Footprints

My young daughter and I share an interest in footprints. When we pull her from the bathtub, she inspects the impressions left in the bath mat by her wet little feet. In winter, she loves to mark the fresh snow with her boots. Her snow-tracks echo the footprints made by the hero of Ezra Jack Keats’ classic storybook The Snowy Day, and I was a bit too proud when, at the age of two, she used her fingers to trace the “crunch crunch crunch” of young Peter’s footprints, reconciling the abstract purple smudges with her own experience of the snow.

Snowy Day

It’s important not to read too much into the mind of a toddler. Kids learn quickly, and are curious about everything. But nonetheless I find a certain symmetry in my daughter’s fascination with footprints, because the day she was born, after the rush of emotions, my first mindful thoughts were about footprints.

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I snapped this photograph while they were taking her footprints (they took her footprints before we even got to hold her). “Well, good, she has ten toes, I guess. Why’s that so important, anyway? Nobody ever sees your toes. Why’s the infant footprint such a vital index of a new life? And how do they make this ‘inkless’ footprint paper? …Can I get this stuff in larger sizes?”

Since that first day of her life, I have given a lot of consideration to footprints, and their importance to us.

In grandiose moments, I sometimes speculate that footprints might have ignited self-awareness in some early human. Imagine the mental spark in that hungry hominid mind, as she gazed down into the mud at the impression of her own feet: “That is my mark. This is who I am. I exist.” It seems to me that our compulsion to record our lives may have been born in such a moment of introspection.

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Stanley Brouwn, Steps of Pedestrians on Paper, 1960

To me, there does not seem to be a vast cognitive distance between simple observation of a footprint in the mud, and a more conscious decision to imprint one’s hand on the wall of a cave. And, in the decision to repeat that imprint, we humans created media. Maybe, in that moment of decision, we discovered our own feeble creative impulse. (Or maybe, prior to the invention of paper towels, the cave wall was the only option.)

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Allora and Calzadilla, Land Mark, 2001

To print artists, the footprint can represent an important metaphor for the indexical qualities of creative representation. The connection between a picture and the thing that is pictured is inherently tenuous; any pictorial representation is never truly connected to reality. But a footprint, and really any print, represents something beyond the pictorial: it represents evidence.

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John Baldessari, Evidence: A Potential Print, 1970

It’s useful for us to consider the anthropological, cultural, technological, and creative qualities inherent in the evidential nature of the art we practice. Even the ubiquitous beach house decor poem “Footprints in the Sand,” as simplistic as it may be, can be read as a subtle allegory about the contentious relationship of evidence and belief.

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*Internet disclaimer: all comments about this image will be deleted in good faith

And yet, the evidential properties of footprints are slippery, unreliable and inherently suspect. Some footprints may seem eternal: tracks from the fossil record, or astronauts’ prints on the moon. But even these are ultimately transient. Hundreds of collected Bigfoot tracks only prove that Sasquatch can’t decide how many toes to have.

BossburgL&R

I want to believe.

In recent months, the inherent transience of the footprint has been at the front of my mind, especially as we here at Printeresting have considered our next steps. After seven years in this space, what is our legacy? What footprints do we leave behind? Despite its omniscient reputation, the Internet does not really favor preservation; in many ways it’s like the ocean, washing away the traces of our presence. We will do our best to archive this site, but in the long run, we can’t guarantee that any evidence of this project will remain.

But somehow, none of this really concerns me. Because after all my rumination, I realized that footprints imply not just our history, but also our future. Looking at our footprints in the sand, our tracks may fade into the distance. But they don’t simply terminate at nothingness; they meet us where we stand.

Icons of where we have been, our footprints also show us where we are right now. And they compel us, always, to keep walking.

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Categories: Critical Discourse, Printeresting


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