Walking through the Pandemic
My daily walk has become a link to sanity during pandemic stay-at-home orders and a very real source of well-being in my life. I’m walking in Ohio but I hear the same from friends in Puerto Rico, Colorado, California, Germany and wherever walking is possible. I also hear from friends in New York City and Buenos Aires that it is not so possible. But if we can, many of us are walking more now than ever. I feel grateful for the movement and freedom to move. I live near several small forest-preserves running along natural ravines (tributaries? drainage ditches?) of water making its way down to the Olentangy River that runs through Columbus. The ravines give us the gift of green space and birdsong and a bit of wildness. It is easy to social distance there because they are mostly unused by cars so we walkers just drift to one side or another away from each other with the gap of the road between us.
Sometimes I walk in silence but more often I find myself listening to an audio book or podcast or on a call with a friend. Through the headphones, the intimacy of a voice in my ear gives me a sense of connection that is vitally important right now. I sometimes enter the world of fitness walks with audio trainers spurring me on and this has re-ignited a long-standing desire to create my own audio walks for others to experience. I’d love to make a fitness walk with good music and more thoughtful forms of inspiration than the canned sound and platitudes they more often include. I want to hear from other artists I admire about what they are thinking, how their landscapes come into focus for them, what their ideas are as they wander or as they direct my wanderings. While this is not a new obsession for me, it has become increasingly urgent and feels vital in new ways at this moment on the planet.
I am inspired by my long interest in peripatetic writers and writing on wandering. I’m an avid arm-chair reader on the subject from Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful 2001 meditation on the “Wanderlust” to the musings of Thoreau Benjamin and the many Situationists, flaneurs and peripatetic writers of past centuries who walked as a means of resisting and responding to the shock of commodity culture and capitalist drives.
The binaural audio walks of feminist visual artist Janet Cardiff are among my most treasured artistic references that awaken us to our lived environments.
Cardiff describes her walks as:
“similar to that of an audioguide…you hear my voice giving directions, like “turn left here” or “go through this gateway”, layered on a background of sounds: the sound of my footsteps, traffic, birds, and miscellaneous sound effects that have been pre-recorded on the same site as they are being heard. This is the important part of the recording. The virtual recorded soundscape has to mimic the real physical one in order to create a new world as a seamless combination of the two. My voice gives directions but also relates thoughts and narrative elements sound.”
And there are so many others.
Fellow dancer Becca Wood describes her own fascination with walking and artwork in this genre (can we call it a genre?) as:
“social choreographies for the ears.” She creates “participatory headphonic events that target a return to listening, sensory attunement and respons(able) encounter. I use the term choreoauratics for this creative research, arguing for audio walks as critical spatial practices. Choreoauratic test-events intervene in public spaces, working poetically towards a recovery of the imperceptible and the disappearing. Performing in the margins, the practice orchestrates an emergent form of public activism.”
UK artist collective Blast Theory’s entire body of work stands out as exemplary in this territory (check out the prescient “Can You See Me Now?” and “Rider Spoke” for a couple of my favorites) as does the Tactical Media movement and the resulting silent discos aka Radio Ballets produced in Amsterdam by DeBalie in the early part of this century. I remember participating in a Radio Ballet in 2004 that had me wandering alone and contemplating along the canals, then suddenly standing with several others on tables outside the Van Gogh museum and eventually dancing in the streets outside the shops on Leidseplein. The fun of a radio ballet, not unlike a silent disco, is the simultanaeity of it, the return to broadcast cultures in a streaming world of individual experiences and timings. While in France I met artists from the #WalkAcademy at the Centre National D’Arts et de Cultures in Grenoble all of whom were making and sharing walks as meditations on migration, protest and climate change. The slow walks of Israeli artist Ohad Fishof are poignant reminders of the power in simplicity.
In all my classes I always have a day where students do a “notice what you notice” walk in which they move through a landscape in pairs following the nature of their own attention. This is an idea I learned from dance improviser Simone Forti who probably adapted it from a Buddhist practice of some kind. More recently the Dokumenta Festival advertised performative guided tours for their exhibitions that would disrupt and reframe our experience of the artworks. Calling the tours “walks,” they advertised them with the following evocative passage:
“Paths, routes, and parcours cross and intertwine, as visitors consider the pathways taken by peripatetic thinkers as a point of departure for a reflection on the act of walking. Joining a member of the documenta 14 Chorus, visitors can create their own lines of inquiry, questioning and entering into dialogue as they unravel and unfold documenta 14 together. Historically, the chorus of Greek tragic theater was made up of nonprofessionals and citizens who served as commentators, shape-shifters, and empathizers between the audience and the actors. The Chorus for documenta 14, meanwhile, enacts a multiplicity of roles with visitors to the exhibition, drawing out broader perspectives related to the sociopolitical and geographical contexts of the documenta 14 project. Visitors thus become contributors to the life of documenta 14—negotiating routes and responses to artworks alongside one another. The documenta 14 Chorus creates a chorality that continues to resonate with mythologies, stories, debates, and rumors beyond the realm of the exhibition.”
Sadly the actual experience turned about to be just a bit more interactive than those tours usually are (we had a discussion for and were asked questions) but the performative potential of the idea lay dormant like a seed just waiting to be watered.
The time is now. I’m finally ready to make and share my own audio experiences for the moment at hand and I want to hear, gather and share more of them made by all of you. I want to support the creation of audio walks and movement experiences that center both human and more-than-human life and deeply consider race, gender and ability.
So here it is, my call for walks for #livablefutures..
Using an Allied Technology approach, let’s decolonize our bodies and rethink divisive crisis-orientations in favor of creative, critical actions for health and ecological justice. Let’s make audio experiences that rethink divisive crisis-orientations in favor of creative, critical actions for health and ecological justice. I’m calling all walkers, movers, podcast listeners and headphone dancers. Let’s create and share audio walks and other binaural choreographic interventions. How can movement inspired through audio cues bring the world into focus for us in new and powerful ways that are needed on the planet today? What if we consider an audio experience a form of virtual reality? Are we creating alternative futures? Connecting our communities and landscapes to each other? Making a space for fun? What about a transformative, poetic, disruptive guided tour? A fitness walk that not only gets us moving but soothes fear or inspires love? Broadcast or podcast? Guide, disrupt, invite, instruct, direct, heal? Walking for protest or poetry; in cities, ravines, forests, strip malls, or backyards; in shoes or barefoot; slow walks, silent walks, dawn walks, blind walks, power walks; political protests and marches (adhering to social distancing of course); directed or loitering, purposeful or itinerant; reflective, meditative, wandering, roaming; going somewhere or getting lost; individual or collective; telling a story, a history or discovering the present, planting possible futures. Don't work too hard. Less prep, more presence as Adrienne Maree Brown says.
The emphasis here is on visionary practices focusing on integrating existing skills, materials and forms of labor with building new perspectives, fostering recovery, and centering equity and inclusion. Be well.