Saturday, September 22, 2012

Sideways Festival of Art and Walking

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.) 
 On the Saturday, there was a symposium at De Leiteburg - a nature reserve. The symposium was a fantastic opportunity to find out about the experiences which the walkers had - starting with a beautiful happening: each of the walkers presented an object which summed up the Sideways Experience for them,
it was very moving, to hear these snippets of feeling - some people said nothing, while others explained their choice of object.
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.
Some people said they found it distracting, but I found it very helpful, and also interesting to see what he picked up on. The morning contained a number of academic explorations of walking - one of which by Jan Masschelein talked about walking lines in cities to get to know place. Not going to tourist attractions, but literally drawing an a to b line, and asking participants to walk it - as closely as possible. This sits with the Dog Walk which I did back in 2008 - trying to understand the 'regeneration zones' in my city, and has also given me an idea for a class with my students. There was a very short space for discussion, and I think that bit could have gone on a lot longer. In the afternoon around De Leiteburg woods there were a number of tents - we were given maps to where the tents were, but we did not know who would be in them, we had to go there to find out.
We had less than two hours to get about - and it felt a bit pressured, as I was keen not to miss anything! Anyway, I thought this was a fantastic way for the audience and the participants in Sideways to interact. In each tent practitioners who had done the walk were waiting to present in a variety of ways about their own practices (which brought them to Sideways.) These included:
Wrights and Sites, who decided to have a conversation with each other about their Sideways Experience. Phil Smith talked about his idea to carry a plinth on his back, and the shocking physical impact it had on his body, and also very interestingly, the way the project necessarily had to change when faced with the real, as opposed to the imagined/proposed context when planning the work. Phil said he had aimed for the plinth to become a mobile fourth plinth, where he would invite people to stand on the plinth and give speeches, but in reality, when it came to it, in the real situations Phil had realised it would create a mockery of the person standing on it in some way, and so he had to change his idea - somehow the plinth could not operate as an elevation device, and in fact was a subjugation device - drilling Phil physically into the ground. Phil's experience of Sideways was obviously extremely difficult, both physically and mentally, but he was very philosophical about what could be learnt.
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.
A different approach saw Peter and Giulia from Stalker - they barred the path and said 'you cannot pass' until we had explored the words stuck to trees nearby, there were words and thoughts which we were asked to ask questions about in relation to the group that they are in's activities: Stalker. 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.
After this we all met up to go on De Leiteburg's Barefoot Trail. I really liked the idea of the trail, where at the beginning of the walk you left your shoes, and went off into the forest.
I somehow had not expected it was really a walk through the woods, up log ladders, through gravel, and mud.
And even through some quite deep rivers. The walk took an hour and a half, and was incredibly sensual, making you suddenly aware of how the foot make contact with the ground, and every muscle in the body is involved in that connection.
After that we went to the farm (with the marvellous sound system caravan and Bar on a Bus) for tea, before heading to the local school for a performative tour of Zutendaal. This project by Orquestina de Pigmeos took us around Zutendaal - with the 100 plus audience silently walking as dusk fell, discovering the sounds, people and places that make Zutendaal what it is.
We heard the football team practising, and sneaked under the football field sprinkler system, before finding ourselves silent voyeurs of the local dance class practice session.
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.
The tour continued and ended up in the barn for a shindig and a glass of locally grown and pressed apple juice. That evening the Sideways Walkers let their hair down, and it felt like a big sigh of relief, and burst of energy as well. Sunday, saw a few sore heads, and more interesting talks and presentation and opportunities to hear about the projects by participants of Sideways. There was a chance to look at the results of some of the works made en route. 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.
I went along to the 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.
Participants had suggested books that they would take on a walk. I also went along to a talk by Susanne Kudielka and Kaspar Wimberley, who did the entire walk with their baby (who was mainly carried - but did take her first steps during the month.) The were doing a project based on the Belgian tradition of Ruitocht (tradetrip) where you start with an apple or an egg - and then swap it and swap it and swap it. They used it as a way of meeting people and creating conversations on the route. Kaspar was swapping objects (starting with an apple) whereas Susanne was swapping stories. They found that the experience of Sideways really affected their ability to carry out their project in the way that they wanted to.
With dialogical work of this nature, in order for the exchange to be meaningful, time must be spent. But the specific context of the Sideways walk meant that time was something that most participants struggled to find. Some days the walkers had 36 km to cover - which left no time for other activities - and there was a sense from many that this led to a head down and get it done approach. We heard this a lot over the weekend - librarians had expected to have time to read, and share readings on the road - but this had to be done at the same time as walking, Susanne and Kaspar knew that if they did a swap there was a good chance that they would be left behind and get lost, walkers who were used to 'drifting' as an exploratory method found their drifts were limited to minutes and sometimes seconds.
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.
I saw and heard so much over the weekend which I know will feed into my thinking around waking practices, and hopefully my research for the 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.

1 comment:

frillip moolog: said...

Good to hear about your sideways experience and also pleased that you met my friend Phil Smith too.