A while back I joined the (WAN) Walking Artists Network: a network for artists who walk, or walking artists or other practitioners who consider walking a creative act.
I was really pleased when, through my connection to the network, I was offered a travel bursary to go to the Sideways Festival of Art and Walking in Belgium. I had seen the call for the festival months back, and had wanted to apply, but didn't in the end, as it would have been difficult with my already scheduled Japan and Lake District residencies in place.
Sideways involved a 4 week expedition of artists, anthropologists, sociologists and other practitioners walking together - 360 KM across Belgium. The walking was punctuated by Festival Weekends, where the walkers would stop for the weekend for a series of events and symposiums, culminating in the final festival weekend and symposium in Zutendaal (the bit that I went to.)
Members of the network met up at St Pancras station to take the Eurostar, our journey to Zutendaal was set to coincide with the arrival of the Walkers - who would be coming to the end of their journey. We were excited to meet them and hear all about it...We arrived at Zutendaal Mooi, a strange log cabin camp, which would be our home for the weekend.
On reflection, it may not have been the best timing; very weary travellers needing to bathe feet, regroup with those that had shared the experience colliding with the Walking Artists Network, who had taken a train, and then a bus to get there, and who were keen to ask questions and find out about the experience. The Walkers did not know who we were, or what we were there for.
The first night we found ourselves whipped off to a beautiful farm, to share food together, and the next morning the Sideways Walkers had a debrief.
While that was happening Clare and Mark from WAN organised an Open Space workshop - something I have never come across before. This created a space for the WAN members to get to know each other, and then make some work around walking and the Sideways Experience.
It started with introductions, and one that struck me the most was Katie Etheridge, discussing a project she had just completed with Wrights and Sites, involving the Pendle Witch trials, Katie brought along some tiny wax and plaster feet, like talismans or relics which she requested people could hide/bury or take away to become future archaeology. I brought one back to put in my reliquary (above) I like to collect something for the reliquary wherever I go. Once introductions were over everyone posted up their ideas for what to do in the workshop on the window - then people would elect to do something, and then 'vote with your feet' and do it.
This resulted in myself, Glen Stoker and Phil Smith from Wrights and Sites going on a perimeter walk - exploring the boundary of the camp, picking up on signs and rhythms. The holiday camp had a strange, clinical atmosphere I felt, I think producing a feeling of 'cabin fever' surprisingly quickly. The perimeter walk took 3 and a quarter hours, and helped in exorcising the feeling. While walking the perimeter, I made a piece of documentary writing, as well as photographing the route. (See Bottom of post.)
The symposium talks were being illustrated/documented on camera - a man (unfortunately I did not find out who) was making notes/diagrams and using objects to track the points and conversations made.
We talked a lot over the weekend with various walking practitioners about the difference in walking with a purpose (to get from a to b) and walking with a desire to understand a place - we discussed drifting and getting lost techniques - and that for many of the practitioners the Sideways Journey meant that their usual methodologies had to be quite violently interrupted. This was uncomfortable for many, who felt their original ideas had been compromised. It would be interesting to discover if, on reflection in a few weeks time, something new might have emerged from this new way of operating.
Stalker Walking School lead walks in Rome and other places, taking participants into usually forbidden/barred areas of the city - exploring and trespassing as a political act. It was a great way to explore the forest, and have some great and interesting conversations.
We explored a forest populated by what sounded like dinosaurs, and discovered a lone stone mason, carving out a letter A. It went on, a silent procession of strangers, traipsing through the darkness of the woods - no torches allowed, senses prickled.
Reg Carremans had strapped canvas to his feet, physically documenting the connection between his feet and the earth. Then at the end of the journey, the canvasses were put together.
Walking Library's Reading session, which gave the Librarians a chance to talk about their project, and also read from some of the fabulous books in the collection.
Over the weekend, the way that the participants described the experience of Sideways changed. At first, tiredness and sore feet saw people being very critical of the organisation of the festival - of the conditions which they had to walk under, but by the time we left we were being told about an amazing, once in a lifetime, not to be missed experience. And on the Sunday a sense of melancholy, and dread of morning seemed to be in the air - people were ready to return to their lives, but with a feeling that something important had taken place - a pilgrimage completed.
Saje Project - exploring walking as a conversational tool. I cannot even get down here all that I saw - but there is one project which really stood out for me: and that was Peter Ankh's Donkijote project. Peter walked Sideways with Beagle, a local (and very beautiful) donkey. The donkey had a lot of high tech equipment strapped to him, which took a photograph every few minutes, measured pollution, as well as recording lots of other information on the journey.
A description of the project from the Sideways Website: 'The donkey will function as a living and walking browser that will produce information, geo-tagging knowledge, mapping route, collecting things, asking questions, searching for answers and share this content, bringing the Sideways journey online 'in real time'. The project aims to be a cocktail of ethical, tactical, educational and psychogeographical meaning; while walking at human speed new methods are explored to map the complex assemblages of humans, plants, animals, artifacts, technologies and physical landscape features.'
Peter talked about his experience, and described how the donkey is a fantastic way to connect the public and create a space for conversation. He said that people are not able to mediate their reaction to the donkey, before they have meant to they are putting out their hand to make a connection, the donkey is an interruption in our modern lives.
Sideways - I am do glad to have been able to come and hear about the experience - but I wish I had gone on the walk. Thanks so much to WAN for the travel bursary. I hope that we will be able to work on something together with some of the fantastic walking artists in the network.