An Index of Walking // Ben Alper
Ben Alper is an artist based in Durham, North Carolina. He received a BFA in photography from the Massachusetts College of Art & Design in Boston and an MFA in Studio Art from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Alper’s work has been shown widely, including group exhibitions at Osnova Gallery in Moscow, the NADA Art Fair in Miami, Higher Pictures and Transmitter Gallery in New York, Schneider Gallery in Chicago and S1 Gallery in Portland. Ben has published two books under his imprint Flat Space Books – Adrift and A Series of Occurrences. He is also the co-founder and co-facilitator of A New Nothing, an online project space dedicated to hosting visual conversations between artists. Recently, his third book, and the first material publication of A New Nothing, was published by There There Now.
An Index of Walking
An Index of Walking is a year long photographic project that explores the enigmatic intersection of memory, place, geography, and perception. Taken along the same daily walk in my neighborhood, the photographs depict the commonplace objects and spaces that comprise what could be any typical suburban area. My walks have been a vehicle for exploration, contemplation, and looking; they have provided a structure in which to engage with the place in which I currently live. Georges Perec coined the term infra-ordinary to characterize the mundane features of everyday life – glass, concrete, utensils, our daily rhythms, the way we spend our time. He advocated for an anthropology of the banal, a method of sorts in which the habitual is scrutinized with intensity. Perec wrote, “We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. But where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space?”
Time spent with the everyday spaces, objects, and rhythms of daily life reveals a wealth of information, most of which hides in plain sight. What is gleaned is often fragmentary and discrete; however, even the most ostensibly ordinary landscape is imprinted with so much – time, history, growth, decay, politics, and wonder. Caught somewhere between art and life, private and social experience, and repetition and chance, this project exists in the lineage of Happenings. Everyday I take the same walk and restrict myself to photographing one object or space which captivates me. These constraints delineate my route and process, but within these strictures lie opportunities for spontaneity, drifting, and subversion.
As Rebecca Solnit avows in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, “exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains”. It is this hybridized and indeterminate space, at once physical and mental, that interests me. This fascination derives from my own tenuous relationship to memory and place. Many of the homes, neighborhoods, and towns that I’ve lived in are unsettlingly absent from my consciousness. More often than not what remains is an abstracted still image, devoid of meaningful context. Sometimes, I realize that memories of disparate places have fused into one another, blurring the distinction between separate locations. A composite memory of place is born – temporally and spatially incongruous, but nevertheless united.
These compound memories, when not unified by place, find continuity in shared emotional states or physical attributes. Analogous experiences, whether joyful, upsetting, comforting, or tedious, bond to one another somewhat inexplicably. Psychological correspondences always seem to prevail over geographical ones.
With An Index of Walking, I hope to speak about place as a series of discrete and fragmentary components, akin to a puzzle that is missing pieces. This is also how I archive and recall places in my mind – not as unified wholes, but as fractional and lacking continuity. It has become clear to me that this project is more than merely a durational exercise indexing a series of walks in my neighborhood; it is also a visual metaphor for my own idiosyncratic relationship to memory and place.
In her wonderful essay “On Keeping A Notebook”, Joan Didion writes, “the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess”. This sentiment resonates deeply with me as I think about my current relationship with photography. When I began An Index of Walking, I envisioned the project as one rooted in recording, mapping, and descriptive representation. In reality, what I’ve created is an illusory portrait of a place over time, as much fiction as it is fact. It extends beyond the evidentiary impulse simply to catalog my surroundings. Ultimately, the work represents my desire to fabricate a space that is singularly my own and to liberate the photograph from the confines of factual depiction. If memory perpetually betrays those who call upon it, then initiating this project from a place of invention and abstraction may be a way of subverting the anxiety of forgetting.
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