Artist explores adventure, endurance in walk from Baltimore to Washington

Joshua Wade Smith is a Baltimore-based artist currently in his second year of a fellowship at D.C.'s Hamiltonian Gallery. Smith got his BFA at Texas State University in 2006 and graduated from MICA's Mount Royal MFA program in 2010. His current exhibit at the gallery, Here Not There, combines performance, photography, and sculpture to explore themes of endurance, physicality, and the adventure-narrative. Performance-and-video piece "Head on/Long Game," pays homage to Barry Le Va's 1969 "Impact Run" and makes formal nods to Dan Graham, while photographs and objects document a two-day trek the artist undertook on foot from Baltimore and D.C.

City Paper: Can you tell me about the structure of the [Hamiltonian] fellowship? What are some of the benefits and responsibilities of being a Hamiltonian Fellow?

Joshua Wade Smith: You're required to do two solo shows in a two-year program. You do one per year, and then there's the encouraged participation in a group show. They help you with professional development, they help you with your taxes, and they set you up with contacts to do critiques.

CP: What new directions do you explore in this new show?

JWS: There's usually a component in my work that requires either a certain duration or a certain physical activity that would, by most standards, be considered challenging. I'm not looking to lift 400 pounds over my head. I don't find that kind of feat of strength very interesting. I'm more interested in how small accumulations of resistance or something slightly physically challenging can build up and become an endurance test. I think that mode of endurance has been a consistent theme in my work since grad school.

CP: How do you work out the relationship between performance, documentation, and objects?

JWS: What's always struck me about documentation of performances is that it always takes on a theatrical tone and it's always staged or framed in theatrical or cinematic terms. I never felt comfortable living or trying to experience an activity in those terms. When I'm designing these things, I'm focusing first on the action. It becomes this secondary but equally important challenge to try to figure out how can I visually convey this experience and why it's significant. I think that's where the objects and sculptures come in, because it gives a sort of mundane activity a framework from which to better appreciate or give the idea some time to settle in.

CP: You walked from Baltimore to D.C. How long of a trek is that?

JWS: It was a two-day walk, and it was about 24 hours of walking. The second day was a little bit longer; it was about 16 hours of walking. I tried to go a little bit slower, I think I had given myself some inflamed ankles and my knees hurt, so I was kind of shuffling along at a bit of a slower clip. I thought it was going to be easy. I thought, I'll just walk to D.C. I'll start on a Friday and I'll get there on the end of Saturday, show up at the gallery and that will be it. Then I realized what I set out to do was much more difficult, and that instead of having this sort of romantic experience with nature or retracing my steps, which was the central idea to begin with, it became much more of an endurance challenge in a way that I didn't really expect.

CP: You say retracing your steps was an original motivating factor. This was something you had done before?

JWS: Retracing my steps in the sense that I travel back and forth between Baltimore and D.C.-not only for my professional teaching life, but also from my experience of being a Hamiltonian. I'm constantly taking the train back and forth. I followed the MARC train line. I tried to stay as close to the tracks as possible without being prey to the Amtrak police. I did a fair amount of bushwhacking. I was pretty much within 100 feet of the track for most of the walk.

CP: How did the trek relate to "[Head on/]Long Game"?

JWS: I knew I wanted to do both of these things, but I needed the help and, I guess, pushing of the gallery director, Amanda. She kept asking me, "Well, why are these two things related?" I think what's happening in "Long Game" is I'm trying to make a sort of abbreviated adventure in three seconds of running; trying to encapsulate what a two-day walk is. But rather than have the tedium be an aspect-which is a central aspect of the walk-it becomes primarily about the physical challenge but also about the repetition and a build-up of expectation.

CP: It wasn't exactly the romantic commune with nature that you maybe thought. Were there other aspects that came as a surprise?

JWS: I think I'm still processing that aspect. What aspects don't necessarily fit comfortably into this story? I think that sense of self-discovery or poetic encounter, all of those things are built into what an adventure is supposed to be. The toil was built into the project.

I think what was surprising for me was that I could just sit back and trust myself instead of planning and designing this elaborate mechanism or psychological space that I would try to put myself in while I'm moving through the space from Baltimore to D.C. I kind of just said, "Well, you're doing this and it's not about the journey, you're not trying to transcend. You're just going to do this thing. You're going to take two days away from your life. You're going to be traveling through this space that you're super-familiar with." Even though I was walking in unknown territory, I felt like I was somehow in between knowing and not knowing the entire time.

Here not There is on display at the Hamiltonian Gallery In Washington, D.C. through February 9.

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