Each installment features a writer, artist, or curator discussing an underrated artist, artwork, movement, or museum.
Harmattan Theater performing Dreamscapes at Chelsea Piers in 2010. Photo by Joshua Krista.
Today we're with Sofia Varino, a writer and educator, to discuss walking practices in contemporary art, specifically "performance artists like [Marina] Abramovic or [Vito] Acconci, and movements/groups like the situationists or the surrealists, and of my own art practice with Harmattan Theater, where we use stylized slow meditative walking in our large scale site-specific performances." When did you first come into contact with walking practices, and, for the uninitiated, how would you define the term?
I first incorporated walking in an endurance performance at the SITE festival 2009 in Bushwick using very slow stylized movement, almost like a trance walk. The piece was informed by surrealist aesthetics and the idea was to become part of the surrounding industrial landscape. Then from 2010 onwards, I started to explore walking more thoroughly through my environmental performance work with Harmattan Theater, including the ritualistic and meditative experiences that walking can facilitate. In contemporary art, walking practices are often coupled with performance-based formats, especially site-specific and landscape art, exploring lived environments, duration and temporal structures, and the limits of what bodies can do as they move collectively through space. A very interesting participatory format that emerged in walking art is the audio walk, which I think facilitates very productive, immersive interactions between artists, active spectators and public space through walking – Janet Cardiff is a master of the form. And then we have digital media arts projects that are centered on walking, like the Transborder Immigrant Tool, a GPS tool to assist immigrants crossing the Mexico-US border by foot, which artist Ricardo Dominguez helped create.
When do you date the beginnings of the form?
Walking has a rich history in modern art that we can trace back to the surrealists, the Dadaists, and later on the Situationists with their dérive. I would date walking practices in Western contemporary art to specific events like the Dadaists’ performative excursions and tours and the surrealists’ enthusiasm for dream-based and psychoanalytically informed nocturnal strolls in Paris during the twenties. Walking also shares many aesthetic and methodological strategies with protest art, and outside of an explicit art context it is of course an essential tool for activism. In protest art and in historical movements like the U.S. civil rights movement or the May ’68 protests in Paris, to very recently the Women’s March in Washington and in cities around the world, walking is a crucial strategy for getting large numbers of people to come together and move together, fluid enough to enable movement while allowing for pace, rhythm and structure to emerge and hold thousands of bodies together.
Who are the most well-known practitioners of walking practices? Why do you think they've received more attention than others?
Marina Abramovic and Vito Acconci have created historical performances where the practice of walking plays a central role. Most memorably, Abramovic and Ulay did their performance The Lovers – the Great Wall Walk in 1988, in which they cover the distance of the Great Wall of China, walking from opposite directions and meeting somewhere in the middle, and then parting to never meet again (they did see each other again when Ulay was a participant audience member in the MoMA show The Artist is Present in 2010 and came to sit in front of Abramovic). Acconci did his Walking Piece in 1969, following a random stranger every day for a month through the streets of New York. Their work has received a lot of critical and scholarly attention for its groundbreaking experiments exploring the limits of conceptual art. In Abramovic’s case, she now has the Marina Abramovic Institute of Performance Art, and mindful walking is very much part of her pedagogy and methodology as an artist and educator.
Out of those you think have deserved more attention, what is one or two names you think should play a greater role in the art world's consciousness?
Walking has a special place in the history of women’s performance art up to today, with big names like Sophie Calle, Michèle Bernstein (of the Situationists International) or Lottie Child with her Street Training. I think Janet Cardiff’s audio walks, which I mentioned earlier, are masterful works of walking art. One person I can think of who deserves more attention is Kanarinka (aka Catherine D’Ignazio), who has done fantastic work, like the performance It takes 154,000 breaths to evacuate Boston, in which she ran through the entire Boston evacuation system to measure it in breaths. Although in that piece she used running, rather than walking per se, the work is very much a piece of walking art in that she uses her body’s mobility to mark and follow a specific trajectory through urban space. She’s used walking in several other projects oriented towards civic engagement, environmental activism and a critical eye on U.S. securitization and surveillance policies since 9/11. I think she deserves far more recognition that she’s received so far as an artist.
Kanarinka, in the midst of her performance performance It takes 154,000 breaths to evacuate Boston
Walking practices relate to a wide swath of subjects, not just in art but daily life. How do walking practices intermingle with ecology, urbanism, architecture, and protests/activism?
Walking is a fantastic research and pedagogical tool, allowing for immersion and immediate contact. In fields like design, architecture, art history, ecology and geography, walking plays a key role in teaching and researching. Walking is of course also part of everyday social practices, intermingling labor, physical activity, leisure, tourism, community, fitness and sport, with iconic figures like the vagabond, the flaneur, the stroller and the wanderer, who explore and understand their environment through the immersive experience of walking. Walking also shares a rich history with religious rituals like pilgrimages and processions or meditative walking practices like the Buddhist Kinhin. And like I already mentioned, it’s one of the most easily available strategies for protest and activism, especially the impromptu kind of protests that are more and more essential in the anti-Trump era – whether on a Sunday afternoon or at the end of a long workday, we can find a way to get together and march through the city streets, or get to an airport to denounce a breach of human rights, voice our outrage and express our dissent. In these politically volatile times, I think walking is one of the best tools we have at our disposal to stay sane, come together and keep in touch with the world around us. Although it seems like such a mundane part of our everyday lives and we may take it for granted, walking allows us to discover and engage with our surroundings and it enables close contact with human and nonhuman others. Part of what makes walking such a democratic practice is the relative accessibility of walking in public space for those who are able-bodied, and we have to work and campaign to increase accessibility for those with reduced mobility needs. Walking, especially in urban areas, is very different depending on whether we are able-bodied or differently abled and face specific challenges when navigating spaces that are, by and large, designed for physically able, “healthy,” mobile (and often male) bodies to move through. Unfortunately, urban planning and the way street traffic and mass transit systems are designed and implemented in large crowded cities do not support the needs of many people with disabilities. Modern societies are decidedly ableist in that they have normative expectations of speed, autonomy and physical strength that restrict freedom of movement for so many, including walking in its various technologically and human-assisted forms. This makes it unnecessarily difficult for the disabled, the elderly, the chronically ill to have access to public spaces, whether it’s to participate in a protest or enjoy a city tour or a walking performance. I think walking art has a duty to intervene and advocate for improved infrastructures and public reform for people with disabilities.