From stones to GPS: Critical reflections on aesthetic walking and the need to draw a line | BILL PSARRAS

The current essay forms a critical reflection on walking praxis and its aesthetic implications; bringing together artistic, performative, philosophical and technological threads. In this short textual account, thinking resembles walking; revealing emerging rhythmicities and I hope new vistas; shaped by a continuous oscillation between my art practice and theoretical reflection. In other words, it is what has been suggested as a reflection in-action and a reflection on-action [1]. Keeping the contemporary in my argument, the huge cultural significance of flaneur, psychogeography and related spatial practices has to be acknowledged. While walking always transgresses fields, disciplines and thinking, it is also known that throughout the last two centuries a significant array of intellectual voices considered walking as cultural and aesthetic act; a methodological apparatus with impact on arts, humanities, social sciences and science [2] [3i].

Walking can be described as a universal act with open meanings; it has potential. To describe walking is to become open to a color pallet. In particular, walking constitutes the paint brush whereas various color hues represent the multiple characters of it. Walking as a metaphorical brush can bring together many aspects; often mixing qualities based on the intention of the walker; producing a richness of situations upon the canvas of experience. Walking is physical, biological, sensory, emotional, poetic, political, symbolic, metaphorical, social, cultural, inventive, spiritual, erotic, playful, purposive, performative, embodied or even transgressive. Every adjective opens up a new perspective, ascribes an intention, reveals a potential, indicates an action; offers more vistas for the walker with imaginative, kinesthetic and artistic implications. Therefore, walking does not only have potential but it is also the potential itself. In the very action of walking – the present moment – every step entails the potential future, it forms an implanted seed to create a patina of experience. I have explored elsewhere how walking can be an ambulant trialectic made of actual, metaphorical and sensory threads [4i] but it is also tempting to think of Janet Cardiff’s metaphor on the essence of movement as a dialogue between two legs (past and future).

Reflections on line and walking

The intention to walk creates a series of situations; an unrolling of rhythmic experience which resembles a music partiture: moments of different intensities, rhythms and pauses. To walk is to produce a line of experience; an assemblage of gathered interactions between self and the world. While walking we connect past, present and future. At this point, my intention is to draw connections between walking and line. It is thus important to think of Paul Klee and his insights on movement and line. In his published notebooks The Thinking Eye, he suggests in terms of movement three types of line: active, middle and passive. While the active line initiates its movement from a point by taking a line for a walk for the sake of it – the middle line begins as a point forming a line but as it progresses it ‘ends by looking like a plane’. Finally, the passive line constitutes one that creates a ‘planar element’ [5]. For Klee, walking has been a condition of change, a primordial movement [6i]. Therefore, a line seems to have a character, a gestural behavior upon canvas regulated by hand; in the same way walking changes facets, intentions and rhythms while practiced into site. While the expression of a point creates a of experience; the expression of walking enacts a ‘spatial acting out of place’ [7]. It produces experience; turning wide space into experienced place. I could also argue that the need to ascribe character to line as active, middle and passive, resembles what has been also suggested for walking. Indeed, ambulatory action is made of steps, yet the intention differs, resulting to purposive (i.e. an everyday action from point A to B), discursive (i.e. wandering with no specific destination as in the case of flaneur) and aesthetic conceptualizations of walking (i.e. conceptual-performative actions as psychogeography) [8]. On such correlations between walking and line – let us think of the gestural performance of Jason Pollock; widely known as Action Painting. Among others, Pollock set the foundations for the convergence between painting and performance as for him the canvas formed a space of potential – not a space of a picture – but a terrain of experience; an event [9] – a psychogeographical situation as Situationists suggested several years later in the context of the city. Examples are numerous, yet due to text limitations and before passing to the next section we may need to think of painting and performance as two intersecting fields as many of visual artists; originally trained as painters; moved forward to more performative methods and materials; often from studio to urban/rural locations. The need often remained the same with further poetic, political, spiritual and emotional implications – they took the line out for a performative walk; either in physical or virtual space [10].

Contemporary turns: Performing, extending, mapping the line

I have already made the metaphorical correlation between artist walking body and paintbrush. A subject and an object ready to be animated by intention either in place or upon canvas. The beginnings of performance art – during 1960’s – remind us what Kristine Stiles has described as an amplification of the process over product and a shift from the representational object to various presentational modes of action [11]. Since 1960’s, it is actually of great interest how a series of walking art practices sought to map their ambulatory experience through the elements of line and trace. Although someone encounters a variety of theorizations across historical periods – from Baudelairian and Benjaminian distant/aesthetic flaneur to Dada excursions, Surrealists deambulation, Situationists psychogeography, Fluxus happenings or wider Conceptual performative works, it is without doubt that all have contributed to what Hamish Fulton termed ‘walking as art’ [12] in the late 1960’s (along with Richard Long). This made one more milestone at the chronology of aesthetic and performative spatial practices, which reverberated until the end of the 20th century through more hybrid and mediated walking-oriented practices; what I have termed elsewhere as ‘hybrid flaneur/flaneuse’ [13].

The need to draw a line

Maintaining the need to draw a line, allow me to consider several indicative examples across the decades. The work of Richard Long A Line Made By Walking (1967) forms one of his best-known early performative pieces when the artist walked back and forth out in a field grass which was full of daisies. His action through time flattened the grassy surface by shaping a line. The ephemeral sculpted line was photographed; acting as a documentation of his spatiotemporal intervention within place. Long’s line on the terrain was indeed a radical blending of sculpture (line) and walking (action) – a reminder of walking as a form between art and architecture [3ii]. In the wider context of his work, Richard Long considers walking as a tool for drawing while drawing lines made of stones and branches, while for Hamish Fulton it becomes an instrument of perception when he walks into remote areas for long periods of time documenting his experience as wall texts and often lines [3iii].

The element of line reverberated across practices and decades, yet the medium differed. In particular, in later performances of Francis Alÿs the element of line accompanied by steps is also apparent. While in his famous walk The Green Line (2004) he traverses the boundaries of Israel and Palestine having a green color can dripping a colored line across streets – in his work Paradox of Praxis I (1997) he pushed for hours a big block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it completely melted; leaving a temporal ice trace on the streets. In his performance Fairy Tales (1995) the artist walked by wearing a blue sweater which was gradually unraveling; leaving trail of thread into site and without doubt resembling the Ariadne myth. Bringing Klee’s insight, in the case of Alÿs; he becomes the active point which enacts a story, mapping it literally in real-time. The element of line for Alÿs is a tool for thought, a poetic and political statement. It forms the simplest form offer himself as an absurd spectacle into the urban. At this point before passing to other technologically-oriented practices, I will also mention one of my earlier walking performances in London entitled Walking Portraits: Performing Asphalts (2012), where I walked for five days in five tube stations/areas; following repeatedly encountered lines (either by fissures or imposed/designed ones). While my body action was documented by audiovisual and GPS means; the work explored the ways body can simultaneously follow and draw lines [4ii].

In the beginning of 21st century, geographical data, mobile media and spatial turn (stemming from earlier decades) gave rise to technologies of the location – namely ‘locative media’ [see also] – with a significant impact to contemporary spatial practices and site specific arts. From the in-situ action of Long in the grass, now the need to draw a line has been technologically extended through GPS device and custom software for later visualizations. The metaphor of walking-painting and walker-paintbrush is apparent once more. The first artist ever thought of GPS as a device with great aesthetic potential was Jeremy Wood. In his maps and GPS-documented walks and flights, he brings together the performative, the aesthetic and the technological as in his works Meridians (2005), My Ghost (2009) among numerous others. Wood uses his body as a drawing tool – resembling Richard Long – while his works are not making strong political or poetic statements. Wood walks shapes and lines in order to draw the invisible in the physical space while rendering it visible to the virtual space. Such drawing upon the earth has been described as figurative, expressive and performative by pioneers of locative media arts [14]. The GPS technology turns locative media artists bodies into creative brushes whereas the city becomes a territory of creativity. In such geo-centered performances the experienced line goes into augmentation in the virtual space of Google Earth or any other visualization software; thus the need to draw a line has gone hybrid; oscillating between physical and virtual space. There are numerous examples in locative arts but I will stay within the figurative, expressive qualities of such actions – one more case can be found in the work of Teri Rueb, The Choreograph of Everyday Movement (2001) when the artist enacts a performative participatory walk into the city by tracking in real-time their traces as a kind of developing abstract lines. This is common in one more work entitled Running Stitch (2006) by Jen Southern and Jen Hamilton where the artists provide GPS-mobile devices to the participants tracking their movements in the city while projecting them into the gallery. The projection of the developing digital line takes place upon a canvas where literal weaving of threads will take place after that; producing tapestries of experience.

Conclusions

What has been shown in the last section is that the documentation and embodied technologies have shifted from a material to a virtual level, yet walking still forms the core of the experience, what I could describe as a matrix of becoming. What also underlines the significance of the element of line is its interconnection with the walking itself. As in the title of this essay, the cultural richness of walking and the need to draw a line seems not only a will for communication but also a need to make graspable and perceivable what Ingold calls ‘the meshwork’ of lives, processes, experiences and emotions.

Lines are open-ended, and it is this open-endedness – of lives, relationships, histories and processes of thought – that I wanted to celebrate”, he states [6ii].

 

Author's Bio

Bill Psarras (Dr., b. 1985) is an artist, writer and musician. He has taught as an adjunct lecturer at the Department of Audio & Visual Arts of Ionian University (Greece) where he also works as a postdoctoral researcher exploring “the interdisciplinary and intermedia impact of site-specific poetics and walking performance in the field of Geohumanities” (IKY State Foundation Scholarship 2017-2019). He has a BA in Audiovisual Arts and Sciences (Ionian University), an MA in Digital Arts (University of the Arts London) and a Ph.D in Arts & Computational Technology from Goldsmiths University of London (AHRC Award), supervised by Prof. Janis Jefferies and Prof. Lanfranco Aceti. His doctoral research (also practice-based) has focused on intermedia and interdisciplinary explorations of the emotional geographies of cities through walking as art, senses and embodied technologies; by proposing the concept of a hybrid flaneur for the 21st century city. His art practice includes site-specific walking performances, audiovisual installations, video art, poetry and music composition, exploring in various ways the poetics and politics of the 21st century urban experience. He has exhibited in more than 65 international festivals and group exhibitions (Onassis Foundation, Benaki Museum, UK Fringe Arts Bath, ROOMS 2013, WPA Experimental Media, MOVE WITH(OUT) project) and cultural institutions (Royal Academy of Arts 2010 Summer Exhibition, Goethe Institut ArtUp project, Storefront for Art and Architecture NY). His research has been published in international journals (Leonardo Electronic Almanac, The MIT Press; Technoetic Arts Journal, IJART), conferences proceedings, book chapters, workshops and symposia in the intersections of contemporary art, media arts and urban cultural studies as well as in State Museum of Contemporary Art of Thessaloniki, Greece. On 2014, he was invited as a keynote speaker at the University of Chichester for the Performing Place symposium. He is a rock musician and also the man behind the soundtrack project Ludmilla My Side. On 2017, he published his first poetry collection in Greek entitled `Tundra’ (Pigi Publications) presenting 44 poems on the intersections of art-geography-architecture.

 

Notes

[1] Donald Schon, The Reflective Practitioner, (London: Ashgate Publishing, 1983).

[2] Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York: Penguin Books, 2001).

[3] Francesco Careri, Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice, (Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 2002). [i] 68-118, [ii] 148-149, [iii] 155

[4] Bill Psarras, Emotive Terrains: Exploring the emotional geographies of city through walking as art, senses and embodied technologies (London: Ph.D thesis ©, Goldsmiths University of London, 2015), [i] 153-155, [ii] 125-137

[5] Paul Klee, Notebooks Vol. I: The Thinking Eye, Jurg Spiller (ed.), Ralph Manheim (trans.), (London: Lund Humphries, 1961), 103-112.

[6] Tim Ingold, Lines: A Brief History (New York: Routledge, 2007), [i] 72-73, [ii] 169-170

[7] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California, 1984), 97.

[8] Filipa Matos Wunderlich, ‘Walking and Rhythmicity: Sensing urban space’, Journal of Urban Design, 13 (1) (2008), 133-138.

[9] Harold Rosenberg, The American Action Painters: The Tradition of the New, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1962), 25.

[[10] I have also made similar reflections during 2014 as part of my doctoral thesis and practice at Goldsmiths University of London, which can be found either on Ph.D Appendix or in my post-Ph.D blogging platform entitled as “Hybrid Flaneur” (www.hybridflaneur.wordpress.com)

[11] Kristine Stiles, ‘Introduction to Performance Art’, in Kristine Stiles and Peter Howard Selz (eds.), Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 679.

[12] Cynthia Morrison-Bell, Walk On: 40 Years of Art Walking: From Richard Long to Janet Cardiff, (Sunderland: Art Editions North, 2013), 1-3.

[13] Bill Psarras, ‘Walking the senses, curating the ears: Towards a hybrid flaneur/flaneuse as “orchestrator”’ Leonardo Electronic Almanac, Vol. 23 [tba], 2018, The MIT Press.

[14] Drew Hemment, ‘Locative Arts’ LEONARDO, 39 (4) (2006), 348-355