Susan Robb is a Seattle artist who describes her work as the ongoing investigation of people, places and our search for utopia. In her upcoming project, Wild Times, Robb will be solo thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. This is an examination of wildness as both as a geographic ideal and a state of mind, using site responsive art, social engagement and new media.
Robb’s vision is that this experience will not only give her the opportunity to explore actual wilderness but that through a series of collaborative events, visual prompts and community exercises she can spur a larger dialogue about what it means to be wild and how that fits into the modern world.
Pacific Crest Trail Association
How Robb defines 'wildness': “that place inside of us that is autonomous, unbranded, and free.”
The trail as art studio: Using the trail as a nomadic studio Robb will contemplate not just the landscape she is crossing but the urban life she has left behind. She hopes this project will encourage people to think about technology, nature and their personal relationships with these concepts.
Washington Trails Association recently sat down to talk to Robb about her upcoming project. Below is a portion of that conversation.
How did Wild Times come about?
I had the opportunity to create project called The Long Walk commissioned by the King County Parks (2010 -2012). I took 50 people on a multiday walk from Golden Gardens to Snoqualmie Falls using the regional trail system. Over this four day journey we would sleep along the trail, I would create projects for us to engage in, invite fellow artists to create work along the trail for hikers to enjoy. It was a way of exploring what home is. King County Parks’ slogan is Your Big Backyard; I was thinking if this is our backyard we should come to know it as a piece of home. So we explored it to make it feel that way.
We were hiking about 18 miles a day, and I could see how walking was affecting the participants and changing their interactions. In fact, one woman was so inspired by this project that she has since gone on to hike the Appalachian Trail. This made me want to walk more.
Just as I finished the first year of The Long Walk, I encountered a guy with a long beard and big backpack looking rather scruffy. I asked where he had been coming from and he said I just finished the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). He told me a little about this and I was inspired. I brought him home that evening and made him dinner while he shared his experience with me and it sparked my imagination. I knew that I wanted to find a way to incorporate the PCT into my work.
Then I settled on what issue I wanted to explore. One of the things I noticed during The Long Walk was everyone was attached to their devices. In some ways that was fun, they were tweeting and Facebooking their experience so there was this connection to their friends but I couldn’t help but think that we are constantly in that mode of technological connectedness. Then I heard this statistic that only 3% of the contiguous US is wild, undeveloped and I thought that is also what is happening to us. We are losing the wildness in our minds, it is an endangered space. So I saw these two concepts of endangered wildness merging.
I think that each of us needs to start exploring this idea of individual wildness because that exploration can actually nurture your wildness. People need to feel their autonym, that space in yourself that is just for you, that you don’t share or Snapchat. That is what this project is about - allowing myself the time to be open to thinking about these questions while engaging in an activity that requires physical endurance, perhaps includes loneliness and natural backdrop and encouraging others to be a part of this consideration. And hiking is a part of that autonomy. You are the one hiking; no one else is making your legs move. You are doing this just for you.
There is a duality of technology in Wild Times—the idea is to unplug, and yet you are using technology to connect with people during your hike. How are you bringing those ideas together?
My work often uses technology in unusual ways to talk about nature. I use it to critique itself and create a dialogue about humans, nature and technology come together. Those same tensions are in play with Wild Times. One of the tools I am very excited about using is the 3D printer—you can photograph an object and then print a three dimensional version. Every day I can take photo of objects while I am hiking and then share these pieces with people back in civilization, bringing the trail to life for other people. Plus, the printed piece comes out a little rough and that adds to the experience, because it’s not perfect.
I will also taking photos to print and share with the museums. I have an Instagram feed that will be on display for folks. I like the tension that of using technology to talk about wildness. And I like the tension it causes in me. My pack is a 10 base weight then there is the weight of the technology both physically and metaphorically. The technology draws attention to itself and makes people question it. Then perhaps they will think about their own relationship with technology. Are we so plugged in that we can’t escape it? Or will we create some kind of balance? I don’t know the answer I am the person I am talking about and trying to reach.
Unplugging can be a challenge for people. What advice would you give people?
I came face to face with this experience when I hiked the Wonderland in 2013. This was a sort of practice for my Wild Times piece, I had planned to interact with people back in civilization while on trail. I was out there for ten days. I thought there would be moments where I would not be able to connect but I was not prepared for the isolation. I actually went through withdrawals.
I was checking my pocket with my phone constantly and getting emotional and angry. Then I realized what was happening. Once I recognized what was going on, it was easier to deal with. I think that many people are addicted to their devices. It serves so many purposes that we need to look at it.
Maybe having a constant connection isn’t all positive—we should give ourselves that autonomous space to let our own selves experience what we are experiencing before send it out to share with others to like or comment on. Those unique moments are where you get to be you and not part of a collective.
How have you prepared for your PCT hike?
I have done a couple of things. I hiked the Wonderland in 2013 as a trial run. I took an ultra-lite backpacking class with Andrew Skurka; we did a hike in the Olympics last June to prepare me for snow travel in the Sierras. He helped me reduce my pack weight while still being comfortable and warm. I have also being doing some gait training to help me hike more comfortably. I have also been getting out on trails close to Seattle. Now I am working on preparing five months of food. I am working menus and meals, dehydrating my food.
The Wild Times project was conceived before Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild came out. How has its popularity impacted your project?
Strayed’s book is the main way a lot of people know about the PCT. Wild Times is a different kind of project; I am trying to create something open. It is less about me looking inward and more about looking outward at what is happening in the world. How we are all connected to technology and losing our natural spaces literally and figuratively.
When did you start hiking?
It started out just as walking growing up at home. Growing up in Connecticut my dad would come home after a hard day at work. He would go out for a walk and when he came back he would be different, better, more relaxed. I noticed that walking and the feeling good went hand and hand. Sometimes I would go with him. We would walk at night in the snow and it was beautiful. The sense of connectives between the two of us and the beauty of the snow and the moon all combined.
That feeling carried forward with this sense that if you walk things will naturally happen. So I started doing more of it. You know when you go hiking with friends and a rhythm happens. I believe here is a sense that you can distill a relationship down to this rhythm – the people that we walk with are the people that we care about. Walking together creates a sense of family or community.
I believe this feeling is shared by other hikers. In researching the PCT I have been reading trail journals and the concept of a trail family comes up often. There is a deep sense of connection to the other people hiking the PCT. There is a bond. Walking is an amazing mechanism for exploring relationships.
What lessons has hiking taught you?
You don’t need a lot of stuff, such as fancy knives with lots of components that you won’t use. Keep it simple.
Don’t underestimate the importance of a good insole. I had switched out my insoles when I started the Wonderland and the pair in my boot was not working for me. There was not enough support so I ended up cutting up my camp shoes a lightweight plastic clog and duct taping that sole into my boot. You really need to be comfortable with your gear and make it work for you. Cut it, tear it make it yours.
What is your 11th essential?
Music. I hike with my phone in my hip belt playing music low enough so that I can still hear what is happening around me and no one else on trail is bothered by the sound. Music has this way of adding another dimension to the landscape. When I am listening to music and walking through the landscape it inspires me and makes me feel more present. That is when I want to get my camera out; it makes me want to create art in response to what I am experiencing. Music brings the landscape to life in the extra sensory way.
In fact, people can send me soundtracks to hike with during Wild Times. I like all types of music, and I am open to seeing what different songs invoke. I have discovered that genres you never thought to listen to while hiking (like electronica dance music) can really work. It changes the music. It changes the landscape. Music offers a new perspective to the experience. And when I hear the music later it helps transport me back to that place.
What trails in Washington have inspired you?
The Wonderland Trail blew my mind. I don’t think that people realize how amazing it is and it is right there. It is like Eden in our backyard. The Alpine Lakes area is fantastic, glacial lakes that are beautiful and easily within reach. Wallace Falls is a nice place for a hike when I need a quick trip and can’t get away from Seattle. It gives you a sense that you have gotten out further than you have in a short amount of time.
How can people discover their wildness?
I can’t tell anyone else how to explore this part of themselves; maybe they should take a walk and think about it. It could be as easy as changing your routine, perhaps walking to work to help you look at things anew. It is about waking up and watching the sunrise. I think something as simple as that can awaken you to your own sense of self, your own life and the world around you.
What is most exciting about this experience for you?
I think the most exciting part is creating work in a nomadic way and sharing it with the museums and the community. It is a new way for me to work. I am like little ant crawling up this huge trail. It could fail and that is exciting as well. I have never done anything like this before. Part of embracing ‘wild’ is knowing that things are not perfect and you have to roll with it. I am looking forward to being out there and see what happens and how I respond. I don’t know what is going to happen and that is the most amazing part about this project.