Walking Transformed: The Dialogics of Art and Walking
by Simon Pope
The recent history of walking as contemporary art owes much to a previous generation’s prepossession with theories of “space” (in expanded sculptural practices) and “place”(for avant-gardist, resistant tendencies). However, there may be other concepts that have greater resonance for current “walking art” practice and which suggest, with echoes of Robert Frost, that there’s a path perhaps “less travelled by.”1 Namely, there may exist a different historical lineage that brings us closer to current preoccupations with participation, dialogue and encounter.
Even while still students at St. Martin’s College of Art in London, Richard Long and Hamish Fulton rapidly gained a reputation as being the archetypal “walking artists.” Their journeys by bicycle around the UK, or hitch–hiking across Europe as sculptural practice — echoing the interests and methods of their North American contemporaries, such as Douglas Huebler2 — were soon extended by their use of walking.
Whether walking in precisely predetermined circles on rough upland terrain, or walking for a set number of days and nights, or walking without talking, these artists adhered to the artistic preoccupations and conceptual determinants of the day — working within spatial, temporal and behavioural constraints to produce work in a sculptural tradition, albeit on a hugely expanded scale and presented starkly, in a informational or bureaucratic form.
It was through the radical pedagogy of St. Martin’s that Fulton, Long and others came to consider walking as a viable artistic strategy, explored through a number of workshops organized by faculty. The best known saw a group of students bound together with a cord — reminiscent of Lygia Clark’s group–work3 — and instructed to negotiate their way back to the art school through the streets of Soho. While this earliest work is recorded photographically, as a group of young art students huddled on the corner of Greek Street, another exercise lives on through myth alone: students were instructed to “walk to the countryside,” heading westward out of London. It’s rumoured the aim was reaching Oxford; however, a wrong turn landed them north of the Chiltern Hills, their numbers depleted. While these instances appear to establish the fate of “walking art” — in the UK at least, where Fulton adopted the term and imposed it on Long — its origins are perhaps less straightforward. As well as being promoted, it is claimed, as a typically “British” mode of art–making by certain curators4 (most notably Anne Seymour in The New Art exhibition at the Hayward Gallery), the work made by Fulton and Long individually does not reflect the nascent participatory or collaborative approaches that are inferred in their student work. Or rather, that is the case unless we discount one work by Richard Long that suggests an altogether different historical trajectory for “walking work.”
In a photograph of a performance by the artist5 held by the Galleria Lia Rumma in Naples and taken in Amalfi in 1968, we see Richard Long standing, arm outstretched, a toothy smile on his face, shaking the hands of passers–by. Although Long himself, in conversation, dismissed HandShaking Piece (1968) as a mere “student performance,”6 this work suggests that there are other social modalities — even in the work of those artists associated most strongly with the spatial and sculptural concerns of walking — which could define a lineage of “walking work,” which would include theoretical and practical concerns closer to our current preoccupations: participation, conversation and dialogue, for instance.
The ease with which Long greets those crossing the harbourfront in Amalfi — with the Italian summer sun shining on them and their relaxed, casual clothing — bolsters Claire Bishop’s criticism when she appends “walks” to her list describing the “predictable formula” of participatory art.7 But this does not mean that we can tar all walking work with the same brush. We can find a wide gamut of work, some of which would dispel these criticisms, and which demonstrates the whole range of artistic strategies, constructing manifold relations to others.
André Cadere’s incessant, insistent skirmishes and gate-crashings of the art worlds of Western European and the USA during the early to late 1970s — who he saw as excluding him as just a “dirty” Eastern European8 — present something of a contrast. His walks between galleries supporting Conceptual and Minimal art and artists, Barre de Bois Rond (1975) conveyed on his shoulder, were anything but a disinterested meander, his itineraries far from a list of arbitrary spatial coordinates. There were no “chance operations”9 at work: walking was a means to precisely explore the political dimension of the artist’s world. Even Gustav Courbet’s casual greeting10 — apparently a benign “hail fellow traveller, well met” — is more nuanced than it at first appears. This is a meeting between artist and dealer after all, whose handshake enables the artist to take his place within the market, temporarily assuaging some of the anxieties that come with relying on patronage and sales as indicators of status and self–worth. While these examples of work by Long, Cadere and Courbet apparently prefigure the contemporary artist in participatory mode, they only highlight the messy engagement of artists with their world: negotiating institutional demands; living with status–anxiety; the low-down, base business of making sales, placating patrons and dealers.
The frictionless world of participation imagined by critics exists only as a paper tiger of course, useful only as a rhetorical device. There is never an a priori reality — an extant, smooth “social space” — which artists choose to inhabit; the “social” is in the making, produced with every footstep11 and with every handshake. Walking is in no way free from either the overt disciplining or naturalized cultural mores that influence artists’ and others’ lives; it is in no way a technique that will guarantee access to — and equal exchange within — the public sphere.12 The messiness of the world and the constant need to build and rebuild it in relation to others, to negotiate it and parlay it into being, is at the heart of “walking work” in this mode.
It is this “anthropological” space that “the maverick philosopher of the every day”13 Michel de Certeau recognizes — in lieu of phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty — as being distinct from the abstract, the totalizing and the “geometrical.”14 This thickening of space described by de Certeau et al. is redolent with the crush and clamour of pedestrian life, an “opaque and blind mobility characteristic of the bustling city,”15 and an enforced proximity out of which springs familiarity; a dense togetherness from which comes the formation of the crowd, the multitude.16 But as Markus Miessen asserts, as a criticism of participation in art and politics, proximity does not necessarily correspond to empathy, despite our best intent.17 This criticism is also present in the work of anthropologists Tim Ingold and Jo Lee who question the common sense of walking within anthropological fieldwork. At face value, the proximity brought about by being with others on foot appears to produce insights and understandings that would otherwise be denied to us. But in their incisive invocation of fellow anthropologist Clifford Geertz, they recognize that walking in close proximity does not necessarily admit the researcher into others’ lives. ”We cannot simply walk into other people’s worlds, and expect thereby to participate with them,” they state,18 noting that a further “attunement” is required.Through their discussion of the shortcomings of Georg Simmel’s theory of the Dyad as the basic social unit subtended by the eye, they conclude that ”to participate is not to walk into but to walk with — where ‘with’ implies not a face–to–face confrontation, but heading the same way, sharing the same vistas, and perhaps retreating from the same threats behind.”19 It is the physical attitude of bodies and their spatial arrangement that suggests something of their relational attitude. Walking alongside becomes a means to negotiate a flow — of conversation, of movement. Moreover, it becomes symbolic of an ideal type of relation, where moving together, shoulder–to–shoulder, conveys the potential for mutuality, parity or equality.
For anthropologists, as we have seen, this participatory mode of walking with others is itself something of an ideal, and has been formalized into a method of fieldwork in geographer Jon Anderson’s “Talking Whilst Walking” (2004)20 for example. Yet for artistic practice, there’s a compulsion from some quarters21 to explore the less literally sociable or “ameliorative”22 aspects of being together — to explore the inevitable distanciation that come from art historical positioning of artists as “autonomous,”23 rather than as “insider[s];”24 or from an art–theoretical perspective, the outright refusal to be “included.”25 Vito Acconci’s Following Piece (1969) — and subsequent artworks influenced by it26 — also proves the inverse of Ingold and Lee’s theory, where a walking with alludes to a malevolent, sinister — or at least indifferent — attitude to others. Marina Abramović and Ulay,27 while confirming the confrontational and anti–social aspects of walking into do so as a test of commitment — both artistic and personal — by walking towards each other not knowing whether the increase in proximity that this affords will bring them together or force them apart. Their eventual falling apart appeases philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy28 in his insistence that it is the declination of individuals, rather than an inclination towards others, that shapes our social reality.29 Perhaps we could imagine a world of different relationships, beyond aloof, impermeable monads, marching in-step,30 colliding, coinciding or skirting around each other? Could we imagine a “walking work” where artists and/or participants are less intact, inscrutable or unscathed following their encounters with each other?Such a work would require more of the artist than simply walking with others, suggesting an acknowledgment of vulnerability31 and an openness to the influence of others that runs contrary to art’s recent history.
It was Tom Finkelpearl who saw Paulo Freire’s radical, emancipatory approach to pedagogy as providing a way out of the Modernist impasse for contemporary art — in particular, as “a counterpoint to the Greenbergian notion of aesthetic isolation.”32 Freire’s33 dialogic approach levelled the hierarchies otherwise taken for granted: student and teacher journeyed together, learned together; and, by implication, there is no longer an audience or spectator waiting patiently for the “transmission”34 of the artist’s monologue. Rather, there is an expectant and eager fellow-traveller. They are thus participants in a dialogue that “brings them together while holding them apart”35 and through which they “come to see the world not as a static reality but as a reality in the process of transformation.”36 Exploring this potential for participants to be changed in themselves, as well as in the relations between them could align the work of walking artists with a spectrum of concerns that have broader currency, bringing them into conversations with other artists to explore the concepts of encounter, negotiation, participation and dialogue, which their own history of practice exemplifies so readily. Historian and philosopher Paul Carter writes of an altogether different pedestrian figure — but one which also exemplifies this shift in correspondence between spatial and relational modes and which prefigures the trajectory of my argument here. Writing of agoraphobes’ anxiety at the threshold of entering open space, Carter suggests that there is more to the condition than the fear of spatial openness. Rather, it is a hyper–sensitivity to the potential for innumerable new encounters within this space and the anticipation of relational openness that induces this panic. Furthermore, Carter concludes that their condition stems not from a fear of the catastrophic consequences of coming into proximity with others, but in the potential for a “cross over”37 or transformational event to occur. We can wonder at the fate of walking art had Richard Long, striding into the brilliantly sun–lit quayside southeast of Naples, continued with such bold, public encounters — a stranger on the road; a fellow traveller. It is perhaps the very openness to the possibility of being changed by encounters with others — anticipated by the agoraphobe — that we need to grasp and which might take us farther along the path not taken.