Walking Publics/Walking Arts is a research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council exploring the potential of the arts to sustain, encourage and more equitably support walking during and recovering from a pandemic.
A broad selection of artworks about walking and art during the pandemic. Plenty to delve into on a rainy day – see how artists responded to the questions below.
1. How and with what impact have artists used, adapted and evolved walking as a creative tool in response to COVID-19 restrictions?
2. How can learning from their expertise and innovations be applied more widely to support more people to walk well, in and out of a pandemic?
I submitted my film As Above So Below, which was selected for Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize 2020 and was made during the pandemic.
As Above So Below is a brief foray into multiple-angled shots, using a range of processes simultaneously. The set-up was carefully planned and orchestrated, the weather clement and my focus good. And I don’t mean on my cameras, I mean in my mind.
During lockdown my capacity to give genuine attention was limited. My brain was like a butterfly, flitting about, landing, settling for a while, then off again. I walked to the location time and time again. I sat on the swing, listened, watched and assimilated what I saw, smelt, felt and heard. I gathered various cameras – a 360-degree camera, iPad for animation, video cam for the view.
My walking body became another lens, of sorts. A sensor.
The split-frame film reflects my wandering thoughts, the narration edits as it goes.
Those of you who know my work well will be very aware of my interest in the River Severn.
This autumn I am crossing over to the other side, to carry on conversations already begun with like-minded river lovers. First to open is at The Old Passage in Arlingham. Recently taken on by new people, it is continuing a tradition begun by the previous owner – to show and sell work by artists, curated by artist/curator/walker Kel Portman. Kel has been overseeing these shows for many years and always ensures there is support not only for the artists, but for local charities too. 10% of every sale is shared between St Rose’s Special School in Stroud and the Severn Area Rescue Association, so any sale can make a positive difference to the lives of others.
SORRY SEVERN WORLDING HAS BEEN CANCELLED. THANKS COVID
Next up is a film screening in Bridport Art Centre on Wednesday November 3rd at 7pm. I shall be there to engage in the conversations about the films in relation to the themes below. Be sure to book a place as it is likely to be very popular.
Curated by Patricia Brien, expect work there to have something to say about COP26. My work will include a premier showing in a gallery of Bev ‘D’ – a poetic study or routine dredging, last done twenty years ago. A provocation the unavoidably makes us consider how much the area may be flooded next time the dredgers are brought in. Just in case you think this may be scaremongering, checkout the projected heights for 2040 – you may be as alarmed as I am. And it may help you to understand it more when you can see what it will be like near where you live.
We’re planning a Sunday Brunch conversation about environmental challenges – date to be confirmed soon. As will names of all the artists participating.
and I must mention here that at Cosmo Sheldrake is playing at the Goods Shed in Stroud on 29th October. Now I have safely secured MY tickets, you may want to get your own!
Whilst sorting out my films yesterday I played “A Star on the Horizon” (below, you may like to watch it first before reading the rest), and considered what it was saying September 2020, and what it means now. It is beyond comprehension that almost a year ago today I had hoped that Covid would stop spreading. One year later, whilst no longer in lockdown, there are still so many unknowns.
Most of the films I made during lockdown were melancholic, and it could be said they continue to be so. This particular one raises my awareness of my inclination to be an optimist. I still am, despite what we have gone through. It is what gets me through these slippery times.
When I made the film I had hope about the pandemic ending soon. Yesterday, when I wiped my storage drive with most of my films on, I was conscious that, though I did actually stop breathing for a split second, I also felt pragmatic. Maybe Covid has taught me that – or maybe it is simply age and maturity? Many years ago, in 2000, a lot of my studio equipment was stolen, including my computer, back up drive and video camera. At the time I was doing my MA in Fine Art and I used philosophical thinking to drag me out from the pit of despair at the loss. You can read Virtual Lobotomy here. Digital media does not exist, in physical terms, it is merely data, so nothing was lost.
That was in 2000, 6 years before my marriage broke up irretrievably . A bit like my hard drive. The words in the essay now have a different resonance, they could apply to the moment I left our family home;
I will get a new extension, but will have to learn all over again how to use it, to make it comfortable to be with. But I will never regain those feelings I experienced with the last one, the nerve endings have been cauterised. New nerves will grow, maybe even stronger than the first. I hope so.
Now things are different. I certainly did develop new extensions, grew new nerves, became stronger, and survived to tell the tale. And maybe this film of hope is part of the process of coming to terms with one’s responsibility in the world?
However, there’s a twist in the tale, because since Covid first hit, we have become a world obsessed with data. Statistics of infections, deaths and vaccinations have taken over our lives. We are increasingly aware of our mortality, of the fact we, in our minds, believe people are more than a statistic. So, whilst data is important, in actual fact, our existence has taken centre stage. And onto that stage climate change and environmental fragility feels more painful, more urgent, even more urgent than us. Well to some people it does. Sadly not to all politicians. More statistics flood in – rising sea levels, temperatures, extinctions.
Like the pandemic, this is a major issue that requires collaboration, working together, socialism. Yet capitalism still holds the reins, pulls the strings of all the important decisions. Neither the planet, nor us, have little value when it comes to economics.
So now I am focusing on a new body of work – one that reflects on where the human race is now and our prospects of a future. It may be even more important that I switch on the hope button, because accepting that the damage we have done to the planet is not reversible is challenging. But we must persevere.
This weekend the wonderful b-side a festival is on all weekend. Loads of brilliant work to see in one of my favourite landscapes. Sadly I can’t go – but if you do – can you send me some pics of my film being screened please?
It is 12 Circular Walks, part of the Harvest selection showing in the cinema opposite b-side office on Portland.
I’ve been reworking the graphite shadow-drawings of stones, by polishing with cloth, erasing and redefining. I placed the first darker image above the 2nd, the solid rocks of the cliff perpendicular to the ground, where fragments fall. I used the first image to inform the process of drawing into the 2nd – giving it more presence – in an attempt to reconstruct the crumbled elements. Stippled pigment activated with a wet brush, to simulate the marks made on the first drawing.
A strange combination, but they have been on my mind. And not so strange if I explain that last week, the First Friday Walk with Walking the Land, was to a butterfly conservation area.
I set off with the intention of looking at the boundaries, how we separate one place from another. How we protect the area that is bounded, defend it, or, indeed as all wars prove, attack it. Any conservation area begins and ends somewhere, as does every garden, field, village, town, county or country. Planet. Let us not forget this planet.
Or who ‘owns’ it.
Not us, or landowners, or governments.
No-one owns it.
We are part of it, it is part of us.
The very nature of the place, (forgive the pun), meant I was also distracted by the beautiful butterflies and wildflowers. I have a butterfly mind – just like the insects. I flutter about – looking for ideas, landing then taking off again on another flight path.
It is so hard to write anything without considering the etymology of the words. But essentially they are spring-boards into new thinking, new worlds. I must not muddle up my metaphors (that is a deliberate statement – an action that demonstrates I have already done what I must not do.)
Stay with me, play with me, if you can.
This writing is a reflection of thinking practice. It needs some context. Walking the Land is a group of artists that connects art, landscape and community, with the landscape and walking providing the catalyst for their creative activities. I’ve been attending their monthly meetups online, this was my first in the flesh. Before meeting we congregated on zoom to discuss issues relating to landscape. I shared a quote from Tania Kovats ‘the river moves through us’. I took that thought with me to the butterfly enclosure.
I also took drawing materials, which were hardly used – there was so much buzzing around in my head. I used my camera to net some of those thoughts. I have spent the last year walking, mostly on the flatlands around the Severn. The open fields and rolling Cotswolds were strange to me. Allowing my eye to trace the soft rounded hillsides sweeping into the valley, with a backdrop of woodlands, I was reminded of a series of photos I took when I first came to live in the Forest of Dean. I called them my squiffy landscapes, as they adjusted the framing to help me feel stable in this strange place. So I did the same again, I tried to level up what I saw.
For the butterflies to take up residence the land is managed carefully. The meadows are beautiful, thick with diverse plant life. They are only grazed by small cattle – banded galloways – because they are agile enough to manage the steep slopes, and don’t poo as much as full size cows. Apparently too much poo encourages the limestone grassland to become suitably fertile for weeds to grow in. That would impact on the necessary species required to appeal to the butterflies. This is a complex ecology, a fine balance of maintenance.
On one side of the valley, the rolling meadow was animated by bees and butterflies. One the other side a steep bank of trees was seen, scarred by a massive band of ash trees, devastated by die-back. One hill is joyful, the other deeply sad to see. The view from ‘over there’ must be wonderful.
Other sides. Another thing that has occupied my thinking in recent years.
I crossed a boundary, the Severn, to get to the meadow. I entered the conservation area through a gate. Either side of the gate was a drystone wall, recently built. Once inside, that length of boundary has two wire fences. In the liminal space between them, I saw remnants of the old stone wall. We followed the path along this line, then down towards the edge of the hill to take in the view.
As I wandered around taking photos I acknowledged my physical boundaries were being penetrated. The heavy scent of the ripe elderflowers rushed into my body and I inhaled deeply. However, I ejected a horsefly, caught in action on my wrist, flicking it off, glad to have not been gashed by it. But these devious creatures always win, as I found out later. Two big hot red bumps on my shoulder, where they slashed my skin (through my clothes!) and drew my blood. Odd to think our blood has mingled. I can’t help wondering whether the two jabs will make me immune to further horsefly bites. The insect repellent I had doused myself certainly didn’t defend me.
This was evidence – the place had definitely gone through me, in a way.
As I wandered back to the car, having left early due to the copious number of biting things, I used my voice recorder to talk to myself. I love telling the story by voice, it helps me process what I have. I videoed and talked too, only pausing briefly when a man with a dog appeared. I try to keep my rambling thoughts private, if possible.
On reflection, it was a very enjoyable experience. Lovely to see friends again, in the world. To discuss these thoughts with, to share reading resources, knowledge. We were very lucky to have Deb, a butterfly specialist, in the group, which is how I learnt about the grazing and maintenance of the landscape. I asked her if the owners of the adjoining farmland were asked to not use insecticides, but she said not.
I drove home thinking about Nick Hayes’ book about trespassing. About land ownership, land management. I thought about the precarious relationships between humans and non-humans. As I mentioned in my blackbird post – we humans have a colonial attitude to non-humans. But we are not better than them – we are, indeed, worse – because we have done more damage to the planet.
If the conservation area was publicly visible it would be destroyed in no time by humans marching around on it. I felt reluctant to stray from the narrow path, loathe to sit in the grass, in case I crushed a flower. Everything is fragile, especially us. We need to be more humble and accept responsibility. Not just for a field of butterflies, but for all fields, all forests and things that grow in cracks of concrete.
There is always a gap of a few days before I assimilate things.
Once home, I waded through memories, thoughts, photos and videos. They are the residue of my visit. I trapped my butterfly mind in a film that reflects on whether there are straight lines in nature. I have just started to read Tim Ingold’s book about lines – not finding it easy to get into. However, as the film shows, it has reactivated my interest in following lines with dual lenses, my eyes and my camera. Editing digital video is a linear thing, clearly not a thing of nature. As I worked up the imagery I found myself not so much investigating whether there are lines in nature, but more as to whether there is such a thing as nature? Or is it a construct? Every inch of our landscape is managed, whether by enclosure, farming, industry or conservation.
The nature we experience daily is a long way from being natural. The creatures and plants we experience have all been impacted by our presence on earth, sometimes positively, sometimes (most times) negatively.
Look carefully at the film, some of it has been deliberately manipulated to create an illusion of straightness.
Whether man made or natural, our landscape, and the things that live in it, are wonderful. The only way to keep it that way is if every human respects it and shares it. We put everything out of balance, we now need to rectify things, make good again.
p.s. I disagree that there are no straight lines in nature – you just need to look at cliffs and strata to see that.
I seem to have built up a relationship with a blackbird. I didn’t consciously set out to do so. But maybe subconsciously I did.
A few years ago I had a cat, Theo, who was from a rehoming place. He was semi-wild and mostly wanted feeding regularly, slept most of the day and hunted at night. He did come for cuddles and the nights he didn’t venture out I would wake up to find him asleep on my back. He was with me for less than a year before being hit by a car. I vowed not to get another cat while in this house. In all fairness to Theo, he had to go to the road side of my house because the neighbours’ big ginger tom cat ruled the back garden.
About two years ago I succumbed to the fact that really, I’d like a dog. I have always had dogs living with me. Born into a house with one, throughout my child-rearing days I had two cats, two dogs and two kids. I have always joked that my mother, when calling my sister, brother and I used to shout “Stephen, Susan, Sarah (dog), Whisky (cat) and (finally), Carolyn – come here!”
I don’t think I did that to my kids, they always came first, both of them. But the animals were never far behind.
Come the pandemic I have been unable to find a dog companion. The fence I was having put up just before March 2020 was delayed for a year. Now that is done, dog prices have gone sky high. They are being stolen from gardens, imported from far and wide and bred unscrupulously. I look patiently and hopefully at the dog homes, Facebook pages and other sources. I am morally confused by the worry that I may be taking a stolen dog, one from a puppy farm or imported for profit. And my house is small, very small, I need a suitably small dog, but not so small it has bladder control problems.
Enter Blackbird. I have not fed garden birds much before, mostly due to not wishing to serve them up to the ginger tom cat. Or my ex-cat, who was big on birding and ratting. Feeders tended to be unvisited and subsequently emptied of mouldy food, washed, and put away. But this year is different, partly because I travel far less, so I can top up feeders regularly. And that includes throwing handfuls of mealworms out for the ground feeders.
The regular feeding brought regular visitors, including adult birds with families. Blackbird was amongst them. She has mild albinism, which apparently can result in the others victimising them. She is smaller than the other females, less fluffy, and always looks a bit scratty. But I soon became aware she is very cheeky. Frequently I would hear one ‘peep’ and would look down to find her nearby. Not at all scared by me, unless I moved suddenly. I made sure she got a fair grab of food and gradually began to protect her from the aggression from other birds. They flew off as soon as I moved, but she took no notice of me. Apart from, I am sure, a little nod of her head and eye contact as she showed her appreciation.
It wasn’t long before she began to appear on the wall every morning when I got up, announcing her arrival with a loud fluttering of wings followed by her loud peep and a perky cocked head. When I leave the garden door open she nonchalantly hops up the step and comes looking for me. If I tell her to get out, she poos on the floor. I am not impressed by this. She is, I think, expressing her contempt at being ignored. Like a bolchy teenager. Note – no, my children didn’t do that, in case you were wondering.
So, finally, I shall tell you why this story is relevant to my art practice.
Wind back about three years, when I acquired a 360 degree camera. I explored ways of working with it and one output was a series of walks made circular using special software. A selection came together as a film: 12 Circular Walks.
I could have used the 360 to make immersive environments, but soon realised that wasn’t for me. Whilst I enjoy that experience, I much prefer the real world and being in it.
As Blackbird now trusts me, it wasn’t difficult to bribe her to do a circular walk for me, by placing the camera in the centre of a ring of food. The challenge was keeping the others away and preventing territorial fighting, in case they knocked over the camera. At one point, as I watched, the feeding birds all froze and looked up to see a huge dove about to launch off the wall. Whilst it momentarily occurred to me it would make great footage, it occurred to me simultaneously that if that dove flew down it could break my camera with one beat of a wing. So I intervened to save the day. And my camera.
Blackbird and I are rehearsing regularly now. I joked about me training her to walk in circles, but the truth is, I suspect she is training me to feed her. And she has done it very well.
It is so easy to slip into the humans-are-all-seeing-all-knowing perspective, proposing that non-humans, by their definition, are lacking what we have. But maybe it is us that is lacking? Maybe humans should be described as non-animal? But that wouldn’t work, as being ‘animal-like’ is used as a derogatory term. We need to rethink this, I’m not convinced we are worthy of holding dominance over other creatures, or, indeed, material objects. Look at the mess we have made so far.
A plump fledgling sometimes joins Blackbird and is equally unphased by me. I wonder if this is a risk, that her young might become dangerously fearless of humans? As they need to be. We are a perpetual danger to ourselves and others.
I have looked up how to hand train wild birds. I don’t feel that is wise. Being wild is important. Whilst researching blackbirds I discovered that in America keeping wild american birds in captivity is illegal. But they can keep european birds, including blackbirds as caged pets.
I feel privileged to have this trust from her, but don’t want to damage her by making her dependent on me. But she is very hard to ignore now!
Getting a balance between the human relationship with the non-human is a tricky thing.