In the context of the brilliant Walk On exhibition that currently finishes its tour in Plymouth, ‘walking artist’ Hamish Fulton was invited to develop one of his participatory walks on Saturday 6 December. In a short introduction just before the event he described the planned walk as ‘unusual’ in the sense it was very unlikely that it belonged to a set of habitual walks and that the participants had either done a similar walk or would have one in the future. Actually Fulton has organised similar communal walks, amongst others in Penzance during The Cornwall Workshop in 2013 that celebrated his 40 years as a walking artists. For that occasion two new art works were created, the first one of which had a certain resemblance to the Plymouth walk. In Penzance more than 100 collaborators walked the width of the promenade to and fro the sea for 60 minutes.
The walk’s location that Fulton had chosen for Plymouth was situated just in front of the city’s Civic Centre where the pavement in-between the building and the pond is made up of large slabs that are wide enough to accommodate just one person. Fulton invited the participants to walk up and down the short width of the pavement, each walker occupying an alternate row, choosing a persistent pace and to do this for exactly one hour between 11 am and 12 pm in complete silence. The kind invite and explanation of Fulton stood somewhat in harsh contrast to the rather rigid approach of some of the invigilators as well as the instruction in itself. What would this seemingly monotonous task and somewhat military organisation bring? In the sunny, freezing morning cold with some time before the actual start some of us headed for the local coffee stand to get some warming coffee and discuss our expectations. It was great to see the variety of participants, ranging from well-known faces from the art world to many people I had not met before. Instructed by Fulton that there was no leader in this walk, just timing, we all started to walk at 11am sharp. And a wondrous thing happened. The seemingly monotonous turned out to be a perfect allegory for what life is, for what it means to be human. Pacing up and down the pavement it soon became clear that there was no such thing as monotony quite similar to John Cage’s remark that there is no such thing as silence. We were obviously surrounded by a wide variety of factors that quickly took over from the monotony. The walkers on either side had a different pace, walking as brisk as me or choosing to walk extremely slowly. Sometimes we would walk alongside each other, only to move apart again. Some of the Saturday shopping crowd noticed something weird going on and observed us from the other side of the pond. Some accidentally or on purpose walked right through our orchestrated group, which caused an exciting stir and exciting counter movement.
Walking was most interesting to me and many others when completely in the flow of the moment where everything outside temporarily seemed to disappear altogether, only to be snapped out of this flow again by small happenings, a change in the light, a passers-by comment, the soundtrack of the noisy fairground attraction nearby, its thumbing motor and its music with Abba’s Waterloo as a personal high point. Overall the walk made me smile and relaxed, reflecting about the vulnerability of this walking crowd and its necessity, to perform a collective ‘silly’ walk against the world’s austereness, against its commercially, its growing averseness against critical thinking or action, the beauty of the movement and counter movement. What we did could be called system walking making it very clear that any system has its wondrous varieties.
Fulton’s walks over the last 40 years have varied from individual walks to these communal ones that I took part in. They are in all respects artworks, kinetic sculptures that however sometimes hardly move as in the case of the second Cornish ‘slow’ walk at the low tide between Penzance and Marazion. At the same time the question can be asked where the artwork exactly resides. In the concept and the walking of the artist himself, in that of his collaborators, in the collaboration, in the photographic registration? To me, as a fortunate participant, the artwork seems to reside at all of these levels. Fulton made it clear beforehand that we should feel free to record the walk also from within and many of us did although it worked somewhat unsettling to do so. Nevertheless there are now not only the photographs of Graham Gaunt who also recorded the Penzance walks, but equally the many snap shots and short videos by the participants themselves. Not that these form art works in themselves but they add a layer to the many layers, including each of the participants experience of the walk, that in my view make up the total artwork.
All photos by Edith Doove