(In a Forest of Signs)

Appendix G: Walking is Still Honest / Small Works for Shared Spaces

Note: this appendix covers a number of smaller works undertaken as part of the interventions portion of this research, but which have, for reasons of space, not been included in the main body of the work.

To explore shared space, to tease out the other side of the object, or to perceive objects/Others as relational rather than concrete, is to assume the possibility of movement.  As such, a key area of my practice and research has revolved around walking.  If we are to question the validity of the concrete – to not believe in objects as Massumi suggests - walking achieves this goal by compromising abstraction, relocating objects in time and space, and in doing so banishing the singularity of any fixed concept of exteriority or Other.  As a movement through a shared environment, walking allows us to perceive change first-hand - the changes of time upon objects, environment upon perceptions, exteriority upon interiority.  To walk is not merely to travel from place to place, but to confront new perspectives, to feel the effect of exteriority, of Other upon the self – to perceive semblance.

Though we can travel distinct lines to take us from A to B, walking itself is not the same as travelling, but rather a renegotiation of space.  The objectivity of walking - the fact that it leads somewhere - comes only after the act that endows places with significance.  As with the difference between lines and linearity, walking does not presuppose destinations, even if it actively creates them.  The lines created by walking are what the author Robert Macfarlane calls “signs of passage” (Macfarlane, p.13, 2013), and come over time to join place to place, to become not simply a residue but a guide, a path.  As Macfarlane points out, “paths connect. It is their chief reason for being” (Macfarlane, p.17, 2013).  And yet, there is a clear difference between walking a line so that it might later be perceived by others, and walking a line as a by-product of the acting out of one's being.  Though I can deliberately create a meaningful trail from place to place - by stamping down the grass in a clear line in my wake - to do so is no longer simply walking.  Even walking with the knowledge that someone will follow - aware of the reality of the marks you leave behind - is somehow different than walking in order to leave a mark.  Walking demands freedom from association as a requirement of its being, such is the nature of its primordiality, its ability to become something else (travelling, directing, gesturing, making) so easily. To perceive is to imbue with intention, it is to apply meaning. To declare ‘I am walking!’, to write it[i], is to stop walking, to abstract the vagueness of movement and turn it into travelling.  Walking banishes objects because its defining feature is that it does not abstract - it does not stand still. 

Furthermore, walking, as a renegotiation of space, has a clear relationship to both participation and politics.  The popular connotation of the protest march – in which the physicality of walking allows the proletariat to use their bodies against the institution of governance they usually uphold -  is a particularly concise example of mass participation’s power to interrogate the space of its political community.  Likewise, the signification of walking in comparison to other modes of travelling – wherein a reliance on vehicular mediation denotes social status – exemplifies the hierarchy of the Western epistemological tradition, wherein sensing is considered less important than understanding.  Just as ‘made’ sense is prioritised over the act of sensing, so too is the destination seen as more important than the journey that leads to it.  Similar concerns are present in many of the artists and theorists whose work underpins this research.  Debord highlighted the artistic potential of abstract and purposeless movement with the concept of “dérive” (Debord, 2016) - a wayward drifting through the world; Neuhaus utilised walking as means of activating the political agency of listening; and La Monte Young declared “Draw a straight line and follow it” (Young, 2016)[ii] - in doing so explicitly tying the abstract motion of artistic activity with the abstract motion of walking, fundamentally positioning the latter as the literal and conceptual next step of a creative impetus.

To perceive an object is to abstract it from its own temporality - to remove it from time, from the range of its potential, and to fix it as a singular thing, the here and now of its current state.  It is also, however, to prioritise this state over all others - to suggest one way of being is of more value than another, and in turn to use that singular state as a means of governing reality.  We can only perceive the world as comprised of fixed objects - marbles, jellyfish, fax machines, and drinks cabinets - if we first apply a defining power to the current state of each object’s life cycle.  By seeking to change the manner in which we perceive objects - by allowing us to literally perceive the other side of an object - walking brings into question the fixity of the object world, encouraging new forms of interrogation of the community and its composition.  Indeed, when Rancière describes politics as “a distribution of the visible and the invisible,  of speech and noise [that] pins bodies to ‘their’ places and allocates the private and the public to distinct ‘parts’’ (Rancière, p.139, 2013), what is he describing but that which the act of walking transcends?  Walking, like art and politics, is an orientation towards sense (sensing), not an outcome of sense.  There is no pre-written outcome to be gleaned from the act of walking - it is walking itself that relocates me to new potentials, new horizons of sense. Art, politics and walking amount to a form of disjunction between cause and effect, a “shift from a given sensible world to another sensible world that defines different capacities and incapacities” (Rancière, p.75, 2009).

A Walk Along the Edges of a Map began as a creative way of delineating the area within which my other interventions would take place:  I drew a circle on a map[iii] of Brighton city centre and attempted to walk its line from memory, assuming the rest of my interventions would take place inside that circumference.  This simple action soon encouraged me to explore the potential inherent in its written instruction, “draw a circle on a map and walk it from memory.”  Having not designated the ratio of the map (nor for that matter the circumference of the circle), the action might equally result in turning on the spot or a continent-wide pilgrimage; likewise, the very idea of following an arbitrary circle across a landscape already divided into streets and squares is an impossible task, resulting in a requirement for creative solutions.  With this in mind, I expanded the instruction to include a circumference size (14cm), but not a map ratio, and added the idea that the performer should not stop walking until the circle is complete - forcing them to turn, rather than pause, if they were faced with traffic, buildings, or other such impositions.  Lastly, I added a final instruction - that the walk should be repeated several months later, again from memory, but this time attempting to follow the route of the previous actual journey, not the line on the map it was trying to replicate.  As such, this work served as sort of parenthesis, temporally, and geographically, for the wider set of city-wide interventions, exploring not only the same physical area, but similar notions of labour, social noise, being-as-performance, and artistic validity.  As I progressed around the city, I was acutely aware of the other inhabitants I passed, each engaged in their own laborious tasks – erecting scaffolding, painting houses, sweeping driveways.  My movements – amplified as they were by the inclusion of a camera or microphone – were framed with an equal sense of purpose and yet, when approached by members of the public and asked what I was doing (“walking a circle I drew on a map and recording what I find”), people tended to laugh. 

My work, though time-consuming and fairly exhausting to undertake (the walk took somewhere in the region of three hours, with my arms holding a microphone out in front of me the whole time), was not considered socially valid.  This project, in turn, spawned another: A Blade of Grass From Every Park involved visiting every park in the city in a single day, an arduous task that similarly resulted in many miles of walking.  The outcome, a collection of grass blades, is ultimately a pointless endeavour, and masks the work’s true intent - to open its performer to new, non-utilitarian ways of navigating their locale.  Both works succeed not by creating some artistic outcome, or even by forging a new dialogue with the Other that is their spectator, but prioritising the work of exploring one's environment as the precursor to any further creative engagement.[iv]

In Mall Choreography[v] I sought to examine the way a community moves through a defined shared space, attempting to open up subtle everyday gestures to the potential of their perception as a creative act.  Based around the handing out of simple instructions – “raise your arm 3 times” or “scratch the back of your leg” - to the visitors of a shopping centre,[vi] participants were instructed that their task must be conducted covertly.  In this way, the work seeks to enact the unknowability of Other – the instructions are subtle enough that they might be entirely overlooked by an observer, and yet still offer a break with the normative behaviour of the individual concerned.  The resulting dynamic is such that only the individual performer would know if a performance had taken place, despite it being witnessed by hundreds of other people.  Indeed, its audience - by virtue of having received their own covert action upon entering the mall, would be aware that a performance might be underway, even if they cannot see one taking place.  What I hoped this would produce was not only a state of general heightened awareness - a mass preparation if you will - but a situation wherein there is no perceptible distinction between an actor and a spectator.  Potential is prioritised over any specific action, what might be over what is. 

 Soundwalk For a Lonely City[vii] consisted of several recordings made of a walk through a specific location – Brighton’s Pavilion Gardens – and later re-presented in a format designed to inspire new, semi-autonomous movements through that same space.  Visitors to the gardens were met with a number of black boxes littered around the park, each containing headphones, directions (themselves distributed over several separate squares of card), and a stick of chalk.  Participants were then able to listen to the prior recordings on the headphones, and to navigate their own path through the park, based on whatever order they happen to retrieve the direction cards.  The outsides of the boxes were constructed from slate paper, and the instructions - open the box, put on the headphones, follow the directions inside – written on the outside in chalk.  By using the provided stick, participants were able to completely erase or re-write the external instructions as they wish, creating new objectives for future participants. 

The final of these works, Momo,[viii] did not directly involve walking at all, but instead critiqued mobility through specific social and temporal strata.  The work revolved around the reading of a children's story to office workers on their cigarette breaks.  Arriving at 8.30am, and reading until 5 pm, the piece explores the idea of what constitutes a day's work, with my reading meeting the office workers as they arrived in the morning, continuing through their breaks and lunches, and persisting until the end of their day.  Aside from the obvious juxtaposition of reading a children's story to adults, the story was specifically chosen to reflect the theme and location of both ‘grown-up’ employment and that site in particular. 

Momo tells the story of an invasion of grey-suited men who steal time from a city's inhabitants by encouraging them to work so hard they neglect their community.  The only people free from this curse are the city's children whose playfulness allows them to resist the grey-suited men.  The book is set in the grounds of an old amphitheatre - the base of the children’s resistance.  As such, I chose to read the story from the seating of the amphitheatre built outside the entrance of the AMEX building, where the office workers smoke their cigarettes, eat their lunches, and hold impromptu business meetings.  To further reconfigure the shared space we occupied, I invited a local nursery along to listen to me read - resulting in a situation wherein office workers in suits smoked cigarettes and held meetings while pre-schoolers ran around them in circles.  The duration of the work, and the physical duress that entailed problematised the perception of one act (working in an office block) as being more demanding than another (reading children’s stories), a position underscored by the narrative of the text.

The degree to which these works could be considered political actions - despite harbouring frivolous, even juvenile themes - is perhaps the element most prescient to their undertaking.  Mall Choreography, in particular, seems to explore a certain political urgency, opening up its participants not to a measured transformation between fixed positions (actor versus spectator, creative versus functional modes of being), but to the indefinable nature of both the work’s potential and the community of its site.  If traditional models of participation - as exemplified by Debord - might consider that “to be a spectator is to be separated from both the capacity to know and the power to act” (Rancière, p.2, 2009), it is not because these traits are inherent to the position from which the spectator operates, but because we have culturally objectified the notion of spectatorship - we have made it a thing.  The political act of Mall Choreography is such that it attempts to break down this thingness, to relocate potentially from the domain of the object-actor to that of the process of engagement[ix], now an inextricable and active part of the ontological event.  To prioritise ontological engagement above object-comprehension is to favour one's unique relationship to the terms of the event above any ritualistic use-value pre-emptively assigned to the object.  Such rituals are not in themselves necessarily a hindrance to the community, often serving as a means of promoting good practice, or common values as they are perceived by those involved.  Indeed, as Small suggests, it is within rituals that “relationships are brought into existence between the participants that model, in metaphoric form, ideal relationships as they imagine them to be” (Small, p.96, 1998).  However, rituals, by seeking ideal outcomes – however well-meaning - often serve to delineate the terms of engagement prior to the associated act, reinforcing an active/passive binary that places Other within the ontology of the self.  Rituals, by pointing to an ideal way of using objects, or engaging with Others, must first reduce the vast gamut of exteriority into a limited number of things that the ritual can commandeer. 

Drawing attention to the shape and size of the objects of our community – city parks, street plans, walking paths - is to draw attention to the fact that a ritual is already occurring, wherein someone is making aesthetic decisions about shared space on behalf of everyone else.  These works highlight, however momentarily, the invisible, arbitrary and hierarchical decisions made for the community on behalf of its participants.  As with Beuys’s preparation or Young’s approach to temporality/spatiality, the aim is to demonstrate that it is from the perceptive act itself that potentiality emerges.  Resonant objects - maps, coins, harmoniums, chalk or even other people - are resonant because those who perceive them make them so. The art-event allows such objects to take on potential by overlaying significations in a way that extends beyond the confines of the sensible.  The resonance of objects lies precisely in the ability of the art-event to free them from communication, and in turn, consensus.  As such, the art-event is innately participatory by virtue of its reliance on the plasticity of its materials – its celebration of distance, of meaning different thing to different people.  As Luhmann suggests, art “seizes consciousness at the level of its own externalising activity” (Luhmann, p.141, 2000), and in doing so “relaxes the structural coupling of consciousness and communication” (Luhmann, p.141, 2000).  

When ‘participatory’ art amounts to no more than a transformation between consensus and resistance, it fails to elucidate the potential beyond this limited, known path. Likewise, an artistic narrative that portrays true or effective participation in a consensual manner - in essence, by looking like participation - is no better than the fodder of didactic displays and slot machines: push the button to elicit the pre-given outcome. It reduces both potentiality and autonomy.  Not only does this present a patronising and fanciful, imposed narrative - that truly involved participants will participate in the correct, pre-determined manner - but, as with Small’s rituals, its inherent inflexibility actually excludes those for whom participation might manifest in other ways. This is the very heart of transformation as a resistance to the status quo - it assumes, above all else, the moral superiority of resistance over what is being resisted, and of the methods of resistance as superior to all other modes of engagement[x].   The relation that participatory art seeks to enter into is that of a world in which every agent has equal control in the outcome. This can only be achieved by making outcome itself relational, conditional of the complex arrangement of signification that is born of the creative act. 

[i] Walking is a type of writing, in so far as it is a line that constructs meaning as it goes along. However, as with the verbal emphasis of being highlighted by Nancy and Levinas, walking is an active state, hence the distinction between walking and travelling.
[ii] The same approach can be found in Young’s composition 60 (1960), trio for strings (1958), and even well-tuned piano (1964–present) - a work that grows with each new performance, always expanding on its previous state.
[iii] There is a certain symmetry here of which I was unaware at the time. This,  one of my first interventions, shows some general similarities to Bill Drummond’s The 17 (2008), a fact I would only discover while undertaking my final intervention. Drummond, like me, uses the act of drawing circles on maps to delineate his performance area.
[iv] Whilst there is a clear instruction to A Blade of Grass… and A Walk Along…, it is deliberately reductive, allowing the autonomously conducted act of walking to destabilise the objectivity of external stimuli as it is encountered by the individual, without pre-empting what those objects might mean, or what their context might be. Neither work denotes a particular path, and its objects - parks, circles, maps, distances – though generalised concepts, are specific to the area inhabited by the participant.
[v] Appendix I: Abandoned Trails, Mall Choreography video (usb)
[vi] This work was conducted in two other environments - an art gallery holding a ‘Fluxus’ evening, and a night club. In the former, the crowd, due to the nature of the event, were fully expecting such an intervention and many refused to even take a card. Those who did often made a show of not playing along. In the night club, the response was even more hostile, with a table of young male patrons attempting to fight me for daring to provide them with such a stimulus.
[vii] Appendix I: Abandoned Trails, soundwalk for a lonely city audio/photographs (usb)
[viii] Appendix I: Abandoned Trails, Momo photographs (usb)
[ix] Indeed, to view the spectator as a thing at all is to both assume and enforce incapacity. It is firstly to assume that something about the nature of a spectator renders them incapable of self-transformation, that they do not alter over time and that they must instead be transformed by the work of the artist. Secondly, it is to objectify them as ‘a spectator’, rather than a unique individual who is actively participating in some manner that is not immediately outwardly visible. It is these oppositions - actor, spectator, artist, participant - that, rather than delineating concrete states, instead “define a distribution of the sensible, an a priori distribution of the positions and capacities and incapacities attached to those positions. They are embodied allegories of inequality” (Rancière, p.12, 2009).
[x] The dogmatic view of artistic resistance is a fairly popular theme, particularly among Marxist theorists. Augusto Boal, among others, considers theatre as initially “people singing in the open air… performance was created by and for the people” (Boal, 2000), only later corrupted by the division of actors and spectators, protagonists and choruses, so imposed to more “efficiently reflect the dominant ideology” of the aristocracy. The function of participation in Boal’s art is to free the masses from the clutches of the aristocracy, to return to them their voices.
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