Moving Body, Moving Mind: Walking and Talking in Illinois

by Nicholas Brown, Kevin Hamilton

2006

Walking as Knowing as Making was a year-long series of symposia, discussions, and walks that took place at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Originated within the School of Art and Design, the project formed from discussions between Nicholas Brown and Kevin Hamilton.

We first planned the project as a way of provoking needed discourse where we could find none. With interest in walking on the rise in academia, the arts, activism, no area seemed to benefit from work within any other. Disparate, incomplete conversations provided glimpses into walking’s potential as an act of knowledge and production, but each ran the risk of uncritically valorizing some aspect of this commonplace practice. As so many asked during our project, what is walking after all but a series of falls and recoveries of a body, propelling a person through space? Anything beyond that, any meaningful or productive function, is ascribed by a particular person or group, within a particular discourse. Walking’s rich potential lies in the differences between these ascriptions. We sought to better understand why artists, activists, poets, geographers and ecologists want walking to be more than movement of a body through space and time.

To this end, we arranged a series of opportunities to ask ourselves and others the question, “Why walking?” We did this through staging a sequence of deliberately interrogatory contexts, where both our assumptions about walking and our means for conducting such a discussion were called into question. In 2004 and 2005, we assembled small groups of “experts” for whom walking played a significant role, invited them to Central Illinois for four-day retreats. Each retreat contained public and private components, talks and walks. We sought to challenge our guests through placing their work in proximity to that of others from wildly different practices. We sought to challenge ourselves and our local community of participants by holding the events in a roaming format, choosing different locations for each presentation or discussion, and conducting some of the events as walks.

The subject of walking deserves such a multiform examination, conducted through practice as well as theory. A complex site of simultaneous activities, walking influences the walker and the place where she walks, produces self and space, place. The walker is seen and also sees, learning and sensing as she is identified and constructed in the eyes of others. The walk also produces a story, an opportunity to recount or map movement for others. In walking, then, we find a nexus of vital and important questions, easily and readily applied. A walk potentially produces subjectivity, history, knowledge of self and other, identity, representation, all in an act centered within a single body.

Through narration, images, and articulation of themes, this paper will introduce some of the potential and challenges we uncovered as a year-long, internationally-dispersed and diverse group of people, walking and talking around the landscape of Central Illinois and the campus of a Research University. Along the way, we will provide hyperlinks to information about the individuals and discourses represented.

Around thirty people walk west in small groups, talking, along a rural road in a town of around 400. Over a century-and-a-half has passed since the Potawatomi Indians were forced to march this same route, toward new settlements in Kansas. A man rides a small tractor eastward, picking up road trash with a stick and throwing it into the adjoining railroad bed.

What more is walking than a series of falls?

Walking is an opportunity to write subjective memory into public space.

Walking is where we define and produce the boundary of the “wild.”

—–

Though our conversations eventually included participants in disciplines as disparate as Kinesiology, Computer Science, and Anthropology, we were originally driven by the desire to collide just two particular discourses – that of walking as a social site for the construction of subjecthood, and of walking as a phenomenological means to discovering and making place. The latter seemed to always happen in spaces deemed wild or rural, the former in urban or metropolitan scenes.

Between these two traditions we already anticipated conflict, yet perceived a need for exchange and mutual influence. In “walking studies,” two lineages seemed to have formed – those in the tradition of Thoreau who walked to know the woods and the landscape that seemed to lay beyond the social, and those in the tradition of Baudelaire, who walked to discover and understand the spatial dimensions of a modern self. Like Thoreau, phenomenologists and deep ecologists return to walking as a way of examining how perception, often sight, leads to understanding and definition of places in space and time. Baudelaire’s flaneurs and flaneuses, on the other hand, approach walking as less about perceiving than being perceived; de Certeau or the Situationists anticipate the gaze of others, attempt to walk in relation or opposition to that power.

Through reading, discussion, attendance of conferences, exhibitions and events, we wondered why these discourses didn’t intersect – where was there a phenomenology of the politics of walking? Or a politics of the phenomenology of walking? These discourses also seemed split between mind and body, rural and urban, place and space. We sought to collide and confuse these categories through the form and method of our project.

After witnessing a devastating oil spill in a nearby bay, a man decides to stop riding in cars, walking everywhere instead. After too many arguments with people who stop to offer rides, the man decides to stop talking as well.

Two dozen people walk a single square block on a college campus in an hour, taking fifteen minutes per side. They do not speak.

What more is walking than a series of falls?

Walking is a way to communicate an urgent message with an immediate and available tool.

Walking is a series of selves, a palimpsest of moments which add up to a drawing.

—–

Our site of origination within a practice-based academic discourse (a Painting program, to be specific) freed us to “trespass” across all manner of academic methods and subjects, but also bound us within a particular set of expectations. Mere “elevation” of walking to the status of Art was the last thing on our minds, even if it was the first assumption of many newcomers to our project. Such counterproductive conceptual gamesmanship and avant-garde positioning was far from our thoughts, yet we lived with this context throughout the project.

Like our position as men, as white men, and as university denizens, our position as artists was one we tended to forget, but continue to struggle with. Though the extra-perambulatory uses of walking are not limited to metaphor, such applications are useful – for example, the walker may regard her current position as secondary to destination or even origin, but it is an unavoidable influence on the construction of the walker and the site. In our walks and in our project, we drift between consciousness of self and consciousness of world.

The composition of our first session took this challenge head-on. We invited “the” contemporary walking artist, Hamish Fulton, as part of a group who had for the most part never encountered his work or that of many conceptual artists. Fulton visited UIUC along with: Anne Wallace, an expert on walking in English literature; John Francis, an activist, environmentalist and educator who eschewed motorized transport for 22 years; and Dennis Banks, a founder of the American Indian Movement, and leader of several long walks, runs and drives across the country in support of Indian Rights.

Of these four, only one regularly spent time in academic contexts. None had met one another, and all expressed having never been part of an event centered on walking. As in each subsequent session, our guests lived together in a house in the woods, on an old University-owned estate. Each gave a public presentation on campus. We ate together, talked late into the night, took informal walks as a small group, and conducted a planned public walk with others. Each weekend concluded with a public, outdoor discussion.

Six walk from their house in the evening light down the lane of an old pastoral estate. From the wooded gravel road, they emerge into a round green field encircling a tall stylized statue of a man facing East, arms outstretched upward. We observe an old wasp’s nest fastened firmly to the figure’s scrotum, and laugh in the dusk.

What more is walking than a series of falls?

Walking is the horizontal creation of space, until arriving at the next vertical stone, which creates time.

It is impossible to walk a straight line in the absence of architecture.

Walking is looking from the path at those of another class, who work in the fields and help construct the “picturesque.”

—–

For her talk, Anne Wallace read a paper about the poet John Clare, but also spoke of walking with her daughter in a planned suburban neighborhood in Louisiana. Accompanied by banjo, John Francis told his story of only walking – first for a day, then for a week, then for a month, eventually for 22 years. Hamish Fulton, in our most well-attended talk of the entire project, showed slides of his walks and climbs around the world, alone and with groups, including images of bloody socks, roadkill and summit logbooks. He spoke of his climbing heroes, and showed us images of the people he met in the high mountain plains of South America. Dennis Banks sang and prayed before extolling the power of walking as part of his return to the ways of his people, and as an instrument of social change. (Banks also spoke of being impacted and impressed by the walks of John Francis, whom he had only just met.)

John Francis’ story was the one that stayed with our conversations through that first weekend. In his capacity as a walking United Nations emissary, as a teacher and environmental activist, even as an adviser to the US Military(!), Francis’ actions affected so many through such a simple decision – we were all struck by the scale of walking, how one step led to another and another, adding incrementally to a monumental task that amazed anyone and everyone. For John, the question “Why walking?” was a means to the end of countless discussions with strangers everywhere he went (though for the most part through mime and sign language!).

For this first session, walking seemed more a space of potential than a space of production. Every point in space and time was a potential starting point for a walk that could change hearts and minds. Our planned walk took us to the very small town of Sadorus, Illinois, where Nicholas had discovered the history of a little known walk. There, just a 15-minute drive from the home of the racist sports mascot “Chief” Illiniwek, a group of around 800 Potawatami Indians had camped along their forced relocation march in 1838. At least 39 died along this “Trail of Death,” including some there in Sadorus.

Dennis Banks, who had only just learned of this particular story, led our group of 30 or more on a prayer and solemn walk along the Trail of Death, now a rural road, a one-mile stretch that ran next to a major railroad and crossed the Kaskaskia river before making an unusual 90 degree turn to the North. Evidence of that tragic history could not have been less visible. Could we render the violent past more present, for ourselves or for Sadorus, through this simple walk? What remains of that time, what cues might serve as monument? Only the land, the sky, the four directions, and our bodies persist, which walk as humans have always walked. These were clearly cues enough for some.

The artist Fulton stayed on in Champaign for a few days after the rest departed, to conduct workshops with students and create a commissioned project for the campus art museum. (This arrangement was part of how we were able to financially support his trip from England.) In prior conversations, Hamish had planned another in his series of “One Day” walks, in which he would pick a direction from the museum, walk in a straight line for half a day, and return the same way. Demonstrably grateful for this opportunity to talk about walking instead of art for a change, he revised his plan in response to our days together. For his museum commission and exhibition, Fulton returned to that mile-stretch of road in Sadorus, and walked back and forth for a day (28 times). We joined him for parts or all of the trip.

A ONE DAY ROAD WALK FROM AND TO SADORUS
WALKING UP AND DOWN 28 TIMES ON A SECTION OF THE 1838 POTAWATOMI TRAIL OF DEATH

What more is walking than a series of falls?

Walking is a little bit at a time, that adds up to a great deal – walking connects a body to every place, through the realization of space as contact with the feet.

Walking is a way of knowing a river’s path which we have destroyed.

——

The second session of our series consisted of a single visitor – geographer Trevor Paglen presented information gleaned from exhaustive research on the “black world” of U.S. military research and development. Much of his information resulted from walks to the boundaries of remote desert testing grounds. These excursions manifest the differences between Trevor’s work and that of conspiracy theorists and military buffs; while others seek to cross into forbidden zones, and reveal secrets, Paglen’s work is content to stay outside. He traces the exact contours of the undisclosed, revealing how secrecy functions, and where governments decide to draw the line between public and hidden. Every base has a boundary, every covert action a start and an end.

Our third session was larger, if less attended. Through the most ambulatory agenda of our series, we roamed from public presentation to presentation, occasionally and unintentionally losing audience members and even speakers in the maze of our large university campus.

The impetus for conducting each talk in a unique setting, many new even to us, was to stimulate application of our content in context. Even the walks between presentations held promise as necessary insertions of practice into an agenda too easily settled on theory. We wanted to make visible those parts of a traditional academic symposium often rendered transparent – site, context, the institutional apparatus of discourse. We planned presentations in classrooms and museums, auditoriums and gardens, an outdoor amphitheater and a dirt-floored pavilion. We chose locally-catered meals by “slow-food” advocates over university fare or restaurants.

These experiments didn’t always succeed. The added logistical complexity at times made it difficult for us to focus on facilitating dialogue, and more importantly, we failed to anticipate the effect of this approach on the politics of our diverse audience and speaker groups. By staying mobile and constantly changing contexts, we achieved an unintentional alienation effect. The problem here lay not in our choice of form, but in the combination of our form and method. Our methodology of forcing disparate discourses together, even in anticipation of conflict, required a more stable environment than we provided. As a result of poor forethought on this matter, the politics between participants of this third session tipped in favor of those already comfortable in academia. Despite some very productive and even optimistic discussions, our assumptions about language, the relation of theory to practice, and the function of institutions went less examined than we would have liked.

As one man comes and goes from a cool earth-floored gymnasium carrying malfunctioning audio gear and stools of varying heights, five or six others huddle on the cool concrete bleachers and wait for a talk to begin. Another group of eight wander idly over to the mechanical bull at the opposite end of the space, wonder how to turn it on.

Seven men and women walk through the pitch-dark night in the woods along the edge of a riverbed. One man slips and falls, briefly unnoticed, into a ditch. Later, they all stop and shine flashlights up at a large owl, crying from a low branch. One of the party tells us about who owned this land, and when, and how it was sold.

What more is walking than a series of falls?

Walking is where we notice how our world is made.

Walking is one path among many across a “natural” landscape so dense with mapped lines as to make maps indecipherable.

From our introduction to the project, printed in letters of invitation, grant applications and websites:

Despite its ubiquity in the everyday walking is an activity obscured by its own practical functionality. It is employed literally and understood metaphorically as a slow, inefficient, and increasingly anachronistic means to a predetermined end. Rarely is walking considered as a distinct mode of acting, knowing, and making. As its necessity diminishes and its applications rarefy, the potential of walking as critical, creative, and subversive tool appears only to grow. Conceived of as a conversation between the body and the world, walking becomes a reciprocal and simultaneous act of both interpretation and manipulation; an embodied and active way of shaping and being shaped that operates on a scale and at a pace embedded in something seemingly more authentic and real.

—–

Academic discourses dominated the makeup of that third, ambulatory session. Andrea Phillips, a curator, scholar and critic from London’s Goldsmiths College, presented a densely critical paper that directly addressed and analyzed our project’s premise. Philosopher David Macauley offered us a meditation on the physiology of walking as a metaphor for thought and being.  Chris Taylor told us about the course he teaches with Bill Gilbert, “Land Arts of the American West,” in which they spend a semester with students living and working in the American desert. We also heard from environmentalist and author Chellis Glendinning about a powerful walk in her town of Chimayo, New Mexico, in which a group of citizens attempted to drive the heroin trade out of their village. Art practice was represented in this session by the collaborative team of M. Simon Levin and Laurie Long, who related their experience as artists-in-residence in the small Australian farming town of Kelleberin, where salination was slowly rendering the land unusable.

By this point in the project, cited walks tended more towards walking in company than walking alone. Skeptical of philosophy’s solitary peripatetics, we tried to foreground walking as social even as it remained perceptual, phenomenal. Sparked in part by Andrea’s talk, but also perhaps by some of the tensions within our group, conversations gravitated towards the problematics of community as a concept or ideal. We also probed the notion of walking as an essentially radical act, comparing examples of politicized artist-walks to Chellis’ stories of pursuing lost friends through the labyrinth of U.S. immigration enforcement.

On our public walk through the rural roads and railroad beds of White Heath, we again found ourselves passing down roads where walking was an aberration, and even a spectacle. Joining a new road from a trail in the woods, and finding no clear median on which to pass, we walked on the road itself. Instinctively many of us moved to walk against car traffic, a conventionally safe and incrementally more authorized mode of occupying auto-space with bodies. Simon called from the back of the line, “Hey! I thought we were meant to be trespassing! Why don’t you walk WITH the traffic!”

Is there anything distinctively radical about walking? If so, for whom is this possible? When we eschew the equation of spatial mobility with individual power and agency, do we simply fall into the equally essentialist trap of idealist communism, ascribing agency to a shared body? Short of dismissive comparisons between direct social action and symbolic or theoretical critique, how do we responsibly steward the power granted us through our institutional affiliations and qualifications?

Such questions, the dominant and lingering themes of that third session, approach walking as primarily a space of making, of production. By wondering if walking can produce community or even social change, we ended up interrogating these ideals even outside of walking. From Andrea’s talk, Jean Luc Nancy’s notion of “beings in common” proved helpful, and resonant. Nancy rejects modernity’s dilemma between individualism and communism in favor of subjecthood as constituted through contact with the Other. Walking alone or in company, contact persists – physical contact with the ground, with barriers, with other people. Through repeated physical contact with the world, walking affirms boundaries between self and Other, differences that constitute us in relation to the world…but also sometimes in relation to those who are placed on the more subjected side of a border.

Two men walk up and down a mile of rural road for a full day. Snow comes and goes, trains pass along beside. Two or three other men (and one woman) come along from time to time and then leave again. After dark, a police car stops to ask some questions, most likely at the request of a nearby resident.

Before the talk by the internationally-known conceptual artist, a second man burns incense in the auditorium, faces west, east, north, south, bangs a drum, prays.

What more is walking than a series of falls?

Walking is a site of potential violence and power, wherein power is associated with mobility.

Walking is a democratic, non-commodified way to decrease obesity.

—–

With seven presenters, our fourth and final session was the largest, and also the most diverse in terms of practices. In response to the challenges of the previous session, we simplified the format by holding all public meetings in the same small seminar room. A combination of breadth and simplicity made this our most direct, fair opportunity to address differences across discourses. As such it also remains our most contentious session.

By this point, with attendance by people from the local campus and communities waning, we owned up to the fact that our project’s primary audience may be the presenters themselves. We took no joy in this, given that we had funded the effort largely through appealing to a broad audience. In part we attribute poor turnout to the demanding environment of a campus full of such events, but we also admit that some of the continuity and exchange we constructed also made it challenging for others to enter. Occasional visitors observed and admired the clear and strong connections that formed each time between presenters, but expressed also a reticence to intrude. Returning to walking as metaphor, such a situation is clearly part of traveling as a group – even companions who struggle with interpersonal differences construct a world with the potential to alienate others.

We probably would not have done much differently in this regard, actually. The depth of the discourse as a result of putting all the participants through the same experiences of living and working would not be worth sacrificing in the interest of increased availability. We may have billed the events differently, and labored less to leave doors open for casual viewers, but we hope to construct similar, even more focused opportunities for exchange across practices in the future.

It’s even worth examining what about our particular invitation may have contributed to the bonds that formed between presenters, short of the content of exchanges. This disparate collection of 18 individuals certainly shared some singular experiences. Our geographical location, for example, was not only new and even isolating for most, but required several forms of transport and a full day’s journey. Housing was a 40-minute drive from campus, for which we rented a passenger van and shuttled them back and forth; we left the guests alone in a house in the dark woods each night, with no transportation or easy communication with the outside world (there were even sounds of coyotes on several occasions). Where traditional gatherings such as these contribute to the construction of prestige through numerous dinners at restaurants and an individualized private sphere, our (frequently complimented and delicious) catering left room for few individual choices. Most of all, no one had been invited before to a symposium or conference on walking, and despite our detailed invitation and website, most expressed (predominantly positive) bemusement about the project even upon arrival.

Two individuals drive to every hotel in town looking for more satisfactory accommodations at the last minute. There are no more rooms, even in the motel with a covered birdcage that was large enough to fit two people. Eventually a colleague volunteers a home she has been house-sitting, without the permission of the owners.

In the midst of a challenging and in-depth conversation between a circle of a dozen or so people, sitting on the grass, another voice approaches and loudly joins the group, exasperated and angry for having been lost from us for an hour.

What more is walking than a series of falls?

Walking is an opportunity to create a story to relate, and thus a chance to examine the nature of personal or historical memory.

Walking is a chance to transcend the boundaries between self and other, to experience and sense the singularity of self and mountain, tree.

—–

Where the third session centered on walking as a space of production, the fourth session looked at walking as a space of knowledge and representation. (This was admittedly through no design of ours.) What do we learn from walks, and what of this can we pass on to others?

At least four of our fourth-session speakers dealt with memory and the effects of representation on a walk.

Architectural critic Jane Rendell read from some of her experiments in writing from simultaneous, co-mingling perspectives; in describing a built landscape or structure, she might switch between objective annotation of observed phenomena and subjective assertion of memories triggered by the perceived world. Disparate narrative voices clung together around a walk through a particular space.

Mike Pearson shared with us records of several performance projects in which he and others explored an “archeology of the contemporary past,” efforts to recount or reenact what happened ten years ago, yesterday, or even minutes ago on a particular site.

Artist Danica Phelps discussed her application of drawing toward memory of not only subjective experience but of the lives of art objects. For every drawing she produced from memory or observation, she also sold or traded traced duplicates, resulting in a series of echo-like resonances, traces of traces of the original subjective (sometimes sexual) experiences into the more public domain of a market.

Even Jack Turner’s talk, beautifully illustrated through an elaborate chalkboard drawing, dealt with representation, this time as a source of potential conflict within walking. He traced out for us and described the myriad ways in which his neighborhood of northwestern Wyoming has been mapped. America’s iconic bed of so-called wildness is in fact so dense with demarcation and delineation of trails, paths and borders as to render a map solid black with ink. In Jack’s picture, where there are no trails, there were usually laws prohibiting entry.

Along with this emphasis on the role of memory and representation of walks, the last session brought philosophical examinations of the nature of vision and perception. David Abram, in a lushly narrated account of a single walk through a forest, described the ways in which walking subjects one to an active world, a world that challenges the senses through seeming assumption of agency. Is the world part of the walker, or the walker part of the world? Are the trees moving past, or the walker moving instead?

Geographer Tim Cresswell reminded us of the different approaches to time and space represented by rivals Muybridge and Marey; in the late 19th century each photographed walkers as a way of understanding movement. Their disparate approaches implied different understandings of mobility’s role in agency, locating this debate in the visual, the pictorial. Like Andrea Phillips before him, Tim challenged us to examine what walking could possibly possess that no other form of movement facilitated, and even warned of the possibility that walking’s unique claim might be its stealthy capability for equating mobility with power.

Another presenter barely mentioned walking, or anything remotely related to the subject. On the last day of our project, we finally discovered a boundary to our seemingly boundless and expansive field.

A single canteen makes its way down the path of the Rio Grande – passed from hand to hand, each person adds a little water from “her” part of the river. At the end, water from the river’s source finally reaches its lost destination, the Gulf of Mexico.

A class of students walk backwards for 10 kilometers.

What more is walking than a series of falls?

Walking is an easily-fetishized luxury for those in car-cultures, who experience walking remediated through itself, like a fireplace in a luxury home.

—–

In that fourth session, differences between discourses manifested themselves less in the content of the presentations than in the modes of inquiry, in how people responded to eachother’s work. Debate was lively and even edged toward frustration, expressed through questions and comments. These included accusations of unnecessary neutrality or dispassion towards our subject, or of uncritical essentializing of the same. Again, the walk as a metaphor applies – is a walk best viewed as a complete path from A to B, or as a series of discrete points in between? Put another way, to convey the tensions within our group – is objectivity necessary, or even possible? Is subjectivity possible, or idealistic?

As in the third session, our differences seemed to form along the line between those based in academia and those without. But this line did not hold. We worked to choose language and methods carefully in the interest of inclusion and clarity, and a larger difference emerged. The line we could not seem to cross was between those who saw the significance of walking as obvious and apparent, as obvious as sight, and those who questioned the possibility of such pure, unmediated access to the world or perception. Could anyone who doubted walking’s potential truly experience it? Could anyone who believed in the possibility of unmediated experience ever see the impact and origin of their actions?

Here again was the gap that drove us to enter this project in the first place – conflict between a phenomenological approach and a social or political one. The gap was certainly more detailed and manifest here, with the voices present and engaged – we even had the benefit of a walk in which to try our theories. Unfortunately, two key participants in the discussion chose to skip the walk, and even the presentations of their peers. Our group, now smaller, reached no conclusions, but enjoyed a walk and a final night together.

On an early warm day in Spring, more than a dozen walk eastward along an old railroad bed. They are arrested briefly by a youth heading west on a motorcycle, who looks unhappy as he pauses to let us pass. One of the group scolds the boy, and then returns to naming each newly bloomed flower as we go. We come to the remains of an old house, a watchhouse for the abandoned railroad and bridge. A woman picks up a snake as two young girls look on.

What more is walking than a series of falls?

Walking is a form of movement wherein phenomenal experience employs much more than the eyes.

Walking is a form of movement wherein, for some people and some sites, political being can change at a rapid pace.

—–

For a year we asked (and continue to ask), “What does a walk produce?”

To this question we can add, “What did our project produce?”

Fortunately, the form of our project allows for some coincidence of these questions.

Walking is by no means the only place where socio-political and epistemological-phenomenological analyses are at odds. In contemporary art practice for example, the institutional origin of our project, this conflict is rampant and unresolved in the form of endless debates about “beauty,” or in the ideological disjuncture between most art that sells and most art that earns professors tenure.

[Perhaps such conflict deliberately masks a deeper and more sinister cooperation of the political and the sensory. Modernity originated in a revolution of the senses, funded by subjugation and domination of newly discovered land and peoples. It continues (or some say ends) through subjugation of the senses in support of further oppression and empire.]

Is there anything unique about this conflict when encountered through movement, specifically in a walk? Our project certainly demonstrated walking’s rich potential for comparing “how we see” to “how we are seen.” But what can walking as a subject and practice distinctively contribute to this discussion as it advances throughout academia and practice?

Even apart from the problematic identification of spatial movement with agency, movement is still an ideal subject for understanding how people experience time and space, and how those experiences contribute to the construction of modern subjects. As demonstrated even in physics, where else but in movement can we untangle the complex role of time in our perception of space, and space in our perception of time? Students of the impact of trains, planes and automobiles on perception and places would surely concur.

Within the study of movement, walking offers some singular opportunities. To understand these, we must look at walking as physiologically more than a series of falls and recoveries. Kinesiologists describe each step in terms of a transfer of energy, a change from absorbing the shock of contact to generating a force of propulsion. With each step the 26 bones of the foot re-align themselves in the cyclical process of pronation and supination. During pronation, typically as the foot contacts earth, the arch of the foot flattens to absorb shock and transfer it up through the knee, the leg, to the back. During supination, the foot asserts itself against the earth again, returning to an arch and resisting gravity before succumbing again in the next step.

The feet continually and repetitively assert agency against the world before yielding to it again. In the pronate stage, we’re planted, absorbed into the ground beneath, like a tree; in the supinate stage we’re above it all, out of the place and separate from it. This metronomic swing between being in the world and on it is complicated by the fact that an able walking body is constantly engaged in two of these processes – while the left foot is pronate, the right supine, and vice versa. A walking body is thus perpetually and literally in two relations to the earth at once. Yet consciousness of such a state can lead one to trip and fall – walkers have to watch their step.

In what other form of movement is this condition present for humans? Riding in cars or trains, cycling or even flying each share with walking the possibility of a changing self in the context of a passage through space and time. Witness cinema’s fascination with each of these activities as sites for construction of character and point-of-view. Examined through the lens of media theory, one can even look at non-perambulatory means of conveyance as “embodied” – for passengers or drivers, the car or train can become an extension of the perceiving self, with window as eye and buttocks as feet, sensing the changes under-wheel in texture, rhythm.

But only walking depends on a modulated, even hybridized relation between self and place. Eyeballs glance down to take careful steps, and back up to measure progress, the head turns to identify sounds and their locations, resulting in a unified sensorium not alien to other forms of movement. But below the head, a walking body is a split body, symmetrically composed but asymmetrically engaged. In this, walking offers more than the drifts between location and destination, self and place, sensation and interpretation that other forms of movement facilitate. Walking offers a simultaneity unavailable elsewhere, of being, through mind and body, both in the world and not of it.

all photos by Nick Brown and Kevin Hamilton

http://www.walkinginplace.org/converge

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

 

Bibliography

For an extended bibliography of our project, please see http://walkinginplace.org/converge/bibliography.htm . Direct influences on this paper include presentations by our guests and:

Careri, Francesco. Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice. Barcelona: Editorial Gustavo Gili, 2002.

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Nancy, Jean Luc. The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. New York: North Point Press, 1990.

Solnit, Rebecca. Wanderlust: A History of Walking. New York: Viking Penguin, 2000.

Stilgoe, John. Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. New York: Walker, 1998.

Tester, Keith, ed. Flâneur. London: Routledge, 1994.