For this series, Passages, artist and educator Jon Horvath ‘utilized excerpts from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as source material for orchestrated drives on Wisconsin’s alphabetical county trunk highway system. Using GPS technology to track each drive, newly generated line drawings emerge as evidence of Kerouac’s text being written in the landscape.’
I love your series, Passages, Jon. Can you talk about the process of making the work?
‘I made Passages in the spring of 2010 by doing a series of drives on Wisconsin roads, which I tracked with GPS technology. One thing that is a bit unique about our road system is that most of the county highways are labeled with a letter, rather than numerically. As far as I can determine, it is the first and only road system in the US to adopt this method of labeling. As a result of some of my photographically based projects, I had become intimately familiar with our county highways and always fantasized about finding a way to “write” something in the landscape, my car functioning as the “pen”.’
And there’s reference to Kerouac’s On the Road, correct?
‘I knew there would be a literary component to the work, and it was just a matter of finding the right text. I’ve always associated the idea of the road with escape, and freedom, and possibility, which is something I definitely responded to in On the Road. I think I have very romantic ideas about what the road can come to symbolize. But, I also recognized that the process of this project completely corrupts that notion. While I may be traveling on a new path, it is still very orchestrated and constrained by the text that I must spell. That principle is something I connected with from the very beginning, a bit of a mirror onto my everyday. I think I always have the desire for new possibilities and discovering the unfamiliar, but that desire is always tempered by some artificial need to stick to the script in order to get anywhere. Plus, On the Road provided the opportunity for a good pun; something I always appreciate.’
This kind of process, with aspects of mapping and cataloging, seems to run through your project work.
‘Many of my recent projects have relied upon a systems based approach. The systems provide for an element of control or rationality to be imposed on what I may find to be either an impossible or outlandish idea. For instance, in my Plastic Bag Series I attempt to photograph within the vantage point of a current of wind by relentlessly following a grocery bag blowing through the landscape. And that project led me to Stalking Michael Stipe: Another Prop to Occupy My Time, where my one-time teenage idol became a new navigational guide for a series of photographs.
‘I think it is particularly fascinating when such systems are either based on or lead to a faulty set of conclusions. Even with Passages, I find something quietly humorous about the fact that I take on this rather grueling drive, only to criss cross my own path multiple times, and ultimately end up a couple of minutes from my front door. There is a sense of negation to the whole process; a bit of a futile endeavor.’
I’ve seen the photographs in person and I find them to be really beautiful objects – very graphic, and for some reason they evoke current political ideas to me, in regards to borders and boundaries. Maybe it’s just our political climate right now, but is it OK that I might read other things into these pictures?
‘It is quite revealing how much we can pull from a simple white line on a black ground. One of my early apprehensions with Passages was whether there was enough of a visual trigger to incite a response while viewing. And while for me the line of the drive functions more prominently as a new linguistic symbol or form of text, I think it only enhances the experience when the work can be read on multiple levels. I do find there to be something inherently political about the entire process of mapping.
‘Boundaries are established through an authoritative act, and mapping is a means of dictating information. When that line gets drawn, one thing is separated from another, and power is asserted. I think we see that happen in some form everyday, and I suppose we just have to hope that line gets drawn with our best interests in mind.’
The piece titled, The Whole Enormous Sadness of a Shirt covered 297 miles and took over 6 hours to drive. Can I ask what kind of gas mileage you get?
‘I can tell you that it was not nearly as good as I would have liked! Passages was one of the last great adventures for my since retired Ford pickup truck, and hopefully a worthy send off. Interestingly, this project was completed around the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the gulf coast, and as a result, I became a bit more sensitive to the resources I needed to use, as well as endured some inflated gasoline costs.
‘One of the driving motivations for this project was a personal reflection into whether or not I, a 30-year old in 2010, had it in my nature to act with abandon, to invest in pure spontaneous acts. The consideration of the amount of money and resources I was using to do this project prevented some even more ambitious drives; something I am not certain would have been a major part of the equation at the peak of roadtrip America. Perhaps, there has been some cultural shift on that end.’