Thursday, 9 April 2020

Drawing, Walking, Making Marks





I

At the start of this year, I went for a walk.

I walked out of my final group CBT session in Brierley Hill, past the college, and began making my way down the hill. For the previous 12 sessions throughout the final months of 2019, I had gotten the bus straight away from up t’road, back down to Merry Hill, before getting another bus to Cradley Heath station, a train from there to Birmingham Moor Street, and walked through Digbeth into work. Today was different as it was a follow up session in the new year, taking place on the first Monday in January, and I didn’t need to go into work. This meant there was space to really exhale, to engage in processing the psychological distance travelled in therapy and let a range of emotions walk alongside me.

I had packed my camera with me, and snapped some things that interested me on the walk, past a combination of residential and industrial use sites and a great view of the Dudley Number One canal, continuing down past KFC and the ODEON cinema, where, unusually, I stopped to enjoy a rare frothy coconut milk coffee alone in the cafe. As the chair held my body like a mother holds a child, I could almost swear I felt the world spinning gently beneath me as I stared softly into the space around me, alongside a constellation of other people also drinking frothy drinks, eating overpriced toasted sandwiches and staring into the spaces between us.

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II

The photographs I had taken were to vaguely begin to inform the idea of Byng Town, a personal project using The Black Country as inspiration for a fictional town to represent my practice. I did a couple of drawings from them when I got home and shared them on instagram.

I had applied for some money from Arts Council England’s Developing Your Creative Practice grant in order to invest in a period of deep development time for the project.

In the application I wrote: “Working full time and investing so much into the creative fabric of Birmingham has put a lot of pressure onto my drawing practice, but undertaking a residency at Rabbits Road Press last year and receiving a-n funding to visit New York has allowed me to experiment and reflect. This application comes at an essential time to create conditions for my artistic output to hold presence and continue to develop, rather than, ultimately, being at risk of coming to a halt under the weight of other responsibilities.”

The proposal was rejected.

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III

Throughout February and March I began navigating routes to and from the new location for the new organisation which grew out of Impact Hub Birmingham: CIVIC SQUARE. Based on a canal boat moored at South Loop Park in B16, this involved experimenting with a range of different routes combining the bus, train and on foot. The change in routine and journey brought with it new ways of thinking, new sights, and the possibility for new habits, new normals. Having changed my instagram handle to @byngtown as if to somehow aid manifestation the work I wanted to make, I started sharing photographs from my walks, time at the bus stop etc more intentionally on my instagram stories, and even shared some drawings from up on the top deck of the 11C.

Having stepped up as a Director of the company, I was having a really intentional, satisfying, mind-expanding time at work, and felt psychologically better than I had in years. But the fact remained that I knew even less than ever before how to create space, energy, time, motivation and confidence for my creative explorations, despite them being either directly interconnected or in complement to the work, to manifest, rather than always taking the very necessary role of organiser, synthesiser and producer, in our work, my own work and the work of others.

I changed my instagram bio to say: Drawing, exploring, making marks and started to consider my practice a course of travel; an approach of thinking, looking, doing, rather than of pencil and product and print and portraiture. It felt really nice to have something to think about in this way and not attempt to make further sense of it.

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IV

Today, I went for a walk.

I didn’t plan where to walk to, but loaded up the Strava map, walked towards nearby Bournville, down past Cadbury World, and kept on walking, in a direction I hadn’t gone before. This was a once-daily state-sanctioned exercise walk on a sunny day, between Zoom meetings and production time, and I wanted to make the most of it. I was interested in incorporating nearby green spaces so walked in the direction of some green bits of the map I didn’t recognise. I ended up walking through Valley Parkway, Merritts Brook Greenway, through Woodlands Park, for around an hour and a half, spanning 6km.

I listened to music, put one foot in front of the other, and just walked. It was... incredible. Even though I walk all the time, the combination of many factors configured into something very distinctive, interesting and useful.

When first heading out for the walk I was filled with some frustration and negativity, disappointed to not be at Rabbits Road Press this week for their Spring School due to COVID-19, so the walk was partly to give myself a good talking to and get into the right headspace for the working week ahead, no longer able to take a week away due to the responsivity needed in our organisation in relation to so many things interconnecting with the pandemic.

Without expectation, thinking led to understanding which led to feeling differently. The walk weirdly turned into what I recognised as my practice in action; a walking residency, drawing a line onto the map. I’d been daydreaming for a while about both drawing and walking as thinking in motion, and it felt like those pieces started to make a lot more sense. I understood for the first time that the walk itself was a drawing, rather than necessarily needing to yield observational sketches or detailed illustrations. I thought of Richard Long and Francis Alÿs. I thought of Marina Abramovic, of Sophie Calle, of Fluxus; of Surrealists and Situationists. I thought of my work existing within everyday action in a way that it always had, but that I’d always demanded more from, more certainty, more labour, more productivity, more skill. I thought of all the previous projects which had actually been drawn out of walking, travelling and mapping that I hadn’t considered in that way before. It was the first time where I felt like I hadn't planned and executed something meticulously, and that I genuinely didn't know where it would lead me.

I decided to write this all out, go walking again and see what happened next.

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