Alec Spangler
A Walking Protocol for Harvard VES Walking Workshop with Helen Mirra, 2012

Like many kids, I had a fascination with secret doors and hidden words. I read and was read to from Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle, Chris Van Allsburg, Edward Gorey, and Roald Dahl, all of whom wrote stories about the passage from one small, prescriptive world to another, much bigger and stranger. My choices of movies, television shows, and video games all followed this pattern, as did my personal fantasies, inventions, and dreams. A popular science fiction convention in the eighties and early nineties, at least to my memory, was the idea of new "dimensions." At the time I didn't understand meaning of this term in conventional geometry or even as a colloquial metaphor for an expanded view or experience. For me, a "dimension" was something you could enter into, as a totally alternate world embedded within our own (Edwin Abbott Abbott's Flatland later suggested to me how this could be theoretically true in the original sense of the word) . Crossing over into another dimension was cooler and weirder than traveling to a new planet because the threshold is immediately at hand, hidden—but close—somewhere in the world of the everyday. I didn't know back then that what I felt was an attraction to the uncanny; a sense of something profoundly strange nested within the deeply familiar.

I was not, for all that, an adventurous child. I was comfortable in my world and had no desire to leave it, at least not permanently. All the characters in my favorite stories about hidden worlds were oppressed or limited by their native environment, but I was basically happy. It took me years to identify the tantalizing edge of my existence. I saw the edge from a car window during family trips. I became aware of a division between places I could (or did) go and places I could only observe through the mediation of a vehicle—median strips, forested highway right of ways, strange towns, and so on. I began to develop a fantasy life in which I occupied those spaces bodily ( John Cowper Powys and Jack Kerouac, separated by half a century, both write of a waking fantasy in which a living body—a giant or a horseman—is offset from the moving vehicle in which the subject sits and keeps pace by bounding wildly through the landscape: I had similar visions). My most haunting dreams were of walking the streets leading from my childhood home in the direction of one of our family car trips. The thrill I felt was not that I had been transplanted to somewhere new but that I was occupying a hidden parallel realm within a space I knew well. Not a new place but a new dimension—something uncanny.

Walking was and is my secret door into the dream dimension of the physical world. This may not have been the case had I not grown up in an era of ubiquitous windows between the body and the landscape—cars, trains, airplanes, TVs, computers, etc. As it is, my dream dimension is heightened by the sense that I am walking in a place more typically viewed from one of these windows. This usually means occupying the margins of transportation infrastructure—walking where one would expect to drive. It also means walking distances normally considered to be impractical without mechanized transportation. I wanted my walking protocol to take me through these spaces, so I chose to walk to sites whose location and character was only vaguely known to me, but whose relative distance would insure a non-traditional walking sequence. My incomplete knowledge of the destination also added to its status as a fantasy space—mingling my preconceptions with dream-memory of the actual walk. In the end I chose the Boston T system as the framework for my walks; traveling the surface of the T lines creates exactly the parallel between walking and mechanized transportation that helps change a walk into a dream.

A second aspect of my walking protocol was to limit my means of navigation to verbal directions obtained from passerbys. In the final iteration, I began walking from the Alewife station at the northwest terminus of the MBTA red line, asking directions to each subsequent stop until, in the course of two walks, I arrived at the Ashmont stop in Dorchester. While I do not mean for this to be a crusade against the general use of networked devices like smart phones, I did want to position my walks in opposition to the use of instruments that would "wake" me from my walking dream by linking me to such exterior systems as satellite arrays and databanks. My premise is that, to navigate a dream, one must engage only with the actors of that dream. At the same time, encountering and interacting with people during my walks was a way out of the solipsism of a sleeping dream. By using other people's memories of space and place to guide my own movements my walk becomes part of a matrix of experience. The inevitability of incorrect or misunderstood directions adds another layer of richness. My goal, obviously, is not to find the most efficient way possible of arriving at a destination but to travel a route that hovers between reality and imagination. I literally move along the paths of memory and fantasy recounted by other minds, adding to that mythology my own projections and experience until, finally, the destination is reached—not so much as a spatial goal, but as a fulfillment of my faith in the shared dream.

As a record of the walking protocol and a test of the reproducibility of the dream of my walks, I printed transcripts of the directions I received, along with the first names of the respondents, on MBTA rapid transit schedules, available for free in most T stations. My directions to each stop were overlaid on the originally printed information, including the full system map, in the sequence in which I received them. As a practical tool, the walking directions are flawed. Most of the text consist of language that was meant to be accompanied by hand signals and visible context, and so would not be informative in the traditional sense for someone with no other frame of reference. My thought is that the printed artifact might extend the dream that created it into a further life. I placed a number of the altered schedules in an existing display case in the Harvard Square T station, hoping that commuters and visitors will try to reproduce the walk in some way. The T station is significant in that it is a threshold between the parallel systems—walking and subway riding—that distinguish my walk as a dream. I want to believe that placing such a catalytic artifact in that charged space is a way of creating my own secret door.