A few scattered thoughts came to me in response to some of the conversations, presentations and artworks that I experienced as part of the Sideways Festival. These are possibly more questions than answers, but I have written them here by way of a start to my own considerations, investigations, and to perhaps bring out some of the potential discussions begun, if not always carried through, with various people at the festival.
I found the festival very thought-provoking and a useful experience in terms of trying to think out a few commonalities and issues at stake in some of the various walking-art practices I came across during my time there. One common thread that I noticed, running through many of the practices that I engaged with during the almost four days that I spent with Sideways and the Walking Artist Network, was an apparent desire for a decomposition and recomposition of the subject. Firstly, this manifested in a proliferation of tools, devices and methodologies to ‘alienate’ oneself from a ‘conventional’ conscious experience or navigation of space, whether these were dowsing, algorithms, following arbitrary lines, an arbitrary pace, ‘getting lost’ or altered states of sensation – from taking ones shoes off, to getting drunk.
At the same time there was also a seemingly common desire, in many of the practices that I observed, heard about or discussed, to escape a necessary alienation induced by the passing of time – to record, capture, hold on to, and in many ways to enclose, the passage of time and the process of subjectivation that it entails. This appeared in the strong and common urge for documentation: taking notes, photographs, GPS readings, measurements and such – as if this was needed to make the walk ‘art’. In many cases it probably was needed (as a functional, if potentially not especially sophisticated categorical demarcation between time spent in leisure and labour), but it was also interesting to see the record and the act of recording, becoming almost performatively integrated into the act of walking itself. I found myself wondering, from where else such needs arose. It is worth noting there was a recurrent pseudo-spiritual, ascetic or ritualistic element – that perhaps is a legacy in from the history of performance art – within many of the practices I observed. This possibly links and contrasts with documentation as a means of marking and engaging with the passage of time, subjectivation and becoming.
It occurred to me that the above tendencies seem to be in oscillation within a wider ‘psychogeographic’ tradition at least as far back as the first Surrealist dérives, and perhaps to Romanticism proper. They seemingly echo what are essentially Surrealist methodologies and techniques concocted from a desire to escape a bourgeois subject position, perhaps arguably in the quest for a Romantic authenticity through art – something that personally, as far as my own work is concerned, I consider is probably a bit of a cul-de-sac. In this sense much of the work seemed to have an antecedent in Surrealism, more so than later codifications of a psychogeographic practice that attempted to resituate such methodologies away from art and within a more direct social critique. The seeming desire to, in Debord’s terms, ‘spatialise time’, even whilst temporalising space appeared somewhat in conflict. Then again, one could argue that the whole premise of space as somehow fixed and time as open is itself false and based in a very singular notion of subjectivity concurrent with liberalism. I don’t have the answer.
Another thing that really struck me was the constant risk of getting carried away with the notion of walking as a fundamentally democratic, open or somehow convivial act. Personally I take from that perhaps a need to be more mindful of the social relations and context, both of the walk itself and that which it passes through. Not all the walkers on the Sideways walk approached the event from an equal position in terms of professional and social status or cultural background (although that being said, the range of participants reflected what appears to be the wider social composition of the art world and academia more generally), yet these social relations themselves were somehow in danger of being occluded by the act of walking itself, and in the bond or collectivity created within the group. Presumably groups such as this, particularly in its temporarily nomadic nature, will likely come to somehow constitute themselves upon their very temporary externality from wider society, and that society’s externality from them – i.e. their collective experiences create a bond, defined by the absence of such experience in others not of the group. In short this becomes manifested as a divide between walkers and non-walkers but also a cohesive force within the group. These micro-political relations of the walking group were interesting to observe, one potential pitfall however, arising from this, would be that in placing the constitutive ‘otherness’ outside the group, there is potentially the risk of homogenising it, and likewise occluding and glossing over very real differences and ‘externalities’ inside the group.
This leads on to the observation that the relation of the artist and non-artist cannot be occluded in the fiction of participation. Not only are there potential power relations at stake, but if the walk is art then the walk becomes labour, and then the question of who is an artist and who is a participant, who is remunerated and how, in cash or human capital, becomes a fundamental question that should not be left by the wayside or trampled underfoot. The relation of this to the prevalent insistence upon documentation is also interesting, for it is documentation that in many ways blurs the line between walking as a leisure/socially reproductive activity and walking as a direct act of artistic production, and therefore more clearly and easily classified as labour. The documentary marking of time, in a sense is what marks it out as labour time, distinct from leisure time (although of course leisure time is almost always the reproductive shadow of time spent working). The status of this documentation and also the resulting ‘art object’ commodities produced during the course of the project is likewise left potentially somewhat hazy by this ambiguity, one that is none the less interesting and that would be interesting to think out more thoroughly.
Another related question would be to ask whether making walking into art is itself an act of enclosure? Not only as in the classic critique of tourism as a commodification of place, but likewise in making commensurable and in valorising an act of subjectivation that ostensibly attempts to escape such enclosures? The making of a walk into a documented ‘experience’ to be entered into a cultural economy is one thing, but even the act of walking itself cannot be entirely divorced from a process of affective accumulation in which each new path traversed or road taken can be rendered as an investment in our own human capital and in the reproduction of labour further down the social production line.
Following on from the last point, one needs to consider the context of the walk critically, not just thinking ‘what am I passing through?’, but also ‘why?’ What are the agendas in play? What is the biopolitics at stake in the promotion of the physical act of walking through art? What is our relation through such to the state and to capital? This information might not be readily available or apparent, but to walk with a critical and self-critical awareness would surely be a first step.
Lastly, I feel that it is important that we acknowledge that walking, like art, does not magically enable us to escape the ideological interpolations that surround and (re)produce us. We should not gloss over the differentiated experience of locality, as a walker of a given subject position, of a given gender, mobility, ethnic, class or cultural background. The Romantic (Rousseauian?) roots of leisure walking as a quest for an authenticity are flawed – it doesn’t exist, and the world is not fundamentally open to all, it is enclosed at every turn, I don’t mean physically (although it is), rather socially. Such a universalising and liberal humanist conception of walking, and walking as art, whilst not by any means entirely prevalent in the practices I observed, nevertheless has to be overcome if we are to understand that such walking cannot offer an easy escape from subjection, even whilst it appears to approach such, through its very performativity. It is also perhaps such a (mis)understanding of the nature of the art-walk that creates an ambiguity regarding its status as an act of artistic production at all, something I would argue that it is. Walking’s potential as art perhaps lies in its simultaneous singularity and generalisabilty, something we will miss if we assume either that it is already general, or conversely that there is nothing at all to be lost from its entry it into an economy of general equivalence.
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