Artists Jacques-Jean “JJ” Tiziou, Ann de Forest, Sam Wend and Adrienne Mackey all could have “just sat in the studio and drawn” for the week-long project they wanted to complete together, said photographer Tiziou.
Instead, they ended up walking 103 miles—the entire border of Philadelphia.
“From the outset, we were all interested in engaging with the city in some way,” said fiction writer de Forest. “JJ and I had also talked about processions and pilgrimages early on—what does it mean to move through a space, even a familiar space, with a kind of ritual intention?”
As themes like neighborhoods, borders and boundaries coupled with the idea of pilgrimage and procession were strewn around the room, Tiziou decided to type into Google, “What’s the border of Philadelphia?” From the report of a cyclist who has biked the border before, Tiziou found it was a 65-mile trek, which they later discovered was misleading, he said.
From a collection of topics each artist wanted to touch upon paired with a simple Google search, an idea was born: the group would embark on a walk around the border of Philadelphia. And they did.
At the Philadelphia History Museum on April 27, the artists shared their “findings” from the excursion. The space the artists used to present featured a large map of Philadelphia, which they used in “interactive storytelling” about experiencing the world through walking and “living in present-tense.”
“We’ll be taking people through a pilgrimage journey through the city,” Tiziou says.
“I think this project is part of a long series of discoveries in my artwork,” Mackey added. “It solidifies a sense that what creative works can offer to contemporary audiences is more than entertainment. It’s a way to frame the way we see the world in a new way.”
The project was completed with support by Swim Pony Performing Arts, a platform founded in 2009 by Mackey for artists to meet and collaborate with each other. The artists met through Cross Pollination, Swim Pony’s interdisciplinary residency program that allows Philadelphia artists to learn about each other’s mediums and incorporate them into their own work.
“At the time, it seemed doable,” Tiziou said. “I ended up saying to the group, ‘Hey guys, we can do this. How about we go walk around the city?’ And everyone immediately said, ‘Yes, that’s it.’ And there was no question.”
During the course of the week, the artists trekked around the border of Philadelphia in segments, beginning their walk at dawn each day and ending the evening at public transit stops along the border. Using the stops as markers, the group would pick up where they left off the next morning.
“We were interested in questions of what urban identity was,” Mackey said. “We wanted to see how perspectives shifted when you see something from the margins instead of its center. We were trying to disrupt our own instincts about places we claim to know.”
“Part of the impulse to just walk and notice was a way to unseat the idea that there are ‘better’ parts of the city,” she added. “As we walked we would occasionally see the skyline in the distance and a few times, someone would say, ‘There’s the city.’ Of course, we’d realized that the ground under our feet was equally much Philly as the Comcast building.”
For Wend, the statement of the project is that they know less about the condition of Philadelphia than they thought they did. Wend has noticed that many Philadelphia residents are stuck in structured patterns of where they go in the city, which often includes South Philly, University City and Fishtown.
“We wanted to expand our horizons about the scope of Philadelphia and the communities where people live their whole lives that we never even think about,” Wend said.
Chelsea Zackey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.