What is the significance and potential of walking for artistic practice in pandemic times? The team of the research project "Walking Publics / Walking Arts" interviewed more than 150 artists in Great Britain.
The WALK! exhibition at the SCHIRN comes at a timely moment for walking arts practices. In a UK context at least, we saw an increase in walking at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps unsurprisingly there are also many examples of artists who have turned to walking practices as a result of lockdown restrictions. As part of our research project Walking Publics / Walking Arts: walking, wellbeing and community during COVID-19 we surveyed UK-based artists who used walking in their practice between March 2020 and May 2021. Through the project we have been interested in exploring how artists used walking during this time, whether they were new to walking as a practice and how they adapted their work as a result of restrictions.
More than 150 UK-based artists completed our survey, providing information on the types of walking work created and the motivations behind it. From these responses we invited submissions to our openly accessible #WalkCreate digital gallery. We received 126 works from over 80 artists providing a snapshot of the various ways that walking featured in these artists’ practice during the pandemic.
Walking as inspiration and method
One thing that the project has captured is the real breadth of ways that walking features in these works. Strict definitions of walking art, that it should use walking as a primary medium (i.e., the walk is the work) have been challenged in our research by artists for whom walking serves as inspiration, as method, as a daily practice that informs a whole range of artistic mediums.
In our #WalkCreate Gallery for instance, we received submissions of paintings, poems, sculptures and film works that had been made in response to walking; we received audio and sound walks made for people to experience on a walk or while isolating at home; we received remote walks that aimed to bring people together even though they were apart, creative interventions into public space, community-based projects that aimed to mitigate against some of the pandemic’s negative impact, and much, much more.
For many of the artists surveyed in our research walking became a daily activity. This turn to walking was reflected by artists who used walking for the first time in their practice. 17% of the artists who completed our survey had never used walking in their work before COVID-19 and 85% of those respondents stated they would use walking as a creative resource in the future.
Giving space to feelings and thoughts
Some artists started walking more for their own wellbeing. Graphic artist Sarah Lightman walked to escape the domestic constraints of the house during lockdown. Her oil painting “Blue Sky Walking during a Pandemic” documents a period following the recent death of her father when she used her walks to get away from home schooling, cooking and cleaning responsibilities at home. Lightman walked to create space to think and feel and delight in nature: “When I was walking… I could be more truly myself, more truly alone” (Sarah Lightman).
Others turned to walking because they were no longer able to make work in their usual medium due to restrictions. Theatre director Olivia Furber worked with filmmaker Ramzi Maqdisi to create “The Land’s Heart is Greater than its Map”, an alternative guided audio walk that immersed the London-based listener in the streets of Maqdisi’s Palestinian hometown. Movement artist and theatre-maker Sara El Sheekh made a site-specific sound walk that responded to her daily walks in her local park with her 3-year-old. Making her work “Moving Roots” was “something I could engage with while looking after my son... I started to record sounds while out on walks and then began to work on a performance which audiences can experience on their own” (Sara El Sheekh).
Finally, some artists offered walking experiences for those who may have been isolating or for whom walking was simply not possible. Some of our #WalkCreate entries have focussed on the idea of the Indoor or Virtual Walk--an imaginative journey to experience at home.
Laura Fisher’s audio work “Going In | Going Out” draws on techniques of embodied memory and visualisation, as well as a beautifully meditative soundscape with music from Sonia Killman, to enable listeners to connect with their body and ‘walk’ to landscapes beyond their immediate indoor environment. Fisher’s work is informed by her identity as a disabled artist where, even before the pandemic, she had “experienced long periods of being unable to leave my home as well as reduced geographical area that I can travel around, due to my condition and capacity” (Laura Fisher). Fisher’s piece works with this embodied expertise in ways that aim to directly mitigate against the isolation and anxiety produced by our confined existence – to offer a “gesture of love… in a time of crisis” (Fisher).
What is emerging from our research is not only an increased use of walking across artforms but also the potential of both walking and creativity to alleviate some of the negative impacts of the pandemic. The adaptability and resilience of artists during COVID-19, whether walking alone, in groups, indoors, online, or simply as a daily practice, has demonstrated the potential of walking to support each of us on our way out of the pandemic.