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The Distance

Island Life

I am often to mostly running these internal monologues, which more often than not are where these scribblings come from. Writing things down is a means of purging the echoes, and it works well enough that there are times when I find myself the next day wondering what it was that I just wrote about, since I’m usually fairly certain that what is currently running in my head is a new tangential, mental squash game, banging around in there in search of an exit strategy. I try not to repeat myself, but sometimes it is worth repeating. I believe that the other times, when I have forgotten that I have covered this territory in previous excursions, are a rarity in memory lapse. I suppose I could go back and check, but I would suspect that in the bigger picture, if anyone is actually counting they would grant me the occasional pass.

What is bouncing around in there today that has me concerned about repetition is a story that I think of often. It was a tale recounted from a philosophy of art class I took in ancient times, and having to do with a conceptual artist and a piece he performed while driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, or one of the east coast north-south arterials- I cannot remember for certain. He wasn’t actually driving, but was an intentional passenger riding in the back seat. As the story was told in class, this artist was sitting on one side of the car when he rolled down the window, took a deep breath, rolled the window up and then moved to the other side of the car where he rolled that window down and exhaled what he had taken in on the other side, completing his performance. What the professor wanted us to contemplate in all of this was the question as to whether or not this would actually qualify as a work of art.

A big part of why this comes to mind often is the idea of documentation of an accomplishment or event of some kind. I have been thinking of this because of things I have been involved with recently- my recording of the talk by Bruce Morser and Bob Horsley about their bike trip across these United States, and a video documentation I did of a friend swimming a mile with a standard sized, red brick in each hand. Neither of these were intended as artistic performances as far as I can tell, but Bruce and Bob did each do a watercolor a day to document their passage, and Sam Day- the swimmer- is a painter, although he did not stop along the way to either sketch or paint an impression of his endeavor. He did, after all, have a brick in each hand as he made his way through the fifty three degree water off Alki Beach without a wetsuit, all which would have made holding onto a paintbrush or a pencil all that more difficult and complicated, not to mention wet.

To the best of my recollection, the breather guy in the back of the car did not have any documentation of his act, or action, so the determination of artistic accomplishment is all that more complicated and obfuscated. What is missing  there is any indication for me that the capturing and passing of air from one side of the car was anything of note. In many ways, it is an event that without documentation might just as well not have happened at all. But then again, any performance that is not in some way recorded beyond its registering in the receptors and memories of any witnesses present, might be considered equally null and void as  an action of note. What if Mister Highway Breather had been playing the extreme drama card as he made his way across that back seat- embellishing the act with bloated cheeks, buggy eyes and hands grasping at slippery seat vinyl in his quest to cross that great bench seat wasteland, only to struggle with the window crank and finally expel his Jersey lung full into the highway air rushing by on the other side? Without any evidence of the act, it only exists as just a clinical description of intent, or as a fish tale of extreme thespianism as described from the front seat.

In all of this, there also comes the question of worth. Who actually cares about the transfer of inhaled air from one side of a car to the other? One could just as easily and in many ways much more justifiably ask: what if Vivian Maier’s negatives had found a permanent home in a landfill instead of with someone who by chance was able to recognize their ultimate worth?  If you do not know who she is, or was, that is understandable since she apparently made photographs of visual and social import solely because she wanted to. To my mind and eye, she showed more of an important view of humanity and its condition than Diane Arbus, but she instead kept her negatives and rolls of exposed film hidden from anyone but herself. In many ways the discovery of Maier’s work begs the question as to how many others of varying disciplines and intellects passed this way unnoticed?

And of course, since I brought up the whole extreme sport thing, one has to ask the question involving the dilemma of what is up with that? Having been involved as both a support person and as observer in long and odd swims in this area, and having read comments on the Marathon Swimmers Forum about “ego swims” and tirades against the veracity of Diana Nyad’s long distance efforts, I would say that the essence of all of this revolves around truth and human capabilities.  As far as I have seen, most, if not all, of the extreme swim events I have been involved in revolve solely around personal achievement. I would extend this to Bruce and Bob’s ride across the country. When I found out that their ride was unsupported, as in, they carried or stopped for all that they needed to carry on, my respect for their accomplishment skyrocketed. I would compare that to the grand European cycling tours where teams have buses and multiple team cars, not to mention youth and a mass of nearly 200 riders to propel the group forward.  Going the distance, when the sole purpose is just that, seems to change everything, and might just be the biggest life lesson to remember and act on in all of this.