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Leonid Tsvetkov

Amstelpark
& Via Appia Park

I started this project by thinking about the paths I navigate through the park. At first I considered paths as ways of knowing how to cross landscapes. At the same time, paths are evidence of the ways landscapes are understood; of attempts to make sense of the surroundings through navigation. There are multiple ways to solve a math problem and many different ways to cross a landscape, but the elegant solutions are often rare and often considered beautiful.

I want to make a work about walking, paths and narratives, the narratives we create as well as the narratives that create us. To walk a trail is to follow-- to follow a path and to not get lost. Paths are created through their continuous use; they are not the work of a single trail maker but are optimized through every single walker that navigates them, solidifying trails anew with each trip. Without use, paths wither and dissolve. To follow a trace is to create a path and each path then holds within it a kind of internal and evanescent logic; neural pathways connect our thoughts and memories and create consciousness; wired paths of communication run deep beneath our feet and high above our heads and create communal narratives; winding paths made by traces and hardened by concrete and technology form an environment within which we live and function.

In my project, I am investigating how paths function as systems of signs for decision and choice making. As a kind of in-between intelligence, networks of paths and roads form a syntax that tells their own story. Yet crossing a landscape and tracing a path are not undertaken by human footsteps alone; a trail is not simply created but is also unveiled through us. My own practice involves seeking a path that is in some sense already there: Space and time dictate a way of seeing an interconnection of processes revealed by and discovered in the project at hand. As I walk the trails in the park, the discoveries that I make are logged and translated into a form of installation that creates its own narrative, also dictated, at least in part, by the landscape, the historical, and contemporary uses of these parks, and my own imagined history.

Pathways are also social organisms. Like the mycelium structures of fungi that criss-cross the landscape in an invisible, underground network beneath each park, lawn, and forest, the trails in both parks function as subconscious lines of connection that use and hold the landscape together and reveal its further meaning. Trails form social networks that spread and flow over and under the surface of earth, connecting inhabitants, water, and chemicals along lines of material and human communication. I am therefore also investigating the mycological landscape of each park, finding in fungi both a metaphor for human cultural exchange and a landscape that exceeds our intervention. Hiking along paths, I encounter mushrooms, the surface of networks beneath my feet, and reach out to additional narratives that connect me to others, from local mycology clubs to the industrial production of mushrooms in the numerous caves of the Via Appia archaeological park. The interconnected mycelium structures and networks as well as mycorrhizal relationships and chemical information transfer accompany my study of paths as an interconnected social organism. Mycology is thus one of the many connections I can envision between the two parks as my process continues.

Leonid Tsvetkov works together with Gert-Jan Burgers (VU-Chair in Mediterranean archaeology and director of CLUE+).
Using the action of walking on ‘insignificant’ paths as a principle for understanding the landscape and as an instrument for chance encounters and events leads me in several different directions. I am following a trail of abstract thought about representation and logic of path making and the idea of connectivity as well as movement in general. Aldous Huxley once described the world as a place of “labyrinthine flux and complexity” which we navigate only through imagination and invention and are never able to grasp directly. A path is a way of making partial sense of a world. There are numerous ways to cross a landscape; the decision to proceed one way or another involves a collaboration between individual preference and the features of a changing landscape. Via Appia itself was formed on the path of lava flow; lava provided the easiest and the most direct way of making the road. A path is also a way of simplifying and understanding the land. A trail in whatever form—physical, chemical or electronic—is a system involving material signs that can followed or read and repeated like a written language. To walk down a path is to follow a system that exceeds personal choice but nevertheless involves a decision. The path itself is made not only by the initial design or the first pioneers to walk it but also maintained through continuous use by everyone who reads its signs.

Thus, paths are never stable; they endure only when followed. Desire lines which are paths that are created as shortcuts that optimize designed routes by cutting corners and adding right angles, in turn create new paths that are not preemptive but emergent. No one person makes a path or even a road. Pathways grow and become or remain visible if they are used; for example, in a human brain the neuronal firing path becomes stronger the more the signals are sent between the neurons, which in turn creates a more stable memory as the brain rewires its structure. Path-making is therefore something like sketching: at first the drawing is unsure and imprecise but with more and more attempts, the form solidifies and the process is revealed. The essence of a path is not found in its current physical presence but in its function and its continual flux in response to the needs of its users. The same is true of larger roads or any physical structure in general; they are preserved by everyday use and constant optimization. (Evolutionary biology offers a prime example of this principle.) Use presents a historical knowledge and a cultural heritage; systems of pathways function and act as an artifact of that history. The point at which a track intertwines with the landscape entails a kind of predetermined conversation or symbiotic relationship that exceeds the creator of any path. Finding the most efficient route across the landscape can be difficult, but even the simplest animals are quite good at it. In a study from the University of Oregon, a herd of cows was tested in a competition with a sophisticated computer algorithm to find the most efficient path across a field. The cows outperformed the algorithm by 10 percent. The simple rules that ants or termites use in their path-making also create some astonishingly complex and yet highly efficient results. Navigating through an unknown landscape in close conversation with a topography and ecology is a capacity of all life: route-finding may involve navigating along a path of least resistance, following a ridge, choosing the most stable soil, avoiding the prickly brush, and so on, or perhaps the path is simply there, ready to be revealed on the surface of the earth, unveiled through a walker rather than created by one. In evolutionary terms, function precedes structure; similarly, the trail precedes the trail-maker. The same principle applies for technological advance: once there is an environment that supplies the need for a certain technology, breakthroughs happen in several places at once. Although each invention responds to the changing environment and
performs a similar function, it is also unique; freedom of expression is not curtailed either by the environment or by an opportunity that has presented itself, seemingly out of nowhere. Like in a mathematical proof, there are many possible solutions, some elegant and some not, but the outcome is the same. This tension between determinism—an environment that decides in advance what form a path can take—and freedom—an organism that chooses—remains unresolved. The boundary between the two constantly blurs and shifts.

My research also investigates the on-going traces of this dialogue, tracking the information that the trail holds and records. To learn means to follow a track. The ‘making’ of roads and trails records information on the landscape and reveals a great deal about the organisms that made the track. Those who hunt know this; for example, the San of the Kalahari apply their very intimate knowledge of the land they live on to reading human and animal footprints. They are able to determine a person’s sex, whether they were injured, sick, if they were carrying something, whether they were walking quickly or slowly, even whether the person was frightened or relaxed just by examining an impression that person left behind. Tracking one animal effectively necessitates tracking other animals, including humans, and closely reading every mark left on a given ecosystem. As the San recognize, residual information builds up and is layered into the earth, inviting an intelligent detective work that learns to read what has been left behind. The traces of the past events are imbedded into sediment; some information is retrieved while other information is left undeciphered. As Smithson put it, ‘The strata of the Earth is a jumbled museum. Embedded in the sediment is a text that contains limits and boundaries which evade the rational order, and social structures which confine art’ (“Sedimentation of Mind”). Archeology in turn is, of course, a reading and analysis of material culture - the sedimented residue of past activity, - is also type of tracking. According to British novelist and travel writer Bruce Chatwin, the indigenous Australian meander invisible labyrinths which are know as song-lines or dreaming tracks, an invisible path that marks the trail of a distant, ‘Dreamtime’ ancestor, as that ancestor moved across the primordial continent and brought the landscape into existence. The song-line offers a route on a map, making it possible to navigate between sacred landmarks as if one is reading a collection of lines on a page. As Robert Moor points out in his “on Trails", in the Cherokee language the landscape is directly encoded into the syntax; suffixes are appended to nouns to indicate whether objects are upstream or downstream. The language is centered around the landscape, preserving place as a fundamental aspect of being. Anthropologist Keith Basso points out that a sense of deep geographic memory is also enclosed in the storytelling culture of the Apaches; place names operate as mnemonic devices that narrate history spatially rather than chronologically. The Apaches view the past as a well-worn trail, once traveled by their ancestors and still traveled today. To reconstruct the past is therefore to follow the movement along a track. To teach someone a lesson the Apache elder would tell a story about a specific place that way every time the ‘student’ walks by or even hear about that place the memory is reinstated. Anthropologists have a general term for the name/place listing practice – topogeny, a type of story telling that moves the mind from peg to peg, story to story, following a geographic line in an imaginary walk through the land. The systems of paths and networks of signs are both the arteries of culture and the libraries that archive knowledge worth remembering. The trail through the landscape is a sign system that predates and exists alongside writing and even the spoken word.
As I walk and read the landscapes of via Appia and Amstel Park, I collect my experiences to create my own system of mneumonic pegs. I create stories from unstable paths and, in my work, endeavor to design signs that can mark the paths that have revealed themselves to me. The interconnected and intertwined histories of the ancient and recent past are embedded in the sediments of the via Appia in an astonishingly rich assemblage. From the volcanic beginnings that laid the lava flow to the mythological deities that dwell along the road, to the temporary tent camps housing recent refugees, the land tells multiple stories, so many they defy systematization. The nymph Egeria, a being that predates the Roman mythology, inhabits a sacred spring right next to the underground aqueduct feeding Rome. Rediculus, a god of safe return in Roman mythology, rests adjacent to the church of Quo Vadis, where Peter encountered the risen Jesus Christ and then turned back to be persecuted in Rome. Erected along the slopes of hills on either side, the homes of refugees are also tangible reminders of the enduring necessity of path- breaking and path-making. By traversing these stories and discovering new ones, entanglements with inhabitants and artifacts lead me to search for a way to interpret the landscape I am navigating. Interpreting is also a way of belonging. To tell the story of a landscape is to tell the story of who “we” are. As biologists now acknowledge, the distinction between an organism and its environment is a necessary fiction. Since the structures that animals build perform physiological work, the boundaries of a physiology defined by an organism’s skin is quite arbitrary. Similarly, the lines of connection that roads and paths form also generate a social organism with its own in-between intelligence, transforming the other organisms that (re)produce and employ its structures and signs as they go on their way. From this point of view, the environments we create are extensions of ourselves; the landscape is both in us and of us, separated only by a surface of skin. In turn, the surface of the planet has its own physiology, under which lies the unveiled path. Tracing back to the notion of the trail and its function before structure I plan to develop the ‘Exploded View’ project like a walker who approaches an unfamiliar landscape. In condition of precarity, curiosity and careful observation, I follow a path and story-line which is yet in turn is an extension of me. 
Leonid Tsvetkov (1980) is an Amsterdam based Russian-American artist best known for his site-specific installations, manufactured spaces, and research into residues, history, and the nature of change. A graduate of Yale University (2006), he has been a fellow of the Rijksakademie (Amsterdam), the American Academy in Rome,
and Asia Culture Institute (Gwangju, South Korea), as well as other institutes in Europe and the United States. His work investigates the frailty of physical, social, and conceptual boundaries, calling attention to the impermanence of landscapes, borders, and memory. A process-based artist, he employs archaeological deposits, consumer waste, electro-chemical reactions, social encounters, and material interventions to create objects and landscapes designed to link place and memory, monument and event. His work has appeared at RA Foundation Hanoi, (Vietnam), Z-33 Hasselt, (Belgium), Marres House for Contemporary Culture Maastricht, (Netherlands), Sammlung Ludwig Bamberg, (Germany) and at the Ex Elettrofonica Gallery (Rome), as
well as in several other locations in Europe, the United States, and Asia.