comes from Old English wealcan, to roll;
whence we get wealcare, a fuller of cloth, and thus
the surname Walker has the same origin as Fuller.
She curst the weaver and the walker
The clothe that they had wrought.
Percy: Reliques (The Boy and the Mantle).
And to walk, indeed, is to roll along the landscape. And as the
machine fulling cloth, on their daily wanderings people weave and
felt their identities, memories and most routine practices into
the fabric of a place.
We might ask geographers, architects, bus drivers and sanitation
officers what constitutes a city. From each we would gather distinct
answers: developed land, housing amalgamation, infrastructure network,
and management of resources and excess. For myself, I share Roland
Barthes' bias. Like him, "I can't get myself interested in
the beauty of a place if there are no people in it." By the
same token, it is owing to communities that I discover the charm
and individuality that constitutes a city. It is by following walkers
on their preferred paths that I gain appreciation for a place. This
is also the course by which I become aware of how richly unique
urban cultures can be, and how the texture of locales contributes
to our daily experience.
What does it mean, then, to be taken for a walk? This question is
at the core of the aesthetic and theoretical research Jen Hamilton
and Jen Southern conducted in Morecambe and Lancaster, North West
England. In the early nineteenth century, Morecambe was just a small
fishing village set on the coast of the Irish Sea. As the fishing
and tourism industries developed, the city stretched laterally along
the seafront, across the bay from the Lake District. The neighbouring
Lancaster is much older. Bisected by the river Lune, its narrow
Georgian streets are organised in winding patterns around and up
to the perched medieval Lancaster Castle built in the thirteenth
century. While the characteristic topography of each city organises
potential mobility, what mostly sets these places apart is how their
populations claim their streets and public spaces. They do this,
in part, by walking, an embodied interaction between people and
place that has been a key theme in the artistic practices of Hamilton
For two weeks in the early fall autumn? of 2004 the artists walked
thirty-four routes, guided by local walkers who had woven habitual
paths to accommodate their daily activities. Documenting these multiple
wanderings by means of GPS technology, Hamilton and Southern amassed
a mesh of GPS-generated abstract line-drawings, which they reproduced
in the gallery with a series of locational pegs and fibre webs.
Michel de Certeau has meticulously described the difference between
the abstraction that the city becomes when seen from the vantage
point of a bird or a GPS satellite (voyeurism, or the pleasure of
seeing whole), as opposed to the total sensory experience of rolling
down a street. From above, the city appears as an irregular pattern
that can be mapped and rationally embraced. From below, the movement
of bodies, the competing sounds of street life and the contest of
intermingling smells define any given encounter with a place in
such chaotic ways that it becomes impossible to replicate one’s
brush with the city. At this human level of activity and vision,
mobility is blind to the general organisation of a place.
This is, undoubtedly, a challenge for any potential representation
of walking in the city. Indeed, when the artists – to their own surprise – were
taken twice on the same itinerary by distinct walkers, they discovered
that GPS abstraction tends to strip the humanity from geography.
That is to say that, in the succession of locations identified by
the satellites and re-transmitted to the electronic device snugly
held in the hand of a walker, something inevitably disappears. In
the wanderings mapped in the spirit of psychogeography, directionality,
loitering, skipping, looking, talking, laughing, sharing and touching
all faded away. They all transmuted and ossified into aesthetic
configurations composed of static broken lines... into a too literal
sense of place.
Yet these walks in Morecambe and Lancaster were by no means walks
for walks' sake. They represent people's habits. They mark the routes
workers use on their daily travels to and fro the factory. They
correspond to the pleasant and necessary walkies taken with beloved
pets. They trace a woman’s meditative course involving favourite
places collected over forty years of living in the same locale.
These routes constitute threads that sustain the cultural fabric
of these two cities, places being woven and felt while simultaneously
fraying at the edges. Having said this, the problem that still arises
is how to represent these dynamic encounters with people and with
cities within the confines of four white gallery walls.
Points on a map are not meaningful until they are put in relation
one with the next. In the gallery, the artists translated locational
coordinates as pegs pricked constellation-like into the blue surfaces
of large wooden screens. On the reverse surfaces left rough and
unpainted, strings were stretched between the pegs, and markings
were made as mnemonic devices to recall the identity of walkers
and the time they shared with the artists. The strings do not invoke
a simple symbolic recreation of the walks, but a mise-en-séquence;
one needs to order space to make sense of it. It is indeed the interpretation
of sites by means of words, architecture or images that articulates
a relationship to place – as imperfect as this representation
might be. Paradoxically, the tangly, messy mesh of fibre produced
by Hamilton and Southern creates this order.
In the gallery display, the cities have vanished, leaving only
vestiges of the encounters the artists had with the peripatetic
participants of the art experiment. But while the architecture and
the streets of Morecambe and Lancaster disappeared, the spatial
practices of the walkers materialized in unruly strands. Referring
back to Michel de Certeau, these traces can only be seen as schematic
alternates (or perhaps complements) to the experience of space one
accesses through rolling along the streets of the city. This is
because the pegs and twine will never tell us how someone is situated
in a location or moving along a path.
The strings nevertheless remain as evocative metaphors for each
walking venture. The intertwining of fibres held steadily by friction
and tension, yet ever ready to fray, articulates potentialities
into distinct paths, paths developed by each individual walker.
But if walking can be traced by twine and pegs, these only refer
to past wanderings, to the now-consumed experience of place. This
conundrum that appears as the weaving of absence reminds me of a
beautiful description of an imaginary city by Italo Calvino:
In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain a city's
life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of houses,
white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they
mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When
the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among
them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the
strings and their supports remain.
The rolled and fraying nature of the medium the artists chose to
represent their roving process allows for imaginative indeterminacy.
It presents a lyrical approximation of the pedestrian movement and
sensory experience that unravels in the gallery for the benefit
of the viewer. It suggests that the routes taken everyday by discrete
walkers is a fine point of departure for a discussion about the
texture of place. It also invites the visitor of the exhibition
to work and see beyond the image; because daily use of space is
embodied as well as imaginary. Walkers and their witnesses weave
and felt their identities, memories and most routine practices into
the landscapes they choose to roll along.