For a while, some years ago, I used to like to photograph the informal tracks that were made across common ground. These tracks marked the ground with diagrams of trajectories taken, of veerings veered and short cuts cut. Repeated footfall had rubbed the grass bare and indented the earth below. The areas that I was most drawn to were the anonymous scrubs of land that people used for walking dogs, or were used as a quick back route between houses and bus-stop, or were used by kids to conduct their non-digital encounters (to drink non-digital booze and smoke non-digital joints). These tended to be untended landscapes. What the surrealists used to call terrain vague – vacant lots, no-man’s land, a landscape of the vague. Because such places were untended these improvised tracks used to ‘take’ better there than they would if they had been in front of a cathedral or in a well-kept park. But even in such over-tended places tracks of bare earth appear, cutting lines through neatly trimmed lawns.
The sculptor Carl Andre (famous to most Britons over the age of 40 as the artist behind the ‘bricks’) was once given a commission by a museum to make a public sculptor. He decided to produce a sculpted path that people could use to use to walk across a new patch of parkland in front of the museum. But he decided that he wouldn’t impose his own route; he would let common usage choose it for him. So he had the patch of land seeded and waited for the grass to grow. Then the grass was cut and the patch of land became just another part of the museum’s grounds. And Andre waited. And sure enough a track began to emerge of people who cut across the grass instead of following the official walkways around the lawn. So Andre used this track and placed his path there. It was a collective effort. Some months later other lines began to appear that veered away from Andre’s path. These were new short cuts, slightly longer than the short cut that Andre had used.
People don’t stick to the path. And why should they? I learnt recently that urban planners and their ilk call these improvised and collective paths ‘lines of desire’. As if collective desire had found its expression in these desultory pathways, as if our desire for more satisfying lives had found its satisfaction in marking-out a trajectory of barren earth.