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Wayfinding: Parts 2 + 3

The following essay is an excerpt of Chloë Bass’ project WAYFINDING, currently on view in St. Nicholas Park (Harlem, New York). This version, produced for ARTS.BLACK, presents sections two and three of a six-part text, and is also available as an audio recording. 

WAYFINDING draws from several sources: landscape architecture teaching guides, reports on aging and disorientation from the National Institutes of health, and original personal narrative written by the artist. It also incorporates phrases inscribed on the project’s signs placed in St. Nicholas Park. 

WAYFINDING is presented by the Studio Museum in Harlem, and was organized by Legacy Russell. The exhibition will remain on view in New York through September 2020.

The audio version features three voices: the artist, and collaborators Alicia Grullón and Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste.

“In wayfinding, a marker is an object that marks a locality. Markers such as arches, monuments, building entrances, kiosks, artwork, and natural features give strong identity to various parts of a site or building. They act as mental landmarks in the wayfinding process and break a complex task into manageable parts.”

difficulty communicating

“A historical sign is a 24″ x 36″ wooden sign, installed in a prominent location in a park or playground, that explains whom the park is named after and why, as well as the history of the site.”

New York City Parks Department

Perhaps the problem is that I find so many things perfectly revealing just as they are. 

St. Nicholas Park Yelp Review

Every time I’ve nearly been killed I’ve survived it, but that doesn’t mean I’m out looking for more devastation in order to prove a point. 

It’s easy to say, “I didn’t know ” as an excuse for why something has been stricken from historic record. A gentle reminder that that which is unpublic often goes unknown/unrecorded, and a trick that’s hard to conquer when it’s also true that so many movements thrive in secrecy. 

This is what I want to tell you about the history of here: once I came here on a rainy day and something about the grey of the sky brought out the varied greens of the leaves. Once I came here on a sunny day and watched a group of young women in headscarves giggle and chat while they listened to music off of someone’s phone, their backs forming a protective circle to the outside world. Once I watched two young Black men sleeping in the grass, loosely guarded by a third, equally young man, who stayed awake. 

The history of this site extends at least this far, if not a moment further: you’re in it. There was a day: 8/8/88, and I was alive on that day. And there was a day 9/9/99, and I was alive on that day, too. By the time I thought to recognize it, the number of the year had cast beyond the number of months within it, and I just sat, wanting 19/19/19 and knowing it would never arrive.

In the annals of history, most of the things that made you cripplingly anxious for a brief period of time will probably go unrecorded. 

“A node is a point at which subsidiary parts originate. People make decision points at nodes in paths. As a result, nodes should contain graphic and architectural information to assist with those decisions.”

difficulty performing routine activities

When Fedex delivers a package, they need a signature, but not necessarily yours. Anyone’s will do. Which seems strange, until you consider how many things are just asking for proof of ongoing existence, anyone’s, just marking that we’re still here. A quarter, anyone’s quarter (or a dollar or a water or a sandwich or a piece of fruit, nothing will go to waste) will do, to prolong a continued shuffling life that works only in service of its own sustainment. 

There are the habits we form ritualistically, and then there are those that come by accident. In family life, you try something once, you like it, and suddenly it becomes a thing.  Or the routines that happen through forces of marketing: meatless Monday, taco Tuesday, hump day, thirsty Thursday, first Friday, second Saturday, Sunday, the day of rest. 

But then there are the more insidious repetitions: I thought I was paying attention but it turned out I was ignoring that outstretched hand until ignoring became my only coping mechanism, the organizing force of my day, and the months, and the years, and the decades, and the century that followed. Until the time of ignoring added up to a crisis too big to fix, and then, still alive, we miraculously began the ritual of mourning ourselves. 

The thing about living in the same place for a long time is that the mistakes become your own. The cabinet door breaks, and you learn to live with it that way, flapping off-kilter and requiring the second little nudge to the left to stay shut. The tile breaks, and you learn to live with it that way, your foot avoiding the rough patch with an awkward step that quickly becomes automatic. The heart breaks, and you learn to live with it that way — but in that case, you forget, over time, that you ever felt different at all. 

You might want so much more than you know. 

In 2013, a comprehensive Wayfinding Questionnaire (WQ) was published by a group of Dutch scientists. This new questionnaire was designed to cover a full sense of navigation complaints merged with feelings of spatial anxiety: a combination of actual ability, and affect around ability. 

In other words, it’s not always so much what we can do as how we might feel about it. 

People who take the WQ are asked to rank each statement on a scale of 1 (not applicable to me at all) to 7 (totally applicable to me). 

I am most interested in statements six, seven, and eight: 

6. I can always orient myself quickly and correctly when I am in an unknown environment.

7. I always want to know exactly where I am (meaning, I am always trying to orient myself in an unknown environment).

8. I am afraid of losing my way somewhere.

The Wayfinding Questionnaire is primarily used to assess stroke patients. 



Chloë Bass is a multiform conceptual artist working in performance, situation, conversation, publication, and installation. Her work uses daily life as a site of deep research to address scales of intimacy: where patterns hold and break as group sizes expand. Chloë’s projects have appeared nationally and internationally, including Wayfinding, her solo show at the Studio Museum in Harlem (on view through September 2020), and recent exhibits at the Knockdown Center, the Kitchen, the Brooklyn Museum, CUE Art Foundation, Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Project Space, The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, the James Gallery, and elsewhere. Her monograph, The Book of Everyday Instruction, was published by the Operating System in December 2018. She is an Assistant Professor of Art at Queens College, CUNY.

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