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The art of walking

By tom phillips, Monday Feb 16, 2015

Unless you’re going to argue that it’s a slow and unimaginative form of dance, walking doesn’t seem to have much in common with art. You could say it’s the very opposite. ‘Pedestrian’, after all, is a word that critics routinely fling at dull and boring stuff – books, plays, films which are as interesting as putting one foot in front of another. 

Thing is, though, this association with dullness isn’t quite right. Walking isn’t necessarily pedestrian (in that sense) and there’s a vast swathe of creative stuff which started out with someone just wandering about. 

Most obviously, there’s psychogeography. Nobody can agree about what that means exactly, but it’s the kind of thing you recognise when you come across it – a sort of anarchist travel writing where nobody travels very far (largely because they’re on foot) and where something as seemingly uninteresting as a lamppost in Bedminster turns out to be the key to understanding the causes of the French Revolution. 

And it’s not just writing either. Visual artists can be psychogeographers too. Take Bristol’s own Richard Long. He may have fallen out with the equally psychogeographically-minded Bill Drummond (he of million-quid-burning/KLF fame) after the latter cut up one of his photographs and sold thousands of tiny pieces of it – for some reason, pscyhogeographers can be quite cantankerous – but he’s fond of a walk himself and describes his own stone-collecting and -arranging activities as “simple creative acts of walking and marking”. 

Then there’s Tom Phillips (not me: although I did once stage an exhibition of his work in Bristol Uni, which caused endless confusion). One of his more quixotic and indeed heroic acts of visual psychogeography was to photograph every single one of those little metal flaps in the pavement which hide stopcocks and other mysterious devices between his house and his studio. It sounds dull to the point of parody, but actually it was weirdly fascinating. Or maybe that’s just me.

Either way, psychogeography’s a relative newcomer to the walking/art cusp. Uber-flâneur Charles Baudelaire wasn’t the only 19th-century French writer who got his creative juices flowing with a decent stroll (Gérard de Nerval reputedly took his pet lobster with him for company on his inspirational saunters), and the Romantic poets were forever charging off on bracing hikes. When both Wordsworth and Coleridge were living in Somerset, in fact, it must have been difficult to walk anywhere on the Quantocks without running into at least one poet marching about, muttering iambic pentameters under their breath or – in Coleridge’s case – waving their arms around and declaiming at the top of their voice. 

Go even further back and I suspect that the whole business of inventing stories began when one of our hunter-gatherer forbears trudged off across the savannah and, because nothing much happened en route, used the walk to make up stuff to tell the folks back home. Or paint on the wall of their compact and bijou cave.

Not that there’s anything particularly groundbreaking about saying any of this. Of course walking’s connected to creativity: it’s not just a physical transition, it’s a mental one too, a chance to rearrange your synaptic bundles, a bit like deleting temporary internet files and defragmenting your hard drive. There are indeed whole books on this very subject, while universities around the world host conferences about it and even the most superficial Googling reveals the existence of the – oh yes – Walking Artists Network. 

All of which, perhaps, makes it even stranger that ‘pedestrian’ has become a synonym for dull and uninspiring. Having reviewed a fair few plays and books over the years, I’m sure I’ve resorted to it myself from time to time. From now on, though, I’m going to avoid it – and remember that ‘pedestrian’ is precisely what a lot of stuff I like is – or at least describes where it started. 


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