February 20th, 2008


Walkscapes, strollology, and the politics of promenade

What do these have in common? A battered VHS tape of a 1988 documentary about the artist Richard Long entitled Stones and Flies: Richard Long in the Sahara, a double DVD of Andrew Kotting’s film Gallivant, the fictional documentary Robinson in Space by Patrick Keiller, and the book Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice by Francesco Careri?

Well, apart from the fact that they've all passed across my shelves and through my video projector recently, these books, tapes and films have a common theme, a common flavour and feel, which is something to do with the aesthetics of walking.

The way, in particular, walking gives you a certain perspective on landscape -- a kind of alienation from alienation. Walking, in these films and books, might be an adventure, an exploration, a way of making art and architecture, an "intervention", a way to approach urban planning, a situation, even a sort of politics. In Careri's case, we get a complete history of subversive forms of walking as well as an aesthetics of perambulation: "From primitive nomadism to Dada and Surrealism, from the Lettrist to the Situationist International, and from Minimalism to Land Art, this book narrates the perception of landscape through a history of the traversed city".

Yesterday's entry on pervasive urban gaming prompted two emails about walking. One was from designer Jan Lindenberg, who alerted me to a talk by Martin Schmitz being held here in Berlin next Monday entitled "Why is a landscape beautiful? The strollology of Lucius Burckhardt". German Wikipedia tells me that strollology is a perfectly serious science founded by the late political economist, sociologist, art historian and planning theorist Lucius Burckhardt in the 1980s at the University of Kassel. Also called Spaziergangswissenschaft (knowledge about moving through space), it deals with human perception and its feedback into planning and building.

"We are conducting a new science," Burckhardt explained to Hans-Ulrich Obrist in the preface to his book Why is Landscape Beautiful? "It's founded on the idea that the environment is normally not perceived, and if it is, it tends to be in terms of the observer's preconceived ideas. The classic walk goes to the city limits, the hills, the lake, the cliffs. But walkers also traverse parking lots, suburbs, settlements, factories, wastelands, highway intersections on their way to meadows, moors, farms. Coming home, when the walker tells what he has seen he tends to speak only of the forest and the lake, the things he set out to see, the things he read about, had geographical knowledge of, or saw in brochures and pictures. He leaves out the factory and the dump. Strollology deals not only with these prefabricated ideal images, but with the reality they eliminate."

A blend of sociology and urbanism, strollology attempts to correct the way technical progress, from trains through cars to GPS, has alienated our perception of the landscapes we move through. It does this by asking people to make "purely scientific descriptions" of walks they've made, leaving nothing out. Which brings us back to Richard Long and Patrick Keiller. Their work is so startling because it's so rare, in film or in art, to find people actually looking at landscapes as they are -- landscapes all too often made for cars and therefore somewhat incoherent to someone passing through them at walking speed, with full attention. Which brings us back to the paradox that not being alienated, in many contemporary environments, is being alienated. Most modern landscapes weren't designed to be seen, and seen slowly. They were designed to be read, half-consciously, as a traffic system glimpsed through a windscreen, and passed through quickly and carelessly.

It's people in the art world -- people who look on behalf of the rest of us -- who've taken it upon themselves to see what landscape has become -- landscape as recorded by modern versions of Rousseau's Solitary Walker. But Rousseau didn't have locative media.

The other mail I received yesterday was from Nick Slater, director of arts at Loughborough University. "After reading today's post on your blog," he said, "I thought you might be interested to see that gaming / walking activity has reached Loughborough. It is interesting to see how walking practice has taken on a new life with the advent of locative media. Roam: A Weekend of Walking (March 15th to 17th) has tried to combine the two and have feet in both camps".

It does the heart good to see all this walking happening -- all this attention to walking, and to the things that walking shows us, and all these events and talks about walking, and new words for that old, old thing of just putting one foot in front of the other. It seems to be in the air at the moment. And it's good that it does the heart good, because they've just found out that car exhaust fumes, which are also in the air, damage your heart. Let's go for a walk.