Walking from Dunkirk to Barcelona to Measure the Curvature of the Earth

For 112 days Sara Morawetz retraced the 2,000 kilometre journey of two 18th century astronomers, tasked with defining the length of a metre.

On 24 June 2018 artist Sara Morawetz started walking. In sturdy leather boots and a broad-brimmed, blue felt hat, she headed south from Dunkirk, France’s most northerly town. For 112 days, over 2,000 kilometres, Morawetz negotiated exhaustion, monotony, blisters, anxiety, self-doubt, 100-kilometre-per-hour winds, 37°C heat and the Pyrenees. She walked from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. On 13 October, she arrived at her destination: Barcelona.

Sara-Morawetz, étalon, 2018, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist

Sara-Morawetz, étalon, 2018, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist

The walk (étalon, 2018) is a performance in homage to an earlier journey. In 1792 Napoleon ordered two French astronomers, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-François-André Méchain, to determine a new universal standard unit of measurement. They journeyed from Dunkirk to Barcelona in order to measure the curvature of the earth. It took them seven years. The new unit was a direct result of the data the pair accrued and the calculations they made: one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the Equator, one mètre-étalon, one metre.

Delambre and Méchain worked in partnership, and throughout her walk Morawetz was accompanied by a succession of artists and writers. Each day, Morawetz and her collaborator took measurements using a GPS receiver, a laser range-finder, and a purpose-built target made of alternating black and white segments. ‘A metre is a distance between two points,’ explains the artist. ‘Throughout the walk is this idea of two points of contact that need to be maintained.’

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