Walking Publics/Walking Arts: walking, wellbeing and community during Covid-19

Dee Heddon asked us to share this, and to encourage participation in the research through completing the survey (below). Walking is an everyday activity (more so since the shops have been closed) and also an approach used by artists, whether as part of a social or solo practice, to create personal work or as part of larger projects. Rebecca Solnit says in Wanderlust, “Walking . . . is how the body measures itself against the earth.”

Dee Heddon / University of Glasgow Photograph by Martin Shields Tel 07572 457000 http://www.martinshields.com © Martin Shields

Anecdotes and data alike suggest that during the past year of COVID-19, people have walked more and, when restrictions were in place, such walking was necessarily hyper-local (within a 1-mile radius) or local (with a 5-mile radius). This certainly resembles my experience. I’ve lived in Glasgow for most of my adult life, moving here to attend University at the age of 17, spending a relatively brief 7-years in Devon, and returning in 2006. I’ve only ever lived in the west of the city (Maryhill, Partick, Kelvinbridge, and Hillhead). I thought I knew this area like the back of my hand. This year has taught me that, in fact, I knew very little. As well as walking familiar routes, sometimes daily (Botanic Gardens, River Kelvin), the restrictions also prompted me to do lots of urban drifting, traversing streets not yet walked, finding new (to me) cobbled lanes and mews houses, modern builds tucked around corners and down dead ends, residents’ gardens dotted across the urban landscape, and hidden alleyways. The west end of Glasgow is much more than tenement flats. I’ve also extended my pedestrian reach to new parks, including Dawsholm and Ruchhill, the first home to astounding old woods inhabited by parakeets, the second to the largest daffodil display in Glasgow and resident woodpeckers. I’ve been quite astounded by the city that’s surfaced from beneath my feet.

Walking and Covid research project / University of Glasgow Photograph by Martin Shields Tel 07572 457000 http://www.martinshields.com © Martin Shields

Since 2010 I’ve been following, writing about and practicing walking as a cultural practice, first by interviewing women artists about their walking work and secondly by launching my own creative walking projects (40 Walks and The Walking Library). Now I embark on a new venture: exploring people’s experiences of walking during COVID-19, with a particular focus on felt experiences and the intersection of walking and creativity. At a time when restrictions have kept us physically distanced, the well-placed coloured stones or chalked messages seem to have been deployed artfully to keep us socially connected, and to keep our walking joyful and engaged. There are a lot of artists in the UK who identify as “Walking Artists”, and many of them have continued to create walking work this year, adapting their practice to the new landscapes within which we find ourselves. A brief scan also suggests that some artists have turned to walking as a new material for their creative practice, something that can still connect, can be convivial or restorative or attentive, and be undertaken safely. 

‘Walking Publics/Walking Arts: walking, wellbeing and community during Covid-19’ is an 18-month research project, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council. We are exploring the potential of the arts to sustain, encourage and more equitably support walking during and recovering from a pandemic. You can find out more at www.walkcreate.org 

We’ve launched the project with two surveys about walking during COVID-19, one for the general public and one for artists who have used walking in their practice.

The aim of our research is to understand more about how creative practices can be used to support more people to walk well, during and out of a pandemic. We look forward to sharing our findings, but to help us please do complete one of our surveys. 

Dee Heddon is Professor of Contemporary Performance at the University of Glasgow (UK). She is a practice-based researcher and has published articles in peer-reviewed journals, as well as academic monographs and book-chapters. She is well known for her interest in autobiographical performance, site-specific performance and walking art.

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