PROJECT SPACE / 21 March to 17 April 2014
Walking the Merri expands on a seven-day performative walk undertaken by Rebecca Mayo and Lesley Harding in March 2013. Following the Merri Creek from its source at Heathcote Junction to its confluence with the Yarra River in Abbotsford, they traced the meanderings and human redirections of this historically significant and contested waterway.
Walking with Weeds
Like many people living in Melbourne's inner north, I have found that the Merri Creek threads through my daily life as a space to relax, as a passage to and from the city and increasingly, as a place I help to restore. This entwining of daily activities and the creek eventually wove its way into my art practice. The repetitive and meditative activities of walking, planting, weeding and collecting rubbish coalesced with my art-making, screenprinting and sewing, and focused my attention.
My time at the creek expanded to include the gathering of plant material (usually weeds) to dye and print fabric. In turn I sewed the fabric into wearable artefacts for restoration volunteers. I was interested in what might happen if we wore garments that were inherently of the creek. Could 'wearing the creek' heighten the relations and sense of purpose between workers and sites of planting and weeding?
The restoration activities began to take me further north, to places like Kalkallo Common and Cooper St Grassland (Wurundjeri name, Bababi Marning). The stories of people who had worked at the creek for a long time sparked my interest in its history. Dipping in and out of little sections of creek, I began to dream about the tracts unknown. Where did this waterway begin, and where did it flow before meeting with the Yarra River in Abbotsford? I noticed this was a common way of knowing the creek—to each of us the Merri meant 'our' section, expressed and experienced in relation to where we lived and how we moved about our own neighbourhoods.
It was about this time that I came across Freya Mathews's book, Journey to the Source of the Merri. I couldn't put it down. In 2000, when community opposition to the path of the proposed Hume Freeway was coming to a head, Freya and two other women walked from the creek's confluence with the Yarra all the way to its source near Heathcote Junction. Upon reading Freya's account of their pilgrimage unfolding and contextualised within her research of the Merri's history, I realised that I too felt compelled to walk the creek's length.
My walk, over seven days in March/April 2013, became an artistic re-enactment of sorts. It was not about treading new ground, rather it set out a proposition: that I could experience the whole creek, not vicariously and fleetingly from train or car window, but by retracing the steps of all those who had walked this way before. Not just Freya and friends, Hume and Hovell or Ned Kelly, but also the countless generations of people who walked and lived in this place before colonisation.
Around the world humans engage in ritual as a means of illustrating their particular relationship to their environment. 'Welcome to Country' ceremonies in Victoria represent Indigenous peoples' continued connection to place. They are also a reminder that free passage across land was not the norm in Australia until teams of surveyors and explorers, ignoring traditional laws and customs, began to walk and map the country that they deemed terra nullius.
Unlike my forebears, it was important to me to be granted landholder consent to traverse their land, whoever they might be. In a process much like piecing together a jigsaw I visited, telephoned and wrote to property owners and managers up and down the creek. For the most part people were interested and obliging—but as the walk showed us more starkly, cadastral boundaries along the creek are marked not only on historic and contemporary maps, but on the land itself. Storm water runoff and invasive weeds defy cadastre, yet boundaries between one property and the next were often clearly defined by changes in plant distribution. We could be walking through almost impenetrable blackberries or gorse, only to come upon a fence line beyond which the weeds abruptly disappeared and a softer landscape of mostly indigenous species emerged.
Meanwhile, I made other preparations for the walk. Using fabric dyed with weeds gathered from the creek's banks, I sewed seven sets of gaiters and tie-on pockets, each to be worn once; anachronistic yet functional garments that would collect mud and seeds, creek water and sweat. Wearing them would also serve to return the weeds to the creek in a symbolic sense, acknowledging the creek's chequered history and acting as a connecting thread, between past and present.
Once I began the journey from the source to the Yarra, walking with Lesley and the artists who joined us for a day at a time drew my attention to the contrasting experiences of walking for seven days as opposed to walking for one. Latterly, each participant has provided an aide-mémoire, her or his individual experience of separate tracts of creek shaping and enhancing my own memories.
Walking can be a way of knowing a place, and in turn a way of knowing oneself. The pace and nuance of footfall on ground and the repetition of the bipedal action encourage reflection as well as a focus on the present moment. Trained in printmaking, I am tuned towards the multiple, the repeat, the copy. So it is that repeated human actions appear as central concerns in my practice—in this instance the repetition of getting up each day, donning a fresh pair of weed-dyed gaiters and continuing downstream. The gaiters absorbed physical traces of the walk, recording the space between my body and the creek, documenting my footsteps as I followed the footsteps of others, and in doing so bore witness to the creek's resilience in spite of incessant anthropogenic wear and tear.
Walking the Merri: From Source to Confluence is part of the research Rebecca Mayo is undertaking as a PhD candidate at the ANU School of Art, Canberra. She is supported by an Australian Postgraduate Award.
My Legs Move, My Thoughts Flow
Learning to walk is the first and possibly the most important physical milestone of our lives. Taking our first steps gains us independence and an entirely new way of encountering and discovering the world. Soon after making those few stumbling paces walking becomes an ordinary, automatic activity requiring no thought. Yet research indicates that our legs move independently and we start to walk even before we are born. In evolutionary terms, continuously walking erect on two legs defines us as human beings. Some time after we took on an upright stance our brains began to grow, eventually enabling us to think in more complex ways, to remember and to imagine; walking and the capacity to think developed in parallel.
Nowadays, as our lives have become more sedentary scientists have proclaimed that walking is good for us. Simply perambulating for thirty minutes a day reduces the risk of stroke and heart disease, improves balance, gives us stronger bones and increased muscle strength and may even ward off certain cancers. However walking can also be bad for us or even dangerous. Writing or reading text messages on a mobile device while also negotiating city streets and traffic on foot, so called, ‘distracted walking’, has eventuated in pedestrian deaths and contributes to odd posture and gait. Texting causes walkers to slow down and contrary to the benefits of walking, causes loss of balance because concentration is directed at a small screen. It appears in these instances that walking and thinking do not fit well together.
Putting aside both the physical benefits and the negative possibilities, there is a well-established connection between walking and thinking. From Jean-Jacques Rousseau to today, artists have linked walking to a particular way of knowing, of ‘ideas brought into being’ through walking itself, and as the means not simply the action by which one comes to know.
Some years ago I went on a five-day walk with friends in the rugged South Island of New Zealand. We sat down on the side of the track to rest and began a conversation about what went through our minds during the long hours of tramping when we also had to negotiate difficult terrain and have our wits about us. My Swiss friend had a peculiarly individual way of walking, by which he methodically never varied the length or pace of his stride whether walking up the steepest mountain or down on the flat. He declared that as he walked he counted in his head; with the regularity of a Swiss clock he marked time footstep by footstep but did not let his thoughts stray. I, on the other hand, allowed my mind to roam and became more acutely aware of my thoughts while walking. Through this mundane activity, ‘one’s imagination and higher faculties are given licence to flourish’(1) and although I too sometimes found myself counting my footsteps I also had other thoughts quite unconnected to the track ahead of me. With feet firmly on the ground and my head in the air, my mind slipped into reverie. Walking can enable awareness of our bodies and the world around while leaving the mind free to think without being totally lost in thought.
Walking provides a natural pace to move through the world and its speed allows for contemplation, affording a unique experience of time. According to Rebecca Solnit, walking ‘generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts’.(2) This act that most of us take for granted, the very act of putting one foot before the other, generates ideas and an enhanced awareness of being-in-the-world.
The activity of experiencing the world in this way has a long history among artists and their interactions with the natural world. From William Wordsworth to Hamish Fulton, walking has not only been an inspiration but also a ‘mean’s of grounding one’s thoughts in a personal and embodied experience of the world’,(3) and as Anne Wallace observes:
the natural, primitive quality of the physical act of walking restores the natural proportions of our perceptions, reconnecting us with both the physical world and the moral order inherent in it … As a result, the walker may expect an enhanced sense of self, clearer thinking, more acute moral apprehension, and higher powers of expression.(4)
Until the revolution in mechanical engineering in the late 1600s, apart from horses and carriages, travel was limited to walking, which no one at the time would have done for recreation. However in the early years of the nineteenth century walking became a popular pastime with the educated and more well-to-do of England; a mode of transport by choice. Poets of the time, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats and Thomas de Quincey, were not only inspired by what they saw or experienced on their walks but it seems the very act of putting one foot in front of the other generated ideas that may otherwise have lain dormant. They all rambled vast distances. Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy wandered every day through the evanescent landscapes of the Lake District where they lived and Coleridge estimated that they must have walked more than 180,000 miles in their lifetimes. When he wasn't walking long distances Wordsworth paced up and down as if the movement of his legs actually generated ideas. His sister Dorothy wrote copiously in journals after their daily constitutionals, recording observations of the atmosphere and its effects on their day-to-day lives. Oblivious to their actual location, she wrote on 30 March 1798: ‘Walked I know not where.’
In the mid-nineteenth century in America, Henry David Thoreau discovered the benefits of walking when he lived for two years in a cabin at Walden Pond in Massachusetts, and spent at least four hours a day ‘sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements’.(5) Reflecting on the mental and physical advantages of walking he declared that people, such as shopkeepers, who sat all day and did not use their legs except to cross them underneath themselves, should be credited for not having committed suicide long ago. Had he lived today Thoreau would concur with the contemporary benefits of the ‘thirty minutes a day’ regime. He urged his reader to ‘walk like a camel, an animal, which is said to be the only one that ruminates when walking’.(6) He was not suggesting that we should chew cud as we walked but to meditate and to allow ourselves to be transported into ‘as strange a country as I expect ever to see’.(7)
In England almost a century later, S.P.B. Mais, a commentator on rural affairs, said that it was only by 'striding the high hills' that we get a sense of ourselves, and our place in the world. Not only should we go slowly, preferably sauntering, but we should also wind our way along, avoiding straight lines at all costs.
To see England aright your speed should not average more than one and a half miles per hour ... And even then you may go wrong ... You must learn to saunter ... and you must learn to saunter alone.(8)
Walking in this way afforded an experience of time. 'Solitary, slow and wayward are the keywords’. Speed was considered to be un-English, denying entrance to the ‘elusive mysteries’ of the essential English landscape.(9)
The image of the lone walker striding across the landscape persists, as does its Romantic associations. In the present, artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton have come to epitomise the art of walking. Long’s walking practice extends the language of sculpture through the marks and traces he leaves in the landscape, such as his 1967 A Line Made by Walking. For Fulton the walk itself is his art, not simply material or inspiration to produce physical manifestations; the primacy of the corporeal experience is at the heart of his work. On his walks, which can last many days and nights, he takes photographs and makes notations. These are often personal reflections that may appear unrelated to the place he is in, and which he uses later in photographic text-based works or text pieces in their own right. His walking experiences have ‘shapes, moods, patterns and thus beginnings and ends to meaning’.(10) In many ways it is impossible to re-experience the walk through what he presents and it is not Fulton's intention to do so. His work, described as ‘a uniquely English and historic romantic engagement with landscape’(11) connects directly to his Romantic predecessors in terms of his concerns with landscape and sense of place.
While this world of walking artists is overwhelmingly one of lone, heroic males, other practices are emerging, ones that are collaborative and are more inclusive of the partaker of the art. Janet Cardiff and her partner George Bures Miller create haunting audio pieces that engage walking and thinking while questioning our awareness of our immediate world. Using contemporary technologies such as MP3 players and mobile phone apps, Cardiff does not distinguish between rural or city locations in challenging perceptions of reality. Although aware of her predecessors’ reliance on the visual she also engages our abilities to locate ourselves in three-dimensional space through sound by creating guided audio walks. Her works often play with the discrepancies between our senses, through the ways we move and what we hear and see at the same time. By inserting time-lapse into audio and visuals or by introducing sounds that are out-of-place to the location in which they are heard, Cardiff creates a strange confusion of realities between past and present. As Alistair Robinson suggests, ‘Characteristically her narrative combines fictions with descriptions of the actual landscape so that the status of both fact and fiction are thrown into doubt. Knowledge is temporarily reordered’’.(12) Understanding becomes confused through the discrepancies she creates between what we think we know, what we actually see, and what she tells us in her audio narrative.
Cardiff’s work has inspired a new generation of walking artists whose aim is to engage their audiences in exercises of trust. By donning a pair of headphones participants allow themselves to be choreographed by the narrative. Without knowing who is speaking to them or where they may be led or directed to go they step out while engaging a range of senses. In this way the participant becomes central to the narrative, an unwitting performer in a drama that is part real and part imagined.
That our feet mediate or play a role in the ways we think or understand the world may seem strange. However walking, ‘the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart’(13) can incite memories, generate ideas and bring an enhanced awareness of being-in-the-world. It is reassuring to think that such a fundamental human activity engages both body and mind, is healthy and stimulating and also cause us to rediscover the world each time we step out.
1. Alistair Robinson 2013, ‘On Walking’ in Walk On: From Richard Long to Janet Cardiff—40 Years of Art Walking, Art Editions North: Sunderland, p. 16.
2. Rebecca Solnit 2001, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Verso: London, p. 5.
3. Ibid. p. 26.
4. Anne D. Wallace 1993, Walking, Literature and English Culture: The Origins and Uses of Peripatetic in the Nineteenth Century, Clarendon Press: Oxford, p. 13.
5. Henry David Thoreau 1994, Walking, Harper Collins: New York, p. 6.
6. Ibid. p. 8.
7. Ibid. p. 10
8. S. P. B. Mais 1937, England's Character, Hutchinson: London in Peter Bishop 1995, An Archetypal Constable: National Identity and the Geography of Nostalgia, Athlone: London, p. 16.
9. Ibid. p. 151.
10. John Slyce, 'Walking Journey', Art Monthly, no. 256, May 2002, p. 22.
11. Ben Tufnell and Andrew Wilson 2002, Hamish Fulton: Walking Journey, Tate Publishing: London, p. 17.
12. Alistair Robinson, op. cit. p. 42.
13. Rebecca Solnit, op. cit. p. 5.