64. Deirdre Heddon and Cathy Turner, “Walking Women: Interviews with Artists on the Move”

by breavman99

heddon and turner walking women interviews

I’ve already read (and blogged about) Deirdre Heddon’s and Cathy Turner’s later essay, “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility,”  which summarizes the research that’s presented in this paper. But I found that essay to be so important that I wanted to see what was said in “Walking Women: Interviews with Artists on the Move.” I’m glad I did: there is some overlap, but at the same time, there’s enough new stuff here to make reading this earlier essay worthwhile.

Heddon and Turner begin with Rebecca Solnit and her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. They note that “the history of walking art woven through” that book “is inevitably dominated by the better-known names of male artists,” suggesting that, with exceptions, the ability of women to walk has been limited (14). That is something Heddon experienced as well, when she was writing her 2008 book, Autobiography and Performance. Then, she struggled to find women who included walking practices in their work (15). For Heddon, that struggle raised important questions:

Were there, in fact, many women artists, or did women avoid making walking art for various reasons? Why, if they did exist, was their work seemingly overshadowed by that of male artists? Might an examination of such work prove revealing, pointing towards aspects of walking and walking art that have been unexplored, or suggesting new perspectives on prevalent assumptions about such walking? (15)

One of the few women walking artists Heddon could initially identify was Cathy Turner, a member (with Stephen Hodge, Simon Persighetti, and Phil Smith) of Wrights & Sites; in fact, Turner had invited Heddon to participate in a “gender drift” in Exeter in 2003 (15). Together, Heddon and Turner decided to explore “the gendering of space and walking,” by interviewing women walking artists while accompanying them on walks (15). “We could have simply interviewed these women, inviting them to offer a narrative of their walking,” they write, but such narratives cannot convey the experience of walking (15). For that reason, they continue,

We chose to allow our interviews to be informed by this improvisatory and embodied experience, so that the walk might prompt diversions, tangents, circuits and uncertainties missed in the linear authority of the merely spoken account. Our fieldwork approach also allows us to attend to information from the sites walked through, things that drew our attention, that our walkers pointed out, surprising connections, disjunctions and juxtapositions. Each of the walks taken prompted a particular ‘toponarrative’—a collaborative, partial story of place constructed by at least two walkers. (15)

All of the interviews collected in this article were conducted during walking at various locations throughout the UK.

Heddon’s and Turner’s first task was determining whether “the absence of prominent women in the field (literal and metaphorical) of walking art was due to the absence of women working in this way” (15). They discovered that a lot of women were walking, in the UK and elsewhere (15). They decided to interview 10 artists as a starting point: Elspeth Owen; two members of the trio walkwalkwalk, Clare Qualmann and Gail Burton; Misha Myers; Tamara Ashley; Simone Kenyon; Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre; Emma Bush; Sorrel Muggridge; and Rachel Gomme (15). They write,

a large part of our concern was simply to make this walking more visible. Thus, although we tentatively begin to draw conclusions here, this essay focuses on the walking interviews themselves, the work of the artists and their discussion of their own work (the last a deliberate attempt to vary the voices heard in this field). (15)

The conclusions are explored more fully in their 2012 essay on this subject. This paper is the beginning of their research–and to be honest, I should have read this one first. In any case, both are worthwhile.

In the first walk, Heddon interviews Turner on a walking route that Turner chose, one that runs “along the undercliff between Branscombe and Beer, in Devon” (16). Turner noted that “the ‘leisure walk,’ chosen for aesthetic pleasure and convenience, is easily regarded as the antithesis of the psychogeographic ramble—too easy, too naive, too ‘managed,’ too mapped. Need it be, however? Is it entirely without difficulty, complexity, risk or mystery?” (16). She also raised questions “about the ways in which our experiences shape our assumptions about place, citing, for example, the highly managed forest environment where she enjoys taking her small daughter for walks, despite the doubts cast on this ‘taming’ of the forest space by artist colleagues” (16). She recalled her attempt to “drift,” with her baby, in a domestic space, as part of a video project made for Wrights & Sites: “It was hard,” she said (16). She remembered “the struggle of attempting to experience the house differently, dressed for hiking, wheeling the buggy upstairs, erecting a tent in the bathroom,” and the resulting video can only be read ambiguously, “suggesting entrapment” (16). That experience led Heddon and Turner to consider domestic walking:

We do not want to assume that women’s experience can automatically be mapped onto a concern with the domestic, or to make similarly essentialist assumptions about men’s epic walking. However, Cathy’s observations clearly reflect the ways in which personal experience (here, that of early motherhood) can inform perceptions of space and of its attendant degree of difficulty, complexity, risk and mystery. (16)

I doubt very much that a male walking artist would be concerned with the domestic, however, although I feel the need to point out that not all men are engaged in “epic walking,” either. At least, I don’t think they are. Maybe I’m wrong about that.

In the second interview, Heddon drifted in London with Rachel Gomme, “a dancer trained in the technique of Body Weather, a butoh inspired practice which raises awareness of and attends to the body’s intersections with its environment” (16). Having worked with artists Christine Quoiraud and Simon Whitehead, “and sensing in their practice a deep engagement with the rural landscape,” Gomme “seeks strategies for a similarly embodied response to the urban fabric of London: a way to feel at home” (16). Gomme’s practice “tends to focus on details”: throughout 2007, for instance, she would stop to pick up flowers that had dropped to the ground, and the resulting Found Flower Journal “captures seasons and microclimates, each flower attached to a strip of paper that roughly matches the colour of the sky when she plucked it from the pavement” (16). She’s more interested in “the organic matter of the city” than its architecture” (17). Her 2008 work Undergrowth was

a sort of natural history walk around her local area, literally marked out, in washable green paint, the things that grew where they weren’t supposed to be, or where you didn’t expect them, or where you simply tended not to see them—plants in the road, roots of trees breaking through the pavement, ‘weeds’ in the cracks of walls. (17)

Gomme learned the names of those plants, exchanged knowledge with people from the area who showed up to walk with her (17). Gomme’s walking is often convivial in that way, and Heddon notes that her walking practice 

borrows from her Body Weather technique, a sense of stillness in motion. The hypnotic rhythm of foot falling is threaded through Ravel (2008), where she knitted up a line of yarn as she walked through Camberwell, incorporating bits of found objects or things that people gave her. Six hours of walking, covering a distance of just over two miles, created a knit of 4 1/2 feet x 6 inches. She collected not only objects but people, mostly women, mostly talking about knitting—their grans’ knitting, their mums’ knitting. (17)

The use of methodologies related to relational or social aesthetics—in this case, the conversations Gomme engaged in with passersby—is a recurring theme in this essay.

Turner walked and talked with Emma Bush in Harbertonford, the village in Devon where the lives; they walked a route that is part of Bush’s 2008 Village Walk, and Bush pointed out the field where she researched her 2007 performance lecture, Fields (17). It’s a walk Bush has repeated many times: “Repetition is something she finds interesting. Not striding out into the unknown but focusing in on the detail of the known” (17). Every evening, Bush photographs the same line of houses, “taking time to notice weather, wind direction, owls and buzzards. Nothing is too small or too familiar: she even considered a project where she would contemplate her garden wall” (17). During the interview, Bush stressed “her timidity in talking to people, or walking strange routes. The research process for Village Walk was slow, extended over months and involved repeatedly walking the route with elders from the village and alone. The final walk links a series of the elders’ autobiographical stories along the route” (17). For Turner, “[t]his project’s integrity, its careful methodology, its deliberation, its pushing of small boundaries,” suggested that it was “a metaphor for the hidden steeliness that lies behind the fragility of this walking” (17).

In the fourth interview, Heddon walked with Gail Burton and Clare Qualmann around East London, “following the everyday routes that now form the trio’s Nightwalks” (18). The trio walkwalkwalk “practice what they call ‘an archaeology of the familiar and the forgotten,’ organizing public walks through their familiar places, places deemed marginal or overlooked” (18). Such places in East London at that time were dirty and somewhat abandoned, but they provided “space for the imagination” and were “more receptive to possibilities” (18). Walkwalkwalk’s practice is a “sharp retort to Guy Debord’s dismissal of a student whose routines made a rigid triangle in Paris. . . . Debord was incredulous that the (female) student did not move outside of those three points. Staging a sort of anti-dérive, walkwalkwalk plotted their daily routes to define their own triangle,” and decided to invite others to join them in exploring the relationships within that space (18). Some 20 to 50 people turn up for their nightly walks, which are organized a couple of times a year (18). “Collective walking enables access to places that become ‘off limits’ at certain times (most particularly for women),” Qualmann and Burton suggested. “But the broader politics of freedom are writ large here”: they wanted to do something that didn’t require permissions or money (18). “Their collection of different night walk route maps testifies to the redrawing of margins” in the area, which is beginning to experience regeneration and redevelopment (18). I wonder what those walks are like now, a decade later, or if they are still happening.

Heddon took Elspeth Owen on a walk in Glasgow, on one of Heddon’s own daily walking routes (18). That’s because “Owen is a long distance, long duration walker, her work often providing a structure for the forging of new connections” (18). For example, in 2005’s Looselink Owen “hand-delivered messages in a chain sequence, following directions from one person to another. At no point did she know, in advance, where she would be walking to next” (18). (That would be a dangerous project to attempt in this country: what if someone in Vancouver gave you a message for someone in St. John’s?) In another project, 2009’s Grandmother’s Footsteps, Owen used a similar methodology, “delivering messages from grandparents to other first-time grandparents, crossing fifteen counties in the process” (18). “While the direction and duration of these projects are determined by the people participating in them . . . other projects are dictated by the calendar”: Owen has performed two “blue moon” works, remaining outside for the entire moon cycle, in all weathers, undertaking nightly walks and issuing an open invitation for people to join her (18). 

Owen is 71, and she only started walking in her 40s (18). Her first long walk was a 120-mile trek from Cardiff to Greenham Common, marking the founding of the Peace Camp that was set up to protest the presence of American nuclear weapons (18). Even though she was an adult, her father was furious with her, and that reaction encouraged Owen to develop a walking art practice (18). “Another motivator,” Owen noted, “is her acute sense of fear when walking in unknown places—a fear that she acknowledges, confronts and overcomes with every walk completed. As she explains, all the bad things that she imagined might happen, but didn’t, are placed beside all the good things that did” (18-19). For example, the first night she slept out on her own (a nerve-wracking experience) she woke up to see a white stag (19). I wonder how many similar moments Owen has experienced.

Turner interviewed Misha Myers during a walk around Exeter, following the city wall (19).“Myers is a performance artist and academic, who formerly studied anthropology and practised dance,” and Exeter’s old walls “designated the route of her work Yodel Rodeo in 2007” (19). According to Myers, walking as an art practice “came out of her interest in ‘how people orient,’ an interest, she suggests, rooted in her own experience of displacement”—she moved from the US to the UK—and her work with refugees and asylum seekers (19). For instance, her 2002 project Way from Home “began with refugees in Plymouth and that has since extended to other places. With this project, Myers offers a set of instructions for mapping a place that someone remembers as home, then walking it in another place, remembering it with a co-walker” (19). Myers had thought that everyone who participated would have a clear idea of what “home” was, but that turned out not to be the case: “She recalls a homeless refugee, awaiting deportation, who could not identify home, who walked the shape of a question mark in the public library” (19). Myers encourages people to interpret her instructions and make them their own, to use them to create a journey (19). Her own Yodel Rodeo was an attempt “to walk Mississippi around central Exeter. Initially, she envisaged walking alone through the night but grew interested in inviting others into that imagined space. She therefore involved a group of line-dancers who accompanied her in a route around the walls that ring the city like a corral” (19). Myers’s works “have tended to focus on triggering other people’s creativity and involvement,” in a way that makes the artist herself tend to disappear (19).

Heddon walked with Sorrel Muggridge in Glasgow (19). Muggridge “has been devising walking projects with Laura Nanni for the past five years”; the pair walk together “in shared time rather than in shared space since she has been most often in Nottingham while Nanni is in Toronto” (19). “Spinning the idea of the long-distance walk, their projects utilize the space between them as if ‘mashing up’ geographies, engaging the streets of one city as the streets of another” (19). For instance, their 2009 project Further Afield invited people to walk with someone else across the ocean; participants were connected by telephone with someone walking in Montreal, “exchanging details of one place to re-imagine and navigate the terrain of another. Separated by thousands of miles, the experience nevertheless provided the co-ordinates for collaboration, exchange and connection” (19-20). In another piece, The Climb, Muggridge and Nanni “attempt to climb the height that would allow them to see each other across the horizon,” measuring that height “using an everyday scale—the step” (20):

Though durational (and perhaps never ending), the intention, Muggridge explains, is neither to endure nor conquer space, but to make tangible the impossibility of the scale at which they are working, “emphasizing the scale of space versus the scale of us and letting it be, letting yourself feel liberated rather than challenged by it.” (20)

I’ve seen calls for similar walks on the Walking Artists Network, but I had not understood the point before reading Muggridge’s account of her walks with Nanni.

Turner and Ana Lopez de la Torre walked together in London. Lopez de la Torre explained “that her walking grew out of an interest in public space,” and that rather than being connected to leisure or “a romantic connection with nature,” it is “connected with poverty” (20). Her grandmother, who lived in north-west Spain, told stories about walking from one village to another, “stories that are sometimes about convivial walking, but sometimes about sorrow and hardship” (20). Lopez de la Torre “is interested in an equal valuation of the mythical alongside more factual, historical or scientific material,” but by mythical she seems to refer to communal knowledge (20). She seems to be the closest to a psychogeographer in this group of walkers: she looks for “the incongruities in the city spaces, the oddities, the ways in which the street is controlled and organized, or where control has disintegrated”—such as the impromptu allotment garden they see on the edge of a housing estate: “This is what makes my day,” Torre told Turner (20).

Heddon walked with and interviewed dancers Tamara Ashley and Simone Kenyon in a town in Wales: “They climb the hill behind Kenyon’s house, a route she sometimes runs” (20). In 2007, the pair walked the Pennine Way together: “they were interested in ‘how to locate dance through walking,” and over the 270-mile walk “they tried to pay attention to how their (dancers’) bodies engaged with and responded to the terrain” (21). Even the weight of their backpacks played a role, making them aware of their centre of gravity and connecting them to the earth with their weight (21). “Walking as a duo, they ‘partnered’ the land too,” considering the texture and density of the ground they walked on—peat versus limestone, for example (21). They focused on improvisation during that walk:

Improvising off the land and each other, they remained sensitive to the possibilities of exchange, to shifts in atmosphere and mood (both of the landscape and their relationship). Notably, the largest tensions between the pair were experienced during the most difficult sections. The Pennine Way functioned “like a score” though, with the path providing what Kenyon describes as a “base line” that “pulls you” and “holds you in place.” No matter how bad things seemed to be, they realized (and appreciated) that they simply had to get up each day and get back on the trail. (21)

The pair also curated “six artistic interventions along the route,” inviting other artists to come and change what was happening and give them feedback (21): “In the context of the long-distance and long-duration, these meetings became ‘magnified’ and served to extend the duet, the dialogue and exchange; as did the encounters the pair had with other walkers completing the Way, a lot of whom shared their stories of the path. One walker even left signs on the ground for them” (21). Heddon recognized in their walking that “‘contact improvisation’” was “an appropriately generative description through which to consider this responsive, open practice” (21).

In their conclusion, Heddon and Turner note that they walked with only a small number of the women walkers who contacted them, but that

the richness of this field is already evident. These ten women worked as solo artists, duos and groups; they ranged in ages from 20s to 70s; some were mothers and some weren’t; they were from Britain or had emigrated here; they lived in the city and in the country; they walked alone and they solicited company. Some loved walking as children, some hated it. While all had heard of flâneurs and the Situationists, and many cited Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and Janet Cardiff, few seemed overly concerned with or committed to staying within the well-tramped fields. Each had her own agenda and different motivation. The diversity of the practice and the women who make it usefully prevents us from falling into easy essentialisms of “gender.” Nevertheless, each of these women did recognize that she walked as a woman: though what that means is as variable as the women walking. (21)

Given the variety in the walking practices they learned about, they don’t “propose a singular conceptualization of women walking” (21). “However,” they continue, “by walking and talking to these women we aim to rethink—or add—to the theories that relate to aesthetic walking practices” (21). The interviews were a starting point and they intended to continue their analysis (21). Nevertheless, they write,

Our small sample has already prompted us to consider questions of scale, of the monumental and the miniature, and the cultural values attached to one rather than the other. But this work also invites us to problematize such binaries, for in the detailed work of many of these walkers—their dogged attention to their locale(s)—the seemingly miniature becomes gigantic. (21-22)

The local and the global intertwine in these walks, as do the local and the epic: “We reconsider, too, the local and epic, since our long-distance walkers work with both scales simultaneously; Owen travels vast distances to hand deliver personal messages” (22). They are also interested in the way that the walking they discussed “prompts us to consider walking as a convivial or communal activity, over-writing the still powerful historical figure of the solo walker” (22). For instance, Owen’s walking puts connection at its centre; Muggridge and Nanni connect people who are thousands of miles apart; Gomme “knits together people and place, gathering them both as she walks her local streets”; Myers and Lopez de la Torre “both see their work as being that of someone facilitating on behalf of various communities, where the artist does not necessarily ‘lead’ or inscribe the work with their presence” (22). The work also encourages them to think about “the concept of ‘adventure’”: adventure does exist in the walks they’ve discussed, and it’s important to acknowledge that and make it visible, but “as with notions of ‘scale,’ adventure can be rescaled too, depending on your perspective. To work in one’s back yard is to take huge risks, while to walk the Pennine Way, as Simone Kenyon reminds us, is simply to take one step after another” (22).

When I first became interested in walking as an art practice, I was only aware of epic walking by men: Richard Long and Hamish Fulton were the primary examples I knew about. I’m not willing to abandon the notion of epic walking, but it would be interesting, I think, to engage in other forms of walking as well—perhaps forms that are more convivial, perhaps forms that are more local in scale. I would not have come to that realization without reading Heddon’s and Turner’s articles on women walking, and I am curious to learn about other kinds of walking as well. Perhaps there are men (aside from Phil Smith) whose walking falls into the category of social or relational aesthetics; perhaps not all men who walk are engaged in epic walking. One of the things I’m learning as I read through all of this material is just how much I don’t know. It’s rather humbling. I suppose that’s a good thing: better to know what you don’t know than wander around with a false impression of one’s knowledge and competence. Still, if I were asked to put together a syllabus for a course on walking as an art practice, almost all of the examples I’d be able to furnish would be of women walking artists, given the lists provided by Heddon and Turner, and also by Phil Smith—maybe that’s not the worst thing, but it does indicate the lack of balance in my knowledge of the field. In fact, I might find myself being asked to create such a syllabus as part of my comprehensive examinations: I’d better start making lists of walkers I might want to include.

Works Cited

Heddon, Deirdre, and Cathy Turner. “Walking Women: Interviews with Artists on the Move.” Performance Research, vol. 15, no. 4, 2010, pp. 14-22.

———. “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility.” Contemporary Theatre Review, vol. 22, no. 2, 2012, pp. 224-36.