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Sarah Jacobs, Artist and Manager of the Independent Press, Colebrooke Publications, and Gail Burton, discuss walkwalkwalk December 2005

SJ Is that the first walk you've done?

How did the walk project come about?

GB The walk project began when Clare Qualmann and I were invited to produce a piece of work for a conference on Design History which was being held in Whitechapel, in 2005.  We wanted to respond to the theme of the conference - 'Locating Design' - by producing a live art project which would explore the academic themes of place and design in a visual and live context.  We invited Serena Korda to collaborate with us and devised a research method - actually a manifesto.  The focus of the research was our own routine walks in Whitechapel and Bethnal Green: we met each week at the same time and walked our walks, and each other's walks; and talked about the walks.  From this research we defined an amalgamated route, with detour loops,  which formed the basis of the walk project. 

From the outset collaboration was fundamental to what the walk is about:  by sharing our walks we opened up our private experience of places we pass through everyday, sharing information about our habits and routines, that not even our friends knew.  And of course discovering new places and sights - even within a small area that we all knew well, each person knew different details.  It was an exciting process of discovery.  The collaboration created a diversity to the project, where what was basically the same thing - a walk in Bethnal Green - could be many things - a meditation, a meeting, a conversation, frightening, a journey (to work, friends, shop), a test…And our approaches to working differed - I made the walk films, Serena and Clare focussed on stories and KPM (the School of Knowledge for taxi drivers).

Our intention with the project was to share the walk with other people, to open out the places and our route to a wider audience and see what they made of it.  The first walk event was in Summer 2005 for the Design History Conference.  We invited the delegates to go on the walk - we provided packs containing a map, annotated on the reverse with lists of things on the walk - categories included  architectural oddities, views, things that have gone, makeshift buildings and places to pee (bushes on Parmiter Street); a pencil; a tea token - which could be exchanged at a café on the route for a free cup of tea; and labels, to label objects found on the walk.  The walk was self-guided, and participants returned to the conference centre where we had created an installation incorporating finds, a giant map, the walk films, films at KPM, etc.  From the beginning the focus was on the experience of the walk - so the dialogue generated by the walk  was crucial.  The installation functioned as a space for this dialogue. 

We had produced fly posters with stories about the walk - anecdotes from our research walks.  We pasted these up one night on walls and bridges along the route.  Some were quickly removed, some remained and gradually wore away or were graffittied over, or painted out by the council.  But we continued to walk the route and saw our posters became a part of it; at first the fly posters were our own intervention, but subsequently they became subject to the intervention of other people and the environment.

The walk was intended to be an ongoing project, to evolve. It seems to pull people in. Through encounters along the way, or through email invitations, and forwarded invites, we have met or been in contact with artists and people from other disciplines who want to be involved - to participate, work with us, offer thoughts. We had already begun working with Gimpo, met Clive, then met Alison, and it keeps growing.  People who have never been on it still can feel they've 'done it' in a way. For the second walk we wanted an event with a more open audience, to be able to extend the invitation and really allow the walk to function in the Pied Piper way that it seemed to encourage. 

We planned the night walk with the ethos of 'something we can just do'.  We believe in making work with the means available to us, cheaply, directly.  We re-defined the route to be shorter and more circular, taking into account the cold, and wanting to keep away from Brick Lane and the possibility of losing people to crowds or bars.  We planned a fire, in collaboration with Gimpo, to be at a point along the route. An A4 photocopy version of the map (rather than A3 colour print) was made and given away at the start of the walk.   The invitation was to meet on a particular street corner, where we waited with whisky and tea.  We didn't know who to expect.

SJ Who is in the audience?  How do you get participants?

GB We invited everyone by email only. As the project is collaborative, we had our three mailing lists, and Gimpo's, including contacts from the previous walk, and we invited people speculatively and widely. And then those people forwarded invitations, and by word of mouth  - so the invitation was extended.  People were contacting us, groups of poets, writers, we didn't really know who they were or quite how they'd got the invitation sometimes.  So we had the interesting situation of standing on the street corner not really knowing who we were going on the walk with. About thirty people came, many we didn't know personally.

We led the walk, walking at the front - it followed crocodile like down the street - we even picked up people along the way.  Just after half way round, we had arranged a fire.  In an oil drum, using wood we'd found in the area.  This was a surprise to participants, placed under a railway arch in a quite desolate area behind the railway footbridge.  We had promised soup - and this was heated on the fire.  The ingredients had been given to us by a friend who had got them for free at the end of the day from the market. 

Walking in a large group at night was such a different experience of the space - places which were usually intimidating or risky became safe, or places for a party.  Gangs on corners were tiny compared to ours!  Many people found themselves disorientated on the walk, even if they knew the area well; or engaged in conversation with people they'd never met; or discovering places new to them, even though they knew the area well. 

SJ Will there be a book or publication?

GB We have the website, documenting the walk with photos, finds etc.  We want to extend that into text.  We have asked participants to email us their stories from the night walk - fragments of conversation, observations, thoughts -- it's about ones experience, always different and personal.  We intend to incorporate these into  a zine, which can evolve and be updated, like the walks.  Also to use the text in flyposters, and the next walk event, and to add them to the website. 

SJ Do you have funding?

GB We have done all our project without funding, with the ethos of just doing what we can, working with what we have and can find, and support in kind.  This approach is directly engaged with the location itself - it means scouring the same streets for wood, or using left overs, booze from other parties, bits of other projects.  Our ethos encourages (necessitates) collaboration, as people offer help or involvement in order to make things happen - cars, computer skills, copy facilities, vegetables…Working with the route itself - the places are just there!

Gail Burton January 2006

Video and transcript of Sarah Jacobs in conversation with Gail Burton, at Sarah's talk for Kiosk "Modes of Multiplication", Liam Gillick "Edgar Schmitz" 5th January 2006 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London
walks & events
posters & text works
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GB and SJ interview