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Walking through a conversation: The Treadmill Tapes

ASU professor learns about the community, one treadmill talk at a time

Liz Lerman and Kiki Jenkins walk on treadmills to begin their conversation as they are recorded by ASU students at the ASU Art Museum on Jan. 19, 2017.

Liz Lerman and Kiki Jenkins walk on treadmills to begin their conversation as they are recorded by ASU students at the ASU Art Museum on Jan. 19, 2017.

For most, walking is simply transportation: a means of getting from A to B with little extravagance or flair. For ASU professor Liz Lerman, however, walking is the first step to learning about her community and forming a deeper connection with its people. 

Lerman, a faculty professor at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, debuted her installation Minds on the Move: The Treadmill Tapes at the ASU Art Museum last week, where she will learn about the ASU community, one walk at a time.

The Treadmill Tapes are a series of walks that will take place over the course of the spring semester between Lerman and a walking buddy on the treadmills that have been set up in the art museum. 

Cameras film the interactions between the two as they talk about whatever comes up in conversation. The idea is to get to know the community and get people to "talk the talk," while they "walk the walk."

The tapes are a part of projectWALK, a collaboration between the art museum and the Museum of Walking. They want to inspire conversations about the act of walking and its importance in our lives.

“We worked with (Angela Ellsworth) this spring to organize this series of exhibitions, walks and conversations around walking and its role in contemporary art,” said Heather Lineberry, senior curator and interim director of the ASU Art Museum. “We have multiple exhibitions and artist projects that are a part of that and Liz Lerman is fascinating.”

The idea for the tapes came from an important part of Lerman’s life: walking.

“I really love walking with people and talking,” Lerman said. “It’s a beautiful thing. And somehow I had this image of, ‘Oh! I’ll do it on the treadmills!’ I don’t know why, but once I had it, it was like, ‘Okay, we have to do this.’”

Lerman first conducted a series of treadmill talks while working at Harvard University, which she said was more “low-key."

The ASU installation includes two treadmills, three cameras, three large screens for members to view previous conversations and an assortment of chairs and headphones for audience members to observe.

An addition to the installation adds a unique aesthetic: a line of signed shoes from the conversation participants.

“The shoes are new,” she said. “We got in here, we had a rehearsal and I realized I wasn’t sure about what I should wear. I called this amazing set and costume designer whom I work with who lives in San Diego. So I said, ‘David, what should I do?’ He came up with this idea that each walk, I should wear a pair of shoes one time and that person should sign them.”

She said the shoes add another memento from the time spent on these hour-long walks. She said the reason for filming the conversations was simple: they were going to be interesting.

“What I didn’t know until I did a bunch of them at Harvard was that it gets really interesting at about 40 minutes,” Lerman said. “Something just clicks … So much of the fitness world is gorgeous people dressed in gorgeous clothes doing gorgeous things, but I think walking is so regular. Except the ideas are not regular.”

It's been only one week, but Lerman said she has already had beautiful conversations on the walks.

On opening day Lerman walked with Cristobal Martinez, an artist and scholar in rhetoric, composition and linguistics, Rossitza Todorova, the development coordinator at the museum, and Kiki Jenkins, an assistant professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society.

“I was trying not to really think about what we would talk about,” Todorova said. 

The topics of conversation aren’t limited to a particular subject. The event page invites members of the ASU community to join her for "an on-the-go conversation about whatever is most curious, urgent, troublesome or baffling for them.”

“I wasn’t sure what she was going to ask,” Tordorova said. “The most surprising thing was that we ended up talking about things I haven’t talked about in ages. “

Jenkins, who walked with Lerman after Tordorova, had a similar experience during her walk.

“It was more intense than I thought, both physically and the topics,” Jenkins said. “I wasn’t expecting to have interview questions. I thought we would just yammer and chat was what I was expecting, but it was great. I could feel how having those directed questions — those meaningful and deep questions — could lead to a powerful installation. As opposed to me just talking about shoes I got the other day.”

When the treadmills are off and the conversations are over, guests to the museum are still welcome to use the machines and have conversations of their own. They can also watch previous conversations from Lerman and her guests, displayed on three different screens. 

She said that she hopes the footage will encourage people to get on the treadmills and start talking.

“I think it’ll encourage people to get up here, which apparently they have already been doing,” Lerman said. “Longterm, if I continue it, I would love for there to be a perpetual camera.”

The ASU Art Museum is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. 

The Treadmill Tapes will be on display through the entire semester.

Those who want to watch a conversation in progress can observe during most Thursday evenings or contact the art museum for more information at 480-965-2787 or

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