In 1979, American artist Allan Kaprow wrote Performing Life, an important essay in the history of Western art that advocated the blending of art and life.
Kaprow suggested that we practice art in our daily lives, paying attention to unseen sensations and the details of existence that we take for granted.
He wanted us to notice how air and spit are exchanged when conversing with friends; the effects of physical touch; the breathing rhythm. Kaprow’s essay served as a life lesson. As an artist, I see and make art out of everything and everyone.
Take long-distance running, for example.
As a consequence, when a friend started teaching me how to run long distances, I also started drawing.
Running in the 21st century is about pushing boundaries. More important than sneakers are GPS devices (like smartphones and watches that sync with workout apps) to track and analyze every meaningful and meaningless detail of your performance.
I use the Strava app. It visualizes my routes, average pace, heart rate, elevation and calories burned.
Driven by competition, self-improvement, and the well-being revolution, it’s easy to get fixated on this data. But I’m fixated for other reasons too.
When I run, Strava maps my route with a meandering GPS line. I’m absorbed in this line – I can literally feel it when I run.
As each foot touches the ground, I feel myself drawing the GPS line slowly and gradually. This embodied connection to my data transforms my runs. I spontaneously vary my routes to reach a specific line.
Run around a pole ten times, ride a zigzag, draw a circle in the park. I maneuver to influence the graphic form according to one of my ideas.
Cyclists and runners worldwide have recently discovered the creative possibilities of GPS data. This is called GPS Art or “Strava Art”. Bike or run routes to visualize a given shape or thing have proved popular during the pandemic. Rabbits, Elvis and the middle finger were plotted, driven and walked. The data version of skywriting.
As novel as Strava Art is, I’m not creating it. Running and drawing are both “body techniques” associated with gesture, touch, feeling, listening, looking and imagining.
While GPS data can visualize every quantifiable detail of my run, it can’t tell me what it feels like to run.
Anyone who runs long distances knows that performance is affected by how you feel during the day, which gives running peace of mind. Life issues, stress, hormones, depression, happiness, whether you slept well, how much you ate, and the weather all affect a run.
Read more: Longing for touch – a photo essay
Reveal what is hidden
While self-tracking data appears infallible — that is, numerical, scientific, and objective — we know it’s biased. Data scientists Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein argue in their book Data Feminism that data science is geared toward those who “wield power,” who are “disproportionately elite, heterosexual, white, cisgender, employable males from the Global North. ”
Data feminism shows how counting and classification systems hide inequalities. The role of data feminism is to use this understanding of what is hidden to visualize alternatives and they propose turning qualitative experiences into data.
This is where the outdated art of drawing and the antiquated technologies of charcoal and pencil can augment training data and bring new meaning to the personal running experience.
I redrawn my data to visualize what Strava can’t. The unheroic stuff: Emotions, persistent thoughts, bodily sensations like squeezing my bladder, the location of public restrooms, social interactions with strangers, lyrics from the songs I listen to, and the weather.
The drawings are deliberately messy scribbles, diary-like and fragmented, smeared and imprecise. They rebrand the information to reflect what’s missing – that I’m a middle-aged artist happy to remain mediocre when it comes to running.
Imagine a nagging bubble instead of speed; Scribble the arrival and departure of joy and fear instead of pace; zigzagging through neurotic repetitive thoughts instead of calories burned; pursue wishes, dreads and dreams instead of personal bests.
That’s not to say I don’t like Strava or that I don’t have running goals. But the drawings offer different data that short-circuits the dominance of quantifying every aspect of human experience.
The implications of bringing art and life (or running and drawing) together are confrontational. 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 more test runs produce, the more data; they also produce more complex encounters with the self and more intricate drawings.
These drawings offer alternate dates not tied to endurance or personal fame. They’re undoing the slick corporate aesthetic of workout apps and their socially connected metrics, leaderboards, badges, and medals.
This is a feminist practice that builds on the work of Catriona Menzies-Pike and Sandra Faulkner, who provide alternative representations of running from women’s perspectives.
Running and drawing can be autotelic activities: activities where the purpose is to do it. In this highly-monitored, tech-obsessed, capital-driven, multitasking era, the value of sporting or creative pursuits that don’t deliver measurable (or financial) results may seem old-fashioned.
But then again, you can run without a self-tracking device. That’s something I’m willing to try.
Read more: The “runner’s high” can be caused by molecules called cannabinoids – the body’s version of THC and CBD