The year before The World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a global pandemic I was in residence at the National Theatre of Scotland as their ‘Digital Thinker’ – a post-doc artistic research residency funded through the AHRC’s Innovation Placements. As part of this residency I was mapping theatre and performance practices that incorporated innovative and emerging digital technologies: performances that took place on your smartphone; in a virtual reality headset; over the internet.
I developed an interest in the crossover between immersive technologies (like Virtual and Augmented Reality) and immersive theatre practices that so often try to create intense and immediate experiences of presence for an audience. Most of all I was interested in work that used these technologies to create an embodied encounter, work that reminded us that we have a body and what kind of body that is, performances that create meaningful moments of connection with their audience (whether they are physically sharing the same space or not).
Little did I know at the time that remote digital experiences would come to dominate our ways of interacting with the arts in 2020/21.
When the first lockdown happened in March 2020, I was living in Glasgow with my then pregnant partner Tashi and our 3-year-old daughter Poppy. Those first three months of living through the pandemic were so unique and particular I don’t think I will ever forget them. Even though we were ‘lucky’ not to lose anyone close to us, it was also a moment pervaded by grief and loss – the loss of a way of being in the world, lost projects or work, grieving the presence of friends and family in our lives.
Tashi had just started a new job, which would take us to Dundee in the summer of 2020 and Poppy and I spent a lot of time in the small shared garden at the back of our tenement flat. It was here that we got fresh air while isolating (with suspected COVID in March 2020), danced to the soundtrack of the various kids’ movies that helped us through lockdown, watched the seasons change, heard birds singing more clearly than ever before. We also walked the streets of our local neighbourhood of Pollokshields: we chalked messages to our neighbours on the pavements; drew pictures to hang in our window; toured the green spaces of the southside hoping to bump into friends for physically distanced play dates. We walked and played actively looking for moments of connection.
At the same time, theatre and performance, live events, collective assembly could not take place and the industry that Tashi and I both worked in suffered a blow that will take years to recover from. During this time there were many broadcasts of archive productions, short films produced by theatres and even livestreams from venues across the world.
Despite lapping up these myriad forms of digital theatre, I started to become interested in artworks that managed to make meaningful, intimate, live(ly) connections with their remote audiences: at home, in their garden, out on a daily walk. I held an ice cube in my hand until it melted in Gudrun Soley Sigurdardottir’s Elision at GIFT festival, I reminisced with a group of strangers about personal connections to telecommunications in Tassos Stevens’ Telephone, I thought about isolation and present absences in Jo Bannon’s Absent Tense.
And then in June 2020 I re-worked some text I had developed in response to John Berger’s 1984 book and our faces, my heart, brief as photos into a gently interactive audio work for Forest Fringe TV. The piece, inspired by that time spent in my close garden, encouraged the listener to tune in to their immediate environment, to reflect on ways of perceiving the world around us and to explore virtual presence across time and space.
Not all of the above work involved walking. However the strategies and practices I have been interested in over the last year or so – those that manage to connect artists with participants and participants with each other across time and space – have similarly been employed by walking artists and artists who use walking in their practice as a response, and an antidote, to COVID-19 restrictions.
So working with Dee, Maggie, Morag and Clare I am keen to identify and explore works that have offered ways of being together, even while we are apart: virtual and remote walks that facilitate a connection across space and time. I am interested in finding out about walks that can be done from your own home, audio walks, geo-located trails, work that uses technology to immerse us in other spaces, or augment the visible world, revealing the hidden stories that lie underneath the fabric of our built environment.
Until we next meet in person, sending love from Dundee on 3rd May 2021 with Tashi, Poppy and Ezra (8 months).