Campus sidewalks meander between places of interest, connecting buildings and parking lots in a maze of concrete stripes. Often where their right angles turn near grassy areas between them and another building or parking lot, there are paths leading off diagonally. These forking paths are called “desire lines,” so named because they show where people would rather walk. There’s a story circulating that says good engineers (or lazy ones, depending on who tells the story; see Brand, 1994, p. 187) put sidewalks in last as to follow the desire lines and avoid wear on the grass. Desire lines illustrate the tension between the native and the built environment and our relationship to them.
Desire lines are where the system – the system of people in conjunction with their built environment – asserts itself. “Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived,” wrote Gaston Bachelard in his book The Poetics of Space (1958). “These drawings need not be exact. They need only to be tonalized on the mode of our inner space… Space calls for action, and before action, the imagination is at work. It mows and ploughs” (p. 12).
Our dealings with Nature are just lines in innumerable directions.
— William James
In A Line Made by Walking (Afterall Books, 2010), Dieter Roelstraete examines a series of art work and black and white photographs thereof by Richard Long. In 1967, while a student at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, Long wore single, straight line on a hillside outside of London. His single photograph of the line wore his name into the annals of art like so many footsteps on that hill. The piece, also dubbed A Line Made by Walking, Roelstraete writes, “equally belongs to the histories of early Conceptual art, Land art, performance or body art…” and experiments in photography, among others (p. 2). It was Long’s first recognized piece of art and set in motion a career that took art out of the gallery and into the landscape. Roelstraete’s book explores his work, but also the many trajectories that spin off of it. Travel, technology’s influence thereon, walking, performance, and the relationship of the body to the world.
Rebecca Solnit has done the best job of exploring the history and philosophy of walking and thinking. Roelstraete situates Long’s work in relation to Solnit, quoting Solnit’s Wanderlust: A history of walking (2001): “Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them… Walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it” (p. 27; p. 5). Richard Long’s work and Dieter Roelstraete’s book about it illustrate this thought in lines both walked and written.
By the way, A Line Made By Walking (the book) is an entry in Afterall’s “One Work” series, each of which explores a particular piece of art and how it changed art and our perception of it, not unlike what Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series does for records. Both are highly recommended.
Desire lines and the meditations in A Line Made by Walking remind me that aspects of our lives only matter because a certain amount of us have decided that they do. Often called social construction and often harshly critiqued as uselessly postmodern, the concept is testable. Go to your local coffee shop or restaurant and try to walk behind the counter. You will be swiftly ushered back to the other side of the counter if not out of the establishment. Whether or not there is an actual physical barrier in place, there is an accepted area for the employees and one for the patrons — that’s social construction. As a society or culture we tend to agree on a great many of these constructions. We decide what matters.
To read Solnit, you’d think we’d decided that walking no longer matters. She writes,
Walking still covers the ground between cars and buildings and the short distances within the latter, but walking as a cultural activity, as a pleasure, as travel, as a way of getting around is fading, and with it goes an ancient and profound relationship between body, world, and imagination. (p.250)
Though I’m less pessimistic than Solnit sounds above, I acknowledge that technology often makes decisions for us. Often we aren’t left a choice as to what is easier, more convenient, or more fun, much less what is more acceptable. Often the technology in place makes only one path available — a sidewalk in the current example. But, as GeorgieR, an admin for the Desire Path Flickr Group, puts it,
The key to the desire path is not just that it’s a path which one person or a group has made, but that it’s done against the will of some authority which would have us go another, rather less convenient, way.
Desire lines illustrate our endless ability to stray anyway.
Bachelard, G. (1958). The poetics of space. New York: Beacon.
Brand, S. (1994) How building learn: What happens after they’re built. New York: Viking.
James, W. (1903). The varieties of religious experience. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Roelstraete, D. (2010). Richard Long: A line made by walking. London: Afterall Books.
Solnit, R. (2001). Wanderlust: A history of walking. New York: Penguin.
Special thanks to Katie Arens for introducing me to the concept of desire lines.