As part of The Walking Encyclopaedia, AirSpace Gallery commissioned a piece of creative writing designed to act as an introductory text to the exhibition. The selected text was submitted by Bill Aitchison
THE WALKING ENCYCLOPAEDIA
The Walking Encyclopaedia is by definition inclusive: it brings together a diverse range of artists and their work within the frame of walking. Like all encyclopaedias it is also partial and reflects the process of its compiling. It is therefore worth making this process of its creation more explicit: it contains art works and events which have been very deliberately curated, such as the Tim Knowles solo show Paths Of Variable Resistance and the events that Phil Smith will be running. In addition to these there are a great many works that have been proposed by artists themselves in response to an open call circulated on the ‘Walking Artists Network’, amongst other places. Some of these submissions were fully realised before this idea of a walking encyclopaedia was ever born, others are works that have been adapted for this context, and then there are some entirely new works made in response to this call. This is therefore an exhibition that surveys some of the most current trends within this emerging field rather than one with a more historical focus seeking to establish a cannon of walking and art.
As an artist who has always enjoyed walking, I should admit that when I first heard of the notion of a walking artist, it sounded somewhat arbitrary since I also happen to cycle a great deal, drive very occasionally, and take all manner of public transport. What’s more, these other forms of locomotion can find their way into my artistic thinking and projects, so it would be overly partisan of me to classify walking as uniquely creative. What is also true however is that the simple action of walking has attracted increased attention from artists of late, walking not only being a condition of an artwork’s creation and viewing, such as a sculpture placed in a remote location reached only after a long walk, or walking being the subject of an artwork such as a painting depicting a group of walkers in the countryside. Walking has now gone on to become a medium in itself; there are artists whose primary work is the creation and documentation of walks. This shift in the status of walking from the background to the foreground has encouraged us to view what might have previously been seen as separate artistic endeavors and traditions as being related through this central act of walking.
Walking considered as art has a relatively short formal history but an extensive pre-history. The point in time to separate one from the other is a rather complicated question best left for another occasion, it is enough to note that this is both a very young and, at the same time, very old tradition. People have walked for as long as there have been people; a defining aspect of homo sapiens being that they are upright and move on two feet. Stories, songs, pictures and rituals have accumulated around these displacements and some of these go back beyond pre-history reaching us in the forms of cave paintings. In the field of literature there is the 16th Century Chinese classic, Journey to the West, recording a pilgrimage to India, The Old Testament records Moses walking 40 years in the desert (a journey which has itself been turned into a contemporary walk) and the Epic of Gilgamesh dating from 18th Century BC ancient Mesopotamia, describes epic journeys made on foot. A history of walking in the arts is being established albeit one that can be seen through piecing together accounts of journeys, ancient and modern, from disparate sources.
In addition to an emergent history of walking it seems to me as if almost every week we ‘discover’ a walking tradition from another part of the world and place it within the context of walking art, time and again seeing how it can parallel and inform our art practices. The word discover is of course ironic here as it is contemporary British society that is often the poorer in these comparisons, when it comes to integrating walking into life and art. For example, the songlines of Aboriginal Australians as described in Bruce Chatwin’s book of the same name, fuse creation myth, practical map directions, songs and spiritual journeys together to produce something very unique. Today, these songlines can appear akin to an art project because a frame for an understanding of walking as art activity has been established. This is not the same as saying that the songlines were ever intended to be understood as art, merely that something similar to them happening in British society today would probably take place within the realm of walking art.
I began my love of walking as a boy, taking long scrambles over the shingle beach of Southsea. This I would do alone and in all weathers and with so dynamic a landscape throwing up fresh flotsam and jetsam from the sea with each tide, combined with a view overlooking the ever-busy Solent, there was always a great deal to take in. As time went on and study, work and travels took me further afield, I broadened my experiences of place and learnt to find something of interest in whatever environment I found myself in, whether it be wild mountains, suburban estates or decaying inner cities. My sense of walking is that it is belongs equally to all of these, the only places I have found it problematic to walk being certain American cities designed with the car in mind. Having this broad topographic palette it is with curiosity that I note something of a divide between the different walking traditions that have been developed in relation to the city and those more connected to natural environments.
The tradition of the urban walker or flaneur, a detached observer of modern life, comes to us from 19th Century France and is traceable in the hugely influential Situationist theories and practices of psycho-geography, such as the dérive or drift. The idea that we can read places using psychological theories and explore them actively and playfully is but one strand of their output but one that has gone on to inspire and inform much subsequent walking art in the city. People have taken these ideas in so many highly original directions that the label psycho-geography has become a bit too convenient a catch-all to fully contain the breadth of work and this is to say nothing of quite independent histories, such as Fluxus tours or the embrace of walking in post-modern dance. Common to many of these urban walking traditions is an understanding of cities as social architecture and art as a tool that can make visible the economic and aesthetic rules that bind us together and produce the urban experience.
Walking traditions more rooted in the landscape are every bit as diverse and sophisticated. In the UK, for example, we have the poetry of William Wordsworth who, it should be noted, also wrote a guidebook for walkers of the Lake District. His writings greatly popularized the romantic idea of nature and the benefits of walking in it. In the US Henry David Thoreau pioneered the nature essay and artfully folded philosophy, ethics and much more besides into his exemplary reflections upon walking in New England. More recently within the visual field, artists Hamish Fulton and Richard Long have since the late 60s been making artworks that have featured walking as a central element, their walks typically taking place in nature and represented in a variety of media in both the landscape and gallery.
The situation today is, I feel, not so polarised between city and country traditions; a significant crossover exists with artists drawing equally upon the many traditions and choosing to locate their walks and work in urban, suburban and rural settings, sometimes in all three within the frame of a single piece. This is not unprecedented either, while never constituting a tradition, there has been consistent traffic between the town and country for some time. Daniel Defoe’s tour of 1724-26 around the entire island of Great Britain included The City of London and he deployed some strategies that look conspicuously like walking art projects of today. Then there is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales dating from the late 14th Century which uses the device of a pilgrimage to frame a series of often ribald stories exchanged whilst walking from London Bridge to Canterbury Cathedral, two urban bookends to an extended procession through the countryside.
The freedom enjoyed by artists to pick and choose their sources and assemble a history of their own is matched by a leveling process taking place within the landscape itself. In the UK as our cities continue to sprawl (a legacy of the car) leaving vast semi-urban fringes of industrial parks, supermarket distribution depots and park and ride centres punctuating fields and fenced off land awaiting development, the distinction between urban and rural becomes increasingly blurred. Our countryside is managed and technologically connected like never before and almost everywhere we can detect the dual hand of local council and ‘the market’ exercising their powers of organisation and control. Patrick Keiler’s seminal films Robinson in Space and London, while not strictly speaking walking art, elaborate upon these shifts in a contested landscape that forms the backdrop for many of the works featured in this exhibition.
When out and experiencing an art walk or viewing the documentation of one, the various locations that one encounters can become unusually and unpredictably significant, as they are experienced through the frame of the art and potentially have something to say. The touristic gaze that systematically favours historic and scenic locations is thus often replaced by more idiosyncratic methods of encountering and picturing the landscape. Walking art can therefore often provide us with a more accurate portrait of the land than more conventional approaches to showing it as alternative aesthetics thrive. What’s more, walking in public brings into the work the politics of public space; the rights of access, surveillance and security on one side, the possibility of co-operation and encounter on the other. What happens in the interval between a concept for a walk and its realisation on the ground is often very interesting as it reveals a great many things about both the location and the people involved.
A feature of walking is that it is inherently inter-disciplinary, it crosses and connects both real spaces and, being so essential an action to our lives, it has come under the scrutiny of a staggering range of fields of study. Reflective of this broad range of interests in the act of walking, much of the work in the encyclopedia might usefully be understood not only as art but also as social and political activism, or as urbanism field trip, as sociological mapping, choreography, urban exploration, photography, audio art, literature, local history, video diary, tourism study, mountaineering or simply as pure unadulterated leisure. When out walking the imagination can sometimes flow in powerful torrents and I daresay a good number of the projects surveyed here came about in this way: while the artist was on the move. To those sitting down these propositions may appear to be the actions of idlers with an excess of ideas yet to those who are already on their feet these can be poetic additions to this taken for granted action of walking, artful interventions that grace walking with significance and beauty.
A feature walking art has in common with performance art is that it occupies the dual position of presenting itself as both live, often participatory event and that of presenting the creative documentation of these actions. As the vast majority of walks take place outside of the gallery, sometimes in difficult to reach places, the tendency to encounter this work through its documentation is, if anything, even greater than in performance art. This is particularly the case with walks that take place over long periods of time like Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s 1988 walk begging from opposite ends of The Great Wall of China and meeting one another in the middle. With the rapid growth of video art and digital photography stemming from technical innovations in the late 20th Century, the visual representation of travel and walks has been greatly facilitated. Where the word was once the most portable of mediums and is where much of the history of walking resides, the image is now just as versatile. The growth of walking art has been simultaneous with this rise of digital imaging resulting in a great deal of the documentation of the work, as you will see in the encyclopaedia, being done primarily through the image rather than the word.
To conclude this brief introduction, I recommend to you The Walking Encyclopedia and encourage you to walk around the exhibition taking in the various works. More contained than a gallery in the countryside like Yorkshire Sculpture Park and more concentrated too than the ritual of the First Thursday tour around East London’s gallery openings, the exhibition nonetheless communicates some of the vitality of walking art and offers inspiration that can stay with us in our walks, whether they be practical walks, artistic walks or in that pleasingly fluid space where the two can overlap and meet.
- Bill Aitchison, 2014
Artistic director, Bill Aitchison works in and between performance, writing, video and audio. At the centre of the work is performance which thrives upon the danger of the moment and sense of being part of something unrepeatable. His performances are both rigorously structured and dynamic in their execution. Each are significantly different, though as a whole have a consistent style being open-ended, formally precise and using dry humour. Work in other media extends and adapts these strategies.
Bill studied at University of Wolverhampton and Middlesex University, is graduate of Ecole de Mime Corporel Dramatique, completed a practice-based PhD at Goldsmiths College, University of London in 2007 entitled From A-Z to II-VI: Integrating Corporeal Mime into a Performance Art Practice. He has published critical articles and reviews, taught at University level, and presented his work at numerous talks and conferences. He is an associate research fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London.