ESSAYS Mousse 72

Walking Is an Act of Seeing Is an Act of Reading Is an Act of Walking

by Hendrik Folkerts


This text is an exercise in measuring the space of an environment through personal associations, identifying sites of representation, contestation, desire, and conflict that can be read through various citations and references. This will be different for every person, and it will be different every time. I have focused on a small area of the city of Chicago, annotated according to the specificity of that moment. This text is one reading of that part of the city, experienced through the physical experience of walking.


Chicago, March 24, 2020: The Disney store on Michigan Avenue Downtown is closed and boarded up due to health pandemic quarantine COVID-19. Photo: ezellhphotography / Sutterstock 


Today is May 1, 2020, and I take a walk. The threshold between outside and inside seems more impenetrable than ever, yet at the same time the two are blurred, as if they are fighting their mythical, eternal war on new grounds. I open the door.

Outside and inside form a dialectic of division, the obvious geometry of which blinds us as soon as we bring it into play in metaphorical domains. It has the sharpness of the dialectics of yes and no, which decided everything. Unless one is careful, it is made into a basis of images that govern all thoughts of positive and negative. Logicians draw circles that overlap or exclude each other, and all their rules immediately become clear. Philosophers, when confronted with outside and inside, think in terms of being and non-being. Thus profound metaphysics is rooted in an implicit geometry which—whether we will or no— confers spatiality upon thought; if a metaphysician could not draw, what would he think? 1 Outside and inside are both intimate—they are always ready to be reversed, to exchange their hostility. If there exists a border-line surface between such an inside and outside, this surface is painful on both sides.2


I touch the elevator button with my finger. I should have used my key! I am so not ready for this. They only allow two people at a time in the building’s elevator, so it takes forever. But here it is. The soft ping is my cue to enter and, routinely, I walk through the opening doors, not noticing that someone else is stepping out. A split second. Only the illusion of touch is enough to make us both jump back. She shrieks. Life is a choreography of avoidance. Going outside is a confrontation.

If we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt, we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place. This is a very suggestive approach. It implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt, then, is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements. This idea of dirt takes us straight into the field of symbolism and promised a link-up with more obviously symbolic systems of purity.3 When I was writing Purity and Danger I had no idea that soon the fear of pollution would be dominating our political scene… We became afraid of contamination of the air, water, oceans and food. The topic of risk had been sleeping quietly since the seventeenth-century interest in gaming probabilities… Dangers are manifold and omnipresent. Action would be paralyzed if individuals attended to them all; anxiety has to be selective. We drew on the idea that risk is like taboo. Arguments about risk are highly charged, morally and politically. Naming a risk amounts to an accusation.4


3  I am outside. Even though I am by myself, I know I am not walking alone, but rather in the footsteps of those great walkers who connected the feet with the pavement, the mind with the city plan, the eyes with the horizon, the hands with a new kind of psychogenic ruler, and the fingers with the fences, as they gently touch them in passing.

The lessons drawn from dérives enable us to draw up the first surveys of the psychogeographical articulations of a modern city. Beyond the discovery of unities of ambiance, of their main components and their spatial localization, one comes to perceive their principal axes of passage, their exits and their defenses. One arrives at the central hypothesis of the existence of psychogeographical pivotal points. One measures the distances that actually separate two regions of a city, distances that may have little relation with the physical distance between them. With the aid of old maps, aerial photographs and experimental dérives, one can draw up hitherto lacking maps of influences, maps whose inevitable imprecision at this early stage is no worse than that of the first navigational charts. The only difference is that it is no longer a matter of precisely delineating stable continents, but of changing architecture and urbanism.5 We are the first generation of people for whom the aesthetic experience does not occur automatically. Instead, the place itself must explain its aesthetic intent. When we create a park, the park can no longer rely on the fact that we proceed from the town, through a gate, to a green space, and hence know we are visiting the park. Rather, the park must now substantiate by means of its interior design the extent to which it contrasts with its surroundings. So, without us even taking a single step, it must give us the strollological explanation: You have come from the city to the park.6


4  State Street is on my left—a dividing line between East and West, the lakeside and the sprawling urban expanse. I turn right, walk, and turn right again on Michigan Avenue. For a moment I am blinded by the sun hitting the glass facade of Chicago’s Trump Tower.

our splendid, transparent, eternal glass 7


5  I pause at DuSable Bridge, named after Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable (1745–1818), the Haitian-born founder of Chicago, who established the first trading post beside the Chicago River in the 1770s. DuSable’s statue is facing Trump Tower, next to the tall former IBM building designed by Mies van der Rohe—a testament to the Bauhaus’s architectural prowess that became the facade of corporate America, a history that is reflected back in Norman Foster’s high-tech, nouveau-casual glass architecture of the newly opened Apple store behind me. Next to DuSable, carved into the northeast tower of his namesake bridge, I see The Discoverers, a scene in bas relief sculpture that depicts the colonization of what is now the American Midwest, accompanied by an engraving that reads: “JOLLIET • FATHER MARQUETTE • LASALLE AND TONTI WILL LIVE IN AMERICAN HISTORY AS FEARLESS EXPLORERS WHO MADE THEIR WAY THROUGH THE GREAT LAKES AND ACROSS THIS WATERSHED TO THE MISSIS- SIPPI IN THE LATE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY AND TYPIFY THE SPIRIT OF BRAVE ADVENTURE WHICH HAS ALWAYS BEEN FIRMLY PLANTED IN THE CHARACTER OF THE MIDDLE WEST.” A few steps farther, at the center of the bridge, another plaque commemorates Jolliet and Marquette as “THE FIRST WHITE MEN TO PASS THROUGH THE CHICAGO RIVER • SEPTEMBER 1673,” brought to you by “THE ILLINOIS SOCIETY OF THE COLONIAL DAMES OF AMERICA UNDER THE AUSPICES OF THE CHICAGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY 1925.” From this point, separated by mere meters and hundreds of years, you can see the city as it tells itself.

Heritage… defines a hegemonic, highly institutionalized project of commemoration that is productive of collective identities—most often in the function of nation-building… It is frequently opposed to the countermemories it oppresses. Heritage is the shared past of the nation, which manifests itself in a monument to fallen soldiers or a site of national memory once visited as a child. Heritage also refers to the apparatus of institutions and regulations set in place as part of the state’s bureaucracy to administer its significant, distinctive past and the national cultural objects deemed worthy of preservation. Alternatively, heritage identifies different countermemories, as in the case of minority or indigenous heritages rendered invisible by practical, tabula rasa ideologies of settler societies.8


6  I continue on Michigan Avenue, and a left on Lake Street brings me to the Thompson Center, where I witness the aftermath of a small protest earlier today to “Reopen Illinois,” with people holding up signs saying “Give me liberty or give me COVID-19,” “Fuck your face masks,” and “Ban vaccines,” while a mock version of the car from The Dukes of Hazzard (including a large Confederate flag on the vehicle’s roof ) drove laps around the square. The cherry on the cake was a woman with a face mask adorned with the US stars and stripes, holding a sign that read “Arbeit macht frei,” but she assured the press she had Jewish friends, so everything was okay. Freedom, what a strange thing.

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compels all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.9


7  Back on State Street, the image of boarded-up luxury stores on Michigan Avenue reverberates in the storefronts of buildings temporarily evacuated by the big chains. A homeless man sits in front of what used to be an H&M, but no one carries any cash to give. The street is empty to begin with. He is sitting in the ruins of late capitalism. “Haven’t you heard?” I want to tell him. “Rome has fallen.”

It is true that we do not know what worlds are, nor what their existence depends on. Perhaps somewhere in the universe the mysterious law is written that presides over their origins, their growth and their ending. But this we do know: for a new world to arise, first an old world must die. And we also know that the interval that separates them can be infinitely brief or, on the other hand, so long that men have to spend dozens of years learning to live amid the desolation before discovering , inevitably, that they are incapable of doing so and that, in the final reckoning, they have not lived. Perhaps we can even identify the almost imperceptible signs that proclaim the recent disappearance of a world, not screaming shells above the gutted plains of the North, but… the square sail of a ship crossing the blue waters of the Mediterranean, in the open sea off Hippo, bringing the inconceivable news from Rome that men still exist but their world is no more.10


8  Many blocks north, discreetly tucked away between a Chase Bank and Pizano’s Pizza & Pasta, is Frenchy’s. Actually it’s called Lovers Playground these days, which admittedly is a much more evocative name, though I always appreciated the faux-chic quality of the previous title. Let’s call it Frenchy’s. It makes me think about what I miss: touch, physically be- ing part of a community, promiscuity. The epidemic that has affected me the most throughout my life is the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis. There are important similarities in the representation of disease, guilt, and shame, then and now. How physical contact was always a confrontation. How an epidemic will always be an ongoing crisis. How an epidemic unfolds along lines of privilege, of who does and doesn’t have access to health care. How fear of contagion impacts the relationships between people. I stop for a few minutes and think about Douglas Crimp.

My interest wasn’t to try to think about how you could maintain a healthy sexuality in relation to this epidemic through safe sex practices, but about how you could maintain a pro-sex positive position. How you could think about promiscuity and what we had learned from the wide-ranging experiences of having sex with many different people for many different purposes: for pure pleasure, for discovering things about yourself that you didn’t already know through an encounter with another, etc. How you could actually understand that as having given us the tools to invent the safe sex discourse in the first place. How, for example, you could have a viable public sexual culture in terms of bars, bathhouses, and sex clubs and so forth that would also become venues for the transmission of knowledge about safe sex practices… Things changed very drastically after AIDS, not only because of repressive forces. I think that the crisis itself, and people dying cast a long shadow over the pleasures of gay culture; not only were bathhouses and sex clubs closed by city ordinances in 1985, but also people just weren’t going out as much and taking as much pleasure in gay life, partly because they were afraid, but also people were busy fighting the situation or taking care of lovers and friends.11


9  My steps feel perpetual now. One foot in front of the other turns into an increasingly conscious act, obstacles become curiosities, and quotidian sights reveal themselves anew. Walking is an act of seeing is an act of reading is an act of walking. And so on. And so on.

The step sets up, in effect, a cycle that, if maintained in proper condition, links sight to the sole of the foot’s sense of touch, then quickly send the latter back to the former, which, after monitoring and anticipation, returns it with more pace; the eye caresses the rock before the gait touches it and confirms, in response, the unencumberedness of the gaze—so that the pupil almost touch- es and the arch of the foot practically sees… Second reversal: sight touch- es and touch sees. Break the cycle even for a moment, you fall. Sight walks or life ceases.12


10  I return home, once again ready to pass the threshold. Though I largely access the world through a screen these days—the reactionary impulse to flee to technological solutions for our current predicament does not help at all— physicality, touch, and mobilization are always there, at our fingertips or beneath the soles of our feet. I will return to my laptop now, or perhaps I will leave it closed for a while longer.

With the widespread adoption of the laptop, the lap is no longer just a site of intimacy for the labor of care, where life is brought closer; it is also the place from which thoughts, ideas, affects, calculations, and all sorts of transactions are disseminated far and wide: “From my lap, with love,” could be the signature of an email sent from a laptop.13 We must also learn to de-alienate ourselves. Governments are calling for confinement and telecommuting. We know they are calling for de-collectivization and telecontrol. Let us use the time and strength of confinement to study the tradition of struggle and resistance among racial and sexual minority cultures that have helped us survive until now. Let us turn off our cell phones, let us disconnect from the internet. Let us stage a big blackout against the satellites observing us, and let us consider the coming revolution together.14


Today is June 1, 2020. A month after I began writing this text, everything has changed, yet specters remain. Walking has turned into marching. The Defense monument from The Discoverers read “FUCK 12,” “FUCK WHITE SUPREMACY,” and “FUCK COLONIZERS.” It was cleaned the day after. Another “Reopen Illinois” rally and “Black Lives Matter” protest were organized at Thompson Center square on the same day—one was regarded by the Chicago Police Department as a right, the other as a violation. All the stores are boarded up, the capitalist paniiiiikkkkk is real. Trump Tower is surrounded by police, the stains of tear gas on its hard glass surface telling the story of America today. Frenchy’s is still closed. Walking is an act now accompanied by the soundtrack of helicopters, though they are not loud enough to drown out the silence of eight minutes and forty-six seconds. There is hope for real solidarity, actual change—to turn the ongoing crises into a defining moment for our generation.

2—monument1Henry Hering, Defense from The Discoverers,1928, Michigan Avenue Bridge, Chicago. Photo: © X 


1.  Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon, 1969), 211–212.
2.  Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 217–218.
3.  Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (New York: Routledge, 2002), 44.
4.  Douglas, Purity and Danger, xviii–xix.
5.  Guy Debord, “Theory of the Dérive,” in The Situationist International
Anthology, ed. Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), 66.
6.  Lucius Burckhardt, “Strollological Explanations on Perception of
the Environment and the Tasks Facing Our Generation,” in Why Is Landscape Beautiful? The Science of Strollology, ed. Markus Ritter and Martin Schmitz (Basel, Switzerland: Birkhäuser, 2006), 229.
7.  Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, trans. Clarence Brown (London: Penguin, 1993), 28.
8.  Chiara De Cesari, “Creative Heritage: Palestinian Heritage NGOs and Defiant Arts of Government,” American Anthropologist 112, no. 4 (2010): 625.
9.  John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (London: John W. Parker and Son, 1859), 13–14.
10.  Jerôme Ferrari, Sermon on the Fall of Rome, trans. Geoffrey Strachan (London: MacLehose, 2014), 22.
11.  Carlos Motta, “An Interview with Douglas Crimp,” February 14, 2011.
12.  Michel Serres, Variations on the Body, trans. Randolph Burks (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2011), 25.
13.  Filipa Ramos, “The Company One Keeps: Laptops, Lap Dances, Lapdogs,” e-flux journal, no. 93, 215746/the-company-one-keeps-laptops-lap-dances-lapdogs/.
14.  Paul B. Preciado, “Learning from the Virus,” Artforum 58, no. 9 (May–June 2020), paul-b-preciado-82823.


Hendrik Folkerts is the Dittmer Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. In the past three years, he has organized exhibitions and performance commissions featuring Alex- andra Bachzetsis, Vaginal Davis (co-curated with Solveig Nelson), Cevdet Erek, Anne Imhof, Naeem Mohaiemen (co-curated with Robyn Farrell), Malangatana Ngwenya (co-curated with Felicia Mings and Costa Petridis), Mounira Al Solh (co-curated with Jordan Carter), Cally Spooner, and Vivian Suter. Prior to this, he held cura- torial positions at documenta 14, Athens and Kassel (2017) and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2010-2015). His texts have been published in journals and magazines such as South as a State of Mind, Mousse, frieze, The Exhibitionist, Metropolis M, Art and the Public Sphere, and others. Most recently he contributed to exhibition catalogues and monographs on Alexandra Bachzetsis, Bouchra Khalili, Carlos Motta, Mounira Al Solh, Vivian Suter, Andy Warhol, and Sam- son Young. Folkerts is coeditor of The Shadowfiles #3: Curatorial Education (De Appel, 2013), Facing Forward: Art and Theory from a Future Perspective (Amsterdam University Press, 2014), and the journal Stedelijk Studies #3: The Place of Performance (Stedelijk Museum, 2015).


Originally published in Mousse 72

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