A Walk around the Block is a research project which examines whether intentional and performative acts of walking can effect changes in the attitudes and perceptions of walkers to their neighbourhood and environment that might encourage dialogue and exchange among diverse communities, broadening participation in the process of community revitalisation. It was a bit of a Utopian idea...!
But it began in a very small way….
Walks during the Walking Project, a cultural exchange involving my theatre company in Detroit, Walk & Squawk, communities and artists in Michigan, USA, and KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa prompted me to consider how arts strategies within everyday walks, as opposed to dedicated ‘art’ walks, might develop the potential for encounters across a variety of differences (race, gender, age, class, ability) in local neighbourhoods that might lead to changes in perceptions and attitudes to others. Can everyday walking be a different, and more embodied way of engaging people in dialogue?
I devised a participatory research project where participants might feel a sense of freedom to experiment and play within the everyday and which provokes questioning, creating opportunities for communication and dialogue. I recruited 30 volunteer participants who had a regular, repeated walk that they were familiar with. In most cases participants walk their walk more than once a week and some make their walk more than once a day. There was no required length for the walk, which varied from fifty metres to between two and three miles. I asked participants to interrupt and reflect on their everyday walk four times, within one month. Once I started to recruit volunteers I made individual Walker’s Packs (see accompanying photos).
Combining functionality and aesthetics, the Packs should be carried easily, not to fiddly to deal with whilst walking and look attractive! Each Pack was made from two cardboard compact disc cases, taped together. I cut one cover open and into it pasted a folded, laminated map of a square mile centred around the participant walker’s home - the map showed enough detail of their neighbourhood, yet enabled most participants to draw on it the whole of their everyday route. I kept the other cover whole to hold four pieces of notepaper, one for each walk. Once opened out, the pack has written instructions and interruptions for the walks. Folded up, the pack is secured with a rubber band, which holds a pencil to write or draw with and a pen to mark the route on the map. The cover photograph, taken on my own research walks, was chosen with some care for each participant. Some participants found there was not enough paper for notes, some found the pieces too small. In one or two cases the map came unstuck. Nevertheless, in general the pack worked as a tool and also as an artwork in its own right. Participants expressed delight in using it.
Participants could carry out one or more interruptions and no one chose to do the same one twice. In designing these I was conscious of creating a broad choice that would enable participants to be more or less playful depending on their level of comfort, bearing in mind that most of the participants were not used to improvising or to being seen doing out-of-the-ordinary actions in public space. Nevertheless, I wanted to provide the opportunity for risk-taking and experimentation. Therefore, the interruptions ranged from what I considered to be low-risk – such as choosing a colour to follow – to more high-risk – such as wearing a possibly inappropriate pair of shoes, or standing on a corner for a minute or longer.
Participants could make written notes, drawings, take photos and collect objects as part of their investigations. Of the thirty participants who completed the walks all made written notes, seven took photos and several made drawings and collected small objects during their walks. I conducted interviews with questions that were open-ended. Pre-Walks interviews varied in length from six to fifteen minutes and Post-Walks Interviews from nine to ninety minutes. The interruptions are listed on one of the accompanying images. 2 Images show participants' photos, notes & found objects. Email me for findings and further information about the project . If you'd like to try this for yourself, email me your postcode and I'll send you Walker's Pack.