It is brilliant to arrive at the launch day for our research project Walking Publics/Walking Arts: walking, wellbeing and community during COVID-19.
Of course, launch day isn’t where a project starts. This one perhaps began on the 30 April 2020 when, out of the blue and rather desperately, I emailed two peers, Clare Qualmann and Morag Rose.
Hello Clare and Morag
How are you both doing? I imagine things are tough, challenging, hectic, busy? Such weird times. I’m pretty lonely. And bored. And missing people. And struggling with my research leave and the research that I’m meant to be doing.
And all of that likely makes the following proposal a ridiculous one to even countenance.
But I’ve got an itch, and it needs to be scratched. […]
That itch was “Walking during COVID-19” and the proposal, prompted by the Arts & Humanities Research Council’s call for research focused on COVID-19, was a project which explored how people were experiencing walking, who was not able to walk and for what reasons, how artists were using walking, and what might be learnt from the creativity of those artists.
During the pandemic, and the restrictions accompanying it, I’ve tried to walk every day (already a privileged position). Though I’ve lived in Glasgow for most of my adult life, this year I’ve become intimately acquainted with my locale, walking down nearby streets and paths, often for the first time, as well as walking already familiar paths into even deeper familiarity with each circuit.
I know walking is good for me, but sometimes, I admit, I just can’t be bothered (a combination of weather, repetition, boredom, and loneliness). “Oh, not another walk…”
Walking with others, even if virtually, has helped. Once a week, for over a year, artist Sonia Overall has been running a series called #DistanceDrifts. Every Sunday, at 10am, Sonia posts to Twitter an unfolding set of prompts that guide our walking for an hour. They are held together by a theme, often seasonal. Easter Sunday marked a year of #DistanceDrifts and was framed as a celebration of all things eggs. We were invited to look for scrambled eggs, hardboiled eggs, eggs sunnyside up and over easy, shell, box, cosy, and golden.
When I write ‘we’ and ‘our’, I am not referring to a known collective of walkers. ‘We’ are a dispersed and random group, walking in different places across the UK, connected only by the images we choose to post and tag on Twitter. I love seeing how people have interpreted the prompts (sunnyside up is a dandelion and a pair of pelican crossing lights are hard boiled eggs).
Holding in mind Sonia’s prompts, I walk with a different attention and orientation, and my overly familiar streets are transformed and refreshed. Time passes quickly and I mostly walk with a smile on my face, amazed at those moments of serendipity and the downright uplifting quirkiness lurking round most corners.
I don’t participate in #DistanceDrift every Sunday, but when I am feeling particularly low or at a loose end, it helps get me out the house and I imagine myself walking in the company of strangers, finding new things in old places. I’m grateful to Sonia for her enduring commitment to sustaining a dispersed group of walkers at a time of physical distancing.
Reports in the public domain already tell us that more people have been walking more during COVID-19 and I’m excited to add to what we know by moving from numbers to experiences and feelings. People may have walked more, but how did they feel about walking and how did that walking make them feel? Was walking, one of the few things permitted, something to be endured? Or a pleasure in its own right? Or perhaps it started off as a pleasure, and then became boring? We also need to know who isn’t walking and why not, so that we can explore whether and how the arts might
It’s great to finally be setting off and I hope you’ll accompany us on this research journey.
Now, I’m going to turn off this computer and go out into the (rare) sun for a walk. As I walk, I will be on the lookout for…