an older woman who had lived in the Chicago depicted in the 1981 walking tour, who remembered what it was like to be a working woman in that era. We talked about history, and photography, and journalism, and climbing mountains, and I felt like it was a connection that I would never have made otherwise.

As I continued walking the tour route, researching the sites, and thinking about how history is constructed, I began to see this frustration of absence in a productive way. I realized that the act of walking, of experiencing, of simply being in a place where something once occurred, continues to add to and participate in the history of the place. Buildings hold traces of their occupants. The marble stairs in the Fine Arts building (which is a stop on the 1981 tour) are worn down in places where people have walked, revealing a hundred years of people walking to music stores and offices and theatre rehearsals. Dust collects in corners; made up of flakes of skin and hair and pieces of the people that occupied the space over time. To paraphrase Michel de Certeau: to physically occupy a space and to walk through a city is to lay another layer of text on a page that has already been written. The marks of the histories of buildings, though they don’t always consist of plaques and statues, are still there. Movement through physical spaces, photographic spaces, pages of books, or online documents generates a trace, one that lingers long after the place itself is written over.

Photo, Brittany Laurent

Photo, Brittany Laurent

 
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pins and needles in fingertips or audience applause, whichever comes sooner

pins and needles in fingertips or audience applause, whichever comes sooner

To You

To You