October 2, 2013

Walking Stories at Coastal Currents Festival

Despite managing the bookings for Charlotte Spencer’s Walking Stories project as part of Coastal Currents Visual Arts festival in Hastings, I had no real idea of what to expect when I met the other participants at the beautiful Alexandra Park last weekend.

Beforehand, I’d watched Charlotte’s film about the project in Coastal Currents’ pop-up cinema where she explained that the idea for the participatory performances came after her brother created an audio treasure trail for her. It did feel a bit like a treasure hunt with audio clues as we suspended our own decisions and followed the spoken instructions. It wasn’t a traditional hunt since Charlotte had planned no destination for us to reach; the experience of the journey was what we were seeking.

Around twenty other participants and I formed a temporary community once we had put our headphones on and we began a journey together from one end of Alexandra Park to the cafe in the middle. Our mp3 players were synced together and provided us with our own internal soundtrack of brilliant music and gentle spoken instructions, and also an invisible thread that joined us together as a collective.

Gradually, it became clear that we were all small elements of this larger group. Some people’s audio tracks told them to wait while others urged them forwards. We separated and came together multiple times during the hour long walk. Towards the end of the walk, the destination seemed to fold inwards and exist within the group as we ran or walked in a circular formation together. Our world was momentarily defined by the boundaries of the group, rather than a fixed point on the horizon.

I found this a totally different unique way to experience the environment of the park. Instead of using pre-existing landmarks such as the bandstand, paths and trees to trace our journey, we created our own. I looked back at a space –  where we had paused to gather objects of interest: leaves, grass, flowers and discarded trail tickets and created pathways between our piles of objects with more leaves, grass and twigs – and was surprised that we had travelled only a few hundred yards. Rather than travel in a straight line we’d used the space in such surprising ways to get to our next destination that it felt like we had travelled much further.

I felt held together as part of a temporary community by the audio track but also very separate, unable to communicate verbally with anyone else as the headphones blocked out other sounds and I was concentrating on the instructions I was given. This juxtaposition heightened my senses; I noticed the scent of flowers, the way the current pulsed the water though a stream, the enjoyment on a man’s face as he spun on the spot and fell to the ground laughing. One woman remarked to me after the performance that the headphones gave us a feeling of protection,.we felt able to be silly, explore and respond to our environment in new ways as we were protected from feeling self conscious by the headphones and rest of the group.

There seems to be no simple way to interpret Walking Stories. It made me think a lot about journeys and made me examine how we usually think about the journeys we take and the narrative of our lives as linear experiences. The narration of Walking Stories asked me to think about the tracks we were making and the tracks that had been made before and it got me thinking about how we were making tracks in the earth and listening to an audio track in our ears that was setting the pace for our journey. We imprinted our invisible tracks on top of other peoples, and this is true for the audio track that I listened to as well; it has been listened to before and will be listened to again.

I’d love to take part in Walking Stories again if I get the chance. It was meditative, creative, relaxing and exhilarating all within one free hour of roaming in an outdoor space with some very comfortable headphones on my ears. Charlotte Spencer’s website is the best way to find out about upcoming participatory performances of Walking Stories (although she doesn’t have any further events listed at the moment) and to find out more about her inspiring creative work.

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