In 1979, American artist Allan Kaprow wrote life performancean important essay in the history of Western art arguing for the blurring of art and life.
Kaprow suggested that we practice art in our daily lives by paying attention to unseen sensations and details of existence that we take for granted.
He wanted us to notice the way air and saliva are exchanged when we talk with friends; the effects of bodies touching; the rhythm of breathing. Kaprow’s essay served as an instructive piece for life. As an artist, I see and make art out of anything and everything.
Take long-distance running, for example.
When a friend started training me to run long distances, I also started drawing.
Running in the 21st century involves drawing lines. More important than sneakers are GPS devices (like smartphones and watches that sync with exercise apps) to track and analyze every significant and non-significant detail of your performance.
I use the app Strava. It visualizes my routes, my average pace, my heart rate, my elevation and the calories burned.
Driven by competition, self-improvement, and the wellness revolution, it’s easy to become obsessed with this data. But I’m also obsessed with other reasons.
When I run, Strava traces my route with a curvy GPS line. I became absorbed in this line – I literally feel it when I run.
As each foot hits the ground, I feel myself tracing the GPS line slowly and gradually. This embodied connection to my data changes my runs. I spontaneously vary my routes to arrive at a particular line.
Run ten times around a pole, burst in a zig-zag, make a circle in the park. I maneuver to assign the graphic form to one of my imaginations.
Cyclists and runners around the world have recently discovered the creative possibilities of GPS data. This is called GPS Art or “Art Strava”. Cycling or running routes to visualize a predetermined shape or thing have proven popular during the pandemic. Rabbits, Elvis and middle finger were traced, cycled and raced. The data version of skywriting.
As new as Strava Art is, I’m not creating it. Running and drawing are both “body techniqueslinked to gesture, touch, touch, listening, looking and imagining.
While GPS data can visualize all the quantifiable details of my run, it can’t tell me how I felt while running.
Anyone who runs long distances knows that performance is influenced by how you feel during the day, which is soothing running. Life issues, stress levels, hormones, depression, happiness, how well you slept, how much you ate, and the weather all impact a race.
Reveal what is hidden
Although self-tracking data seems infallible – i.e. numerical, scientific and objective – we know that it is biased. Data scientists Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein argue in their book Data feminism that data science is skewed in favor of those who “hold the power,” who are “disproportionately elite, straight, white, able-bodied, cisgender men of the North.”
Data feminism reveals how counting and classification systems mask inequalities. The role of data feminism is to use this understanding of what is hidden to visualize alternatives, and they suggest converting qualitative experience into data.
This is where the old-fashioned art of drawing and the antiquated technologies of charcoal and pencil can extend exercise data and give new meaning to the personal experience of running.
I redesigned my data to make visible what Strava can’t. Non-heroic things: Emotions, lingering thoughts, bodily sensations like my bladder pressure, the location of public restrooms, social interactions with strangers, the lyrics of songs I listen to, and the weather.
The drawings are deliberately messy, diaristic and fragmented scribbles, blotchy and imprecise. They re-label the information to reflect what’s missing — that I’m a middle-aged artist mother who’s happy to remain mediocre in running.
Imagine a throbbing bladder instead of speed; scribbling the coming and going of joy and anxiety instead of rhythm; zigzagging through neurotic repetitive thoughts instead of calories burned; chart desires, dreads and dreams instead of personal bests.
That’s not to say I don’t like Strava or don’t have running goals. But the drawings offer different data that bypasses the dominance of quantification of every aspect of human experience.
The effects of the meeting of art and life (or running and drawing) are conflicting. As Kaprow noted, “Anyone who has jogged seriously […] knows that in the beginning, when you face your body, you also face your psyche.
The longer the tests, the more data they produce; they also produce more complex encounters with the self and more convoluted designs.
These drawings offer alternative data not related to stamina or personal glory. They negate the sleek corporate aesthetic of exercise apps and their social media metrics, leaderboards, badges, and medals.
Running and drawing can be autotelic activities: activities where the purpose of doing it is to do it. In this highly-policed, tech-obsessed, capital-driven, and multi-tasking age, the value of sports or creative pursuits delivering no measurable (or financial) results may seem old-fashioned.
But again, it is also possible to run without an auto-tracking device. It’s something I’m willing to try.