Walking as Art
The path shimmers from a light shower that has fallen just before sunset. Sandstone buildings and cobblestone paths glitter in gold and silver. There’s the briny smell of the sea lapping against the sandstone shore just streets away and the wet lick of the recently passed storm on my cheeks. I walk on, comfortable in my pace, but slightly perplexed because I’m navigating a warren of Victorian-era streets by holding an iPad up in front of me, the street I’m walking on appears on the screen, same buildings, same signs, same lighting, but the street on the tablet is dry. I keep walking, my movement in perfect time with the parallel moving image on the screen, but there’s an eerie sense of separation, part of me trusting what I see on the small screen, another element attached to the redolent, three-dimensional world moving and breathing around me. My steps lose their consistency; my body not quite trusting what my mind is interpreting. It’s as if I’m separating and generating multiple views of myself and the world around me.
A voice comes through the headphones attached to the iPad. ‘Keep walking and take the first left.’ It’s a quiet measured female voice, perfectly pitched to place my trust in. I turn down a dimly lit alley and a crowd of people flow towards me. One after the other they pass me by, men, women all of them silent, none of them looking at me. Some kind of zombie walk, and yet I’m untouched, dozens have moved past but there was no physical contact.
I shake myself and lower the iPad. Before me is the same alley, but it’s deserted and well lit and yet there’s something there lingering, a physical memory of what had been on the screen or a wisp of what had actually happened in that laneway in the not too distant past.
I hold the tablet up again, the crowd has gone, the voice in my ears is talking to me, telling me a story in that motherly way that makes me want to hear more.
And so it goes for an hour as I pace around the historic Rocks neighbourhood of Sydney listening and watching a site-specific video art installation created for the 2014 Biennale of Sydney. The artists behind the work, titled The City of Forking Paths, are Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller who over the past twenty years have become well known for their audio and video walks.
It started in 1991 when Cardiff was on a residency at the Banff Centre in Canada. She was walking in the pine forest around the campus while experimenting with voice recordings on a Sony Walkman, she said of that first walk, ‘I heard the sound of my body while walking, my voice describing what was in front of me and also my breathing. I began to walk with my virtual body. It was one of those aha experiences (Schaub, 2005, p.79).’ She continued,
‘the work really inspired me and changed my thinking about art. Probably only 10 people heard it at the time, but it was the prototype for all the walks that followed.’ (JanetCardiffGeorgesBuresMiller(a))
What is important for this thesis is that Cardiff conceived of that original narrated walk as art, there was something in the combination of walking and storytelling and the effect on her perception that spoke to her creative and aesthetic sensibilities.
In 1996 she took the concept further by producing a site-specific audio walk at the Louisiana Art Museum in Denmark. Bruce Ferguson was the curator of the exhibition Walking and Thinking and Walking that incorporated that work, he said, ‘The walk was an exercise in trust between the artist and the participants, who never knew where they were being led or even why, and it enacted an active and engaged attitude in the audience and their relationship to art.’ (JanetCardiffGeorgesBuresMiller(b))
Cardiff had created a new form of walking art, one in which the artist and the participant entered a deeper state of immersion than in more ‘static’ forms such as Richard Long or Hamish Fulton’s photo and text works. Curator and artist Michael Collier has described it well,
‘Characteristically her narratives combine fictions with descriptions of the actual landscape so that the status of both fact and fiction are thrown into doubt. Knowledge is temporarily reordered. Cardiff’s walks ask us to ponder ‘who is speaking to you? Where does reality end and what’s imagined begins?’ (Collier, Morrison-Bell, 2013, p. 42)
There is something in the real time integration of walking with Cardiff’s signature narration that produces alternate but believable realities for the participant. Curator Daniela Zyman has said,
The space unfolds through the act of walking, just as a story unfolds in the process of narration. It is a dualistic experience that takes place on two intertwined levels of the body’s movement in space and the continuity of the narrative form (Schaub, 2005, p.11).’
Walking and storytelling have the ability to take us into new realities, what Cardiff and Miller are doing is what many artists aspire to – creating alternate points of view for the audience.
But with Cardiff and Miller’s work we are compelled to be active in the manufacture of those realities, and this physical and mental engagement deepens our connection, and sometimes confusion, with the works. As Cardiff has said, ‘One step after another, one foot moving into the future, one caught in the past… it’s like our bodies are caught in the middle. The hard part is staying present. Really being here (Schaub, 2005, p.75).’
In the mid 1990s Cardiff and Miller began adding a video component to their narrated walks. First they used small pre-recorded video cameras but with advances in technology they now utilize GPS-enabled tablet computers or smart phones to display the highly choreographed performances they spend weeks or months crafting and filming in the locations where the narrated walks take place. Commentators have described this effect as ‘physical cinema’ (Schaub, 2005, p.14) and by incorporating the visual with the participant’s audio awareness and proprioceptive understanding of the space the work becomes deeply integrated into the participant’s psyche, curator Miriam Schaub has commented
The speed of walking is particularly appropriate since it allows the participant to perceive the changes in the surroundings and react to new stimuli. The gait is pre-synchronized with the senses. While walking everything is moving yet nothing is out of control (Schaub, 2005, p.74)
Janet Cardiff admits she uses walking to create different psychological effects in the works, ‘One thing I try to do is slow the walker down so that it becomes the speed of a thinking walker. If I want to increase the tension I increase the speed of the gait (Schaub, 2005, p.74).’
The effect is, as I discovered on The City of Forking Paths walk, disconcerting. Cardiff and Miller are using two of our most fundamental forms of cognition, stories and walking, to alter our understanding of the world. John Weber of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has talked about how,
Cardiff ’s work succeeds precisely in doing what much art claims to offer but fails to deliver: a view into another’s brain and body – a way to see, hear, and seemingly feel (through the motion of the body in space) another person’s reality. (JanetCardiffGeorgesBuresMiller(c))
These works don’t just operate as an insight into Cardiff’s own realities instead they become deeply personal narratives because the participant unconsciously inserts their own experience and memories into the piece. As everyone has a personal view on Henry Moore’s sculpture or Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings, the participants in a Cardiff-Miller walk bring their histories and prejudices with them and apply those to the audio-visual drama over the course of the event. By being physically and mentally active in the artwork the audience is complicit in its creation. As the curator Carolyn Christov Bakargiev has said,
Cardiff’s walks heighten our awareness of the way we always alter our environments with our feelings as we traverse them. Our memories constantly enter into our perception of the here and now (Schaub, 2005, p. 271).
We alter our environments and our environments alter us, and it’s through the movement across those landscapes that change takes place. Walking is the active element in so many transformations, human motion changes our perception, it takes us to new places, physically, mentally and psychologically and lets us view and review reality from multiple perspectives.
The Romantics understood that walking was a way to touch the sublime, for humanity to regain its truest self in the face of the industrial revolution’s overwhelming change. Muybridge showed that the dissecting of human motion could alter our understanding of ourselves and how we existed in the world. For minimalist land artists like Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, walking was the transcendent medium that took them to higher states of consciousness and like extra-planetary explorers they returned from their cerebral and geographical expeditions with evidence of their bipedal realizations in the form of rocks and mud, photographs and runic words. Fulton was the first artist to focus his practice fully on the experience of the walk, but all of their sculptural work led back to one place the intersection of walking and stories because Fulton and Long could sense the depth of relationship between the human narrative and self-propelled motion. And for Cardiff and Miller walking is again a medium that can take us to places we have never imagined, but for them the experience of the walk evolves on multiple sensory planes simultaneously and their journeys are personalized through the participant’s active engagement and interpretation of the artwork. That multi-layered relationship means that Cardiff and Miller’s work has the tendency to linger with us long after the device has been turned off. As the curator Markus Landert of the Kunstmuseum des Kantons Thurgau has said,
‘even after I have handed back the CD player at the desk, the world around me retains at least a trace of dreaminess and unreality following my walk through the monastery. I am left with an idea of the fragility and illusoriness of what we usually call reality, and an understanding of the power of the imagination.’ (JanetCardiffGeorgesBuresMiller(d))
The Romantics rambling into the divine, Muybridge deconstructing humankind’s four million-year association with walking, Fulton and Long using walking to transcend the everyday and Cardiff and Miller immersing their audience in two elemental strands of human evolution, walking and storytelling – all of these artists expose us to the ‘fragility and illusoriness of… reality’, and through the truth of our experiences with that art we better understand our place in the world.
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