Today we bring you the final part of our series of interviews and observations from The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows, a project that artist Harrell Fletcher is doing this weekend with the Exploratorium in San Francisco. For up-to-the-minute information, including where you can join the group, you can follow @exploratorium on Twitter.
Jordan Stein, assistant curator for the Center for Art & Inquiry at the Exploratorium, texted me shortly after 6 p.m. on Thursday: “Just got to Muir.” It was followed by another a few minutes later: “Dancing in the grass. Wow.” The group was behind schedule, originally due to arrive at John Muir Elementary School on Claremont Avenue around 4:30 p.m. No matter. I walked up the hill from my house to meet them, marveling at the golden hue of midsummer evening light; it would be at least a couple of hours before the fog rolled in. I found the trekkers assembled on the broad lawn of the school in a large circle. A wrought-iron fence encircles the lawn; embedded on the sidewalk in front of its gate is a plaque bearing a quote by Muir: “New beauty meets us at every step in all our wanderings.” It is an apt sentiment to greet these travelers, en route from the Exploratorium at Pier 15 in San Francisco to the summit of Mt. Diablo some forty miles east, participants in Harrell Fletcher’s project The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows. Muir Elementary was the last stop before they camped for the first night in the backyard of one of the staffer’s homes, and a marked exuberance over having arrived at their destination was palpable as I arrived. Someone was even doing cartwheels.
Valerie Gutwirth, Muir Elementary’s dance instructor, was leading the group through a series of improvisational dance movements. Stein enticed me to join in, and I immediately abandoned my plan to hang back and observe, forgetting my self-consciousness of being an interloper arriving at this late hour of the day. Each movement corresponded to a feeling; they were on the second one, “surprise.” I flailed my arms in the air and jumped backward; the stresses of the day evaporated. Next was “amazement”; I imagined myself to be an exclamation mark. The movements were then strung together in a sequence—optimism, surprise, and amazement—each person performing their own silly interpretation, arms and legs flung about, a few people even throwing themselves on the ground as if bowled over by the sentiments. To conclude, everyone in turn bent their knees and crouched down, simultaneously blowing a raspberry. These were called fart kisses, and there was more bravado displayed by the assembled adults than the children in executing them. I myself did not hold back in a noisy display of affection. As this is Berkeley, any passersby observing these activities would simply conclude we were engaged in a demented form of Tai Chi and wonder when it had become a thing.
The dance was followed by a group exercise in which we assembled our bodies into a door for the other participants to walk (or crawl or jump) through. Lastly, we peered into the murky water gathered from Claremont Creek that runs alongside the school at the worms and other things that call it home. It was fascinating to look at the beaked mouths of larvae under a magnifying glass, an activity I don’t usually contemplate or undertake. I appreciate the creek for the way it meanders through the yards of my neighborhood, the bridges and patios that people have built alongside them to create small oases of respite and contemplation. I like to walk my dog along the same path it takes. As he sniffs and socializes, I get lost in thought.
If walking is a ruminative activity, hiking, which is walking uphill, suggests communion: one’s innermost thoughts expressed through exertion and made one with nature through sweat. While The Best Things in Museums encourages such correspondence, its truer purpose may be the additive quality of encounter. To simply be in contact with a place unmediated by vehicle or frame or screen or text, lends something to that place and changes it. To walk through a place invariably creates a trace of that experience; one’s memory overlays it and one’s understanding of it—of its parameters and purpose—is assembled in part by the route taken through or across it. The “door” exercise on the school lawn had originated with another quote by Muir: “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” Gutwirth suggested that we could alter and enliven our perception with any gesture, but there is also the sense that we are forever creating the world as we move through it.
This is what I thought about as I left the group at their campground and walked home. Walking there from the school, I fell into step with Fletcher and asked him about the origins of this project. He said that it came about in part because there wasn’t much he felt he could add to the experience of the Exploratorium as a place, which is understood better when one knows the anecdote of a visitor who wrote to say that she had returned home and figured out how to rewire a lamp. As the title of the project infers, the goal of the Exploratorium is to impact our perspective on what happens after we leave there. What do we learn, from who, or with whatever our paths cross? How might we see or move or act differently in the world now that we know how to blow fart kisses? I won’t be continuing on the trek to Mt. Diablo, but I will pass Muir Elementary on my morning walk with the dog. The school services many of the deaf and hard-of-hearing students for the district. It is fascinating to walk by the playground at recess and see children playing unaccompanied by the clamor of shouts and chatter. That experience, which sets the school apart already, is now accompanied by the knowledge that I can exclaim surprise or amazement without making a sound and dance in the grass with abandon. I have been met by new beauty even as I traverse familiar terrain.