One of the gripes that often comes up about the boards of arts organisations is that too few trustees or board members experience enough of the actual art to give the staff proper feedback or challenge. Conscious of that, I signed myself up to take full part in the last event of this year’s AV Festival, Hamish Fulton's Slowalk in the Spiller’s Wharf car park on Newcastle’s Quayside. (The Festival has been rather brilliant, if I may say so as a trustee – but don’t just take my word for it, it's had great reviews here and here and here amongst other places.)
The theme of this year’s festival was ‘As Slow As Possible’, turning the faster, higher, further theme of this Olympic year on its head, as well as taking a tip from John Cage. This included various ‘durational’ works – ie things which lasted a long time and explored the limits and potential of stretching things out, and, yes, even boredom. (The festival lasted for a month, a different kind of durational feat.)
Fulton’s Slowalks are a kind of anti-Great North Run, but even more so than I’d thought, having failed to check the videos of previous walks. I had imagined that the participants would be walking slowly around the car park, perhaps creating some kind of slo-mo performance version of taking a line for a walk. But on arrival I was allocated a spot at the end of one of the parking spaces. The other 200 or so people taking part were on adjacent ends and intersections of the white lines. (You can see some of my neighbours in the photo above, just before we started.) Our task was to walk to the next intersection, taking exactly two hours. That’s less than 4 metres: 3cm a minute tops. The aim was to walk very, very slowly but continuously, which is a lot more challenging – and interesting – than you might think, although, yes, inherently absurd for most people. We couldn’t talk, use phones or ipods.
Each person seemed to do it differently. (One or two even blatantly cheated by standing still or shuffling on the spot for 1 hour 59 minutes and 58 seconds and then took five big steps forward. Shocking behaviour, for which I’m tempted to argue they should be barred from future festivals.) For me it was a physical experience – trying to keep my legs moving, shifting the movement up one leg and down the other, making sure I lifted my toes and heels, but only moved them a very little, tightening my stomach whilst keeping one foot off the floor, being very conscious of my body – and a visual one – playing games with the tarmac to determine where to move my feet next, piece by piece, trying not to go too fast – and an aural one, listening to the wind and the Quayside buses, the squalls of birds and the fishermen nearby who must have thought we were mad. I made it into a game as much as a meditation, a very slow work out. The things I had ‘brought’ to sort out in my head over two slow hours in a hectic week of work and home, thinking I’d need something to think about, I didn’t get to– I was very much concentrating experiencing on the moment, which for me was a break, and more refreshing than I’d anticipated.
I wouldn’t say time flew by, but it did pass quickly – because I was actively concentrating, I think. It was both relaxing and curiously taxing. As can be seen from the terms I use above, it did feel like a kind of arts experience, if you want to put it in that box. At the end the little clusters of three people that had very slowly come together over 2 hours, catching each others’ eyes only occasionally but becoming more and more familiar with our faces, clothes and movements, all seemed to have an urge to laugh.
Talking to the two strangers we exchanged experiences and felt curiously alive, it seemed. People formed little groups to laugh and talk about our experiences of the shortest slowest walk we would ever do, if we were lucky. (I couldn’t help think at times of people who learn to walk again after serious injury and what they might think of the work.) Our joint participation in an odd, but shaped activity, created a connection, fleeting but more than I’ve generally experienced at, say, plays I’ve gone to on my own. The people there were of all ages, and not all fitted any arty stereotype, although that may have something to do with the equalising effect of wrapping up warm.
How I will make use of this experience at our next board meeting, I am still unsure. But if we are going to talk about mass participation performance art – which is what I decided this was, when describing it to my frankly incredulous family, although it can’t have been proper performance art because no one was naked – maybe it will help to talk from inside the experience.