I often find myself the victim of divided loyalties while at work. Part of me urges complete and utter absorption in the task at hand, abandonment to that oblivion of timeless and spaceless devotion to numbers, spreadsheet cells and formatting. Then from somewhere seemingly far away comes something akin to a tug on the sleeve, followed by the suggestion that this time would be well spent if some bit of my consciousness serreptitiously committed itself to recomposing a blog post I’d been writing the night before or running through some possible titles.
Carol Selter’s The Personal Hiking Project, artifacts of which are on view at Gallery 16, is a little like an experiment, with perhaps a touch of the old belief in sympathetic magic. What if you, while sitting at your desk at work say, were aware that by proxy you were also off on a day’s hike in the wilderness? Selter, after conferring with a friend on what kind of trek they’d like to take, went out and did it for them, documenting the journey and returning with the pictures, some material object such as a leaf or bit of curled bark, and stories about incidents, reactions and observations.
The exhibit is arranged nearly uniformly, along four walls of the gallery space. A chair is backed up against the wall with a fresh copy of the book describing that particular hike set upon it. Each book relates to that specific trip taken by Selter for the “hiker,” and they have names like Lauren’s Hike, Oct. 10, 2007, Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve or Rupert’s Hike, July 12, 2007, Butano State Park and are composed solely of photographs. Above the chair is a small shelf with a pyrex plate or petri dish containing the physical evidence of the event, a tiny cluster of blossoms or a small vial of seawater perhaps. Affixed to the wall is a photograph of the “hiker” pouring through the book, usually with a broad smile (at one point the line of chairs is broken to display a nice series of pictures of the reader’s feet, usually crossed at the ankles, each somehow conveying varying degrees of pleasure or comfort).
While the exhibit is interesting enough, it is what they call in television (much to my annoyance) “proof of performance.” Because clearly what interests Selter is not the production of a book of photographs but the relationship she has created between herself, the “hiker” and the physical experience of the event. They may offer suggestions of the type of hike they would like to take and the environment they would prefer to visit, but to what extent are they truly participants? Well, the gallery’s website tells us that “even though physically at work, ‘hikers’ reported feeling happy that day while imagining themselves outside on their hike, enjoying the experience.”
It is very easy, considering Selter is now offering these hikes to the public for a fee, to view them as an upscale indulgence (a trek will cost you $1500), the kind of extravagant gesture that’ll make good copy on KRON 4 News’ human interest segment as the reporters shake their heads in good humored disbelief. Or maybe it’s a sign of the times, as work eats up more and more of our leisure time. Perhaps the more affluent will be forced to hear about their adventures second hand while the poorer among us take their trips to Capri via their Xbox 360.
But what distinguishes Selter’s hikes are that they are not truly substitute pleasures. They are the creation of a new kind of pleasure, one that is visible on the faces of the participants leafing through their books on the gallery wall. As Selter experiences a trek that the “hiker” suggested based on general preferences, they revise and reimagine the space traversed in their mind’s eye. When she returns, they reconcile or replace their daydream landscape with Selter’s images, descriptions and samples. Finally they are left with a strange relationship with a place that they may have never visited but that they now have a personal connection with.