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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How to Be a Free Seer // walk and workshop for Birmingham Weekender

‘Brilliant and insightful’

‘We’re going to get arrested’

‘This is definitely a like a religion’.

‘How do I convert to Free Seeing?’  

Today’s Free Seeing walk had the feel of accidentally cracking open the universe and glimpsing the inner workings of its invisible interior. Still Walking events have had some great responses from guides simply sharing their view of the world but this was the first time a group has said they felt they were ‘changing’ or that by merely looking they were doing something that could get them arrested. Fascinating to think that the act of looking can invoke such a response.

Francis’s background is in film making and animation and his language in describing the urban fabric and our ways of seeing it borrows from a film makers lexicon. Our movement while walking through the city streets is described with pans, tracking shots and reveals. Beyond the transposition of techniques from screen to the real world are a host of games and experiments that engage the curious and willing free seer.

Free Seeing at Grand Central Station met outside Cherry Reds on John Bright Street but immediately wrong footed participants (and myself) by walking through the Birmingham Weekender festival crowds, Grand Central shoppers and Rugby world cup fans to a car park on Livery Street. Here the traces of Snow Hill Station’s grand former entrance still stands, an impressive gateway in glazed brick and terracotta, with rich ornamentation and ships in full sail but conspicuously bricked up in recent years and out of use – an instantly rebuffed invitation. A half-hearted preservation out of a vague sense of civic duty. An ugly large hole has been sliced through the beautiful glazed bricks which reminded Francis of the hole cut in the basement wall of the recent daring bank vault heist. Brutal, precise but presumably necessary to for someone to do. This old doorway was the portal to the Free Seeing walk: sight seeing of sorts but in order to see what was beyond this door (and to understand free seeing) we needed to be creative. To view beyond the wall, we ascended the bunker-like concrete stairs and emerged at a walkway at an upper level. The revelation of what lies beyond the doorway from above is banal – no secret garden or Narnia here just the meaningless, invisible inner stylings of the car park’s edge lands. But the act of being curious and planning a means of discovery is the real revelation. No-one was ever meant to see this space and as such is the ideal way to begin the tour. Next door, the overhanging mirrored surface of a building unintentionally reflects the rubbish accruing in a open topped buttress – what may have seemed dynamic and beguiling by the architect perhaps needed greater fore-thought. This is free seeing in one of its many forms – seeing inside the design intentions of the city and suggesting edits.

Platform 1

Platform 1

The next destination is a sight seeing tour staple: St Phillips cathedral. In all the guided tours I’ve been on, no-one has really explained how to look at buildings the way the architect intended. It’s not difficult, but it helps to have a guide to take observers beyond the process of merely identifying buildings for navigation means. The front of the cathedral invites the eye to move upward through tiers of decorative symmetry including the (then) fashionable rococo warping of normally straight lines into sweeping concave curves. Our eye is not allowed to stay still, but its movement is carefully directed by the architect. Francis’s free seeing technique is to be aware of these intentions and to contemplate it all from a horizontal position. Yoga mats are provided and the free seers lie in formation to get the ideal vantage – just you, the sky and the elevation. No neck ache from craning and the free seers relax into it it’s what this game is about: treating yourself, and the position of the eyes in your skull, as a flexible apparatus. Not being satisfied with the factory settings. A further wrinkle involves looking at the elevation as it is reflected in the back of a reflective owl sculpture set away from the building. A queue of free seers sit in position in front of the owl (there is only one vantage possible) to the fascination and bemusement of those in the church yard, and indeed it looks like a religious act of supplication. From their perspective, no explanation of this activity is possible.

Owl be back

Owl be back

We take the opportunity for the group, now warmed up, to test out a fringe theory: can people sense when they are being stared at? A seated newspaper reader is selected and the 15-strong group watch him intently. While we don’t manage to rouse him from his studies, we greatly perturb the group of teens on the next bench. Passers-by voluntarily join the group stare – without any coercion it seems to them to be something worth doing.

Members of the group quickly adapt the techniques and volunteer ‘free sees’ as we move through the city. A gap between buildings reveals a sliver of the remote Cube, iced with a line of foliage, counterpointed by the Victoria’s C19th self surety and the framing anonymity of 1960s Birmingham Metropolita. This scene appears to have a title too: an advertising billboard reads ‘Nothing Artificial Makes It In’.

Naturally, we take in the reflective steel cladding of the new New Street station. I feel this building is the architect’s solution to the impossible task of sensitively responding to the environment here – the many ‘news’ of New St. There is no unified townscape, just a city cycling through styles, endless alterations, featureless brickscape, and brutalist expanses. The only way for this building to land comfortably here is to literally reflect its surrounding as a distorting hall of mirrors, throwing the buildings into fractured disarray while casting delicate rippling arcs of sunlight across the scarred urban surface. For the mobile free seer, it allows Inception-like overhead self-viewing in triplicate, a ‘free selfie’, backed by the city folding in on itself. This surely will become the TV or filmic establishing shot – you have now arrived in Birmingham. We note the absence, after even a few days of their arrival, of two plane trees positioned near the Eye Screen – it takes a free seer to be that tuned into the environment.

Mat or shiny

Mat or shiny

Inside Grand Central’s concourse, we reflect on the subject of watching, surveillance and the omnipresent CCTV camera. From one spot, we count 37 ceiling and wall mounted cameras in a 360 degree group pan. Our attract the attention of the station staff – can they be of assistance? ‘No thanks, just looking around’.

The walk is followed (after a break in the busy bar beneath the Evil Eye) by a free seeing workshop that devotes more time and considered practice into some of the techniques. It too is a success and allows a deeper understanding of the technique. Indeed Francis will lead one more of these workshops before the festival ends. Please join us at the foot of the grand staircase, Grand Central at 3pm on Sunday 27th September – we’ll be the ones with the yoga mats.

Naturally, the workshop is free! Book below.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/myevent?eid=18805630146

'The Crow'

‘The Crow’

Jane and the City: Jane’s Walks Come to Brum.

Jane and the City: Jane’s Walks Come to Brum.

I learnt about Jane’s Walk about two years ago: citizen-led guided tours that anyone who cares about their locale can lead. Jane being Jane Jacobs, influential US town planner and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The tours are an international memorial to perpetuate her life’s values, all happening over one weekend. Alan Bain of JMP introduced me to Jane’s Walks and on closer inspection, they very closely paralleled Still Walking in many aspects. The key one being: arranging a temporary outdoor forum for discussing our surroundings and how they affect us.

It’s interesting to see which cities have a programme: it’s not always those which have an active tourist guided tour presence. In the UK, York, Cambridge, Oxford and Edinburgh have yet to run one but Birmingham, Bradford, Coventry and Stoke all feature prominently. Obviously, these walks are for doing something other than sight seeing.

The idea behind my walk along Bristol Road / Street was to experience at walking pace an arterial road more usually experienced by bus or car. Would there be anything worth visiting? Several people showed up after work on Friday to find out.

The moments which intrigued the group were unexpected. We debated for 10 minutes why the Ethiopian restaurant was called Shamrock: was it a sign of ethnic integration? Were there shamrocks in Ethiopia and were they lucky / edible? Two members of the group volunteered to dine there soon and report back. Another restaurant sign mystery appeared later: why was the drive-thru McDonalds sign a) green and b) tiny to the point of unreadable? There were more questions than answers. Two of the group lived nearby and were the only people present who had walked the full length of the road. This couple remembered the Superprix in the 1980s – a trace of which was still visible, spelling out ‘Birmingham’ in crocus greenery. In the private housing estate, we looked at some amazing sculptural details: goblins appeared to be offering a pig to a prone figure. Easter Island heads loomed over the entrances to the 15 blocks. We were joined by a member of the residents’ committee, curious about our curiosity, and able to provide details I hadn’t googled before setting out. Our final destination was a large but empty hotel. It advertised a fishing lake and beer garden, both of which would have been welcome in this ‘dry’ residential area. When I left the walk, several of the group appeared to be working out how to break in to investigate further.

Flowers for Drivers

Flowers for Drivers

The Saturday morning walk was another ‘long street’ showcase, led by Dr Dave Richardson. Dave works with the My Route project – highlighting the history and heritage of the first few miles of Stratford Road. A compact group gathered to find out more. The route instantly took us to unfamiliar territory: the former James Bicycle Factory – a well preserved Victorian delight in Lombardic Romanesque style. The famous Vale-Onslow motorcycle shop was next: the scaffolding and greenery in the brickwork suggested it was long closed but surprisingly it was still trading. Like the Diskery we visited yesterday, this shop had at some unnoticed point become a museum to itself. Similarly, the last stand of the Irish community in the area is represented by Bourke’s grocers. Its crucifixes, sacks of Irish potatoes (Rooster, Kerrs Pink and Golden Wonder) feel like carefully curated exhibits. What became apparent on this walk is how much I’d missed in the past – and I’m usually on the look-out for these details. I’d even combed the street with David earlier in the year. But being in a group, observing and talking seems to make features pop out of the urban fabric, and their meaning more apparent. Our walk ended at the Antelope – a beautiful Arts and Crafts former pub with a huge William Bloye relief panel of an Antelope. The building is now Hajees Spices, which whilst resolutely ‘dry’ still recognises and preserves the beauty of the pub’s decoration and ornate M&B lettering. No single moment better characterises the social changes at work in the area.

Doctor Foot

Doctor Foot

On Sunday morning, Fin Skillen introduced us to the world of the Cycle Courier. The courier needs to know the city inside out but in a different way to taxi drivers’ (erstwhile) knowledge of street names. Short cuts, near misses and road network savviness in a city designed specifically for cars are all essential components. Fin explained the routes he took were against the clock and needed to avoid red lights whenever possible. During multi-drops, joining the dots meant understanding that shortest wasn’t necessarily quickest, required keeping gravity on your side and knowing where to chain up in safety. Fin showed us many snipped padlocks and wholly removed Sheffield stands – indices of where to avoid locking up. Cycling all day means a ferocious calorie burn and knowing where the cheap sandwiches are is critical. Samples and street-distributed freebies are common once you know where to go – our group were treated to the taste of new banana flavour Soreen, handed out in Centenary Square to the 10k race runners. This also proved to be a history walk: in the three years since he last worked as a courier, the city has changed significantly and many of Fin’s short cuts no longer are possible. Even taking a few days away from the fervent urban upheaval is enough to put you at a disadvantage.

A single malt

A single malt

Lost and Found: Sport and the City on Monday was Alan Bain’s walk of the lost sports fields of Bearwood – a curious cluster of these appearing along City Road. Alan played on many of these fields just 15 years ago but it must have felt more like 50 to see so many of them grown over and sealed off. Our first field was the Avery Sports Ground on City Road, a recreation ground originally created for employees of Avery weighing scales manufacturers. It’s been unused since 1979 1995 with no evidence of its imminent future reuse. The scale is epic and there’s a real atmosphere of loss and lost opportunity on tennis courts, cricket pitches and football fields still visible beneath the growth. Apart from the obligatory blue bottle of Frosty Jack at the gate, there is little evidence that anyone in using the space in any way. Another clue is the notice served up by GRC Bailiffs a year ago advising on horses that had been detained on the land.

Our next lost grounds has been built over completely. David Wilson Homes have convincingly recreated a village of six bedroom houses over the former sports ground: ‘Lordswood Gardens, Harborne’ (although we are still in Bearwood). Some space has been preserved as a village green effect and meadow. The national shortfall in new houses means sports ground become the equivalent of inner city green belt. We visit two other sites: a cricket field formerly belonging to the M&B’s Cape Hill Brewery in a transitional phase, and a football field overgrown but with goal posts and floodlights still standing. Street names reflect the M&B logo: Stag Road, Antler Way, Roebuck Road.

Avery Fields

Lost home game

The final walk on Monday afternoon is more a survey of how street furniture has been adapted to confound skateboarders in Eastside City Park. Since the closure of the ramp at the Custard Factory in February, this is the skaters’ last refuge in the city. Even before the park officially opened, the skaters had been in and were waxing down the steps stone edges for their tricks. For this event I had invited Mark Preston from Ideal Skates to lead a brief walk around the area and show how various extra bits of metal were being added to the stone work. I’d spotted the metal knobs appearing but had missed a more subtle feature: lengths of metal inserted between stone slabs to deliberately scupper small hard wheels’ progress. Other park users hadn’t missed them: there were a few pedestrian stumbles from time to time. It appeared that skaters merely adapt their technique to the new obstacles. I had heard about tools created to remove the knobs and Mark confirms he’d previously discovered knobs which would simply pull out and could be replaced neatly after use.

Whatever your take on skating, there are many who come specifically to the park to watch their tricks and who may stay on in the area to do something else, economically. One problem in the park is litter. We’d previously identified the positioning of a large litter bin at the end of a low-level wall as a deliberate effort to thwart skaters jumping off the end. A chance encounter with a park committee member revealed the positioning was accidental – it was merely to make depositing litter in it more likely. The true situation is that the young skaters hate the bin and won’t use it to protest its presence. This Jane’s Walk revealed the subtle and unknowable rhythms, rules and intentions of city space and how making them overlap by public forum, even on a small informal scale can yield beneficial results.

Park Life

Park life

Tunnel Vision – Walking the Inner Ring Road Tunnels

The Ring Road tunnels opened again today after six weeks of closure and the city’s petrol powered traffic can once again circulate at will – at least until 10pm when the curfew sounds.

Earlier in the year, friend-of-the-festival Roxie Collins suggested an excellent walk: a night-time pedestrian stroll through the tunnels. If approved, it would be a rare opportunity to walk in the usually exclusive domain of the motor car. Roxie is a fan of car parks and car spaces in general and her tour for the festival year visited the city’s landmark car parks and subways. Going by the quick take up of tickets, many others were too. I thought I’d try to arrange it, thinking how long it might be before another opportunity to do this (safely) came around. The earliest Still Walking festival featured a walk led by Joe Holyoak, talking about the Inner Ring Road from a planner’s perspective – a walk that stopped short of entering the tunnels themselves. This would be an elegant way to complete that missing section. Indeed the festival has a recurring obsession with the ring road: in March this year, Glen Stoker accompanied a dozen people around the Middle Ring Road. And in 2017, the festival will feature an epic trek around the outer ring road…

My email efforts to contact the BCC tunnels boss or head of tourism at Amey led nowhere unfortunately, even though I pitched the benefits of having a public access event to offset the inconvenience of tunnel closure. However, a week later an email arrived from a colleague: Amey were now advertising a guided walk by Construction Manager Kevan Lambe. Anyone was welcome so long as they had full PPE ie., hard hats, hi-viz and work boots. I signed up immediately and scrambled some kit together.

Two weeks later I was sitting in a container office near Spaghetti Junction, receiving the H&S training, evacuation procedure, general tunnel tips and tricks and most interestingly for me a slide show of Queensway history (also called Tunnel Vision) and tunnel facts and figures. During Kevan’s presentation, the assembled group learnt that the concept of the Ring Road dates back to 1944, while the country was still at war. There are times when you have to respect that kind of commitment to the Forward motto. Likewise the 1971 launch date, which came six years ahead of schedule. And everyone knows the Queen’s blunder in naming the jewelled  carriageway…

Some intriguing details emerged before we set off to explore: when the tunnels closed last year, people tended to stay on longer in the city after work, shopping or heading to restaurants and bars having left the car at home. Businesses reported an increased turnover, which was maintained even after the tunnels reopened. Kevan also detailed the various work being carried out in the tunnels: new LED lighting that varies in intensity throughout the day, actually becoming dimmer at night to minimise the contrast from driving from darkness into an illuminated environment. Ventillation and fireproofing is improved and there is now support for emergency services radio communications. Video cameras automatically detect incidents or collisions and email the relevant personnel and switch on an in-tunnel voice alarm / public PA system. Leaks have been fixed.

The feeling of walking in the tunnels is very much that you shouldn’t be there. Not from a permission perspective but rather that walking in the spaces I’ve previously watched thousands of cars zipping through just plain feels dangerous. When driving through previously, I’ve noticed doors on the left hand wall leading somewhere… on this walk we entered such a door, ascended a spiral staircase into a cavernous plant room, with vents opening up to the carriageways below. All along the tunnel, on cherry pickers and magic carpets men work through the night on overhead gantries and fixtures. An occasional beeping means such a platform is descending and we need to watch out. Former access gates from the surface have been sealed off, being infiltrated by the curious while the tunnels are closed. Bags of fireproofing powder lie in piles, waiting to be sprayed onto the surfaces. We’re in there for around an hour, with a full commentary on every aspect – details usually missed completely by motorists as they whizz beneath the city in a matter of minutes.

The final pix courtesy of Andrew Kulman – follow his Twitter stream of 60s /70s Brumicana @AndrewKulman

 

IMG_0615image-11 image-9 image-8image-1 image-5image-2 image-3 image-7image-6 image-4RingRoad3 RingRoad2

RingRoad4

Pete Ashton’s Sensory Walk vs SOUNDkitchen

A few Saturdays ago I joined one of Pete Ashton’s recent series of Sensory Photo Walks, this one being created in collaboration with SOUNDkitchen. The purpose of Pete’s photo walks is to explore a location and take photos, prompted by Pete’s suggestions on how we might reframe what’s around us. The most recent series of walks have been informed by an extra layer of influence – on mine this was SOUNDkitchen’s Iain Armstrong’s gentle audiophile exercises in how to listen to the world.

I’ve long believed that seeing the world is a layered and inherently inaccurate, lazy and filtered undertaking that tells us as much about the unreliable agents our brains are as it does about what’s actually out there. Fortunately, the process is something that can be derailed, broken down and fine-tuned for our better understanding of the world and our enjoyment of it, if we know what to do. The Photo Walks provide a means to slow the moment of observation down to the point where we notice what we notice, what to do about that and how to adjust it. The audio world is perhaps even less noticeable, routinely filtered out immediately we’ve identified something as a threat, a nuisance or nothing. In September, SOUNDkitchen created a walk for the festival looking at (or listening to) those themes, revealing the many aspects of happens when we choose to listen to something.

What happens when you let one approach lead to the other? Can listening to the world then affect the way you see it?

One aspect of the Photo Walks that I find interesting is the slowing down of the time it takes to frame and take a photo. What seems like a relatively straightforward decision turns out to be fraught with conflicting motives. The first effect I noticed is also echoed in Karen Strunks 4am project: it’s easier to take photographs in a group than solo, particularly so with a leader. Karen’s events take place in the middle of the night, are often locations you can visit anyway but despite that are usually booked out instantly. The value is that you are not undertaking the experience alone. Being freed from the perceived role of outsider (in both Karen and Pete’s events) affords more time to weigh up the location, what it is doing, how you feel about it and what the shot should therefore be. Looking at things becomes the norm, whereas undertaken individually it can appear suspicious or even confrontational. People in the group (which can get quite spread out) are thinking alike, and knowing this can be a consolidating force. They have planted a temporary flag and the lone, unfocussed pedestrian who encounters the school is the awkward newcomer who will cross the road, or apologise for interrupting.

I found being freed of the need to finish a shot quickly, and actively being led by two authorities really allowed some active consideration. How this actually manifests is an individual moment (and my photography is shit) but I found I was doing things I wouldn’t normally do. The opening exercise was a sweeping search of the quality of sounds in a rare wide-open spot in the city centre. Sounds were coming from all directions: nearby skateboarders grinding and clattering, a train zipping by, traffic hum from the city. I listened for the most distant sound and then applied the feeling of perceptive expansion to the visual horizon too. The results stretched the capacity of my compact camera’s zoom function and revealed the kind of hazy pylons, masts and overhead signal gantries beloved of Tarkovsky or Godspeed You Black Emperor. Were they good photos? No. Did it alter my perception of the world? Yes!

Elsewhere I matched sonic rhythms to visual ones and considered the notion of duration in a photograph (by switching to the Fireworks setting in a dark road tunnel). In the car park of the Dog’s Home I looked for visual puns and stoopid jokes.

Towards the end of the walk, I spotted a very narrow aperture between two buildings, several feet deep but perhaps only six inches across. I told the people I was walking with about a movement artist (Vanessa Grasse) who recently has become interested in squeezing into narrow alcoves and hollows in the urban context. Would any of us fit in? I didn’t really expect anyone to try but one adventurous woman was curious enough to shed camera and coat, and shuffle into the gap. I took a photo – we all spotted it was a great photo opportunity. I sensed that it was the instructional walk, the social environment of fellow creatives and the unspoken seizing control of the area that allowed this wonderful moment to happen at my suggestion.

Conclusion: ’Group looking improves the world.’

Walk the Middle Way

Last year, the fastest selling tour in the Still Walking festival was Joe Holyoak’s Walk the Queensway. At the time, it seemed unlikely that the ring road would attract that amount of interest, but it did and looking back it all makes sense. Everyone in Birmingham has an opinion on subways, car-parking, crossing the road and the dynamics and effect of the ring road on the city. It showed clearly that the format of a guided tour needn’t be about showcasing the highlights of the city and that people want to know about the urban planning process – even if that means witnessing the flip side of Birmingham’s bold post-war experiments.

There is a spirit of irony in choosing to walk the ring road too: this route is all about the car and the marginalisation of everything else. Certainly that means the pedestrian but also the environment, the local economy and ultimately the city itself. Zen Buddhists may also reflect on an unintentional double meaning in the term “Middle Way”.

This week, I met ring road aficionado Glen Stoker of Stoke’s Air Space gallery to walk around Birmingham’s Middle Ring Road. I’d never done it before and despite having maps and a fail-safe ‘keep going’ circular strategy for navigation we actually managed to get the route wrong. By the time we came full circle, it emerged we’d managed to skip a significant part of the full route. But this didn’t really matter as we both agreed that encountering and exploring new spaces was the real purpose of the journey.

The three hour journey allowed us to talk about our interests with occasional tangential excursions as we encountered places where we felt motivated to stop. It was intriguing to see what lay either side of the ring road and how that incision seemed to have shaped the city. Some of these areas I already knew and wanted to share with Glen (making this partially a guided tour) but most were places I had never visited before. Having the express intention of visiting these places over an afternoon seemed to make them more visible. Until today, if there had been another route to walk other than the noisy ring road I would usually do exactly that. It’s interesting to think about why exactly some parts of the city are rarely visited, even for the ardent walking explorer.

A particular highlight that afternoon was a leafy avenue of trees leading to a gated enclosure containing a variety of pipes and ducts emerging from the ground. A concourse of hexagonal moss mosaics led away from this installation. All of this was contained invisibly within the central reservation of the Middle Ring Road. When we reached Highgate, I was able to introduce Glen to the culverted section of Rea, at this point handily accessible by steps. I now include the Rea in a walk wherever possible because of the conversations it naturally leads to, but have by now stopped referring to it as a river.

Many sections were unwalkable. We crossed several times either through piqued interest but mostly through necessity. By the end (or what we thought was the end) we knew the city that bit better but also better understood each other’s approach to walking. Glen was interested that my approach to researching a guided tour starts with simply looking while on the move. As a maker, Glen usually maps the journey for further use or simply as an associated aspect of walking. I generally don’t do this. Neither of us were particularly interested in the ‘game’ aspect of walking for its own sake, but rather for its yields.

Find out more about Glen’s work at

http://www.airspacegallery.org/2007/


http://www.amatterofdeathandlife.blogspot.com

SOUNDkitchen // SOUNDwalk

I met Iain, Annie and James from SOUNDkitchen last week for a run through of their SOUNDwalk. Edgbaston reservoir lends itself well to a circular walk and an opportunity to reflect on a natural environment at the edge of the city. It’s no coincidence that a Buddhist Monastery is located nearby. The walk includes exercises to get the walkers into the spirit of listening to moments we’d usually overlook. It’s not easy – Iain references the background chatter in our minds, creating to do lists and stupid jokes in our (my) head. But we can train ourselves to focus – we never usually need to.

We have previously downloaded several tracks onto our iPods previously in the day and have been instructed not to listen to them until now. At key points, we are invited to press play and guess what we are listening to, from an up-close recording created earlier by the SOUNDkitchen team. There is always a clue nearby but the answer is often a complete surprise. Elsewhere, we listen to the live sounds of strategically placed microphones around (and in) the reservoir.

SOUNDkitchen provide a few more clues about the event below. About three tickets still remain so act quickly for this one! Tour starts at 5 30pm Friday 20th Sep (tomorrow) at Perrot’s Folly and lasts around 90 mins. We can provide an MP3 player if you happen not to have one. Book here.

Our walk offers an opportunity to engage in an active listening experience of the soundscape of the Edgbaston Reservoir and surrounding area. Aided by the use of sound technology we will augment your hearing ability to discover tiny hidden sounds, listen to distant locations and experience the environment from differing sonic perspectives.

The main purpose of our soundwalk is to encourage walkers to actively listen to their environment. Using some simple listening exercises we will guide participants to explore in detail the changing soundscape of the Edgbaston Reservoir, an important site for nature conservation and a popular urban leisure destination situated close to the city centre.

The walk will be punctuated with several augmented listening stations where, with the use of live microphones and pre-recorded audio tracks, walkers will be able to experience the environment from differing sonic perspectives. Come and hear sounds from under the water, be transported to a distant landmark, discover tiny hidden noises and open your ears to an aural wonderland.

Thanks to: Keith Wraight, Edgbaston Watersports; Rev. Matthew Tomlinson and the Choir of St Augustine’s Church; Jenny Middleton; Jim Harrison BCC Ranger Service

Freeseeing and Night Photowalk: Two Events in the Fringe Festival

I first heard about Free Seeing through its originator: Mr Andy Spackman,[edit: oops, it seems Francis Lowe is the originator :s] a lecturer in Graphics at Coventry University. The concept was simple: think of ‘free running’ (aka Parkour) and replace ‘running’ with ‘seeing’. A clever move I thought, and rather easier than free running… but possibly less common. Francis Lowe invites and explains:

I created Free Seeing in response to the concept of ‘the found object’. Why not take it one step further and ‘find spaces’? We rarely take time to stop and really record what we see, so Free Seeing invites viewers to stop, look and really see.

Free Seeing is an audience-led initiative that allows audiences to find beauty, mood and pattern in the most unexpected and often ordinary of places. A Free Seeing event involves visiting sites in and around the country and encouraging audiences to find time to appreciate the visual value of spaces and places that have hitherto gone unnoticed.

Free Seeing is for everyone and can be experienced in any way. An audience member may choose to take a camera, a note-pad, a chair or even a picnic. Free Seeing lasts as little or as long as the audience want it to.

The first Free See in Birmingham will take place in Digbeth on Thursday 19th of September. Participants should meet at 3.00pm outside the Fusion Centre of South and City College, High street Deritend, Digbeth, B5 6DY.

We will take a fresh look at some of the hidden gems that exist within the nooks, crannies and man made environments of the area.

Bring a chair… some food… a flask… Whatever you want!

And on Wednesday: the Night Photo School Workshop with Pete Ashton

How do you take photographs when there isn’t much light? How do you deal with small bright streetlamps against a dark sky? What are the best settings for a long exposure? How can you build a light painting using movements of the city?

This workshop starts with a brief introduction to shooting at night, with and without a tripod, before spending 3 hours on the streets of Birmingham. Tripods are highly recommended though not essential.

This workshop was last run in December. Photos taken by participants are on the blog here.

We meet at the Symphony Hall Cafe Bar at 7.30pm then head out into the twilight from 8.00. The Cafe Bar is on your left as you enter the ICC from Centenary Square.

You can book here

This event is part of the Still Walking Festival Fringe. Thanks to THSH for letting us use the Cafe Bar for the class.

Let me know if you are hosting a walking event happening during the festival and I’ll promote them here. There a lot of walking going on in the city!

Quiet Edges // The Silent Walk

The Silent Walk

The silent walk is a standard in the walking artist’s tool kit. It’s a great introduction to how effective live art can be and that it doesn’t always require a lot of preparation or even a budget.

The first one I went on was Kira O’Reilly’s Silent Walk which ran during Fierce Festival in 2011. She told me she’d adapted it from a Chicago performance group called Goat Island. The event was an aimless and leaderless wander as a group (or about 15 people) setting off from what was then VIVID’s space on Heath Mill Lane in Digbeth. Kira led the assembled group out of the door initially to give it momentum but after that it decided (without communicating) where it would go next and what it would stop to look at. An invisible group dynamic decides where to go next. Essentially, it was experiencing flocking behaviour in humans. I recall we stopped to look at a broken water main that was bubbling up through the pavement like a fountain, and the only time the the group stalled was outside the police station on Digbeth High Street. The group attracted a few glances but wasn’t regarded with suspicion – even by the police. There might be the occasional puzzled look as the group descended down an alley.

The second silent walk I went on involved walking round Chelsea with a similarly sized group, but this time gathered together by a large elastic band, about fifty feet long. This time the group did attract attention. People in the group took the instruction of silence as binding and questions, comments and interventions from the public outside the band were ignored. The wake of friction and confusion it left through the streets was almost as visible as ship churning up the ocean. There was separate dynamic within the group: who should support the band (it wasn’t attached to us) and how fast to walk, how to ensure everyone had enough space. At one point the group stopped and the two leaders left the band and set off in different directions. Who should we follow?

Each walking artist adds their own tweak to the game – and a slient walk should be a fun and intriguing expereince. Such a walk features in the Still Walking programme: Simone Kenyon’s Quiet Edges. It proceeds through some outlying streets around the Jewellery Quarter this afternoon, but this will not be about site-seeing. The locations will be unfamiliar to most. Simone will invite you to experience the city and the simple act of group walking in a way that may well be new to you. The first rule is “No Talking”. The second rule is lively discussion of exactly what you experienced in a warm, dry location with a drink after the event: I look forward to hearing your take on what happens!

Some tickets still available here.

Still Walking is Go!

Announcing the launch of the third Still Walking festival! Ten new guided walks around Birmingham over the next ten days (mostly around the weekends) with various investigations / blogging / promoting other people’s walking events / generally wandering around in the week days between. Please do let us know if you got something interesting happening involving walking in your part of Birmingham, or even further afield.

Check the full programme though be warned that events are selling fast!

We’re calling the midweek events and activities the Still Walking Fringe: this is really just highlighting the events that are happening anyway. It seems people walk for all sorts of different reasons but it can be quite difficult to find out what’s happening where. For this outing of the festival, we’ll be going out of our way to find out what’s happening in Birmingham – the city people are calling “the City of Walking” ;O)

We’ll be blogging more about the Fringe over the next few days but some highlights are Pete Ashton’s Practical Psychogeography Workshop on Mon 16 September starting at 4 30pm – 9pm and Roland Kedge’s Glacial Boulder walk on Saturday 14th September (tomorrow!). For that walk, you need only turn up at the Great Stone Inn, Church Road, Northfield at 2pm. Roland will guide this three mile tour over approx 2 hours and round up the various glacial deposits that made their way from Wales during the last ice age. Free!

The festival proper kicks off this evening with Words on Buildings led by Birmingham Architecture Festival’s Laira Piccinato. The walk sold out some time ago but I’m going to see if she’ll lead another before it gets too wintery. Add yourself to the mailing list to be the first to find out: but in the meantime plenty of other tours are running. They’re all £4 and one is free.

But before then I’m going on a short walk to gear up for the events: a simple exercise to visit the nearest street to my home that I haven’t been to before. For me, that’s the mysterious sounding Pentos Drive near the river Cole. I’ll be joined by the noted Brummie nocturnal explorer Karen Strunks. Why do it? There’s probably nothing there but I think it’s good to expand your zone a bit occasionally.

A final note: launching a festival on Friday the Thirteenth may seem to be inviting trouble but luckily all the guides are paid up members of the Lucky Two Shoes League of Foot Freedom.

See you on the walks!

Ben Waddington

Festival Director