I thoroughly enjoyed working on this week’s big arts story in the 7 section. Morris, a former Fresnan now getting a doctoral degree at the University of East London, offers an intriguing way for you to break up your holiday weekend: a “walking art project” in the Tower District that he calls “Former Fresnans: The Boxing Day Tour.”
The “memory palace” that Morris has constructed as the subject of his walk is a sort of virtual museum rooted in actual Tower District locations. (Example: the backstage door of the 2nd Space Theatre.) The exercise isn’t the easiest to grasp in a short sound bite, but the quick explanation from my story is this:
The free Dec. 26 walk will visit a number of Tower District landmarks. But the important part of this 75-minute tour is imagination. Participants will be asked to visualize “artifacts” created by former Fresnans in a virtual museum. Morris “built” this memory palace by taking walks with former Fresnans living in New York City, San Francisco, Oakland, and London. They then selected particular memories of Fresno shared during those walks to place in specific Tower District locations such as, say, the parking lot of Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater.
Morris and I have been corresponding back and forth via email between Fresno and London as I’ve written the piece, and I’m fascinated with the way he’s blended the concept of memory palaces — which are based on an ancient Greek memory trick — with “walking art.” I love the idea of engaging in a virtual work as an active rather than passive participant in the experience. Morris talks about how creating “a memory image to record our experience makes us wrap our experience in metaphor: We don’t just record it, we imagine it, we embody it.”
I also love the idea of walking as art — not through a climate-controlled museum but through real life.
And I’ll probably never drive past the 2nd Space Theatre again without thinking of a giant cherry tree out back. You’ll know what I’m talking about if you read this extended interview with Morris.
Q: First, some biographical stuff: What year did you graduate from Roosevelt? Sketch in the trajectory of your academic career since then. How far along are you in your doctoral work, and how do you describe it?
A: I graduated from Roosevelt in 2000. I was fortunate to receive the Audra McDonald scholarship, which helped get me started at University of California, Santa Cruz where I double-majored in literature and theatre. I focused primarily on directing, and my production of Witold Gombrowicz’s “The Marriage” resulted in an invitation to speak at the Gombrowicz Centennial Festival in Lublin, Poland—which was my first real experience combining my artistic and academic passions.
After finishing my degree, I stayed in Santa Cruz to do one more year of teaching and directing before ultimately resettling in New York City to pursue artistic work. For a variety of reasons practical, theoretical and artistic I shifted my practice from theatre to walking, and started to explore how I could construct artistic walks for groups of people. In 2011 I worked with walking artist Dillon de Give to develop the Walk Study Training Course, a six-week course on walking art. It combined artistic case studies and theoretical texts with specific walks, and provided a location for people interested in walking to engage in critical discussion. After two versions of the course Dillon and I formed the Walk Exchange with three course participants: Vige Millington, Bess Matassa, and Moira Williams. The Walk Exchange has continued to develop the course (we have done five versions and are currently preparing the sixth) and also promotes other walking activity in NYC.
As I became more immersed in walking as an artistic and cultural practice, I was introduced to the Walking Artists Network based at the University of East London. I had always planned on pursuing a doctorate, and the discovery of the network further spurred this interest. I was in London for a wedding and visited the University; I also had a chance to meet with the founder of the Walking Artists Network, Clare Qualmann, while she was visiting NYC. I moved to London and started my doctorate in 2013, and am currently in my third year (I expect to defend my thesis summer 2017). I usually tell people I am getting my doctorate in walking, but technically I am doing a practice-based research degree through theatre studies. My research focuses on group walks as an artistic medium, and one of my goals is to establish walking as an independent art kind. When people ask, ‘what is walking art’, I usually tell them that instead of going to a theatre and seeing a play, or going to a gallery and looking at a painting, they show up at a location and go on a walk. There is no single kind of walking art, but the consistent feature is the act or experience of going for a walk (and not just considering the walk of someone else).
Q: I went to your website and read about memory palaces. The funny thing is, I remember the story of Simonides and him recounting the guest list at the banquet from a college class, but for the life of me can’t recall which one. (Ah, memory.) Who put the concept of memory palaces and walking tours together? Is this something that has been done a lot, or are you a pioneer?
A: I was originally introduced to memory palaces by another former Fresnan, Heather Gardner, who had encountered it in “Moonwalking with Einstein,” a book by American memory champion Joshua Foer, which had just been released. It occurred to me to use it as a way to document my walking practice during my work with “The Bureau of Self Recognition,” a project by Chloe Bass.
As far as I know, no one has combined walking art/tours with memory palaces. One of the key aspects of this work is that it doesn’t exist as a material object. The walks are recorded by imaginary means, and the work only exists in the beholders imagination. Artists have used memory palaces in gallery and exhibition settings, most recently Hari Kunzru, Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace (2013), at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller (who are known for their audio walks) called their retrospective “Lost in the Memory Palace” and there are a number of books that use it as a trope.
Q: As something of an aside, I happen to be reading the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s “The Museum of Innocence” right now. (I’m going to Istanbul and Athens in January.) He writes the book, a work of fiction, as if he’s putting artifacts from the story into a museum. He also created a real museum with those artifacts, which I want to visit. Does this have any crossover with your field of study?
A: Sounds interesting! I think there is something about the idea of curating things into a museum that is interesting to me, and also my rejection of objects or artifacts in my own practice. I am thinking of the Tower District as a kind of gallery space for these memories. One of the things I am interested in is how we can shift our experience of the environment simply through perception, which is why actual objects aren’t necessary. One of the things I am arguing here is that the imaginary is just as powerful. People who have gone on my memory palace walks have noted that every time they walk by such and such a place, they see the image from the work.
Q: In terms of your upcoming walk, I want to make sure I completely understand the concept. You say that you went on walks with former Fresnans in New York City, San Francisco, Oakland and London, and that you decided what memories to put in the Former Fresnans Memory Palace. Are those memories Fresno (or Tower District) specific? Or are they memories of New York, San Francisco, etc.?
The memories are based on the walks we took together, so each one is specific to my relationship with the walker, their relationship to Fresno, their relationship to their new city, etc. They usually combine a bit of both. One key things that roots it in Fresno is the choice of a Tower District location. An interesting effect has been mapping what I call hubs of resonance, the places in Fresno that are focal points for ex-Fresnans. Multiple people have placed their images at (what used to be) the Revue café, at the St. Therese Catholic Church, or in the parking lots at Good Company Players and Livingstone’s.
A: Can you talk me through one of the exhibits in the Former Fresnans Memory Palace?
A: The following work is installed behind the Second Space Theatre in the back alley, where the actors enter to get backstage. It was created with Justin Weatherby.
Imagine you are walking through the parking lot at Second Space and coming to the back alley where the stagedoor is. When you turn the corner, you see a large cherry blossom tree growing between the trash dumpsters and the door. It is quite large, and the pink blossoms are vivid and gently swaying. If you go up to the tree you can see there is a knothole, and if you desire, you can peer inside the knothole and see that inside the tree there is a tiny chessboard, and the board is inhabited by members of the Roosevelt Class of 2000 drama class.
Each of the images represents something from the walk. The cherry tree records the fact that Justin walked us to the Cherry Lane Theatre, one of the first professional theaters he worked at (he is now producing Tony nominated shows). The chessboard in the tree also reflects the area we walked, a street in Greenwich Village known for its chess shops. The knothole in the tree relates to our discussions of 2nd Space’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” in which Justin and I were double cast in the role of Jem, and the people on the chessboard inside are our fellow classmates who were integral to our experience in Fresno together.
The participants on the walk will hear the description of the image, and it will be coupled with the stories of our experience.
Q: Do you have a personal contribution to the Former Fresnans Memory Palace?
A: I participate in the creation of every walk and image, but there are no images where I planned the walk or chose the locations. The closest is the image I created with Brett Van Aalsburg. Brett and I moved to NYC together (via a bike trip through the Rockies from Seattle to Casper, Wyoming) and lived together for four years; the walk took us from his new home to the one we shared together. That is the only walk that explicitly went to a place I considered home.
Q: Tell us about the logistics of the tour. How many people can you accommodate?
A: This walk is open to 20 people. It takes about 75 minutes total, and should be accessible to wheelchair users etc. People should RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org if they want to know the exact details and get a contact number for the day of the event. It is family friendly, but would probably be difficult for very young children because of the amount of walking and the level of attention necessary. Babies in slings or strollers are more than welcome.
Q: Does the Former Fresnans palace exist in any sort of form online that someone could access if they miss your walk?
A: No. But I am open to development and collaboration with Fresnans former and present. So though I don’t have any way of showing the work when I am not there, or a way to tell the story properly online, I would be eager to work with people in Fresno to develop something, whatever shape that may take. Also, I am tentatively planning a walk in January that would end at the Republican (Kate McKnight and Ephiram Bosse’s new restaurant downtown.) I am hoping to work on a memory palace installation around the restaurant, but nothing is confirmed. It might be possible to arrange viewings in the beginning of January by appointment.
Q: We live in an era in which memory seems to be ever worsening thanks to the amount of information at our fingertips. (Who needs to remember anything? You can always look it up online.) Do you agree? Do you think it is harder for someone in 2015 to go through a Memory Palace than it would have been for someone from, say, 1915?
A: Yes! I first got into walking after reading the Situationist International and Lettrist International discussions of the way that our real experiences were receding into representation (written in the 1960s) and found it even more prescient in today’s tech obsessed landscape. I think both memory and imagination are so important. One of the things I was struck by was the way that creating a memory image to record our experience makes us wrap our experience in metaphor. We don’t just record it, we imagine it, we embody it. I like the idea of making art you can’t Instagram. Sure you can take a picture of the back alley of 2nd Space, but unless you imagine the cherry tree, it’s just a picture of dumpsters and brick walls. I have also found that our capacity for memory is amazing, we just aren’t trained in it, because we don’t need to be!
Q: Once you’re finished with your schooling, what are your plans?
A: I am hoping to stay in London for a few years and continue making art, teaching and researching at a University. That being said, I am open to post-doctoral opportunities anywhere, and should the right thing present itself, I would move accordingly. There is particularly exciting walking work happening in Scotland and I could imagine relocating to Glasgow or Edinburgh.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: Former Fresnans originally began as a way to show my parents the kind of work I was making. They weren’t able to make it to any of the walks in NYC, so I figured I would bring the walking to them. Since embarking on the project I have had such a great time walking with people and sharing what it means to be from Fresno. I think it’s so important to bring the work we are making back to the place that made us! This is my way of bringing back some of the stories of Fresnans to Fresno and stay rooted in my upbringing (even if I only get to visit Fresno once a year).
UPDATE: Good Company Players kindly supplied some archival photos of Blake Morris in earlier days when he was in the cast of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1997. (Thanks, Shawn and Emily):
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