It was a first for me in a couple of ways: My first time living outside of a city for any significant length of time and my first time making a large scale, semi-permanent public art project.
I've done large scale and temporary, and small scale and semi-permanent, but this combination was new for me.
The scale, to be more precise, was 22 miles. The duration was to be 4-5 months.
When I arrived at WSW, I wasn't positive that I would be able to work along the entire trail. It was important to me that I try, because I saw that most previous rail trail public art projects had occurred right around the WSW campus and I felt it was my duty as a public artist to try to connect with wider a public if possible. But I was without a car, and had to work part-time remotely while in residence, so I was very nervous about over-committing.
After spending my first weekend riding the entire trail by bike I decided I would do it. I fell in love with all of the ways that the trail's environment shifted over its many miles, and loved the conversations I was having with people along the trail and when I got off the trail to explore each town it passed through.
My strategy was to divide the month into thirds: The first 3rd would be research and writing. I would ride and hike the trail, pausing and writing site-specific texts for my project as different parts of the trail inspired me. The texts were to go on signs, meant to look as much like the existing signage as possible, so that people were unsure of whether their source was official or not. So this research period also involved reaching out to the two organizations that manage the trail, and to the sign maker who made the official signs so that I could mimic the fonts and colors correctly, as well pricing and testing fabrication materials and methods. The second 3rd of my residency was the fabrication. I still visited the trail most days, but for this phase I was mostly working incredibly hard in the studios. My goal was to put up 1-3 signs per trail mile, so with the help of custom jig designed by WSW's woodshop magician, Woody, I cut 40 1/2" luan boards into the dimensions and shapes of the official signs; gave each sign multiple coats of primer and paint; created 40 different silkscreens; printed a different text on each board; and then gave them each a few coats of shellac so that they would be both watersafe and look a bit aged. In the final 3rd of my residency, I would install the signs along the trail on steel poles matching the existing poles, and then document and celebrate the project.
All of this happened, more or less on schedule, but there was a tremendous hitch.
In the first day of installation, with sweaty, all-day, hands-on assistance from WSW's staff and interns, I hit both ends of the trail and planted 5 or 6 signs in between. I didn't want them clumped together or too near to any entrance to the trail that had parking because I wanted them to appear to have arrived mysteriously. It took a good contingent of human support to make this happen: Installing involved one person holding a 6-foot pole in place while another person pounded it a foot+ into the ground. The signs, poles, and 16-pound pole driver had to be hiked in on foot.
On the second day of installation, we got 10 signs into the ground, plus great photographs of the work in progress. At the end of that day, one of WSW's staff mentioned to me that someone had complained about one of the signs in a community Facebook group. The sign (above) was on a part of the path that crossed through someone's (very beautiful) orchard and they felt it was a provocation for people to steal fruit from their trees. Or so I was told. I wasn't able to see the Facebook post. I thought this was strange, and asked to join the Facebook group in the hopes of communicating directly with the person who raised the concern. My hope was that I could figure out a way to make them happier with the sign where it was, or else to have them suggest a better place for it that posed less of a threat to the fruit. But I had to complete an application to join the group and by the time it was approved, I had been asked by one of the trail organizations to go and take the sign down. I did, and then put another 12 signs up, but at the end of that third day of installing, and two days before the opening, it was determined that the signs all had to come down. The permissions that I thought had been in place for the project were not in place properly, and though there was willingness to negotiate permissions for part of the trail, there just wasn't time for me to take all of the signs that were already up down and move them to new locations. Besides, many, like the one below, meant to occur near a bridge known to have a slight electrical charge, were too site-specific to move to elsewhere.
Instead of living along the trail, which I'm told is used by 7-10,000 people annually, the signs (minus some that disappeared during their brief tenure on the trail) are now installed in front of WSW. I went with an esthetic that I think of as 'half-graveyard, half-front yard of someone with very strong religious convictions and a lot of signboard.' It's not at all the impact or intention I had proposed or aimed for, but it's what can be. My hope is that those signs, clumped together in that location, along with this blog post, for those who read it, can nurture some kind of conversation about who public art is for and/or what it needs to be like to meet the needs and desires of 'the public'.
I was making something that I thought of as a gift for the trail-using public, but it was a gift that actually wasn't necessarily wanted, and so the big question then becomes, who is public art for if the public doesn't want it? It's like the life-lesson one gets from throwing a surprise party for someone that hates being surprised: I imagined myself enhancing the experience of being on the trail, but a) there was no one out there calling for enhancements to the trail experience, and b) the trail has aspects of its existence that have nothing to do with its use as a public resource. The trail crosses people's private land through a series of easement agreements, and it's completely valid to ask whether anything installed on the trail in these areas should be there if it interferes with someone's enjoyment of their private land beyond what has already been agreed to via the easement. If I had understood this before I started, I probably would have reached out individually to folks with easement agreements and tried to work out whether I was capable of making something that they would enjoy having in place. But it's too late for that now.
I got a lot out of the residency despite not being able to realize the project I came to make: I worked harder than I've ever worked and learned a lot about my capacity; I got real intimate with some tools (most notably a middle-aged bandsaw and several well-loved scoop coaters,) that I barely knew beforehand; I actually liked the quality of my work on this project, which is rare; and most importantly, I built what can only be described as a visceral connection with the trail itself. The trail changed and sharpened my senses, and I miss it. I can see its mists in my mind's eye and feel its temperature changes with my mind's body and am left with an uncanny sense that it collaborated with me on my project. The idea of collaborating with a place is a fabulous one for me to walk away with. Even if this idea is pure fantasy and fades, at the very least, my time on/with the trail nurtured something previously unknown in me—a sort of primal, bodily logic that is new to me, but which feels installed permanently now in my consciousness.
When I left WSW, I joked that my best avenue for feeling that the project was a successful one after all was to imagine that it was an endurance performance art piece rather than a public art installation. Now I'm less prone to seeing that idea as a joke. Assessed as an endurance piece, it would most definitely qualify as a meaningful and accomplished work, and then it becomes far less important who the audience is. Or rather, the audience for an endurance piece is always the highest, most questioning part of oneself that tries to answer the query