published 6 March 2017
This article discusses the everyday act of walking with (an)other(s) and how this act is choreographed in participatory works by three artists: Rosana Cade’s Walking:Holding (2011 ongoing); Myriam Lefkowitz’s Walk, Hands, Eye (A City) (2009 ongoing) and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Slow Walk (2016). Each does its walking in the public space of city streets. Each of these works has entered my imagination, unexpectedly haunting my thoughts with a visceral quality as if I have an actual memory of them. But I have not seen them. I’ve been wondering how works that I haven’t directly experienced can provoke this imaginative yet visceral response. Perhaps it was this qualitative capacity to viscerally impact that choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker alluded to in the discussion following her performance of ‘Fase’ at Tramway Glasgow in June 2016. Then, as I recall (and in the context of a discussion on dance), she spoke of the physical presence of the body, the experiential aspect of movement and through this dance’s capacity to generate visceral experiences in audiences. It was through the experiential, and through bodies – she seemed to be suggesting – that dance can address socio-political issues and generate some kind of transformation in audiences. The discussion was not developed. Here I want to pick up this thread of thought to consider how each of the three walking pieces works with experiential processes and with bodies – and to reflect on their capacities to generate change. How is it that they ‘work’ to call forth a qualitative involvement in me as a distance audience who has no direct experience of the works – and what work do they do in performance?
Each of these walking pieces has a public call out for participants. Each call out gives an explanation of what the participant is being invited to do. As a read each I am a potential participant. The activity being asked of me is described. It is something that I will do with another or with others – and asks for a particular quality of presence with those other(s). Each is quiet – and will happen in a public space. With each callout I read into the sensorial capacity of the work, into the physical and relational commitment it asks of me. And with this I experience a movement – at a visceral level – that is something like duration. For it is in the event-time of the action – and in my (imagined) participation in the event – that the work momentarily exists. I am marked by time – and somehow memory remains …
What of the actual works and how they operate in performance? Lefkowitz and De Keersmaeker are choreographers. Cade identifies as a socially engaged and activist artist. The three works choreograph the act of walking using particular organisations of space, time, movement, bodies and relations. The three works share common characteristics: they are ‘for’ the participant-performers while being evident also to a wider public audience. They foregrounds the experiential dimension of action while quietly inserting themselves into public spaces. And each differently calls for a commitment of attention in the present moment of action with others.
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker is based in Brussels. She was invited to do something in Brussels for the public Day of Dance which would be held on 23rd April 2016. She presented Slow Walk for the Day of Dance which happened one month after the 2016 Brussel bombings that killed thirty-two people and injured hundreds more. For De Keersmaeker Slow Walk offered the chance “to pause and reflect on the city and attempt to make it part of us again.” An open call to participate invited people to take part. The work began at five different points around the centre of Brussels. Over five hours, five groups walked through the streets, at an extremely slow pace, converging at Grote Markt/Grand Place in the centre of Brussels – where a dance workshop My Walking is my Dancing led by De Keersmaeker took place.
With the timing of Slow Walk so soon after the bombings in a city still in shock and mourning, the slow meditative walking through public spaces quietly gathered a sense of shared community while enacting qualities of calm presence and endurance. I read this in the videos that scattered themselves across social media in the days after the event. Videos that showed participants move as individuals within a group; each stepping one foot after another – on and on through the city – each consciously present in mind and body. I read this in the quiet onlooking of others on the street, in their at times slowing to walk awhile with the slow walkers. I read this in the participant who steps out of the slow walking to talk with a friend and explain what they are doing. And then returns to the slow walking. While the activity of slow walking is recognisably a meditation practice, in Slow Walk it is an action performed en masse with no overt claim to either healing or political intent – yet having the force of both.
With Walking:Holding, Glasgow based artist Rosana Cade is explicit about the activist intent that drives the work. A gay woman, she had found herself at times uncomfortable about holding hands with her partner in public. Through asking others she found that this discomfort was not uncommon among gay people. Saddened by this she created Walking:Holding. The work aims to challenge experiences and perceptions of identities through the simple and intimate act of walking while hand-holding in public places.
For each location in which the work is performed, Cade selects a designated walking route, finds six local participants through an open call and undertakes preparatory workshops with the participants. The callout is explicit about the work needing participants who are different from each other. The performance is for one audience member who is taken on a walk through the designated route while holding hands firstly with Rosana Cade and then with the six different participants – one after the other. During the walk the hand-holding pair talk about their experiences of the city they are in. Deceptively simple in its structure, the work creates conditions that forge possibilities for brief intimate encounters – of touch and conversation – between each audience member and a range of participant ‘others.’ It simultaneously generates a perceptual awareness for audience member and participant of the different ways that one may be perceived, and how the other may be perceived, by a public – depending on whose hand one is holding. A wider audience for the work is that perceiving public, who themselves may be challenged in their perception of identities and of heteronormative behaviour. The moment of the exchange of audience member between participant performers, when one hand is relinquished and another hand is reached for and held by a different ‘other’, is a moment capable of revealing to the onlooker their own processes of constructing the identities of those they behold.
Walk, Hands, Eye (A City)
Lefkowitz’s Walk, Hands, Eye (A City) also involves the act of touch and paired walking. Based in Paris, her approach is informed by her experience as a dancer, her training in shiatsu and her interest in sensory augmentation. With Walk, Hands, Eye (A City) she takes an investigative approach to opening the senses to new ways of experiencing a city. Her open call – aimed at artists living in the city – invites them to act as guides to one audience member at a time on a one hour silent walk in the city. During this walk the audience member will have their eyes closed. Lefkowitz’s works with the guides composing the walk and preparing them for the sensorial task they will undertake of leading the audience member using touch. The walk includes pauses – when the guide says ‘open… close.’ The audience member opens their eyes and closes them again. The timing is that of a camera shutter. The walk continues.
Although Lefkowitz does not claim a social agenda, within the non-verbal communication between guide and audience member there is a great deal of human interaction. Most notable perhaps is the ongoing connection that guide and audience member are invested in at a physical and perceptual level; the quality of care enacted by the guide; and the openness and trust of the audience member in their non-sighted state of being guided through the public spaces of a city. A wider audience – a passing public who may notice the paired walkers – is perhaps momentarily aware of human vulnerability and co-operation, of qualities of care and carefulness. For the audience member being guided (at least for those who are sighted) the dominant visual mode of experiencing the world is relinquished. Through this withdawl of sight there is augmentation of the sense of touch, texture, sound, smell. With the momentarily glimpses of the city on the ‘open … close’ coming out of this immersion, sight too is augmented. Lefkowitz creates conditions for experiencing the city anew – and for acknowledging “new worlds”. Her “new worlds” are in the first place the ‘imaginary’ experiences of a city transformed by sensory augmentation. Beyond the performance, the durational experience of openness of body and senses perhaps creates potential for a more extended transformation in how we experience ways of being with another, and how we experience the world.
Bodies – cities – transformation
These works differently choreographs bodies in relations in ways that creates conditions for transformational experiences for those who take part. In each, the public space of the city streets is not a backdrop, but is the environment in which the work has its life – and an environment that perhaps each work also affects. It is in the attention to the experiential, to the bodily experience of walking-with another or others within those streets, that these works harness their transformational potential. Each challenges our experiences, to open new ways of seeing and perceiving ourselves as part of a world that we are simultaneously experiencing and making.
Slow Walk – from http://www.rosas.be/en/projects/
Walking:Holding – from https://rosanacadedotcom.wordpress.com/projects/current-projects/walkingholding/ Photo: Rosie Healey
Walk, Hands, Eyes (Plymouth), two images – feature image and in body of text, Courtesy Situations, Photo Paul Blakemore.
Resources and links referred to in the text
Since 2011 Walking:Holding has toured the work to more than 30 locations in the UK, Europe and Hong Kong.
Walk, Hands, Eyes (A City)
Out of Time, Out of Place: Public Art (Now) (Edited by Claire Doherty) (2015)
Since 2009 Walk, Hands, Eyes (A City) has been performed in New York, Vilnius, Paris, Aubervilliers, Plymouth (UK) and other cities and at galleries and exhibitions worldwide, including the 55th Venice Biennale (2013)