Wearing a sandwich board for Richard Kraft’s “100 Walkers.”
Photo: Helen Kim
On a warm, Saturday afternoon in mid-April, I stood among ninety-nine others in grid formation in a West Hollywood parking lot, beneath a radiant red-and-gold Shepard Fairey mural. We wore all black—pants, blazers, and bowler hats. Each of us also bore a sandwich board with an image or phrase on the front and a different one on the back: a photograph of the ocean or the stars; a detail from an illustrated children’s book; a picture of a fiery, comet-tailed rocket; a portrait of a dissident, activist, or athlete; a close-up of a single human eye or a snarling dog; a snippet of a Dutch floral still life; a rendering of hands clasped in prayer or holding a lit match. The texts, in slender caps against vibrant emerald, violet, tangerine, or magenta, issued hopeful declarations (THE FUTURE IS FEMALE) and unfortunate truths (THE PEOPLE ADORE AUTHORITY!), cartoonish sound effects (EEEEEEK), commands (ABANDON SHIP!), questions (AM I MY BROTHER’S KEEPER?), warnings (BEWARE OF THE RABBLE), and urgent, private reminders (I MUST TELL THE FLOWERS I MUST TELL THE TREES).
We stood in position for several minutes, a curious and dazzling assembly, a tenuous poem, a solemn, slyly subversive army. Then, one by one, we were dismissed according to our designated start phrases—body parts in Cockney slang. From head to toe, the corps dispersed. I answered to Dreambox and left through the lot’s south gate. My five-mile route took me along the glare of Sunset Boulevard and down jacaranda-shaded, bougainvilla-draped residential streets. As directed by the orchestrator of “100 Walkers,” Richard Kraft, I faced forward, kept a steady pace and neutral expression, and stayed silent.
Kraft designed the event as an intervention, an interruption, a situationist wake-up call, a soft swipe at civil disobedience. As a child in London, he went shopping with his mother on Oxford Street, where he remembers seeing Stanley Green, a fixture in the area for twenty-five years, toting a sign advocating LESS LUST BY LESS PROTEIN. The memory of the enigmatic message, Green’s courage, and the strange humor of his endeavor stuck, emerging decades later in the form of solo and group walking pieces in Death Valley, Las Vegas, and Charlottesville, Virginia. The West Hollywood iteration was the largest that Kraft has yet staged.
On the front of my signboard was a photograph of a pole vaulter taken from an instructional art book from the forties. Kraft subtracted the pole, bleached the figure a luminous, moon white, and set him against deep indigo so that he looks like he is diving in space or floating in the sea. On my back was a grainy picture of an exploding helicopter from a Cold War–era Russian magazine. I walked with purpose, promoting nothing but ambiguity, protesting nothing but indifference. I felt like a drifting spore. An untethered sign.
Photo: Keyang Pang
Kraft made business cards for us to dispense if approached. My first query came from an elegant man stepping out of his Bentley. I handed him a card. There were nine different versions, each proclaiming the holder to be “A. Pippin” and identifying my trade as Prune Picker or Bobby Dazzler, Cretin, Priest, or Brussel Sprout. “Oh, very well,” the gentleman said, satisfied enough by how proper the transaction seemed that he didn’t bother examining the contents of the card. “I like the hat.” An open-air tourist bus pulled up alongside me on Sunset. When its miked driver asked me what, exactly, I was doing, I wordlessly handed over a stack of cards. In the passenger section, a dozen eager hands shot up.
I walked on, an image to be seen, read, registered. I was glanced at, giggled at, and largely ignored. Another set of images might have garnered a different set of responses. I have rarely volunteered for a role so conspicuous, yet I ended up feeling invisible. I had expected the walk to feel like a performance, but it turned instead into a meditation. What, I wondered, would capture this public’s attention? A celebrity? A car crash? I walked beneath a billboard featuring a cucumber holding aloft a sign of its own, protesting vegetable abuse. My quiet passage was certainly unusual, but in the throb and density and absurdity of midcity LA, it apparently takes something less genteel for people to look up from their phones, their meals, their overstimulated numbness.
Kraft encouraged us to remain conscious at all times of our visual presentation as part of the fluid, urban collage and to compose ourselves in interesting ways when the opportunity arose. For a few moments, I stood face-out before a curbside newsstand, adding my cover image to the lively mosaic of magazines behind me. On Melrose, I sidled up to a signboard propped in front of a restaurant. It rhymed with mine in size and general aspect; it was plugging avocado toast.
Near the end of my route, another walker caught up with me. We crossed the street in unison, a diptych, and continued on together, unspoken allies. But before long, he peeled off, without a nod. I proceeded into the final stretch alone, returning to my assigned spot on the now-empty grid for a brief, still, bookend moment, before relinquishing my hat and board and elusive identity.
This project was meant to invoke wonder, but I confess to some creeping cynicism. I was noticing far more, it seemed, than I was noticed. The experience was strangely isolating. In the end, I found the most unlikely resonance with another silent sign, a billboard above the Sunset Strip. Not with its supersize, burnished, leggy model but with the brand name, stamped on the sky. That day, I was primed to read it as a prompt, a goad: GUESS.
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Leah Ollman writes about art for the Los Angeles Times and Art in America. She is currently at work on a book about the intersection of poetry and photography.
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