In an increasingly dematerialised and production-oriented environment, how might the act of traversing inform the possibilities of labour?
Rebecca Solnit (2014, p.29) writes, ‘Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world’.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its infrequent appearance in the landscape of everyday language, the verb ‘traverse’ pleases both the ear and the mind. Tongue pressed briefly to the roof of the mouth, T–R–A, like a plucked guitar. Then a bitten lip, a fling and a hiss, V–ER–SE. My delivery is voiced with an emphasis on the second syllable, TRA–VERSE, disclosing geographic origins and at the same time performing. A phoneme thrown, outstretched, into the nearby yonder.
To traverse is, at the very least, to set out. The Oxford English Dictionary outlines it as ‘travel across or through’, which points past any modest beginning to a centre. But what is the quantifiable breadth of across? And what, in fact, are we travelling through? If I step onto the porch, have I traversed? Or must I also progress past the door? And the foyer? And the hall? It’s difficult to comprehend the scope of this centre in an age that offers return flights to Ibiza for the price of a Uniqlo t-shirt.
To engender a less culturally-specific appreciation, it’s worth recalling the origins of the word ‘travel’, which finds its roots in 14th century Middle English as the not-too-distant travailen, ‘to make a journey’. This was adapted from the original ‘to toil, labour’, as all journeys in the Middle Ages were inherently arduous. Going even further, via Old French, we come to the Vulgar Latin tripalium, ‘instrument of torture’ – which is still applicable when flying Ryanair.
Synonyms for traverse present themselves as interchangeable cut-ups pairing journey/pass/go and across/through/over. ‘Negotiate’ is an exception to this rule and is arguably more telling in its implication of opposition. Walking for fourteen days across the mountainous interior of Corsica reveals a traverse to be equally painful and pleasurable. A dawn start is rewarded by cool air pressing into sleepy skin. The demands of ascent become peripheral as the sun spills silently over a peak. A heavy body folds, satisfied, into afternoon slumber. To traverse is to journey with a certain amount of endurance.
On implementing Sol Lewitt’s instructions for Wall Drawing #65, draughtsman David Schulman (cited in Goldsmith, p.134) recalls ‘signals of discomfort became an unconscious time clock determining when I would stop and step back from the drawing. Walking up the ramp to look at (it) from a distance provided momentary relief from the physical strain […] Keeping my body totally active in an almost involuntary way, totally relaxed my mind. When my mind became relaxed, thought would flow at a smoother and faster pace’.
Returning to the centre, which could navigate up, down and around. A traverse might advance slowly, possibly sidling, possibly cunning, toward its intended destination. And like your hold luggage, the completion of a journey might not be location-specific. We might traverse toward an endpoint that isn’t fixed or, if walking is the end in itself, we’ve arrived as soon as we set out.