Road Runners

Ant Farm, World’s Longest Bridge (still), 1970, film transferred on DVD, 24 min. Courtesy of Chip Lord.

Robert Barry, Psychic Series, 1969, project in the conceptual catalog published by Seth Siegelaub entitled Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Daniel Buren, Jan Dibbets, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Richard Long, N.E. Thing Co. Ltd, Robert Smithson, Lawrence Weiner, July, August, September 1969, self-published edition, New York, 27,7 x 21,2 cm. Courtesy of  Yvon Lambert Gallery, New York.

Michel de Broin, L’épreuve du danger from the serie Matière dangereuse, 1999, silver gelatin print, 61 x 61 cm. Courtesy of galerie Donald Brown, Montréal.

Chris Burden, B-Car (detail), 1977, Los Angeles, Choke Publications. Courtesy of  Joan Flasch Artist’s book collection, John M. Flaxman Library, School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Hans-Peter Feldman, Pictures of car radios taken while good music was playing (detail), 2004, 5 colour and silver gelatin prints, variable dimensions. Courtesy of  303 Gallery, New York.

Peter Gnass, Progression 3 temps (detail), 1977, 6 silver gelatin prints on cardboard, 24,1 x 179,1 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Rodney Graham, Halcion Sleep (still), 1994, video projection, 26 min. Courtesy of the artist.

Abbas Kiarostami, Roads of Kiarostami (still), 2006, DVD, 32 min. Courtesy of the artist.

Margaret Lawther, from the serie Autopia, 2005, colour print, 101,6 x 127 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

John Massey, Daybreak, from the serie This Land (The Photographs), 2008, archival digital print,
87,6 x 107,3 cm. Courtesy of Georgia Scherman Projects, Toronto.

Simon Morris, The Royal Road to the Unconscious (still), 2003, DVD. Courtesy of the artist.

Iain Baxter&, Highway, Northern California, 1979, chromira print, 49,5 x 72,4 cm. Courtesy of Corkin Gallery, Toronto.

Edward Ruscha, Patrick Blackwell and Mason Williams, Royal Road Test (detail), Los Angeles, self-published edition, 1967. Courtesy of Edward Ruscha and McGill University Library, Montreal.

John Sasaki, The Destination and the Journey (still), 2007, HDV, 2:05 min. Courtesy of the artist.

Roman Signer, Kayak (still), 2000, DVD, 5:18 min. Courtesy of, Zofingen.

Stephen Shore, Chicago, Illinois July, 1972, 1972/2005, colour print, 12,7 x 19,1 cm. Courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York.

Kerry Tribe, Near Miss (still), 2005, 35 mm colour film  transfered on DVD, 5:25 min, colour print, 160 x 130 cm and text. Private collection. Courtesy of 1301PE Gallery, Los Angeles.

Bill Vazan, Highway 37 (detail), August 8 1970, 159 silver gelatin prints and plan, variable dimensions. Courtesy of the artist.

Jeff Wall, Landscape Manual (detail), 1969, self-published edition, 28 x 21,5 cm. Courtesy of Scott Library, York University, Toronto.

Ian Wallace, Untitled, 1969-1970, 2 silver gelatin prints, 157,5 x 99,1 cm each. Courtesy of Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver.

View of the exhibition Road Runners, VOX, from March 6 to May 30, 2009.


Credit: Michel Brunelle.

View of the exhibition Road Runners, VOX, from March 6 to May 30, 2009.

Credit: Michel Brunelle.

View of the exhibition Road Runners, VOX, from March 6 to May 30, 2009.

Credit: Michel Brunelle.

View of the exhibition Road Runners, Cinémathèque québécoise, Norman-McLaren Gallery, from March 11 to April 26, 2009.

Credit: Michel Brunelle.

View of the exhibition Road Runners, Cinémathèque québécoise, Norman-McLaren Gallery, from March 11 to April 26, 2009.

Credit: Michel Brunelle.
2009.03.06 - 05.30

Ant Farm, Robert Barry, Michel de Broin, Chris Burden, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Peter Gnass, Rodney Graham, Abbas Kiarostami, Margaret Lawther, John Massey, Simon Morris, Iain Baxter& N.E. Thing Co., Edward Ruscha, Jon Sasaki, Roman Signer, Stephen Shore, Kerry Tribe, Bill Vazan, Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace

Marie-Josée Jean

Opening March 7, 2009

Road Runners, presented concurrently at VOX and at the Norman McLaren Gallery of the Cinémathèque québécoise, brings together works and documents from the 1920s to the present day. It will be complemented by a cycle of films entitled Sur les routes, put together especially for the occasion by the Cinémathèque’s curators from March 11 to 19, 2009.

Cinémathèque québécoise, Norman-McLaren Gallery, from du March 11 to April 26, 2009.


The road and the automobile are subjects and objects of major literary, cinematic and artistic works that laid the foundations of a cross-disciplinary genre—one which continues to evolve. The crystallization of that genre, here designated by the term “Road Runners,” came during the 1950s and 1960s with the publishing of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road,1 Tony Smith’s account of his aesthetic experience on a highway,2 and the release of the Dennis Hopper film Easy Rider.3 Though the Road Runner may be characterized by diverse attitudes and motivations, the road and the automobile have generated new modes of representation and perception, in one or another of these forms. For Kerouac and Hopper, the car and the motorcycle promised complete freedom and mobility, while the road was paved with the ideals of their respective generations. Paradoxically, though, their protagonists learned on their “trips” (in both senses of the word) that freedom remains a far-off goal: what matters isn’t so much the final destination as the “getting there”—a constant progression toward an ideal place. Kerouac and Hopper proceeded from the same starting point: the wanderings of individuals who chose to live by their wits and thus came to face a new conception of reality. But while in film and literature the road runner’s motivation is often an identity quest that sets him or her in motion, in response to a need for escape, a desire for vision and revelation, the artist’s wanderings are introspective—immobile, even.

On the road, time tends to become secondary, abstract—leading to a floating state that makes it easier to retreat into the mindscape. This state is a particularly fertile one, within which ideas can take shape. No doubt it was the state sought by Raymond Roussel, the first writer to literally work “on the road”: in 1925 he designed and had built for him a practical, luxurious trailer, to satisfy his need to move. For writers and for many artists, the automobile represented a singular space for creation that led them to produce significant works – and on occasion, to a new conception of art. As when Marcel Duchamp, dazzled by the brightness of onrushing headlights on a 1912 road trip between the Jura and Paris, hit upon the idea for his “beacon-child” of the 20th century: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. In the early 1950s, Tony Smith arrived at a staggering redefinition of art when he went for a night ride along the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike, without signs or lighting. He had an “unstructured” experience of the landscape, which he could not frame or transform into an art work because it remained forever immaterial. These narratives ushered in a new relationship to art in which the art object was deconstructed, giving way to a new paradigm wherein the conceptual dimension and the experienced event were most important.

Beginning in the late 1960s, that paradigm engendered countless works whose structure was informed by the road, with the car functioning as a moving atelier—with the driver watching the world roll by, continuously, on the screens that are its windows. The framing of those road-images is often doubled by the tighter frame of the car windows, and onto the observed landscape are superimposed reflected views in the windshield and rear-view mirrors. This way of seeing the world, widespread in North America, and especially in Canada, was to exert a huge influence on several Conceptual artists, who used photography to record it. The very act of seeing, previously perceived as something transparent, became the subject of their art.

The history of photography is also replete with road runners, who along the way have produced a register of ongoing urban and social transformations in North America. Photographers are especially attracted to the non-spaces characteristic of American landscapes, focusing their attention on transitional spaces (motels, restaurants, gas stations) and arteries of communication (roads, crossroads, highways, boulevards). Jean Baudrillard made such a road trip in the mid-1980s, documenting his vision of America (Montreal included), and writing a book that expounded upon the philosophical concepts undergirding it. That experiment made manifest the repetitive effect of America’s roads, where the same setting seems to unfold, kilometre after kilometre. A comparable impression was related by Vladimir Nabokov, in Lolita: “By putting the geography of United States into motion, I did my best for hours on end to give her [Lolita] the impression of ‘going places’, of rolling on to some definite destination, to some unusual delight. […] Voraciously we consumed those long high-ways, in rapt silence we glided over their glossy black dance floors.” “But movement brings no progress. Arid hopelessness is all that remains.”4

In the 1980s, image production on the road became animated, and storytelling began to predominate. Film and video became more prevalent, and artists employed the narrative structures characteristic of these media. A case in point is the video installation As the Hammer Strikes, created in 1982 by John Massey, in which the artist is seen conversing with a hitchhiker he has picked up on the way to Toronto. The ambient sound from inside the van is heard, along with the two men’s discussions, while, simultaneously with this first projection, two others convey, in alternating montage, the probable thoughts of each protagonists. Massey has trouble understanding the hitchhiker, and the images reveal the contradictions in their communication. The installation inaugurated a narrative mode determined by the fact that artists or their subjects go on journeys that make manifest states of presence or absence—and, consequently, place us in ambiguous spaces. Several artists took to the road in this way, offering (with either critical or humorous aims) unexpected experiences.

1. Jack Kerouac, On the Road (New York: Viking Press, 1957).
2. Samuel Wagstaff, Jr., “Talking with Tony Smith,” Artforum (New York, Vol. 1, No. 4, December 1966).
3. Dennis Hopper (scr., dir., act.), Easy Rider, 1969, 95 min.
4. Quoted in Gerald Silk, “The Automobile in Art,” Automobile and Culture (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), p.108.

Journal # 30 - 03.2009

Read the online journal for the exhibition Road Runners