What even is Free Seeing?

Now that more than ten people have asked me ‘What even is Free Seeing?’ I thought I’d better write a short blog post to explain it a bit more. Francis Lowe got in touch during the last Still Walking festival to tell me about his notion of ‘found places’ – to be regarded in the same vein as Duchamp’s found objects. Both the objects and the places were of course already there but the creative activity is announcing that there’s something further to be known about them, without actually altering anything. A small group of us wandered around Digbeth in the shadow of the viaduct arches, into Forklift workshops, across open land, reframing the world, tipping the horizon and generally being adventurous about visualising what was around us. Digbeth is already quite a bizarre place that naturally invites surreal interpretations.

It’s a recurring theme of the festival: people see the world differently. Indeed there’d be no festival if that wasn’t the case. It’s an intriguing moment in the walks when the guide describes why particular spot is relevant and yesterday we heard a different take on the same location from somebody else.

Francis’ theme is what the actual moment of seeing is comprised of, what we are actually doing to observe or notice something and how we can then be creative about it. We usually don’t need to be, so the subject never comes up. It helps to know that he teaches animation – a lot of the techniques of framing a moving image are appliable here.

All of this may involve looking over walls, lying down (mats provided!) remaining static, panning left to right, entering narrow apertures, looking at archaeological evidence, sitting in a croft and filing it all in an internal gallery. Advanced user may later get into testing deja vu, attention rehearsals, refining gut instinct, testing the edge of danger, losing found objects, learning to get lost and possibly a visit to moon as found object.

Tickets are £5, there are at time of writing 4 left, but once you learn the technique it’s yours to keep forever and to do anywhere.

Click here to buy tickets

Francis in wedge alley

Apertures of Seeing


This is Freedom – Amerah Saleh, Sipho Eric Dube and Alisha Kadir

Last year I ran a guided tour workshop for The Foundry, the REPs’s emerging professional performer platform, to encouraging thinking about city spaces as potential stages. We generally don’t spend much time standing still in the urban environment but if you do claim the space as your own, its rhythms and sense of the place quickly emerges. People will ask you questions – usually the way to the station – because they sense you belong there. Watching the hundreds of short stories unfold around you can give the impression (as a local playwright once claimed) that all the world’s a stage.

‘This Is Freedom’ by Amerah Saleh and fellow performers Sipho Eric Dube and Alisha Kadir responds to my original challenge. We ran a theatre promenade piece in the very first Still Walking and I’ve been keen to stage the next one ever since. The festival’s approach to commissioning new walks is to offer support where needed to make the event happen. That can mean anything from co-authorship of the event to just doing the risk assessments and tweeting about ticket sales. The theme of their piece is ‘freedom’: what that actually means and whether you yourself have it in an ethical, political, cultural, legal, mental or environmental sense. So freedom is what I’ve given them – when I see their performance on the night, that’s when I will be able to tell you more about it.

I know that ‘This Is Freedom’ draws from existing characters, narratives and ideas, reassembled and re-presented to respond to specific spaces. I’m looking forward to seeing these places as I know them transform into something entirely different. I know they are going into one of my favourites too: the ‘water gardens’ area behind the old Central Library, a space that a diverse demographic has already planted its flag into. I’m thrilled that Madin’s creation will see at least one more use before it disappears forever.

They’ve chosen to start it at sunset too, while most of the other guides are racing to avoid being caught out in the shadows. Join me for this bold and challenging premiere at 6pm, Tue 18 March meeting at the underpass on Navigation Street. Very limited tickets available.


Impermanent Collection – review of The Temporary at ARTicle Gallery

The Temporary is an cross-media exhibition curated by Rachel Marsden at ARTicle Gallery that explores the notion of temporality and the transitory – particularly in an urban context.

The Midlands has seen a cluster of walking art exhibitions recently that seem to have been put on for the benefit of Still Walking: among them Walk On at Mac, Land Art at Mead Gallery and Walking Encyclopedia at AirSpace gallery. A recent addition to this growing collection is Rachel Marsden’s concise exhibition at ARTicle (in Margaret Street School of Art). While not specifically about walking, it certainly covers my favourite themes of moving through a city, looking for patterns and weighing up how we feel about our surroundings. It’s also being held in an often-overlooked public gallery, itself in a jewel of a building that many seem to forget about when characterising Birmingham’s  architecture.

A first sense of the exhibition is of an overwhelming, incomprehensible and uncontrollable Ultrametropolis that leaves its citizens baffled, blitzed and bamboozled, spluttering in its own dust cloud. What initially appears to be a far eastern focus (and knowing Rachel’s Shanghai connections) proves on closer inspection to be international phenomenon. Being constantly being wrong-footed by one’s own city is an experience much closer to home. Birmingham’s long-term unsentimental adhesion to its motto of ‘Forward!’ has variously left in its wake huge, useless viaducts, the demolition of unfinished high rises and campaigns to save iconic buildings scheduled to be razed less than 40 years after their creation. By know, we are used to it: right or wrong, that’s the character of the city. People know that if they return to Birmingham after several years’ absence, they won’t be able to find their way around – not even out of the station. But it’s not quite the same: Rachel knows she won’t be able to find her way round once familiar streets in Shanghai after just one year away. Something has gone wrong, or is at least worth examining. That exploration feels like it should be heavy, dispiriting and pessimestic but it is curiously liberating, spiritual and certainly sublime.

The exhibition is dominated by a large scale work occupying the entire width of the far wall: Lu Xinjian’s City DNA is a dense grid of symbols and shapes that reminds me of an urban planner’s figure ground map – the rendering of buildings as silhouettes and the removal of all other visual map information. The familiarity and character of the city map is changed utterly when see this. Other patterns can then present themselves and the results can be hypnotic, as is the case on this epic scale. Eventually, junctions, roads, rivers and contours present themselves from the seeming chaos and you might even guess which city this is. The exhibition is not wholly about visual art, and If your exploration is to be genuine, then it needs to be done across a variety of scales and media. IPods mounted on top of City DNA play you a selection of further musical and sounds that work as further investigations, and naturally there is a remix to download. Manchester band Part Wild Horses performed an newly commissioned work in the space on the opening night. Modular furniture by Li-En Yeung and Tom Vousden is scattered around the room and you are invited to reassemble it to suit your needs (as happened during the live act). It can be a precarious undertaking and you need to become part structural engineer to make sure your design doesn’t topple.

The remaining walls display the photographers’ work, scrambling and reassembling sizes, locations and even the photographers themselves, better revealing the themes of the exhibition. Some are apparent for their meaning, such as the former Shanghai residents returning to their homes, now rubble, being dwarfed by a wall of tower blocks behind them. Other images are more personal reflections; snapshots of disorientation. Elsewhere, in Cyril Galmiche’s ‘Pudong, Summer’ projection splits Shanghai’s business district into vertical strips, dividing the day up into equal but remixed zones. From nowhere, a boat floats across a band then disappears into another time wormhole. I’m reminded of the installations in last Spring’s mesmerising Metropolis at BM&G and want to see this piece at room height, and with a beanbag.


Credit: Li Han, Hu Yan

The most affecting works are those by Li Han and Hu Yan, whose incredible work appears on the poster for the exhibition. Their intense, technical, isometric renderings cover not only the poster but page after page of what looks like a whole series of graphic novels. Every railing, pane of glass, brick, twig and leaf in the city is given the same minute scrutiny. After living with this reality for a few minutes, staggered by its precision and sheer bewildering scale, it becomes apparent that the scenes are populated by humans too, nearly invisible amongst the endless rows and grids of…stuff.

I bought the badge set and took home two of the beautiful posters. They were short lived, alas: I spilt tea over the first then mistakenly tore up the other to use as a shield for an iron on transfer.

The Temporary is on at ARTicle Gallery until 4 April then at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, Manchester from 17 April – 11 May 2014


Vanessa Grasse ‘Movementscapes’, Juncture Dance Festival, Leeds

Movementscapes – Vanessa Grasse

Juncture Dance festival – Sun 9 March 2014

In a festival programme of largely stage based rhythmic movement, Vanessa Grasse’s Movementscapes stands out for being a two mile linear group walk, involving no dancing. The walk functions as a means for festival attendees to locate a remote venue in time for a screening and in doing so to experience Vanessa’s approach to moving through a space. What seems like it should be a simple activity actually prompts many moments of reflection, self awareness, experience of places and spaces and a greater understanding of the city’s natural rhythms. It also manages to do this largely in silence.

How many of the assembled group know exactly what’s in store? After a quick explanation of the event, we are advised not to take photos, nor talk to each other, or to use our phones (cue an urgent phone call being answered at the back of the group).

A familiar guided walk instruction is to cross the road at the prompt of the green man: banal yet also an opportunity to observe the rhythms of the city in action. The walk is prefaced by a split stance / eyes closed exercise which allows us to become gently aware of our own body sense. Not easy on the cobbled slope: I sense a few people other than myself tipping or wobbling. Vanessa invites us to become aware of a space a metre – or just over a metre – above our heads. Specifics like this subtly suggest there’s a precision to her invisible art that we should take seriously.

The first few minutes are spent getting to less busy, more open spots in the city. Our group is quite large and we are taking the Sunday shoppers of Leeds head on. At the first crossing, we are faced off by a family outing of adults and many princess-costumed girls. Our group splits neatly and seemingly automatically in two to accommodate the opposition within a central stream. This doesn’t usually happen, but our group now has ‘hive-mind’.

There’s a quiet grace in seeing her simply pick up a stick as if she’s alone and enjoying the first glorious Spring afternoon of the year. However, three separate entities are observing the moment: the public who occasionally become aware of the strangeness of the group: perhaps not from its size but from subtle clues such as our silence or the twigs clutched in our right hand. The group itself has been instructed to watch for Vanessa’s signals and are always keeping her in sight. The cue is often a ripple effect via others’ motions: from my usual rear position of any group, the cervine presence of Vanessa is often lost in the crowd. The event is being photographed too by a Juncture employee: it’s occasionally a jarring moment to feel aware of more than one of these greater eyes at once.

Walking past a railing, I don’t quite see if she taps the stick along it. The stick is in the right hand to do so. Those ahead of me don’t tap. I do. Those behind me do.

The ripple effect is the only way to follow the instruction of one exercise. We are now used to seeing Vanessa from behind but outside Broadcasting, she stops to face us. The usual guided tour cue is that we are now about to learn something but we know to turn round ourselves. The unvoiced instruction is to walk backwards into the area we have just observed, which we now cautiously do. Our guide is the peripheral awareness of the larger group. We assume we’ll know – more or less – where to stop. Vanessa then lies in the shadow of the monolithic edifice. Some who lie down do so wrongly: they are not looking up with the hulking tiered tower behind them and the difference in the experience is critical. I suspect I may have missed some of the subtle cues along the walk. Before I can get too comfortable, we are shifting again and now closely face the rusted iron surface of Broadcasting Place. The spectacle of many people doing this in a line must surely be comical for those encountering Movementscapes in action but individually this gesture of close wall-facing is saturated with associations and emotions from shameful to terrifying. Choosing to do this demonstrates a willingness to be viewed as a faceless outsider, and there is surely an element of hypnotism in Vanessa’s work. As an amateur geologist it’s occasionally necessary for me to get closer to building facades and it can be an incredibly self conscious activity – nobody looks at building materials so the only response from people is deep suspicion. Here, fortunately, we are in good company and it is the spectator of our group naughty-step that temporarily becomes the outsider.

The walk concludes and I feel I’ve been part of a rare and affecting experience. Being part of any group that is thinking alike, even by instruction, is (for me) a welcome moment. Having experienced it amongst mostly strangers, and wordlessly too makes the experience rarer still. It’s perhaps not the main focus of the walk but for me the most powerful. Also, that I barely talk about the event with anyone: I arrived late and have to leave immediately – the walk is all I have done in the city.

A guided walks as a means to join the dots can sometimes invite problems, especially where the dots are venues where other people’s art is happening. The guided tour in its purest form disregards convenient routes and landmarks to focus on the places that really need to be visited. I’m even slightly suspicious of circular routes – it just seems too convenient and I always sense there better places we didn’t visit for the sake of convenience. It is a joy then to discover the route takes in Vanessaesque spaces in abundance, and indeed it is those rhythms and spaces that make up our city. Since my first Movementscape last September I now see the possibilities of spaces everywhere.

Juncture Dance Festival runs in various locations around Leeds until Sat 15 March



I Was a Teenage Walking Artist – my visit to Walk On at Mac.

In October 1990 I’d just left home was studying sculpture at Wolverhampton Polytechnic. My first works were walking art pieces – although it would be years later that I’d discover the term and recognise where I fitted in. To establish myself in my new environment, I’d go for long walks in remote areas off the tow path, never quite sure whether I was rambling or trespassing. I encountered sculpture parks of twisted, rusting post-industrial residue that I found more deeply affecting than the minibus trips to Yorkshire I’d been on during my foundation course. It reminded me of a film I’d seen on Channel 4 a year or two previously: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (ask any walking artist what their favourite film is).

Sculpture in Manchester 1989

Zone Art, 1989 – pity I couldn’t use a camera

I’d rearrange things in situ, then vex my tutors by announcing that my work for the term was located beside a series of disused M&B pubs six miles away. I was encouraged to instead photograph my sculptures or recreate them the studio. To my regret, I took their advice and it would be ten years or more before my efforts to guide people through these zones would naturally resurface. I’d quickly discovered the gulf between being in a location and creating a representation of that experience for an audience who probably wouldn’t ever see it. When I graduated, I didn’t become a sculptor but I did eventually become a tour guide. There is now no gulf of experience: I am sharing my understanding of the place by taking the audience there and we then talk about it. No need to report back to anyone – though I occasionally blog about it.

Hyde, Manchester installation 1989

Good sculpture but terrible photography (and storage)

Great to see Walking Art in Birmingham on the ascendant! The Walk On exhibition at mac pleasingly spills into every part of the venue allowing many chance encounters (it also seems to move about between visits). For what seems like a unifying medium, the walking artists communicate in radically different ways and focus on different aspects of the event. Some visually represent the route as their art while others report back what they encountered. Others are naturally drawn to map making or the landscape itself and tap into a long established path of walking art.

Hamish Fulton is undiluted walking-as-art. What you find in the gallery is emphatically not the art itself but rather a no-nonsense report of key data from the event. Thus a map of Europe is criss-crossed with epic journeys which merely state the year each walk was undertaken. For him to reproduce the walk requires you to undertake the walk, whether that’s shuffling across a concrete dais in Eastside or ascending Everest. It’s an important foundation for any understanding of the practice: none of us experience the world in quite the same way. Fulton is committed to his cause but I sometimes feel I’d like to know what notes he made on those journeys.

Plan B take a similar approach, beautifully etching digital GPS information of their Berlin walks into perspex that say nothing about the experience or terrain. But within the mechanically etched filigree lines lies a human narrative – regular routes, familiar territory with the occasional foray into the unknown.

Sarah Cullen beautiful drawings do are perhaps plan B’s analogue equivalent. There is no mystery about her process: every aspect of the process is on show. A pencil hangs in a wooden box (intriguingly cut down from what looks like a woodcut print block) which is carried over varied terrains and marks the paper accordingly. We don’t know the geography or the route – we don’t need to. Yet the journeys are there to behold – exposing the fragile rhythmic evidence of a body moving through the landscape.

Simon Pope’s approach is perhaps the most ephemeral and fragile of all the works: a recording of a dialogue between two strangers who shared a journey into unfamilar territory to determine a common ground. Straightforward, yet art like this cuts right to the heart of the human walking experience.

Jeremy Ward takes the interface between bronze age hill figure art and walking art head on. The landscape at White Horse Hill in translated digitally into GPS contours and then again into a laboriously constructed card equivalent. The horse is nearly lost amongst it all. How to respond to something as affecting as being at the Uffington White Horse, connecting with the earliest landscape artists – and maybe earliest walking artists? Ward concludes that we’ll never know why the figure was created, being viewable only from above. Having visited this location recently, and having seen the horse from ground level from several miles away, I can’t draw the same conclusion. Intriguingly, it does disappear from view as you get close to it and only reappers once you are on top of it. I’d love to believe this was intentional.

Rachael Clewlow has a similarly methodical approach, recording in tiny, hand rendered lettering all the things she walks past, and at what time, whether that’s Homebase, a Londis or a roundabout. There are no notes in her notebook, it could easily have been taken from a trade directory. There’s the sense that there’s a code to be cracked to determine what her greater pattern was. Short of retracing her steps, we’ll never know – perhaps that’s the point: the gulf is too wide to ever report the experience accurately.

Perhaps because of my tour-guide background, my favourite works tend to be those by artists who share their en route discoveries and are less concerned with what shape the whole thing made.  Walkwalkwalk’s trails round east London treat ordinary objects found in the street with as much importance as an archaeological dig. They document fleeting encounters with people on flyposters which are then returned to the location. There’s a pleasing circular economy at work.

Richard Wentworth’s photos of the ordinary objects and arrangements he encounters whilst walking revel in the creativity, absurdity and sheer joy of the human condition. Gently inviting the audience to share our minds’ flawed interpretations of the world is a revealing, fragile and humbling business – and in Wentworth’s hands, very very funny.

Each visitor to the gallery will have their own experience of moving through it and different works will get their attention. Their conclusions will all be different. For me, the exhibition prompted the realisation that I steer away from prescriptive heritage industry ‘top-ten must-see’ tours as much as the dogmatic artistic statement that each walk is unique and recording the event is the lesser, even pointless, experience. Lying at various points within those two extremes are the Walk On artists and indeed the whole human experience of moving through the world, looking at it and wanting to say something about it.

Walk On runs at Midlands Art Centre until Sunday 30th March 2014

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