Horizons Are Important

In the summer of 2018 I walked the 268-mile long Pennine Way National Trail with my oldest and least unbearable friend, Derek. We spent seventeen days together walking, eating, camping, and most notably, talking.

The intimacy of a seventeen-day shared experience may not be easily recreated, but through a series of day-hikes and multi-day expeditions in 2019, I hope to connect with other artists in a way that transcends that old chestnut, ‘networking’. Okay, so maybe I won’t transcend networking, but at the very least I hope to reinvent networking on my own terms. Put me in a gallery during a private view and I turn into one of two things: a text-art fanatic, incapable of leaving a silence for more than half a second, or a mute, face-twisting, grumpy-trousers who just wants to go home. Actually, either way, I just want to go home. Put me in my hiking boots, side by side with any other human in the world, however, and I will talk and listen until the cows move aside and let us through the field, quietly.

What follows is a blog covering both my thinking behind the project and its development throughout the year. The walking itself will form part of my artistic practice and, who knows, perhaps by this time next year I will have figured out how that translates into some kind of art object or event, or even whether it has to.

I will begin with a series of day-hikes, with artists that I have selected because I like their work, before hopefully snagging a bit of funding and opening it up to a wider participatory audience.

A side note: I am currently writing up my Pennine Way experience, with a view to publication. I will occasionally refer to that text and the process of writing it in these posts.


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Walks With Other Artists.
Walk 001
Richard Draper, Photographer.

March 5th, 2018.

Richard and I discovered each other’s work via Instagram. I think I was scrolling through the #walkingartist hashtag and found images of the Ridgeway, Britain’s oldest road. Or maybe he was, I don’t remember, but it’s all there on Instagram somewhere. The Ridgeway runs partially through Wiltshire, which is my neighbouring county, so I figured that Richard might be an artist I could walk with. It transpired that Richard and I are both MA students at the same art school in Bristol, so my original thought was that we would meet there and chat about our projects. After a brief email exchange it became obvious that the best thing to do would be for me to travel to his home near Avebury, in Wiltshire, to walk a route plotted by him through the landscape that most informs his work.

We walked part of the Ridgeway which, at 5000 years old is Britain’s oldest road. We crossed and then walked along the impressive Wansdyke, a relatively modern earthwork from Anglo-Saxon times, named after Woden. The dyke, similar in design to Offa’s Dyke, is thought to have formed the Mercia-Wessex border in that pre-illuminated age. We talked about the human effort involved in constructing such structures, and the alluring mystery of the Dark Ages. Richard explained to me that Wiltshire was the ‘wild shire’, on account of its vast open spaces. There is much level or even ground here, though this shapely landscape is anything but flat, often falling away steeply or rolling in waves that decrease in scale towards the valley floor. As we came down from Wiltshire’s highest point, Milk Hill, I shared my recent discovery that the greened humps surrounding us were actually overgrown tree stumps, which I learnt on the Pennine Way last year. And of course I include my obligatory terrible picture of a red kite riding an updraft. Richard took me to see the Alton Barnes White Horse, whose picture I have chosen not to share, on account of the Ordnance Survey satellite view being much better. As we headed back to Richard’s home we diverted along the muddiest track my boots have yet seen and stopped for a selfie by the conical Silbury Hill, which I was reliably informed had been so thoroughly excavated during the latter half of the 20th century that its roof had fallen in. We walked alongside the crystal clear waters of what Richard referred to as the Winterbourne, but the map calls the River Kennet, though it was more a burn (or bourne?) than a river, and ended up back at Richard’s family home where we ate soup and discussed Richard’s work. His Photography centres on his experience of the landscape, but for me, Richard’s written account of walking the Ridgeway in both directions was something else – it spoke of walking, and of being within the landscape that inspired it. See more of his work on Instagram @richarddraper38 and his website.

Richard brewed a coffee when I arrived at his lovely family home, and baked a loaf of bread, which we ate later with soup and cheese.

We discussed the temptation of kit, lightweight, flexible, hard wearing etc, but agreed that really the walking is the thing, and it’s difficult to get too carried away by the paraphernalia.

Richard’s wife, Anna, was equally welcoming and was happy to sit and discuss my project and our day’s walk. Anna has embarked on a year long project of writing a limerick a day, which is worth following on Twitter @AnnaQuarendon. She wrote this one for us while we were out in the elements…

Though it looked quite like rain, there’s no balking
When two men determine on walking
Admiring the scenery
Hill side and greenery
Just enough breath left for talking

Quite brilliant.

I also met their big ginger cat, who was lovely but whose name I didn’t catch.

All in all a successful first walk, in which we discussed both Richard’s and my work, the nature of our chosen mediums, the difficulty with paying to show work, the joy of walking and being able to get away from the world, allowing ideas, thoughts, and feelings room to breathe. We chatted about walking artists and about public speaking. We even discussed our home lives and origins, and what led us to our current situations. We barely approached the big question of the project, ‘what’s the difference between an artist and a non-artist walking the landscape?’ But then maybe that’s the point – made by Anna at the end of our day – answers to that one will emerge as the project progresses, and maybe I should be walking with non-artists too!

This write-up was originally posted on Instagram here, and here. I’ve essentially re-posted my Instagram post here, because to a greater extent than ever, now that I have separated my personal life and my art work on there, it seems to be the place that I do my thinking. There and out walking, that is. I’ll be writing about this soon, as well as posting about Walk 002 with Simon Lee Dicker, this Sunday.

 


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Walks With Other Artists represents the first time that I have actively sought to generate work through my actions, rather than have ideas come to me over time and then figure out a way to present them.

This shouldn’t be misconstrued as my staking a claim for artistic genius; far from it. Previously I have made work that responds to my experience of the world, I’d have said I didn’t have a method, but that just means my method was to sit back, cogitate, and make something every few months that summed up whatever idea had been rattling around in my head. Perhaps I’ll make a separate post about what else I’ve done. The point is, the artistic genius that plucks ideas out of thin air is and always was a myth. An artist has to work, and working with the methods I have described here comes with the fear that one day the ideas will dry up. I’ll be graduating from my MA in the spring of 2020, and the thought of entering the world of residencies, workshops, teaching, and all that that implies with such a precarious way of working fills me with trepidation. Walks With Other Artists is my stab at instilling some confidence into my practice.

I had a tutorial with the course leader on my MA recently, in which I discussed some of my text-based art, some maps I’ve painted, and this project, ‘Walking With Other Artists’.

The text-based art, which looks like this:

was dismissed as ill-considered with no differentiation between several types of content and an arbitrary colour system. What this collection amounts to – and there are about thirty of them – is a decent chunk of raw material, whose direction I need to figure out.

The maps, which look like this:

were revealed to be a transitional object between my deeply rooted suspicion that every project needs a physical outcome and my relatively recent (I mean, like, fifteen years ago) acquisition of the knowledge that that simply isn’t true.

I’ve been painting these maps for years but managed to get through a Fine Art degree, six years as a practising artist, and the first half of a three year MA without telling anyone about them. I kind of already knew what my course leader told me, but I needed to be told by someone whose judgement I respect, and in a safe space. I best enunciated this via the stories section of my Instagram account @UnsolicitedArtistInResidence so please do take a look, and follow for my semi-daily musings on the whole thing.

By far the most valuable aspect of my Fine Art BA (2009-12) and now my MA has been the one-to-one tutorial. For me, a good tutor is far more important than a library, technicians, and any equipment you can access on your course. Because of this, a good tutor can make or break the art school experience, and I’m thankful that I’ve had a few that have really understood where I’m coming from and what my intentions are, and in that I include my current MA course leader. In a way, the MA isn’t just about figuring out what kind of direction I want to take my practice in. It is also an opportunity for me to observe some great tutors at work, to absorb their methods, and to see what works and what doesn’t, in advance of what I hope will be a career doing the very same in the not-too-distant future.

So my tutor was very encouraging about Walks With Other Artists, and there was this weird moment – gratifying, but weird – where we were figuring stuff out through conversation, and he was teasing information and ideas out of me, encouraging me to pull apart my thinking, and to not be too harsh on myself either, and at the same time we were both aware that a great teacher/student moment was occurring, and that I was mentally noting down his methods.

I left the session walking on air, and I feel like he might have, too.

One thing that came up during the session was the spoken word material I had produced during the first year of the course, its personal nature and its emotional content. We got into what I had really been shooting for with this and earlier work, and it came down to the kind of direct emotional connection that most of us would associate with music. In a sort of ‘no work of art ever moved me to tears’ kind of sense. The spoken word did, and it’s no coincidence that it feels like the truest work I’ve ever made. I think this may be the reason I’m going on one-to-one walks with people. The emotional connection, the talking, the rhythm of walking, even the fact that my favourite bit about university if the solo tutorials, all of this combined with my natural inclination to oversharing; it all adds up to this project. I guess I’m saying what better way to create emotive work with a personal touch – something with feeling – than to take my ‘viewer’ on an experience that involves only me and them.

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POST ENDS
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Callum has been fine-tuning his field recording equipment and Walks With Other Artists’ first walk is booked. On Sunday March 10th I will be walking with director of OSR Projects, Simon Lee Dicker.


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My Walks With Other Artists project is based largely around the premise that both mine and the life of the other artist is enriched by getting together and going for a walk. The work, at this stage, seems to be the taking time out to get outdoors, to exercise, and to meet people and engage in one-to-one talks with them. A physical artwork may well emerge, but for now the project is all about the walking and the talking.

Because of that, I require the use of audio and visual recording equipment – it simply wouldn’t do to take notes and walk and talk all at once, and it’s guaranteed that, should I wait until the end of each walk to record my thoughts, some detail would be lost. It would also be unacceptable to simply point my phone at my fellow walker in the hope of capturing the essence of our experience. Not only, then, do I require the equipment to record these walks, I also require an audio/visual team.

This is Callum. He’s currently studying MA Wildlife Film-Making, and will be accompanying me and my other artists on our walks throughout 2019. His job is primarily to document, but he will also be making a film of his own about my project, and may well intervene during the walks if he feels the discussion needs it, or indeed the physical walk.

Last week we went out for a walk around Bath. We took the canal along to Widcombe, then headed up through the fields alongside Prior Park (National Trust Property, a wall and a field out of our reach) to Combe Down, which we crossed and then descended to Monkton Combe and the valley below, where the canal crosses the railway by means of the visually stunning and architecturally staggering Dundas Aqueduct. Our walk ended with a five mile stroll back into Bath along the canal, returning us to our start point in Larkhall.

We talked about my vision for Walks With Other Artists, how I imagine each walk will begin with an introduction to the artist’s work, followed by the location, and why we are there, what it might mean to them, before getting into the question behind the project, ‘What’s the difference between a non-artist and an artist doing a walk?’

I think it’s important to note at this point that the question might change a little. It already feels quite clunky – it might work better as ‘What does an artist bring to a walk that a non-artist doesn’t?’ or similar.

We talked about the necessity to constantly record, in case of missing something that could be of value in editing, and also whether it made sense to stop talking whilst walking uphill, on account of the heavy breathing.

For Callum this preparatory walk was as much about figuring out the practicalities of on location filming as it was the project itself, and he soon realised that the audio recorder on his camera wasn’t enough, and that he would have to bring a separate piece of audio recording equipment to our next outing.

The weather was crisp and bright, and as we sat by the aqueduct with our beetroot chutney and brie baguettes, I told Callum about the half dozen artists that have already responded positively to my invitation to walk, and some of the locations that have been discussed. This led us to ponder over where this project might take us, should the small matter of timings, paid work, and funding all fall into place, and it was hard not to get carried away in the excitement of it all. So we did just that, and allowed ourselves to grow giddy at the thought of a years-long project, leading to a documentary film and exhibition in 2020.

There has to be some dreaming, doesn’t there?


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I started my MA in 2017, and a big part of the interview to get on the course centred around my desire to bring my practice back into the physical realm. I had graduated from my BA in 2012 on the same day that my first child was born, and chose to concentrate on writing, rather than making. A few years in the intellectual and creative wilderness followed, before the ideas started to come back to me. On the rare occasion that I had an idea that felt worthy of exploration, I quickly figured out a way of putting it out as text-based work, showing almost exclusively in online exhibitions in places like Tumblr or the websites of galleries that were showing physical and digital exhibitions concurrently.

I’m a year into my MA now, and I still haven’t made anything physical. Perhaps I never will, but I’d like to at least try. I understand that some artists contain within them the capacity to just get on with it and try something new, but suspect that a great deal more of us are nervous to take steps in untried areas. Indeed, since embarking upon my MA I have retreated further into the immaterial world, producing more spoken word than anything else, prompting cries of ‘poet!’ and ‘writer!’ from my contemporaries. Both fine by me, of course. I make what I make, be that spoken, written, or physical, it’s just that the physical intimidates me a bit, so is taking some coaxing out.

It was for that reason that I declared myself the Unsolicited Artist in Residence while on the Pennine Way. Aside from walking, I would spend the seventeen day trip writing, photographing, and recording my thoughts in preparation for making new work on my return.

Since then I’m into double figures with new ideas, about which I shall write in this very blogspace, between walks.

I was thinking a lot about maps, and how they form our primary experience of the landscape. Long before I set foot on the Pennine Way – and all previous and subsequent walks – I familiarised myself with the topography of the route. This enables me to predict boundary walls, slight changes in elevation, and where to take a higher route in order to avoid potential quag.

The map not only precedes the territory, it also succeeds it – I am using digital PDF Ordnance Survey maps to recall my journey as I write about it, and it is as if I am re-walking every step, so vivid are the memories that the maps evoke. Only for a short while are actually in the landscape to which the map alludes.

The map enhances the landscape, telling me what features lie ahead of me – how many fields I must cross before reaching a road, when to expect a change of direction; that sort of thing – whilst I am in it.

I am bastardising Baudrillard, of course, for his map that preceded the territory was a metaphor, via which he described our traversal through the world of signs that we inhabit, rather than a physical map of a landscape through which I travelled. Still, it’s 2019, and if I want to use Baudrillard to talk make a point about literal maps then use him I shall.

One of the unavoidable features of an Ordnance Survey map is its physical presence – the sheer size of the thing when unfolded is enough to strain the triceps of the person wrestling with it. This is an object that is transformed from a neat little (not that little, bigger than a novella, for example) folded package that slots into one’s rucksack or pops easily inside the fleece jacket (not easily, in fact quite uncomfortably, truth be told, but who wants to be the guy with the map hanging round their neck? Okay, I was also that guy, but you get my point), into a manifold landscape, sprawled out across a picnic bench, living room floor, or inside of a tent, where it then spends the entire time you are looking at it trying to return to its folded form. I want to say to it, ‘Don’t be fooled into thinking the folded you is the right way to be – this is the real you, flat, laid across the land, covering the very territory which you chart’ (I’m bastardising Borges now, and his metaphorical map which the emperor had made on a 1:1 scale, so that it covered the entire landscape, causing it to decay and crumble beneath the artifice of his most detailed map ever created, ‘but if I want to…’ etc.). Eventually, of course, when one has exhausted the map’s usefulness (for now, only ever for now) and it is time to fold it away, the map becomes resistant, offering to bend and fold in infinite ways, none of which align with its original creases. Bloody maps.

I had found ‘physicality’ a dirty word at university – so dry and staid. So, well, boring. If my primary concern as an artist is the physical nature of a material, then for whom does this work exist? It’s all a bit navel-gazey, isn’t it? In spite of my former feelings (totally unjustified, but I’m owning them), I started to fold paper in the style of an OS map.

The images have uploaded sideways here, and no matter what I do I cannot convince them to sit the right way up, please turn off the screen rotation on your device, and rotate the device itself 90 degrees to the right. Or tilt your head left, whichever’s easiest. I say that, it might just be my browser.


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Through rain and then light rain we drove for an hour, arriving at Woolstone in the Vale of the White Horse at around half past eleven in the morning. We parked and had a coffee at the White Horse pub before heading out of the village in a south westerly direction, through fields and over stiles, while we chatted about how flat Oxfordshire was, and how unnerved we were by the sound of gunshots in the distance.

Andrew grew up in Keswick in the Lake District, but didn’t stick around for long after leaving school, and has since lived in cities including Edinburgh, London, and Bristol where he now lives with his wife, Katie, and (I think) one cat, though the cat (or non-cat) didn’t come up in conversation.

We traversed balding fields whose straw-like stumps and the occasional de-kernelled corncob gave away their erstwhile purpose. As we crossed a boundary road into a field edged by a narrow wood, four deer emerged, racing across the green, stopping to have a look back at us before disappearing over the horizon, never to be seen again. We both enjoyed the experience via the cameras on our phones. As we circumnavigated the pasture we stopped to eat one of Andrew’s chicken thighs – I was expecting Morrison’s rotisserie, but he had roasted them himself, with chilli sauce between the skin and the meat. As we tucked in I spotted the source of the gunshots high on the brow of Woolstone Hill to the south. I asked Andrew whether he thought we were in the cross-hairs yet and we picked up the pace.

We passed through a few fields with horses in and I repeated what Derek had told me on the Pennine Way this summer – just let them know you’re there and that you’re not a threat. I did this by talking to each horse as if I were negotiating with a gunman in a holdup situation, ‘IT’S ALRIGHT. IT’S OKAY. I AM NOT A THREAT TO YOU. WE’RE JUST PASSING THROUGH. EVERYBODY BE COOL’ etc until the horse eventually realised I was not bringing it any food and turned away with a blast of nostril air and a casual saunter back to where it had been standing when we arrived. Its favourite part of the field, I suppose.

At Compton Beauchamp – which I suggested may be pronounced ‘Beecham’ like the 1990s Oxford United footballer, Joey Beauchamp, whom had stuck in my memory as being the player that was sold to West Ham United, only to never kick a ball competitively before being sold on to Swindon, and then back to Oxford before the season was out (It turned out his love for his home county prevented him from making a go of it anywhere else).

We followed the D’Arcy Dalton Way, a 66 mile trail named after D’Arcy Dalton, an ardent 1920’s rambler responsible for preserving many rights of way in Oxfordshire, through more corn fields and pastures until we arrived at a crossing with The Ridgeway. We were one hour into our walk and this crossing point marked the centre of the figure eight route that I had plotted on the map, and the location at which we must decide whether to continue on our designated route or to snip off half of it and take a left turn towards Wayland’s Smithy and White Horse Hill. We’d had some rain in our faces but had been largely sheltered as we passed through small fields lined by hedges and farm buildings, and so the weather hadn’t been a problem. We’d navigated some very muddy corners of fields and spent a few minutes watching a Red Kite holding its position on the updraft. It was five past one, an hour since we had left, and Andrew estimated another three hours walking, assuming each quarter of the figure eight represented a quarter of the overall distance walked. He wouldn’t be too far out, by the end of the day, as it happened. He expressed concern over finishing our walk in the dark, and I mentioned that I had my headtorch with me (pure coincidence, I had left it in my bag by mistake) but that I didn’t think we’d need it as we would doubtless motor through the two sections of the walk that took us along the Ridgeway National Trail as they were on flat gravel paths. Turning left at this point felt a bit like heading back, and we had only been walking for an hour, so I suggested we push on and do the whole route. Besides, I hadn’t yet told him my story about the time I silenced the entire studios on my foundation course with my story about three things that are true about all men. Fifteen years later I’ve learnt that they aren’t universally true anyway, and that all I was doing was passing on an ignorant man’s so-called wisdom. Either way, the content is way too graphic to report here. I hadn’t planned to bring it up, but the conversation went down the route of being of a certain age and understanding what’s appropriate.

Up to this point, discussion had centred around us both having moved away from the north, and how that affected our relationships with our family and friends. We also covered more directly personal subjects, to do with home life and work, and a little bit about art.

The second quarter of our figure eight walk began with us chewing up The Ridgeway, its gravel path disappearing beneath us as we raced towards our left turn into more open country. We talked about our formative years, and the events or feelings that had led each of us to leave our homelands in search of something else, but as the whistling wind blasted us with sideways rain our words were getting lost in the chill December air. We donned our gloves, hats, and hoods, and nipped into Hailey Wood. The coppiced trees of Hailey and Middle Woods broke up the wind and for a short while we walked in silence before conversation turned to parenting, and the current issues in my own home, where I lived in perfect harmony with my wife for fifteen years before we gained two flatmates, now aged six and four. As we reached the centre of the woods it appeared we were on a grand avenue, in one direction the gap between the trees stretched as far as we could see, and in the other; Ashdown House. One of the many reminders of the enormous privilege that surrounds us when we walk through the county of Oxfordshire. Humbly, we shuffled on through the wood and out the other side, where we ate a chocolate and coconut flapjack each, and followed a path leading up to Weathercock Hill, Here we re-joined our route, having sliced off probably half a mile of it by going through the woods. We were now in the middle of an enormous expanse of open farmland – the floor was lined with seedlings of who knows what. It looked grassy, but Andrew wasn’t convinced. The path was faint, and as our boots gathered cakes of earth – the extra weight around my boots took me back to cutting across farmers’ fields on the way home from middle school in the late 80s – we wondered how much it cost the farmer to have this right of way running through his livelihood. A small portion of his income, we decided, but enough that he knows exactly how much. We were approaching the centre of the figure eight from the other side, and we discussed the age difference between ourselves and our younger course-mates (hence the discussion that led to what’s appropriate subject matter when some coursemates are close to half your age. We never mentioned the age difference between us and our older course-mates. Perhaps a signifier of how less age seems to matter, the more of it you have behind you. Andrew celebrated a late emergence of thicker chest hair than before, only to then lament it’s almost instant greying. Comes to us all, I suppose.

At the edge of the field we laughed at the nonsense of it all as we banged the mud from our boots and I took paracetamol and ibuprofen together, for fear of the niggle in my hip developing into genuine pain.

We turned right, along the gravel path of the Ridgeway National Trail once more, and were immediately upon Wayland’s Smithy, the ancient long-barrow associated with Wayland, god of the forge. I told Andrew about the Amesbury Archer, a Neolithic man buried with more grave goods than any of his contemporaries, and with metals yet to be discovered in British archeology. The man had travelled from the Swiss alps to Stonehenge, where he will have arrived with precious metals the like of which had never been seen and also, perhaps, the knowledge with which to remove these metals from stone. Magic. He had a withered thigh bone, and would have walked with a limp. Jump forward a few thousand years and in all of the Western European pre-christian religions the god of the forge, the smith-god, walks with a limp. It seems obvious to me that the Amesbury Archer was this god – he was certainly buried as a god – perhaps even worshipped in his own lifetime as one. It’s one of my favourite stories, and I was glad to share it with Andrew, along with my idea for an art project based around this man being the nearest thing that I – an atheist with the name Smith – have to a god in my life!

Moving on, we re-joined the path and saw White Horse Hill ahead of us. Somewhere on the other side of it we would see the white horse that had motivated Andrew’s choice of location, and that spurred us on. We decided not to stop and heat up the Moroccan Lentil soup that I had carried all day, and instead we ate chocolate as we walked.

Once on top of the hill we remarked on the enormous earthworks that surrounded us – they turned out to be Uffington Castle, an Iron Age Hillfort – before moving on, eager to discover the day’s main event.

We arrived at the Uffington White Horse from above, and its shape was revealed, piecemeal, as we topped the hill and descended around it – I stepped onto it at one point, and was overcome with guilt, so jumped off again, leaving evidence of my trespass in the form of white footprints in the grass for a few yards.

Around here we talked only about the landscape. The manicured base of the valley, the uniform gulleys running down the side of the hill – Giant’s Stair, as it is known – that we couldn’t imagine having been formed by nature alone, and Dragon’s Hill, the natural mound with its top cut off and, if you believe the legend, site of Saint George’s most famous deed.

From here it was a slippery walk back down to the valley below – overtaking a couple with their big dog and their tiny baby – where we met the road back into Woolstone and The White Horse pub, who were no longer serving food. We had snacked our way through an eleven mile walk and I, for one, was starving. Snickers, Scampi Fries (golden rule: if you see them, buy them), and a pint of coke had to suffice. I had carried my soup, stove, and gas, for nothing, thought he weather hadn’t really allowed for an opportunity to stop and sit, so for that all is forgiven. It was daylight when we reached the pub though, I think that’s worth noting. I took care of my calorie deficiency once home and showered, as I reflected on the first of what I hope will become many Walks with Other Artists.

STATISTICS

Distance walked : 11.1mi

Duration : 3h 48m 38s

Total Ascent : 1128ft

Total Descent : 1124ft

Average Speed : 2.9mph

Max Elevation : 850ft / 259.1m

Min Elevation : 323ft / 98.5m


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