The role of Walking Art during Covid-19
Artist and researcher Clare Qualmann reflects upon the importance of walking art as a creative pedagogy during the restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic and explores the role that walking played during her personal navigation of the first lockdown. She also introduces a new research project Walking Publics / Walking Arts which explores how creative walking activities might support increased participation in walking during a pandemic and in recovery.
We Are Shadows, Coney & Tamasha Image © Bettina Adela
Throughout summer 2020, as I planned for a semester of teaching under covid restrictions, I had a series of conversations with colleagues from across my university and beyond about the potentials of walking. As an artist, researcher and teacher who has spent the last 15 years making, researching, and facilitating walking art, I suddenly found my expertise in full focus. The relatively unheard-of medium of walking art felt like the perfect response to the need to be outside and physically distanced. I found myself reviewing my mental map of walking artworks in East London where I live and work, looking for themes that would tie into my own teaching, and to the work of colleagues trying to shape and structure learning experiences that were not solely screen mediated.
Although walking art comes in many forms, from guided tours and sound walks, to maps, instructions, and choreographed performances, Audio walks felt like a good place to start. These usually work as recordings that can be streamed or downloaded, or are geo-located and accessed through an app or receiver, and that guide the listener through a place telling stories (real or imagined). They can provide insights into histories and imaginaries around their locations and have the potential to create deeply immersive experiences akin to theatre. I think they prompt new relationships with places that previously felt familiar, as well as guide listeners to try new paths or look at things differently.
Mapping Your Manor, Lucy Harrison Image © Daisy Hutchison
With my colleague Susannah Pickering-Saqqa, who works in International Development, I shared details of Lucy Harrison’s Mapping Your Manor (2011), around the Olympic Park, and Platform’s And While London Burns (2007) in the City of London. Mapping your Manor is an oral history walk that gathers testimonies from the communities living on the boundaries of the Olympic Park, made in the run-up to the 2012 games. And While London Burns is an operatic walking tour that highlights London’s business and finance impacts on climate change. These two works could not be more different, yet both highlight the global interconnectedness of their locations, imbalances of power between individuals and corporations, and the politics of place. Susannah went on to create a walking seminar series for her students on themes including Radical Inequalities (Around Walthamstow Village from Church Bench to Vestry House, via Almshouses and Vinegar Alley). Charity Research and data (From Fournier Street to Thrawl Street, Spitalfields using Booth’s poverty maps) and INGOs and Campaigning (Trafalgar Square).
We Are Shadows, Coney & Tamasha Image © Myah Jeffers
As a covid-safe ‘Theatre’ trip I arranged for my Performing Arts students to go to We Are Shadows (2019), a collaboration between Tamasha Digital and Coney, that was described as an ‘immersive smart phone adventure on foot’. This work unfolded through a series of phone calls, text messages and audio tracks that guided the audience around Brick Lane in East London. Participants were led to different sites where fragments of audio stories, touching on themes of migration, culture, displacement, gentrification and food, were revealed. I was struck by its ability to take me to new places within a landscape that was very familiar (Brick Lane was part of my walk to work for ten years, as well as part of the walkwalkwalk project route). I saw things that I hadn’t before, and I enjoyed the way that the stories intersected with instructions and invitations to participate in the life of the street. It reminded me of Gail Burton’s  writing on the unexpected collisions that can puncture the ordinariness of routine and repeated walks.
Walking We Are Shadows Image © Clare Qualmann
As well as these examples of site-specific walks, intended for an exact location, I also re-visited walks that are designed for anywhere, like Jennie Savage’s Guide to Getting Lost (2010). This is an audio walk experience that edits together soundscapes from around the world, immersing the listener/walker in a sometimes-disorienting mesh of ‘real’ and recorded sound, whilst simultaneously providing instructions that may or may not be feasible, depending on where you are. Savage’s art, like many audio walks, ‘happens in the blurring between the audio guide, (and) the walker’s spatial awareness of their own transit through a specific location’.
Guide to Getting Lost, Jennie Savage
Image © Jennie Savage
As I gathered this list of walks, and reviewed my experiences of walking artworks, I also reflected on the role that walking had played for me within the first lockdown. I realised that walking had provided space and possibility for cultural engagement, connection, and relationships when so much was closed and inaccessible. I thought back to the very first week of the lockdown, the sudden shift that brought my family into each other's space 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, trying to find new ways to play, look after each other, and keep working.
That first week I felt slightly numb, as each day brought news of another sick family in our neighbourhood and terrifying images dominated the media. The dissonance of maintaining some normality for the children and providing support and structure for my students, with the fear and unknown of the situation was huge. It was a walk that first gave me an escape, and some space of my own, in that first overwhelming week.
Sunrise walk, 24th March 2020
Image © Clare Qualmann
Blake Morris’ British Summer Time Sunrise Walks (2019 - ongoing), is a series that invites participants all over the world to walk from 15 minutes before, to 15 minutes after sunrise, in the run-up to the clocks changing in Spring and Autumn each year. On the 24th of March 2020, I managed to get out of bed at 5.30 am (without waking anyone else in the flat) and walked towards Hackney Downs in the hope that the slight elevation of the park would enable me to see the sunrise. It was a frosty morning and, as I reached the railway bridge on Navarino Road, I could see the sky starting to light up over the train tracks looking east. I reached the park just before 5.53 am (sunrise), though the horizon wasn’t visible through trees and houses. A fox crossed my path and led me north towards a spectacular reflection, the bright orange sunlight bouncing off the long window of the stairwell in a block of flats, creating a monolith of light. As I turned to walk back towards home the whole sky to the west lit up with the reflected light from the (out of view) sunrise, casting pink shadows onto the white frosty grass and across the bare branches of the plane trees.
I shared images of my walk with Morris in Northampton, and with other walkers in High Wycombe and Germany, and received the pictures of their sunrises too. I carved a little bit of space out of my panic-mode (pandemic) existence to walk and look and just think about the sun rising around the world.
Above and below: Sunrise walk, 24th March 2020
Images © Clare Qualmann
Morris was not the only artist offering opportunities to take part in lockdown walking art work. As the pandemic restrictions continued, members of the Walking Artists Network made a range of calls to walk together at a distance. For example Sonia Overall’s Distance Drifts (2020 - ongoing), the Loiterers Resistance Movement’s First Sunday walks (2006 - ongoing) and Alisa Oleva’s Skyline Walking (2021 - ongoing) all offered connection through shared themes and actions. Other works were made for those shielding, or unable to leave the house, such as Louise Ann Wilson’s Walks to Remember During a Pandemic (2020) and Laura Fisher’s Going in, Going out (2021), a walking experience for the home. In September 2020 a whole festival of walking work, Sound Walk September, took place with remote events happening globally.
Video stills from Skyline Walking, a collective archive curated by Alisa Oleva
As I continued working with students, through fluctuating restrictions, and with their individual circumstances and relationships to risk in mind, pre-existing walking art, along with newly created works, were invaluable. They provided experiences of artworks in a form that was intended, rather than mediated to comply with restrictions. Walking, exploring, thinking and talking about and responding to these works opened up new areas of practice and ways of approaching the creation of art that brings together people and place. Local walking was one of the few things that I was allowed to do outside of my work life and I walked extensively in my neighbourhood, and within easy reach, exploring walking artworks that were available in these locations. This shifted my understandings of the place that I live in through new layers of meaning and with new stories brought to the fore.
Although I am experienced in making, researching, and participating in walking art, this process affirmed for me the enormous potential of walking as a medium that can create new encounters between people and place, opening up new stories and ways of seeing. I believe that these potentials can be used both to expand cultural engagement and improve participation in walking, changing our perception of what it means to go for a walk, our understanding of where walks can/should happen, and our perception of who can take part in walking activities.
This meeting point, of walking and creativity, is the subject of a new research project, Walking Publics, Walking Arts: walking, wellbeing and community during COVID-19, that I am working on with Dee Heddon, Morag Rose, Maggie O’Neill and Harry Wilson. We are exploring how creative walking activities might support increased participation in walking during a pandemic and in recovery. The first stage of the project uses surveys to capture walking experiences in the UK during Covid, from the public, and also from artists who have used walking in their creative practice. The surveys can be completed until the 21st of May 2021 here: https://walkcreate.gla.ac.uk.
We want to understand the roles that walking has played, and how walking and creativity have worked together to provide much-needed activity and interaction. In the second part of the project, we will commission a series of artists walks in partnership with arts organisations, and walking organisations to further explore how these spheres can contribute to each other. Through this work we hope to contribute to the burgeoning of walking art practices enabling wider participation and celebrating the unique potentials of walking as a creative practice.
 Further reading on And While London Burns includes Tompkins, J. (2011). Site-Specific Theatre and Political Engagement across Space and Time: The Psychogeographic Mapping of British Petroleum in Platform's "And While London Burns". Theatre Journal, 63(2), 225-243. Retrieved May 7, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41307540  my long-term collaborator on the walkwalkwalk project  https://walkingart.interartive.org/2018/12/Guide-To-Getting-Lost-Savage
 The Loiterer's Resistance Movement First Sunday walks began in 2006 and are ongoing - but shifted to remote walking in 2020 at the first lockdown
Clare Qualmann is an artist/researcher whose work focuses on participatory, site-specific, and experimental modes of contemporary creative practice. She was a founding member of the Walking Artists Network, and worked on an AHRC funded project (2012-2015) to extend its interdisciplinary connections with others using walking as a creative critical practice internationally. Ongoing projects include Perambulator a walking project with prams, and East End Jam, a walking, foraging, and preserving project that celebrates the unexpected fruitfulness of the urban environment. With Dr. Claire Hind she has co-edited two volumes of ‘wander scores’ – Ways to Wander, and Ways to Wander the Gallery are both available from Edgework. Her teaching, research and art practice explore the interconnections between art, activism and the radical potentials of participation.
Buy Ways to Wander, Ways to Wander the Gallery, and Walk Walk Walk from Edgework
Read Qualmann's previous Edgework Journal article Ways to Wander (July 2018)
See Qualmann's takeover of the Edgework Instagram Feed (September 2018)