January 19, 2021
As Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” Now, more than 150 years later, a new generation of artists is proving that Thoreau’s words were remarkably prescient. They are tracing their own movements via GPS over the ‘canvas’ of entire cities and regions in order to create sketches, The Guardian reports.
That’s what Strava art is at its core. Named after the fitness tracking app that has previously helped reveal secret US military bases—and also referred to as GPS art or GPX—this medium allows you to “use your movements as the paint” and “a city block as your brush stroke.” Think of them as 21st century digital geoglyphs.
Michael Wallace, also known as WallyGPX, is one of the more prolific Strava artists online. The high school teacher from Baltimore, Maryland, has completed more than 700 pieces across his city—ranging from a map of the world, to a scene from the game Donkey Kong, to multiple tributes to the late Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia.
“I like to consider what I do is more like being a human etch-a-sketch,” he recently told The Guardian. “While I’m out there pedaling around the city, I’m sort of creating this imaginary digital spray paint behind me.”
Wallace’s artistic career began in 2009 after the proliferation of GPS technology in smartphones. His approach to planning is simple: Using a printed map and a pencil, he allows the streets and city parks to guide his lines and curves. He then jumps on a mountain bike and works his way around the path, likening it to tricking himself into exercising.
The artwork, itself, dictates the length of the ride. His largest piece required 44.7 miles (72km) of cycling as he took all day spinning a spider web across his city.
“I’ve never really cared about how fast I’m going,” Wallace says. “Like on Strava, everyone’s sort of obsessed with pace. For me it’s about where I am.”
An alternative approach to Strava art has also grown in popularity during the coronavirus outbreak. “Burbing” takes the same concept, but rather than sketching an image, you cover every street in a suburb.
It began as an alternative to Everesting —in which you ride the equivalent of the elevation of Mount Everest (for example, when two friends crisscrossed the roads of their respective Melbourne suburbs). It has since grown in popularity as the city went into strict COVID-19 lockdown with movements heavily restricted.
“Riding your suburb has a certain attraction,” Cameron James, one of Burbing’s founding fathers, told The Guardian. “You discover different places, different houses and areas you’d never have the occasion to go down.”
“There are some people who get a little bit anxious about missing a certain road or a couple of streets and feeling like they haven’t done the activity,” James says. “But at the end of the day, it’s about going out there, having fun and enjoying the experience.”
Research contact: @guardian