The Artistic Medium of Walking (In Defence of Medium Specificity) | BLAKE MORRIS

 

Introduction

Since the early 2000s there has been increased interest in walking as both practice and subject—something cultural geographer Hayden Lorimer (2011, p. 19) has identified as a ‘new “walking studies”’. Despite this there has not been a sustained examination of walking as an artistic medium; scholars, curators, programmers and artists who discuss the medium of walking consistently depend on critical tools developed for other artistic disciplines. The proliferation of artists working in the medium of walking, however, and the development of networks to support them, evidences the necessity for a specific critical language focused on the way artists frame walking as an aesthetic experience.

Medium specificity is not particularly fashionable. Mired down by the monolithic legacy of Clement Greenberg, it has been replaced by words such as performance, installation, live-art, site-specific (based, adapative, etc.). These words are often applied to discussion of artistic works that involve walking. Striding as it does between various disciplines, artistic walking is prone to generalities and critical discussions conflate artistic works that use walking as a process or technique, with those that make walking their medium. Indeed, artistic walking practices are almost always discussed as performance (Solnit, 2000, p. 269; Sotelo, 2010, p. 62; Sullivan, 2015, p. 83; Qualmann, 2016, p. 1), or in terms of what is produced in other media after the walk (Sotelo, 2010, p. 60; Lorimer, 2011, p. 26; Aitchison, 2014). In contrast, I argue that the properties of going for a walk constitute an artistic experience distinct from that of encountering a walk represented in another medium, such as performance, sculpture, painting, video, installation, or writing.

Artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton are the starting point for many discussions of walking art. Lorimer (op. cit., p. 26, emphasis in original) identifies them as ‘jointly responsible’ for promoting ‘the walk as an artistic medium’, while Rebecca Solnit (2000, p. 270) argues that Long is the ‘contemporary artist most dedicated to exploring walking as an art medium’. Together they have established a specific form of walking art in which individuals engage in epic treks and create tangible (and saleable) art works for display in gallery settings. Despite their reputations as ‘the archetypal “walking artists” (Pope, 2014, p. 16), their work primarily represents the experience of walking through other media.

Following the template they established, the notion that walking art consists in objects or documents created in response to a walk remains prevalent. In an essay commissioned for The Walking Encyclopaedia (2014), an exhibition at Airspace Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent, artist Bill Aitchison (2014) argues walking has ‘become a medium in itself’; regardless, he identifies walking artists’ primary work as ‘the creation and documentation of walks’ (ibid., emphasis added). Claudia Zeiske (2013, p. 13), founder of Deveron Projects and the Walking Institute, the only organisation in the UK dedicated to commissioning artists to make walks, notes that walking artists often ‘translate their experience through other mediums [sic] such as sculpture, photography, or text based works.’ The focus on documentation moves the encounter of an artwork from the experience of the walking body to the representation of someone else’s experience of walking. It also situates the discussion of walking works within critical vocabularies attached to what is produced after the walk.

That is not to say curators have ignored the notion of the walk itself as a work of art. Anthropologist Tim Ingold (2013, p. 1) sets up a distinction between ‘“walking as art, and “art walks” themselves’. In the first category are the sculptures of Long, the text-works of Fulton and the video-art of Francis Alÿs; the second, smaller category, consists of the audio-walks of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, or Fulton’s participatory slow walks. [1] ‘Art walks’, however, are generally discussed in relation to performance. Solnit (2000, p. 269), for instance, discusses the walking body as ‘a medium for performances’, citing Abramović and Ulay’s Great Wall Walk (1988), Joseph Beuys’ Bog Action (1971), and the conceptual works of Stanley Brouwne, who was ‘[p]robably the first artist to have made walking into performance art’ (ibid., p. 272). In another example, Todd Shalom and Katy Colby’s Duly Noted (2015) is listed as ‘three participatory walks’ in the exhibition checklist (Sullivan, 2015, p. 83), while the catalogue discusses them as ‘a series of participatory performances’ (ibid., p. 56). Other works that ask the audience to walk, such as Hamish Fulton’s slowalks, are listed as works of ‘spectacle and durational performance’ (ibid., p. 36). While these walking works are performative, I argue performance is not the primary location of the artistic experience. As art historian Grant Kester (2004, p. 90) has discussed in relation to his category of dialogical aesthetics, these works do not ‘depend on the concept of the “performer” as the expressive locus of the work’, rather, the mode of art making is specific to the experience of going for a walk. Through defining the artistic medium of walking, I aim to clarify ambiguity around the use of the term medium in relation to walking based art, and bring direct attention to how the medium of walking generates new relationships between people, the places through which they walk and the people they encounter in the landscape (both incidentally and by design).
 

In Defence of Medium

Scholars have recently discussed medium as a way to focus critical consideration on specific works of art, rather than art in general (Krauss, 1999, p. 305; Lopes, 2014, p. 7); my research builds on this, calling on medium as a way to discuss the specific attributes of works in the medium of walking. One of the key defenders of medium has been art critic and scholar Rosalind Krauss.  According to Krauss (2011, p. 19), ‘It is only the word medium’ that conjures the recursive nature of the successful work of art’. For her, attention to medium allows the artist and the critic to 'reclaim the specific from the deadening embrace of the general' and move away from discussions of art in general, to the discussion of art works specifically (1999, p. 305). In her seminal essay ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’, she moves ‘the definition of a given medium on the grounds of material, or, for that matter, the perception of material’ to one that is based on a logic of representation (ibid., p. 43). She pushes this further in Under Blue Cup (2011), theorising medium itself as an expanded field. It is this consideration from which my framework draws.

In contrast to Greenberg, Krauss’ approach to medium is not ‘empirically tied to a physical substance’ (2011, p. 7). She emphasises ‘medium as a form of remembering’ (ibid., p. 17); it is recursive, looking back on itself through the memory of its development. In the expanded field of medium, various ‘artistic supports [ . . . ] serve as the scaffolding for a “who are you” in the collective memory of the practitioners of [a] particular genre’ (Krauss, ibid., p. 2). This insists ‘on the power of the medium to hold the efforts of the forebears of a specific genre in reserve for the present’ (ibid., p. 127). In this way, Krauss links medium to its logic of representation, as held by the collective memory of a guild of practitioners, rather than any specific material form. As Phil Smith (2013, p. 105) points out, ‘[w]hile walking artists hold many differing views about the roots of their practice, it is rare to find one who does not have some sense of their work as being part of a history of practice.’ Through a focus on the memory of the medium and a work’s logic of representation, Krauss offers a framework to unify the diverse field to which works in the medium of walking belong.
 

Walking Networks: The Development of a Medium

The walks of the Romantics, and particularly the British Romantics are often considered to establish walking as a cultural practice (Heddon and Turner, 2012, p. 225; Smith, 2015, pp. 50–61; Solnit, 2000, p. 158; Wallace, 1994, p. 15), while the practices of the LI/SI are the most consistent reference point for discussions of walking art (Careri, 2002, pp. 88–118; Smith, 2010; Hancox, 2012; O’Rourke, 2013, pp. 6–12; Wilkie, 2015, p. 20). I argue these practices bookend an historical avant-garde of walking and establish the radical memory of the medium and its position as a social/relational form. The artistic medium of walking is undergirded by this memory, which consists of the techniques and concepts of a guild of walking practitioners.

Scholars have started to map a history of walking focused on the relational, dialogic and social nature of the practice (Heddon and Turner, 2012; Pope, 2014; Smith, 2015); however, considerations of walking remain dominated by a specific type of walker: the white, able-bodied, male who drops his everyday relationships to engage in epic journeys, be these solitary rambles through remote locales, or wild urban explorations with a likeminded group (Heddon and Turner, 2012, pp. 225–6; Wilkie, 2015, pp. 20–1). The need for a new critical approach has been argued most forcefully by Deirdre Heddon and Cathy Turner (2012) in their essay 'Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility’. Heddon and Turner (2012, p. 225) call for a framework that views walking practices ‘as part of a web, rather than as a single trajectory’, and considers the local and domestic aspects of walking in relationship to the epic and remote.

One of the ways this web of practice is being established is through different networks that support artistic walking practices. The most significant in the United Kingdom is the Walking Artists Network (WAN), which ‘seeks to connect those who define themselves as walking artists – or who are interested in walking as a mode of art practice’ (Walking Artists Network, 2011). Network members come from a diverse set of artistic and academic disciplines, and WAN supports and facilitates the development of multiple strains of walking practice through a non-hierarchical, member-led approach. One of the things the network offers is an online community with which to take things offline. The digital imprint of the network is a facilitator of real world walking experiences. In this way, WAN forwards a critical and creative approach to walking through the practice of walking together, and in doing so supports the development of works in the specific medium of walking, i.e. works of art that ask you to go on a walk.

WAN is based on the premise of creating a space for the development of walking as ‘a mode of art practice’ and asks ‘how we might define walking art as a medium’ (Walking Artists Network, 2011). The role of the network is not to push a specific agenda, rather it is a space to discuss and develop artistic practices in relation to walking. As such it is a fertile ground for artists pioneering the medium of walking art, while also welcoming walkers working in variety of artistic and academic disciplines. It encompasses other networks as well, such as the Loiterer’s Resistance movement in Manchester, or the Walking Insitute at Deveron Projects. The wide variety of practices encompassed by WAN members, and the plethora of group identifications that exist within the network, illuminates the challenges of the definition of walking as an artistic medium. Members of the network do not necessarily identify as walking artists and work with a variety of artistic media. Indeed, one of the advantages of walking practice is its ability to move beyond, among and between groups, disciplines and media. I do not propose a definition of medium that encompasses the entirety of this work, rather I look to focus on work where the action of going for a walk is the central location of artistic reception. This is the walk as shared process—the art work as an invitation to walk and a specific provocation of walking. In this way, WAN provides a location from which to define walking as something that is distinct from, if entangled with, other artistic practices.
 

Conclusion

In ‘From Medium to Social Practice’ Raymond Williams (1978, p. 163) argues that new techniques are often the development of a new relationship to society, and ‘[t]he form of social relationship and the form of material production are specifically linked.’ Artists have moved to walking for a multitude of reasons, and any broad statement that ascribes intention could be combatted; that being said, the central gesture of the artistic medium of walking is the walk itself, and the desire to create direct connections between the walking body, the social and physical landscapes it traverses, and the other living beings that inhabit those landscapes.

Works in the artistic medium of walking position the act of going for a walk as the location of artistic experience. Artists design a specific walking experience that creates an exchange between the walking body, the landscape and the other bodies it encounters there (both incidentally and by design). Whether we walk alone with an artist’s work to guide us, in a one-to-one walk or with a small or large group, we are participating in a specific artistic experience that positions our walking body in relation to the landscape and the people with whom we inhabit it. The proliferation of artists working in the artistic medium of walking, and the development of networks to support them, evidences the necessity for a specific critical language focused on the way artists frame walking as an aesthetic experience. Use of the term medium in relation to artistic walking has been ambiguous, referring both to walking as a process or technique for making art, and ‘art walks’ (Ingold, 2013, p. 1), where the action of going for a walk is the art.

Following Krauss, I approach the medium of walking through its logic of representation—the practice of going for a walk—as supported by the memory of the medium. In contrast to Krauss’ focus on individual ‘“knights” of the medium’ who are defenders of specificity (Krauss, 2011, p. 32), I argue the medium of walking is made visible, developed and supported by networks of practitioners. This creates a medium defined by the way it reaches backwards, forwards and across disciplines to create new modes of practice engaged with the (mostly) universal act of walking. Artists working in the medium of walking draw on a variety of techniques in the design of their walks. Just as there are many ways a painter can apply paint to a canvas, artists approach the medium of walking through multiple disciplinary pathways, and integrate various media into their work. Walking is not a stand-alone medium, it requires interaction with other media to communicate the specific design that structures the walk. Though artists often provide these instructions verbally, or by participating in the walk, other works in the medium of walking rely on written guides, audio instructions and locative media.

The movement to walking is part of a larger movement of slow, participatory practices that reject the speed of the digitally connected global art market in favour of practices of engagement. Walking’s potential as a creative practice is in the opportunities it provides to creatively imagine the world through slow, detailed engagement with the contours of the landscape and the people with whom we inhabit it. Walking asks artists and audiences to move more slowly, and works in the artistic medium of walking often unfold over time. Many artists combine the potential of digital speed and transmission with the resolutely local and analogue practice of walking to connect local walking practices to an increasingly global world. Establishment of walking as an acknowledged artistic medium would greatly benefit the reach of the practice, and introduce it to a more general public who remains predominately unaware that this kind of work is being created. The universal application, general accessibility and array of entry points makes work in the medium of walking ideal for public engagement. In order for the public to engage, however, they must be aware of the existence of this type of work and its distinct artistic value.

The medium of walking, and the memory that supports it, is based on penetration and movement into the outside world, unlike Krauss’ argument, which looks to revive the white cube’s ‘resistance [ . . . ] to penetration’ (Krauss, 2011, p. 25). The artistic medium of walking invites participants to move through the real world in a manner designed by an artist; it engages audiences in the practice of walking, rather than just the consideration of an artist’s walking experience. It provides an experience for the walker and transforms them into a teller of tales, who receives the full counsel of the work through the walking body. The contours of walking cannot be discovered by simply reading about them, one must experience the physical and topological intrusions of the landscape on the walking body. Even when something is conceptually imposed on top of it, a walk occurs in ‘the real world with its protrusions and intrusions and textures of slipperiness or stickiness’ (Vergunst, 2008, p. 120). Ultimately, the idea is to provide more “ways to wander” and get more people engaging in artistic walks.
 

Author's Bio
Dr. Blake Morris is a walking artist and researcher based in London. He is a founding member of the New York City based Walk Exchange, and co-editor of ‘Lines of Desire’ for the critical cartography journal Livingmaps Review. His book Walking Networks: The Development of an Artistic Medium will be released as part of Rowman and Littlefield International's Radical Cultural Studies series in 2019. 

 

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[1] Fulton has been creating group walks since 1994, after working with performance artist Marina Abramović in Japan. In his group walks the observation and production of the art are simultaneous and communal, and the audience is invited to create the invisible object of a walk with him (Fulton, 2007, p. 182). I believe this work represents a shift in Fulton’s practice from walking as a process or technique for creating art, to the creation of art in the medium of walking.