“Glowing accidental things”: Walking with Jon Cotner and Claire Hamilton
The photographs aren’t particularly artistic and the captions aren’t particularly poetic. But the recent collaborations of Jon Cotner and Claire Hamilton – slideshows that document walks – are deceptive in their simplicity and extraordinary in their impact. In photos and quick text, they replicate – amazingly! – the sensations of walking: the pace of a stroll, the way details present themselves, recede. More so, more so, these slideshows remind us to look. They remind us that there is the possibility of surprise, of dazzlement, of the strangeness and loveliness that’s there when you allow for it, when you pay attention.
For The Believer’s art issue, Cotner and Hamilton’s slideshow narrates a walk across Fire Island. A photograph of downtown Cherry Grove shows three men walking the boardwalk and front patio seating of the Cherry Grove Café; rainbow flags hang from a storefront down the way; there’s an orange hotdog-shaped balloon rising erect in the breeze. The accompanying text reads: “Downtown Cherry Grove is jubilant. Real-estate offices display million-dollar listings. Most guys wear swim trunks. We study the Cherry Lane Café’s lunch menu, and decide to move on.” A simple moment, classic summer scene. Straightforward and true.
Stranger things happen. A deer appears on the path; they follow it; it leads them to a patch of dozens of colorful lawn ornament flamingos stuck into the sand. “Our tour-guide reveals this flock of plastic flamingos, then vanishes in beachgrass.”
Hamilton’s photographs are crisp, well-framed snapshots, and this is for the best. Art photographs, even Instagram effects, take reality and skew it. This is what this looks like right here in this moment. You see what they see, not over manipulated — not one individual’s vision of the basketball court or the dogs on the dune, never alienating in that way. They are matter of fact, well-composed.
Cotner has good practice narrating walks. The slim and beguiling Ten Walks/Two Talks (Ugly Duckling Presse), on which Cotner collaborated with Andy Fitch, includes ten narratives about moving through New York City on foot. The observations, in the slideshows, and the book, range from the matter of fact (“Atlantique’s marina is packed”) to the lyrical and impressionistic (“glowing accidental things”; “While his feet kick drums and his hands play guitars, he’ll blow into a harmonica or sing”). The atmosphere is captured, an afternoon on earth. Bits of dialogue are sprinkled in, small encounters with strangers the two pass on their way. Pleasantries exchanged – a man in a white Speedo tells them he’s look for a place to pee. Fire Island has no cars. An old couple and later a young mother mention how much they love to walk.
The fragments become something flowing and whole.
The same can be said for the slideshow of a walk down Bedford Ave in Brooklyn the two did for the BMW Guggenheim Lab.
We tend to tread the same paths. Apartment to subway stop. Around the block in the evening after dinner. The same sidewalks and blocks and scenes seen over and over. When it’s all familiar, it’s hard to pay attention, hard to see what’s new or strange or lovely right in front of you. In presenting us with something we so easily take for granted, breeze by, Cotner and Hamilton defamiliarize our neighborhood. They give each expedition – the stroll to the corner store for milk, the walk along the river in winter – potential, opportunity for something transformative to take place. And if it doesn’t on this particular walk, the promise that they make, unspoken, is that over time, the accumulated experience, the presence and paying attention, will transform you. The work makes an argument for presence. It makes an argument for noticing, being awake.
In a project called Poem Forest, Cotner distributed 15 lines of poetry selected from two-and-a-half millennia of nature poetry along a trail in the New York Botanical Garden. Walkers of the path were urged to recite the lines, “bring them to life,” then to take a moment to contemplate the scene. Cotner’s work encourages us “to inhabit the present more deeply.” It is, as he writes, “a reminder to keep going.”
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