55. Ernesto Pujol, Walking Art Practice: Reflections on Socially Engaged Paths
Ernesto Pujol is a site-specific performance artist, a walking artist, a social choreographer and an educator. He is also a mystic and a moralist; the book’s author biography notes that was trained in a Cistercian-Trappist cloister before going on to social work among the homeless and then graduate school. If you set out to find someone whose approach to walking was very different, even unsympathetic, to mine, Ernesto Pujol would be an excellent choice. I found his book hard to read for that reason.
Pujol’s preface says this is “a hybrid book with art book elements and the personal content of a field journal,” which “may serve as a manifesto for artists who walk and a resource for performers—a performative walking manual,” made up of 68 reflections in three thematic sections (iii). Those three sections, “Walking Practice,” “Roadside Spiritualities,” and “Teaching Walking,” focus on what he does, the spiritual beliefs behind what he does, and how he works with others in his practice. The latter point is key to Pujol’s walking, because he believes that all art needs to be socially engaged practice, and that the goal of art is a cultural or spiritual or social transformation. “Without social transformation, traditionally defined art-making in a social context is nothing but the perversity of style,” he writes. “The socially transformative is the difference between a static product and a living product” (12). He’s not concerned with justifying walking as art, because art is only “an aesthetic tool to generate meaningful and transformative experience,” and his goal is “generating conscious experience,” using whatever tools are available (28). Walking is just one such tool: Pujol believes that “walking can be a transformative experiential component to creating ephemeral public art” (87).
In the book’s introduction, Pujol describes his working definition of what he does—in other words, of socially engaged, performative practice: it is “the site-specific embodiment of urgent social issues,” “through considered human gesture, such as conscious walking,” “ethically made and generously shared with a community,” “as a form of diagnostic, collective, poetic portrait,” “freely offered for aesthetic appreciation and meaningful reflection,” “ultimately seeking a socially transformative, cultural experience” (3). Walking is, by its nature, a performative practice:
Walking as art practice is performative, even if this is unintended, because the moment a body wants or needs to walk and enters the space and flow of the public, joining the sited public, it becomes a public body, a body whose performing in society is watched by society, all the more as it seeks social agency. (28)
Moreover, for Pujol socially engaged art practice is not the gesture of a solitary body: “The performativity of the practice reclaims the full repertoire of individual and collective connections, currently reduced to the notion that connective change can only be triggered through informed group consumption, or the refusal to consume” (29). In other words, it is, and must be, a group activity; the artist’s role, it seems, is to lead people on walks. Such a socially engaged art practice is, by definition, performative: “It automatically turns its artist practitioners into public performers, whether they are skilled in performance or not” (29). And it is not easy: “choreographing people sensitively into and through the safe performativity of aestheticized gestures that support increased consciousness” is not “a simple form of making” but a “complex collective process” that “should not be fast-tracked” (30).
There seems to be little room in Pujol’s version of walking art practice for solitary practitioners: the actual art work must be collaborative and involve the public. “I believe that walking as art practice, in terms of socially engaged art, radically changes the nature of art-making,” he writes, because it moves art-making outside the studio by engaging audiences (97). That kind of practice “signals the increasing freedom of artists that began with conceptual art”; both audience engagement and artistic freedom are democratizing, because they put “artists back into the commons through their common and uncommon skills” (97). In addition, “as the acquaintance between artists and audiences deepens through available, everyday, participatory, aesthetic, meaningful experiences, the need to make and experience art begins to shift from the artist to the community,” and the community will continue to make meaning long after the artist is gone, “because it is valuable to them” (97). At the same time, though, he notes that his walking art practice began as solitary walks. “A public art walking practice often begins with a private walking practice,” he writes, and so he encourages people to write their personal history of walking (47). His own walking began “as an embodied response to an undeclared American war,” the first Gulf War in 1990, and it became even more public during the invasion of Iraq. Like me, Pujol is walking in response to events and histories, although I find it difficult to make the connection between those events and the simple act of walking. It’s as if there is a missing piece in my sense of what I’m doing, or what I want to do, and for my own peace of mind, I need to locate it. In any case, Pujol suggests that such solitary walking can teach us how to walk, and how to walk with others: “The act teaches itself if we are mindful, if we study our steps and learn from them. We also learn how to walk by teaching others how to walk, by studying and learning from their steps. In this process, a walker becomes the walk. In the process, a mindful group of walkers is formed” (89).
Pujol says he’s not interested in “creating rigid rules for walking practice” (87), although I have to say that he does have a lot of rules and requirements for walking artists who would engage with the public. Presenting challenging social issues as an aesthetic experience requires empathy, persistence, and patience: “Social justice cannot be achieved without social healing” (30). That healing must begin with artists themselves. “The best way to engage a path is when the walker is already healed and capable of healing others,” he writes (21). In order to lead a walking group that needs healing, or entering a path that needs healing, “the lead walker should already have walked through healing” (21), or at least be “healed enough so that we have the ability to put our story away”—so that the walk isn’t about the artist, but the path or community (22). “Walking requires self-knowledge, even as walking increases our self-knowledge,” and we need to be aware of death, “the supreme test of our interior life placed in evidence,” and facing death requires self-knowledge (22). “How can a walker pretend to resolve anything along the way if the walker has left an unresolved life back home?” he asks. Moreover, while walking can help resolve personal issues, “that cannot be the way of a walking practice, because the private places an unfair extra burden on a public path that may already be burdened with issues” (21). “We should not walk out of balance. We should not depend on a walk, on a people and a landscape, to balance us,” he writes. “I must first do the work of balancing myself, achieving inner balance, long before I walk” (79). The artist, it seems, needs to be a paragon, willing to face death, healed of his or her personal traumas. It is a lot to ask.
Pujol also rejects the idea of failure. Failed material practices result in “tons of waste dumped on Nature, by way of garbage and ensuing contamination,” but failure in socially engaged practice is unacceptable, because it means failing people (90). If one makes a mistake while making socially engaged art, one must make “a profusion of humble private and public apologies. However, the failure of an entire project to which life stories have been entrusted and on which the sustainable development of a community may depend, is not acceptable” (90). Again, this is a lot to ask from fallible humans. Perfection is not a reasonable standard for measuring performance.
Pujol also rejects art practices that focus on making things; the only art form that is acceptable is socially engaged performance. “We are experiencing the dawn of a post-art period,” he writes (94), a time when “art no longer embodies the visual currency of contemporary daily life” (94). Walking as art, however, “points us in the right direction for creative making in the 21st century” (94). “For me, the practice of creative walking, when performed within the more generous definition and context of culture, reclaims the original intention of all art-making, and its future” (95). “[W]e do not need more things; we need more awareness of things,” he concludes (95). And walking art—along with socially engaged performance more generally, I think—can, for Pujol, lead to such awareness. Walking in particular requires a change of identity, “from a passive, bored or distracted viewer” to “an intellectually, emotionally, and physically present participant, knowing and intuiting that this is the only way to fully perceive reality” (111). Apparently other art forms cannot engage people the way that participatory forms do. A lot of artists would vehemently disagree with Pujol on this point.
Questions of morality and ethics tend to dominate Pujol’s discussion of walking art practice:
There is no amoral gesture. There is no amoral step. All steps outside a studio are to be questioned. Those steps are either ethical or unethical. There is no making outside an ethical regard. If a site is threatened or endangered, contaminated or polluted, will a mapping artist-walker help it receive more attention that will lead to more protection? Sites have the right to make such demands. (11-12)
“Socially engaged practice has the right to make ethical demands of its aspiring practitioners,” he continues.” Those ethical demands are what makes the practice social”—and they lead to social transformation (12). He’s not interested in “feeding the celebrity persona of a walker who turns territories into spectacular stages” (12). Such celebrity is a myth—and a false one:
The only myth that a walking practice should support is the mythical qualities of place, which an artist-walker may experience to study, perform (witness), document, promote, and help protect. We need to understand once and for all that the ephemeral, mythical, public embodiment of people and place is not an entertaining spectacle but the mediated performativity of consciousness and so requires ethics. (12)
Pujol distrusts what Smith calls heroic walking—or at least heroic gestures made in public:
I admire publicly heroic stands but believe in the greater sustainability of privately heroic practices. I believe in a multitude of short walks, in unassuming daily walks for countless reasons, from the pragmatic to the poetic. I value the acquisition of the humble habit of walking for every form of getting and gathering, for thinking and feeling something through, and for getting lost so as to be found. (13)
Perhaps he believes that long walks, as opposed to short ones, lead to celebrity, to the transformation of “territories into spectacular stages”? He also claims that the consumption of the stories of others can be “curated by ethics”; he defines “a moral imagination as the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. An ethical imagination is the ability to imagine yourself wearing those shoes—inhabiting them—walking through the world as another person” (117). Aren’t those the same thing? Aren’t there limits to what an ethical or moral imagination can accomplish? Pujol thinks not: “Inhabiting and walking in someone else’s shoes begins to generate a radical imagination, that is, an imagination at its most productive, socially heroic and prophetic” (117). How is the imagination prophetic? This needs to be explained, but it isn’t.
As an immersive process, walking can evoke empathy, from experiencing and thereby understanding what others (human or non-human) experience, Pujol suggests (77). “Walking is punctuated with immersive experiences that can help walkers understand the violation of an environment that communicates its distress”; it also “confronts us with human architecture and inhabitants, whose way of life may be threatened, under seige, and with people who share their stories, actively seeking our empathy” (77). Because it generates empathy, “[t]here is a morality implicit in walking,” because we confront the world, seeing and listening firsthand, “placing ourselves within the reality of others,” connecting with others (77). “Selflessness is the first moral principle connected to walking, at the very foundation of walking” (77). A desire to witness, to experience with the senses, “is followed by empathy” and an ability “to better differentiate between good and bad conduct in a place” (77). However, while some can walk without being affected, without experiencing empathy, they are “only seeing what they wish to see through the harsh filter of rigid agendas”; he prefers “the permeable, evolving morality brought about by empathy for the most unexpected peoples and places” (77).
Walking is a central aspect of pilgrimage, and pilgrimage is one of the ways Pujol thinks about his practice. He is fascinated by religious processions and pilgrimages (84). He suggests that not walking during a pilgrimage poses the question of whether there was a pilgrimage at all (64). “If people are truly present at a site of pilgrimage, it may provide them with a psychic blueprint that produces existential scaffolding in reverse, like skin that finds a skeleton,” he writes. “The destination stands as their material reminder of who they are supposed to be, to keep becoming, and to forever remain” (65). However, Pujol’s primary model for walking is, perhaps not surprisingly, monastic. It is easier to “attain material detachment and some degree of consciousness”—his walking goals—“when one commits to a cloistered life with a flexible rule of silence that edits superfluous talk, a vow of celibacy supported by a celibate community’s friendships, voluntary aestheticized poverty, and a life behind protective garden walls, than trying to achieve these states in the world”; “conscious life in the world is harder than life in a monastery” (60). In monasteries, cloister walks are a devotional practice, with the cloister often being lined with images of the Way of the Cross (60). “This is a sheltered walk that meditates about a daring walk synonymous with taking on and carrying the so-called sins of others,” he contends. “It follows a notion of walking as cleansing, which requires the sight to see the burdens people carry invisibly through their walk. It constructs a collective healing walk through the sacrifice of the leading walker’s body” (60). This is clearly the model for his artistic practice. A cloister walk isn’t horizontal: its “true architecture lies below the surface: the vertical architecture of a bottomless well, or a topless mountain. The ‘farness’ of a cloister walk consists of psychic verticality” (61). Repetitive walking on the same path also opens up that vertical architecture (61). Walking can lead to the obliteration of the ego:
Walking can be about desiring and achieving a form of psychic death, in Western monastic terms, the death of the man or woman of the world, so that they can become empty vessels and the universe can finally begin to trickle or rush in, filling and overflowing them with the right contents for others to drink from. Sometimes, after such a journey, we remain forever journeying; journeying becomes our interior life and our public practice. (64)
“I invite performative walkers to consider a silent retreat in a monastery to experience this form; considered step, sustained slowness, and punctuating stillness as an ancient training which is not provided in contemporary art schooling,” he states (62).
Indeed, silence is central to Pujol’s walking practice. He encourages people to walk in silence, and suggests that “a group walk can be spoiled by a distracted walker or by a walker with a secret agenda, whose unfocused or disruptive behavior gradually begins to sabotage the movement, concentration, and experience of the rest” (104). Such a walker destroys the depth of the experience for the other walkers, and if that happens, he removes the walker from the walk: “I do not enable that narcissistic or troubled ego. I send the ego home” (104). “A walker is a gatekeeper,” he writes:
of the gate to the bodies of walkers; of the gate to the heart of an ecology; of the gate to the heart of a village or town. . . . It is my responsibility not to let a human-made or natural landscape become the stage for destructive dynamics. A walk is an effort at seeing, listening, and pointing to what the landscape and its human and non-human communities need. (105)
Even if that disruptive individual needs healing, such healing “should never happen at the expense of a group or a path” (105). For Pujol, leading a silent group walk is a social service because “it creates the conditions for mindful perception, which is the foundation for a more grounded construction of human reality” (106). Silence as a methodology runs against our culture, sometimes evokes hatred from other pedestrians and from drivers (106). However, “[i]t is precisely because of this individual and collective cathartic potential that I value the experience of group walking in silence” (106). Walking in silence, he claims, “brings the gift of psychic rest, of resting from the job of voicing the ego. Silence is the key that opens the door to meditation, which leads to mindfulness. Silence is a strategy that both protects the walker, like armor, and creates an open space for the stories of others to enter and be listened to in silence” (106). In fact, a walker “may wish to remain in a healing silence long after the walk,” strengthening his or her true self (107). Again, however, he demands that everyone be silent: “Walkers seeking silence need to rein in the potentially destructive dynamic of spontaneous, sporadic, superficial chat along the way” (107-08). Along with silence comes slowness: “We cannot let our walking art practice be curated by speed. We cannot let our walking practice be dictated by fear of slowness” (127).
Christianity is not the only religious tradition from which Pujol draws. He writes of the Buddhist notion of Boddhisattva, “the enlightened body whose heightened awareness is manifested through the public gesture of walking individuals and groups toward increasing consciousness. . . . In this construction of a walker, the state of enlightenment is a state of pilgrimage, of constantly walking with new people” (59). “If illusions are the condition and language of humanity, let us use illusions to create conscious paths; let us perform the illusion of beautiful, wise walks that point at the reality of consciousness,” he writes (67). “Buddhist teachings invite us to walk on an unknown path with no promise of safety, but with thoughtful suggestions,” like “walk carefully without hurting what you find along a path,” because you may find yourself reincarnated into the thing you hurt (71). “The Buddhist walker is aware that he kills too, that every human step crushes plants and insects,” he continues. “The walker apologizes to them with each step, and in between steps” (71). “Walking is not a religion,” he acknowledges, “but for some it can be a form of worship within their religion, a kinetic religious practice, as walking meditation is for Buddhists” (76). “Walking can be the purest act of worship in the cult of life” (76). He also draws from Hinduism, or at least the tradition of the sadhus, itinerant mystics. When sadhus stop wandering in middle age, he believes, “a psychic wandering begins,” because “the road now lies within the former walker,” along with past destinations. “The older walker walks the memories of a lifetime,” and continues walking “to nonmaterial destinations” (70). “One is a walker forever, moving or not, because one has achieved detachment from everything, even from walking, because walking was never the end in itself,” he contends (70). Artists should study the history of spiritual reality and of religion, “as manifestations of our desire for survival,” and these should “inform all art training, all social practice and public performativity,” or else art practices will risk failing because they “will be limited by the prejudices of secular modernity” (84). Walking is also broadly theistic:
Walking witnesses the one or more gods according to the culture of the path and the place, from making Nature into god, to importing god from across an ocean. As a walker, I acknowledge sited versions of god as an expression of local, regional, and national culture over time. These versions range from the mythical to the scientific, no more and no less, as culture is to be respected. (78)
I don’t understand what a scientific god might look like; that seems to be an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, although perhaps I’m wrong. Moreover, all of this spirituality and theism excludes people who are not believers; there are limits to Pujol’s democratic definition of walking, and some (atheists and agnostics and those who don’t incline to mystical thinking) are going to be left out.
Pujol also tends to speak of walking as if it were a singular practice, as if everyone who walks has (or ought to have) the same experience. For example, he writes that “[a] true walking practice sooner or later confronts us with love,” because everyone we have ever met emerges from deep memory to meet us, and if we are perceptive walkers, we will see them (23). As a result, all paths turn into a kind of lovers’ lane: “This is a pulsating threshold, a turning point in a walking practice. This is a path of love completely lined with once-loved individuals, where we remember everyone we have ever loved and been loved by, as a secret community of the wounded heart” (23). Confronting these memories leads to healing (23-24). It isn’t dying, it’s “walking profoundly” (24). Walking is transformative, and it brings about a coming together of “all-of-me,” “a healed unity” (7). “Brain and body become mind,” and therefore he is mindful; he walks mindfully (7). Walking also brings together dualities, such as humanity and Nature; walking “unifies the interiority of the walker, and walks it back to Nature, completing and reintegrating the walking, and thus, completing Nature” (7). The goal of art is and always was “to achieve greater consciousness” (92-93). “Perhaps it is time to transcend art in our efforts to reach consciousness,” he suggests (93). My question is, what if one’s walking practice doesn’t lead to such confrontations or transformations? What if it doesn’t achieve a greater consciousness? Is it then illegitimate? It seems that Pujol would argue that it would be.
Walking art can have many different purposes, however. It can be an attempt to recover human intimacy with the environment that has been lost, repairing a disconnection between human and non-human. It can be a way of bringing attention of outsiders to a threatened space. It can manifest a knowledge of a way of life or landscape that is in danger of being lost. It can help “to awaken the awareness of the psychic value of a site by revisiting and renewing its meaning, or by exposing how contemporary forces are trying to erase an important piece of history,” so that the site again becomes a destination, even if a contested one, “a place to walk to and through, through the excuse of art” (32). “A walker walks because the body needs to walk, to step forward, because the body needs to stand, to take a stand—to respond,” he writes. “We walk as response, sometimes as the only possible, legal response, to the loss of humanity” (34). As a public art practice, walking can make little known stories and memories public, “revealing the human ideologies and experiences that have shaped a place” (56), he suggests, following Lucy Lippard’s The Lure of the Local. That process “is about artists as humble, entrusted students of place, as grounded scholars who walk the landscape as a library, giving up their personal reading preferences, allowing themselves to be led to unknown readings, ultimately pointing creatively to the many contradictory texts a place often contains” (56). An artist’s job isn’t to be an editor, he continues, but instead to generously voice “a public that is often without voice,” to craft “a careful reading by everyone for everyone out loud” (56). Walking can also help us “deconstruct the mistakes that have defined civilization and reintegrate into Nature” (“Nature” is always capitalized in this text); his practice is performing “from this holistic insight in society, no matter the abundance or lack of resources” (63). He believes that “Nature is not the background to the play of the human condition . . . there is no separation” between humans and nature (63).
Pujol often sees his art practice in metaphysical terms—and unfortunately (or not), I cannot follow him in that direction. In his second meditation, “Flowing Stillness,” he recalls how, in 2003, he and curator Saralyn Reece Hardy invited the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Kansas homesteaders to revisit their ancestral landscape: “It was like walking on water across a vast green ocean. My body dissolved during that prairie walk. My mind experienced no envelope. I was everywhere, and everywhere was in me” (8). “We are dispersion,” he suggests: we emit scents, drop discarded skin cells and hair, produce waste. All of that is interesting, but then he becomes metaphysical: “Our evolving thoughts and feelings hover silently around us and beyond, a kind of tentacular energy field” (8). In addition, he writes,“[w]hen we walk, we are invisible motion in visible motion” (8). “We simply have to become aware of this invisible biological motion. We have to exteriorize that awareness” (8). (I honestly don’t know what that means.) “You need to give yourself permission to see all there is, visible and invisible,” he writes. “You need to give the universe permission to show you all there is, visible and invisible, because the universe will rarely force this on you” (73). A walker who has experienced this enlightenment, “this new awareness,” can walk in any direction, listening to everyone and everything, embodying “the comprehensive methodology of full perception” (74).
He suggests that humanity created the notion of the past as permanent loss, and that North Americans may be the first culture to pretend to live without a past, which is true. “But in Nature, nothing is ever lost, and thus, past, present, and future are simultaneous,” he claims (19). “The cyclical nature of the planet and the universe means that we can walk this uninterrupted thread back to prior moments in the motion”—but this is beyond time, and therefore beyond language (19-20). It’s also beyond possibility, in my experience. How can we walk our way back into the past or forward into the future? For Pujol,
the walker’s body can begin to achieve this if we decide to perceive in this way, step by step. . . . it takes a willingness to open our perception, followed by a conscious decision to sustain that perception, articulated out loud so the brain can hear it, and the body has permission to enact it, which opens a normally invisible door to the yet-unknown, which the walker needs to walk through. (20)
Pujol believes that we can walk with our ancestors, with walkers of tomorrow, that the flow of time “is in all directions” (37). “We walk with invisible others,” and our steps create the past and the future: “[t]he present is but the length of our step” (37). Because time is not linear, when he is walking Pujol becomes aware of past and future lives, or “embodiments,” which may lead us to “questioning our civilized beliefs” (41): “I have been walking, empty of thought, and fragments of past embodiments have unexpectedly flashed before me, as well as images of my next embodiment. I have been here before. I will be here again. I am walking through lives” (41). For Pujol, “it is up to use to decide whether we are going to continue disregarding” the so-called impossible “as part of the explanation of a complex, visible and invisible greater reality, beyond the ideations that constitute human civilization,” or whether we will embrace it “as one more piece of the mystery that is rarely seen in the expanding universe” (41). All of this reminds me of Shirley MacLaine walking the Camino and discovering that she was an Egyptian princess (or whatever past life she encountered). Moreover, for Pujol “[w]e are complex energy forms not fully contained by moist mineral bodies. We are permeable fields of energy with undulating edges and tentacular wisps. We experience by moving and being moved” (68). Because we are fields of energy, “[h]uman experience can leave sited energetic residue as part of a former life attachment to place. The effects of intense experience can overflow from a body and leave an intangible rooted imprint, like an invisible footprint in the shadows” (68). That is the source of stories about ancestors, spirits, ghosts, visions, apparitions, hallucinations, hauntings, and poltergeists (68). Walking, he argues, is a way of perceiving such energy: “Some walkers are like Geiger counters, whether aware of unaware of their perceptual skills, of their ability to perceive such residue in various degrees” (68). I can’t help finding such notions ludicrous. We might have many strange experiences while walking—and I have had them too—but that doesn’t mean we need metaphysical explanations for them. Physiological ones work, too. So do psychological ones. Occam’s Razor is my working heuristic: the simplest explanation is probably the correct one. The physiological and psychological explanations of the strange things that happen while walking are simpler than the mystical or metaphysical ones, and are therefore probably better.
The New-Agey ideas and language keep coming. Pujol also suggests that one can “see” without one’s eyes: “I have seen without eyes in unforgettable, ego-less sight moments. We cultivate them by walking, by seeing through the ankle and the knee, by seeing through the wrist and the elbow” (27). He advocates the cultivation of a state where the body is ahead of the brain, in which the brain sees the motion as purposeless, because “it is during those moments of not-knowing, of walking for no reason, of walking without reason, that our walking is at its most pure, at its most connected” (34). Such purity is “the essence of human connectivity, very close to the state of the animal—reclaimed” (34). In that state, “[o]ur steps are an unknown language being physically articulated,” until we “are found by understanding” (34). He listens to the pain of urban trees with his hands (39-40). “Magical thinking is not escapist childish fantasy,” he writes. “The magical is the language of Nature, filled with the complex webbing of myriad visible and invisible cyclical patterns, including the patterning of chaos, of chaotic patterns with a purpose” (66):
As a walker, I seek to enter this complex web so that I can walk in all directions and dimensions, even if I only seem to be walking along the pattern that we humans see. I have no words with which to accurately describe this walk, really. All verbal efforts are incomplete and embarrassing.
If magical language is the medium of fools, then foolishness is a requirement for walking. (66)
I can’t help thinking, though, that an awareness of the complex ecological web one walks through is not the same as magical thinking, and that a magical language (or foolishness) is not required to describe that web. Scientists set out to describe it, however incompletely, but Pujol (like Machen) appears to abhor science.
Pujol believes that everything is One: “All paths lead to the reality of our Oneness with each other and all there was and is” (67). He says this (or something like it) many times. Walking appears to be a way of appreciating that mystical unity: “I am the walker on the path, the dirt on the path, the air on the path, the sky above the path, the soil beneath the path, what grows along the path, what flies over the path, what swims by the path, what lies behind and waits ahead. I am the other walker I meet on the path. I am I and not I” (67).
Sometimes Pujol reveals himself to be a Romantic. He writes of the experience of seeing a grassy hill as individual blades of grass, “each one unique yet similar, same but different”: “It was the kind of walking experience that takes over the body; it halts your body and throws back your head to face the sky in a kind of walker’s ecstasy” (53). Afterwards, he seemed the same, outwardly, “but, inwardly, I was suddenly focused, more than ever before, so profoundly focused that this began to change me, to make me look for more such moments of full perception, seeing to sustain deep sight for all of life” (53). In the following meditation, he writes, “Reality is complex and mostly unknown. There is no time, or perhaps we could try to say something more comprehensible through a time-based language that cannot comprehend much outside linear time: that there are simultaneous renderings of time and timelessness” (54). “I walk through the veils of this mystery, catching glimpses as they part,” he continues (54):
I do not know how others walk. I can only speak about how I try to walk, vulnerably, trying to explore what feels like the simultaneity of past, present and future invisible territories through psychic acuity. It may strike some as ridiculous, as stretching beyond believable grassroots scholarship. But this is an embarrassing practice, the lineage of the village’s witchy idiot, the town’s prophetic fool, and the city’s mad visionary. All those categories speak of a child-like, creative, critical outsider walking dreamland. Indeed, they are inexact elements found by the roadside. Nevertheless, they are experiential elements of subtle perceptions, as important to understanding the complexity of the human condition as seeking the exactitude of science. (55)
All of this Romanticism—I am convinced that’s the aesthetic or philosophical origin of the notion that reality is hidden by veils and, as Pujol suggests at one point, more readily accessible to children (36) or the mad—echoes Arthur Machen in a way that would shock occult psychogeographers, who tend to draw a line between their practices and Romantic ideas.
Pujol also advocates “the performative invocation of the mythical as an effective tool for the public manifestation of people and place through pre-scientific ideologies, helping contemporary audiences to experience the desire for transcendence that past generations sought” (56). “Inhabiting myth can offer a transformative point of view that can unleash unknown psychic potential among participants,” he continues (56). “Manifesting and inhabiting the mythical in a public, durational group performance always challenges our abilities much more than experiencing the mundane,” and it “requires us to go an extra psychic mile,” sometimes requiring the extraordinary, which “is always remembered as greater than itself” (56-57). Unfortunately, Pujol does not give any examples of myths with that kind of transformative or transcendent power. In an odd echo of Smith, however, he suggests that, over time, if we commit to a walking practice, we will experience and understand “roadside signs and symbols” easily, “surrounded by the appearance of clear psychic signage and decoded mythical symbol, because that is how the true path of our life, of all life, of the entire universe flows consciously” (75). Again, he gives us no examples of that “psychic signage,” so it’s hard for me to understand what he’s talking about.
Perhaps my inability to tolerate Pujol’s mysticism (which I earned during my Baptist upbringing) makes me what he would describe as a cynic who should be excluded from socially engaged walking art practices:
True walking practice, enacted by vulnerable bodies willing to enter the unknown without weapons, disarmed of cynicism and only empowered by empathy, excludes cynical bodies. A vulnerable body seeks other bodies willing to become vulnerable with it, not as the surrendered raw material of public art, but as collaborators, partners, performers, volunteers, and audiences in a humble, strong practice. Socially engaged art practice is not about the author’s body but about all the participants’ bodies. All concerns as to whether a piece represents the state of the arts are replaced by whatever it takes to culturally reveal the state of the people. (29)
Pujol notes that he sometimes encounters negativity, cynicism, or a refusal to listen, and suggests that these are signs of “a closed culture that lacks curiosity, that has stopped growing” (110). “Walking practice is intrinsically sincere, because the path edits even the most insincere,” he writes.” The path takes care of itself. A true walking practice walks away from negativity. Every step is a gesture of hope. Daring steps dispel hopelessness” (110). “There is no way to sustain a walking practice but by harboring hope,” and hope requires sincerity, because it is “the true fuel of sustainability” (110). Of course, one can be sincere without believing in mystical ideas. Despite his claims to be open, I can’t help feeling that Pujol is actually quite closed.
When he discusses how to lead a walk, Pujol suggests that not leaving room for silence while leading a walk is a negative form of leadership. But leadership is sometimes crucial:
Some walking projects require pedagogical leadership, particularly when the walkers are foreign to a landscape, or when the walkers have lost their connection to their landscape and need to reacquaint themselves with it through a walking artist who is trying to facilitate their experience of it anew. (121)
“Walking requires a methodology of generosity,” he writes, but “[a] walk’s leader must embrace authority. Otherwise a walking group can become fragmented and the walking experience can deteriorate quickly” (122). My sense is that Pujol struggles against his own prescriptiveness; he wants to be open, but he also wants the walks he leads to unfold in a particular way.
Is there anything valuable here for my research? Yes, there is. In his introduction, for example, he notes that in the contemporary West, there is no need to walk anywhere, and that walking is associated with poverty. “Yet,” he writes, “performative walking practice is now a form of contemporary public art precisely for these reasons—because, when a vital aspect of our humanity is at the point of being lost, artists take note. And artists are walking, everywhere” (1). This reminded me of the argument that contemporary artists work with obsolescent materials and processes. American experimental filmmaker Hollis Frampton, for instance, suggests that “no activity can become an art until its proper epoch has ended and it has dwindled, as an aid to gut survival, into total obsolescence.” (112) Is that why Smith refers to art walking as non-functional? Smith is making a distinction between walking to the corner store and walking for art, but in North America, or in Saskatchewan, unlike in Europe, I would assume, almost all walking is non-functional. I hadn’t made that connection until I read Pujol’s introduction.
Pujol also gestures towards phenomenological ideas. Artists want to give “the gift of full perception through immersion,” he suggests. “They seek to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel, think, and remember the forgotten, to experience something through our minds and bodies. To shiver in the woods, sweat in a jungle, and thirst through a desert. To see the visible and sense the invisible seeing us, fully experiencing through all our organs of perception—again” (2). Of course, he is making this argument in the context of his wider claim, that socially engaged walking is the only acceptable walking practice, but still, that gift of perception through immersion is available to artists as well as participants in walking events. However, Pujol’s notion of embodiment is more mystical than phenomenological:
We are embodied. Everything, even what is disembodied, is expressed through the body. Even the immaterial is expressed through the material. The immaterial uses the illusion of the material to talk about what matters. . . . Mindful walking through the material world is one of the building blocks for consciousness of the immaterial. (70)
He also believes that the land has its own form of embodiment: “If we believe in the stored muscle memories of a body, we should be open to considering that these extraordinary moments are the stored memories of the body of a landscape” (69). I’ve heard others make similar suggestions, and as a metaphor I think the notion of the land having a memory can be quite powerful.
Pujol notes that, because everything is constantly changing, walkers need to spend time walking particular paths, in different seasons, from different directions, and at different times of the day: “A walker knows that knowing a path is not merely walking it from beginning to end,” he writes (16). “A true walker knows that knowing a path requires walking that path in both directions, because things look totally different when seen from opposite directions, practically forming two distinct experiences through opposing views,” so that one path is actually two, and in every round trip, the end is the beginning and the beginning the end (16). But we also need to walk the path at night and during the day, “so that we see what dwells in the light and in the shadows,” but because light has a range, and shadow has a range, we must try to experience “what dwells in the soft and in the harsh light, on the edge of the shadows and in the deep shadows.” (16)“We must walk that path every month for many years, so that we experience birth and growth, peak and reproduction, illness and decay,” he suggests, “so that we see the cycles of life and death of the path. That is the truth path knowledge; that is true walking practice” (16). We must also talk with a path, speaking with mouth, hands, and feet; we must also listen with our bodies. Walking barefoot makes a walk into “a truly tactile walk,” in which we learn through the skin, experiencing the skin of the path (16). All of this reminds me of Nan Shepherd’s wonderful book, The Living Mountain; she spent years walking in the Cairngorms and as a result came to an intimate understanding of those mountains.
Pujol is also conscious of the potentially colonial aspects of certain types of walking. In his fourth meditation, “Decolonizing Walking,” he begins with the notion that every one of John James Audubon’s bird paintings—and Audubon walked great distances to collect his specimens—is a tombstone (11). That leads him to a discussion of colonialism: “The history of walking is contaminated by the pale, masculine virus of colonialism: by the fever of ‘discovery,’ of being ‘the first man’ to arrive and step into an ‘unknown’ territory” (11). This colonizing notion of walking erases Indigenous people in two ways:
First, it erases them through the attribution of discovery as a mythical form of authorship, as if the heroic discoverers were authoring a new land. Second, the conquest, oppression, and eventual removal of the native peoples obliterates, so that those who follow in the discoverers’ footsteps find paupers, social nobodies considered subhuman, confirming the white myth of discovery. (11)
Pujol concludes by suggesting that non-humans also have ownership of territories, an idea that tends to be dismissed by “aggressive anthropocentrism” (11), but that still has value. In any case, Pujol is calling for a form of walking that abandons authorship and discovery, and I am also trying to find such a form of walking.
For Pujol, walking is a way of understanding the sacred. Like me, he believes the earth was in balance before industrial civilization began consuming and contaminating it:
There was a time when everything and everyone was in balance. . . . I call that former perfect natural balance “the sacred.” The sacred is a secular term I apply to an ancient object or space that embodies or contains that former balance, which should be approached with reverence for the memory it evokes and the importance of its survival for our future. (78)
Pujol seeks “to walk the sacred,” to reinsert himself into that former balance: “But for that, the walker must be sacred, too. The walking entity must engage in the sacred. . . . the balance starts inside the balanced walker. My internal balance is what will connect to the external balance. These balances are but reflections of each other” (78-79). This is where I part company with Pujol: I think that balance is gone and although the land’s sacredness can sometimes be apprehended, we cannot insert ourselves into a balance that has been disturbed or destroyed.
Pujol argues that walking is political, at least potentially. “As we walk, we hope to harvest information that leads to knowledge, processed as wisdom,” he writes. “We hope to be free, exercising our right to walk, demanding more rights. We hope for safety, and walk away from violence toward refuge and rehoming” (110-11). “Walking is a new form of radicalism because it not only fights and resists the neo-fascism that fears globalism, but it challenges the urban bubble of embittered liberalism that enables our disunited states of polarization,” he writes. “Sincerity disarms polarities and contributes to unity” (111). The problem is, of course, that Pujol is denying conflict here. Polarization exists for a reason: some people want to do things, like destroy the planet, that others want to resist. Disagreements are going to exist in any human community, and the oneness or unity Pujol seeks is, in my opinion, not possible. His mysticism stands in the way of his political engagement. Nonetheless, Pujol is convinced that art is just a visual language for addressing issues (112). In fighting for justice, he does not wear metaphorical armour, or carry metaphorical weapons, because armour “ultimately suffocates the capacity to listen,” and weapons harden the heart (112), “[A] forgiving heart” is the greatest weapon, he suggests, and his performances are “invitations to collectively disarm gradually, catching glimpses of a just society, experiencing that society one project at a time” (113).
Pujol also addresses questions about the aesthetics of walking, questions I need to think about carefully. “For me,” he writes, “aesthetics are not a contaminated envelope or straightjacket (sic). They exist somewhere in-between welcoming points of safe entry into a work and acts of generosity” (114). (Note the way that his concern with ethics—with generosity—muddies his concern with aesthetics.) He asks what one looks like while walking? Does one wear a costume or uniform?
Is it a costume that you created as the skin of this gesture? Is it a uniform constructed as an expression of your identity in the world, which you wear every day of your life? Alternatively, is it a secret uniform to reveal your true identity, perhaps seldom revealed in the world, which you are selectively willing to reveal during a performance? (114)
Wearing “nothing special” is still a uniform—“the uniform of the unnoticed, the result of a decision to walk mostly unnoticed,” which is “mostly a white experience” (114). Walking unnoticed is not automatically humble; it can be thoughtless or an avoidance of responsibility (because being unnoticed means not being bothered by people) (115). “Yet, some sites demand our courage, in the form of our visibility, to be seen to be engaged, to model engagement, if not the prophetic,” he writes (115). “If walking is an art practice, then, I inevitably wonder about recognizable elements of form” (115). He asks,
what is your form? Does it have a skin? Are you interested in aesthetics? What are your aesthetics? Or do you distrust and even reject aesthetic qualities? If you are eliminating all aesthetic traits from your work, then, what are you giving the viewer? Play? Does relating to play rather than relating to beauty replace aesthetics in your work? What makes the viewer approach your work from a distance? What welcomes the viewer into your work? What helps the viewer to remain inside your work? Is there a sensory difference between recruitment and engagement? (115)
But these aesthetic questions are merely preliminary to ethical questions about generosity: “Where is your generosity? What are the visual components of your generosity? Can you reconsider beauty as an act of generosity? If not, then, please do not forget that you need to give” (115). Despite the slide from aesthetics into ethics, I need to think about these questions; when I walk, I tend to wear practical things, because the walking itself can be so difficult that I have no extra energy for elements of costume. Perhaps that’s okay, but perhaps it isn’t. I think about these questions and never quite reach an answer; I’m afraid that I’m caught up in what Smith might describe as a functionalist trap.
In the book, Pujol lays out his particular socially engaged strategy, which could be useful for socially engaged or collective walks. He begins by downplaying notions of originality:
Walking belongs to everyone. I do not own walking. No one artist owns walking. Just because one artist has walked “successfully” does not mean that walking has been “done” and should not be funded and performed, again and again. Walking is not about the modernist myth of originality. (9)
Everyone walks, which is what a) eliminates the myth of originality and b) makes walking as art so hard, “because it dwells outside the notion of artistic talent and crafty skill” (9). Of course, everyone is not able to walk—a strange blindness for an artist who is so concerned with the ethics of his practice. Pujol believes that the best way to walk is with “a known gatekeeper or stakeholder who can introduce an artist to all the human and non-human inhabitants of that path”: “I cannot stress enough the importance of a walking facilitator, of someone who invites the walker to walk. This facilitator entrusts with the mysterious responsibility of walking their landscape, translating it for us before the walk or during a first walking experience” (9).
Once one has been invited to walk, Pujol suggests a path the project can follow. First comes research (reading, conversation, interviews, walking, “focus groups,” and “charrettes” (stakeholder meetings to figure out solutions to problems), which leads to a project proposal (30). Next, there needs to be free public readings of the project proposal, and project promotion, with audiences including potential funders, institutional partners, community gatekeepers and stakeholders. An advisory board needs to be recruited to help in the continuing process of refining the project. Next comes “[a] detail-oriented, accountable, public production third stage, negotiating access permits and safety, recruiting and training performers, docents, volunteers, and documentarians” (30). The project’s enactment “through a complex, durational staging,” with “non-invasive documentation” is the fourth stage (31). After that come evaluations, conversations and meetings about the event, lectures, an exit report, and “farewell correspondence” (31). Finally, the artist must “the people and the site years later in order to follow-up responsibly, because we become bonded by deep experience” (31). He stresses that this is not a complete or definitive list, but a socially engaged artist needs to cover these bases (31). It’s a tremendous amount of work, but it must be rewarding for Pujol, or he wouldn’t do it. Despite all this planning, however, “a walk ultimately curates itself, which is to say that a walk always surprises us with unintended results and no results, or with nothing new” (87). He also suggests that “all walkers should consider writing about walking, because paths give us a vocabulary, verbal and nonverbal, literary and physical, which eventually amounts to a holistic language, to the generous language of walking” (135).
There are valuable ideas here, and important questions, but overall this book might be an example of the kind of Romantic or New Age walking Smith rejects. And, as I suggested at the beginning of this summary, Pujol’s mysticism doesn’t work for me at all. That doesn’t mean it might not work for others, however. If you tend towards mystical thinking and like to walk, you might get a great deal out of Walking Art Practice: Reflections on Socially Engaged Paths. And if you think that socially engaged art practice is the only kind of practice artists should engage with, then you will find support in Pujol’s book. However, if you question Pujol’s assumptions, you will likely find this a frustrating read.
Frampton, Hollis. Circles of Confusion: Film/Photography/Video Texts 1968-1980, Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1983.
Machen, Arthur. The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering, Martin Secker, 1924.
Pujol, Ernesto. Walking Art Practice: Reflections on Socially Engaged Paths, Triarchy, 2018.
Smith, Phil. Walking’s New Movement: Opportunities, Decelerations and Beautiful Obstacles in the Performances, Politics, Philosophies and Spaces of Contemporary Radical Walking, Triarchy, 2015.