San Francisco

The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows, part 1: Interview with Harrell Fletcher

For the next three days, Daily Serving is excited to bring you a series of interviews and observations from The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows, a project that artist Harrell Fletcher is doing this week with the Exploratorium in San Francisco.“The title of the piece is a quote from the painter Pierre Bonnard,” says Fletcher. “You go to a museum and look at the paintings—which is great—but then you look out the windows and see how you can apply what you’ve learned in the museum to the world outside. You can see things anew because of that framework that’s been established in your mind.” Fletcher’s project is  a four-day trek that follows a line of sight from the Exploratorium at Pier 15 to the summit of Mount Diablo in the East Bay. For up-to-the-minute information, including where you can join the group, you can follow @exploratorium on Twitter.

Harrell Fletcher. Documentation of project planning for The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows, 2013. Courtesy the Exploratorium, San Francisco. Photo: Amy Snyder.

Jordan Stein: How is your interest in walking related to and integrated with your artistic practice?

Harrell Fletcher: Walking projects go way back for me. I did a few very intentional walking art pieces as an undergrad when I was going to Humboldt State University in the late 1980’s. I’ve also just always done a lot of walking. Walking in all forms is one of the activities that I never get tired of doing.

JS: Can you tell me a bit more about your early walking pieces?

HF: I did a project when I was an undergraduate where I walked around Humboldt Bay three times as a deliberate art project, it was actually to fulfill a class assignment for a contemporary art history class taught by Lydia Matthews—she really educated me about a wide variety of contemporary practices that I’m sure I never would have run across if it wasn’t for her. That walk was in some ways a response to Richard Long’s work. I also did a series of “straight line” walks with my friend Cleveland Leffler (who will be playing a part in the Exploratorium project). We would pick a spot in the distance and then try to walk to it without deviating from the line, which included hopping fences, walking through industrial areas, wading through wetlands, etc.

JS: What do you think makes walking so special for you, both as physical movement and broader experience?

HF: I like how basic it is, that you don’t need any special equipment and that it can be done anywhere. The experience of walking is always very different from any other way of transporting yourself, you are literally on the ground and moving relatively slowly so you see and hear and smell things that you wouldn’t otherwise. For me, and I think for lots of other people, there is something about walking that makes me feel better, some sort of positive body/mind connection related to the activity of walking.

Harrell Fletcher. Documentation of project planning for The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows, 2013. Courtesy the Exploratorium, San Francisco. Photo: Amy Snyder.

JS: Can you explain the title of the work a bit?

HF: I’m a fan of Pierre Bonnard’s work, and I always liked that quote of his and thought it was intriguing. It’s almost like a haiku, really simple but somehow profound at the same time. I’ve noticed that when you are in museums the views out of windows are accentuated because of the headspace you are put into by the nature of the museum. It’s interesting to think about what the experience of a museum does to you when you leave the building, how it makes the outside world seem more significant or beautiful. At the Exploratorium there is a new building at the end of the pier, the observatory, that is in some ways designed for looking out the window at the Bay and contemplating what is out there, so the title seemed particularly apt. For the project I want to literalize that activity by going beyond the place where the window ends, and enter into the environment beyond it.

JS: What about the Exploratorium made this particular project the right fit?

HF: I couldn’t figure out what to do at the Exploratorium that wasn’t already there in some form. The place is already filled with participatory projects and experiences. So I figured that I’d try to take what normally happens in the building and take it out into the world. The Exploratorium already has several programs that do go out into the community in various ways, but I thought it would be interesting to concentrate and direct those kinds of things into a multi-day journey that in some ways is an elaboration of those “straight line walks” that I used to do with my friend Cleveland when I was in college.

JS: Why is it important for everyone in the core group of hikers to present along the way?

HF:I like de-authoratized structures. It makes it really interesting for everyone to take the role of leader or facilitator or guide, but then to return to being lead as well. It also complexifies (did I make that word up?) the process and experience. I like the idea that my presentation is the whole project. I think it is interesting to put into motion something that I then experience as an audience member.

Harrell Fletcher. Documentation of project planning for The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows, 2013. Courtesy the Exploratorium, San Francisco. Photo: Jordan Stein

JS: So much of your work is about creating forums that enable the voices of others to be heard. Could you say more about your interest in this?

HF: I’m just interested in learning directly from a wide variety of people about their knowledge and experience, I think it’s interesting and largely under-appreciated.

JS: What do you hope the public can gain from participating in an experience like this?

HF: I hope that it is educational in a variety of ways, and I hope the physical experience is hard and enjoyable, and I hope that people get to spend time getting to know each other. Basically, I’m designing an activity that I want to do, and then inviting the public to do it too.

JS: What shoes will you be wearing?

HF: I’m going to be wearing a pair of Merrell Barefoot type shoes, not the ones with the toes, but really light and simple. I think hiking boots are way overrated.

JS: How do you feel this project fits in with your work? Is physical movement becoming more important?

HF: I’ve always done projects that have had physical activity components to some degree, but as time goes on I do less exhibitions and more projects that take place out in the world and often include a walk of some kind or other. I’ve really gotten to a point where, when being commissioned to do a project, I really think about what I want to do in that place, and walking around learning in direct ways is high on the list for me.

JS: Driving back from one of our scouting trips to Diablo, you were working out a theory of your work as related to a Thanksgiving dinner: there’s a template, but you’re free to mess around a lot within it and make it your own. Where are you at with that?

HF: I’ve thought about that a few times since then, but I don’t totally have it worked out. Let me take a try at it here though—I do like the idea of suggesting a general activity that has certain parameters like: take a day off from work, invite over a bunch of friends and family and cook up a big early dinner for everyone to eat while they hang out and talk. That seems like a pretty good idea and somehow it took off as a national event that a lot of people participate in. So it would be interesting to imagine if you could do the same thing on that kind of a scale, but with something that went more like this: take a few days off from work, get various people together and walk from your house to a high point in the distance, along the way take turns presenting information about the places you are walking through, general science, and anything else that you think might be interesting. I like the idea of living in a place where that kind of activity could happen, so I guess that’s why I use the opportunity to do projects like the one we are doing with the Exploratorium.

You can find more information about The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows here:

Jordan Stein is the Assistant Curator of the Center for Art & Inquiry at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.