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Traversing a Foreign Border (Domestically)

Article Published: Apr. 28, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Traversing a Foreign Border (Domestically)

On May 12, area artist Joe Bigley will embark on his most ambitious project yet -traversing the length of Afghanistan's border on bicycle.

Photo by Frank Ruggiero

What are boundaries?

Arbitrary lines on a map, social devices to maintain a status quo, or something different altogether?
Area artist Joe Bigley intends to find out.

"I think we take them for granted a lot," said Bigley, an art instructor at Appalachian State University. "I'd like to get people to think about the nature of boundaries in general."

He's got a plan: Traversing a Foreign Border Domestically.

Having worked with a cartographer to map a course in the continental U.S. that follows the border and counter of Afghanistan, Bigley will bicycle the entire length of the Afghan border -3,435.5 miles to be exact.

"Essentially, (the trip) is to highlight the peculiar nature of political boundaries," he said. "Because if you think about the conflict, it's kind of an arbitrary target, Afghanistan, because the borders are porous - the boundaries of that country were drawn up by the Russians and British in the late 1800s."

Starting at Ground Zero in New York City on May 12, Bigley will travel approximately 75 miles a day, planning to return to Manhattan in about 70 days.

"I'm not looking forward to biking through New Jersey, but that's the first two days," he said. "Then through a lot of northern Pennsylvania, just into New York State ... then through Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and then back up the East Coast ... to go through D.C., because that one seems appropriate given to content."

Along the way, he'll be delivering presentations at various contemporary art venues, including The McDonough Museum of Art in Youngstown, Ohio; The Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art in Indianapolis, Ind.; The Asheville Museum of Art in Asheville; UNC Asheville; and The Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro.

He'll also speak at Appalachian State's Turchin Center for the Visual Arts in late September or early October.

"The crux of it is to interact with the public," Bigley said. "I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything, just to collect thoughts on how people view the war, because I think the timing of the project is key - this year marks the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks and, subsequently, the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan."

Bigley will document his public interactions through a variety of visual media, including video and audio, or, depending on the participants' level of anonymity, hand-written notes. His presentation will include footage of those interactions, anecdotal aspects of the trip, "inevitable bumps in the road from my perspective," he said, as well as a brief history of artists as social commentators.

"Up until 100 years ago, artists had to be much more subversive," Bigley said. "Now, we've got the luxury of making that a focus of an artistic piece. So, I think putting this project in more visual contest to expose people to contemporary art practice will be beneficial."

Bigley's documentation will be posted on the project website,, which includes a discussion forum for viewers to offer their thoughts on the war, project or both.

"We can't really resolve any issues unless we talk about them," Bigley said. "I'm trying to set up an organic interaction, rather than necessarily pursuing dialogue."

To pique passersby's natural curiosity, Bigley will tow an aluminum trailer behind the bike, housing visual equipment and sparking conversation.

"From what I understand, nothing like this has been done before, at least mapping out another country's border in another country," he said. "I like to think that in itself makes this a little unique."
As for Bigley, he hopes the trip's day-to-day struggles - like finding room and board, or camping somewhere instead - will offer him a sense of the uncertainty that refugees face every day.

"It's obviously not the same circumstances, but to have that same sense of uncertainty," Bigley said. "If most of us were facing bedding down in somewhere we're not even aware of yet, and having to find that every day, it would certainly put a toll on us and how we navigate through everyday life."
It's, perhaps, Bigley's most ambitious project yet. His artwork spans a variety of media and methodologies.

"I try to be mindful of what method might be most advantageous to focus on, typically different issues in society," he said. "I think that the point of art is to reflect current societal concerns. But I've never done anything to this scale. This is certainly out of my comfort zone."

Follow Bigley online at and in future issues of The Mountain Times.

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