An invitation to participate in a seminar held by the Oral History Society in September 2017, based on some work from thirteen or so years before, got me thinking about oral history and differing walking practices. Obviously, many people record their walks – but I wanted to seek examples of projects and ideas beyond that admittedly admirable practice.
So I joined the Walking Artists Network and introduced myself with a question: I wondered if any walking artists carried out oral history projects as part of their approach. Some examples follow, but first I thought I might outline my experiences and ideas.
The work which was so well regarded was for www.irespect.net – the website seems a bit creaky now, but my perspective was that the lives of ordinary people were as necessary to any transmission of ‘Heritage’ as the lives of the powerful: a form of ‘Counter-Heritage’, in a way. I also put together a whole series of worksheets and lesson plans for schools. What I/we haven’t done is to walk the streets of Gloucester, using those testimonies and questions for walking and discussion: the great thing about devising questions with testimonies is that it stops those oral testimonies becoming inert. The questions promote engagement – that is especially so, of course, with young people.
My next involvement in oral history was with my local community: writing poems and recording local history textually, as well as with a microphone. This was a new development for me: taking a recording, making a transcript, and then writing a prose-poem, which would then be read back to the contributor. These testimonies and consequent writings can be embedded within different media, so as to contribute to further group walking and further recordings.
Here is a case study: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xohBrBpr5w together with http://radicalstroud.co.uk/ls-lowry-and-local-landscape/
A search for the genius loci of my area (the Stroud Valleys: five valleys with fast flowing streams) followed. Fast flowing streams powered the water wheels of local industry – and those streams came from the plethora of springs issuing forth in the Stroud Valleys. That led to my cataloguing the names of local springs; then moving into a Blakean take on it all, whilst collecting memories of local springs too. This melding and conjoining of genres can be found at http://radicalstroud.co.uk/springs-from-research-to-blake-to-oral-history/
Since then, my practice has moved to a radical history of landscape and locality, in an EP Thompson style of rescuing the anonymous from ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’. This contributes to performative, historical walking. My approach involves research (sometimes primary sources); imaginative re-creations of first person voices based upon that research (a sort of one step beyond oral history); a planned, performative walk, with performers briefed beforehand; with factual, historical accounts, too, to act as a counter-point; followed by the recording of the walk textually and visually, with a posting on www.radicalstroud.co.uk
The website has a number of categories – accounts are placed accordingly. Here are two examples of recreated first person voices: http://radicalstroud.co.uk/the-last-words-of-thomas-jubiter/
Performative Walking and Oral History
Doors of No Return
Historic, documented, liminal places,
Not gone with the wind, but both visible and invisible,
Spaces and places in the Stroudwater hills and valleys
With messages and mementoes from a riotous past
Open doors to the truth –
“A performative counter-narrative … a ‘guerrilla memory’”,
“Lieux de memoire, sites of history, torn away from the moment of history”
Memorialisation that moves beyond the empirical,
The documented, the evidenced and the historical,
To a counter-heritage, a counter-memorialisation…
For further reinterpretations,
As we move art and monument
From object to process,
And from ‘noun to verb’,
As we create new museums of the past, present and future…
Beyond the Empirical!
Beyond the Documented!
Three or four people or so replied to my question on the Walking Artists Network – here is an example of a different approach from Blake Morris, from California:
In terms of approaches to oral history, I work with the Ancient Greek technique of memory palaces to gather stories through walking. One example is my project Former Fresnans (2012-Ongoing) in which I do walks with people who formerly lived in Fresno, California, but now live elsewhere. We create a memory image for a Fresno-based memory palace after our walk, which records our story of walking together. I then take people in Fresno through the palace and show them the imaginary images and convey the stories of former Fresnans. You can find out more here, http://archive.fresnobeehive.com/2015/12/23/the-beehive-interview-blake-morris/,
TS Beale also replied from Glasgow:
She has been looking at the role of women in industrial actions and protest movements, ‘trying to recover/trouble/nuance/and otherwise mess with the “accepted” narrative about women’s roles in protest movements and industrial actions.’ There has been a walk alongside this:
I have just seen Christopher Jagmin’s ideas for Scottsdale, Arizona; for us in Britain, a sort of mix of Mass Observation, and ‘A Day in a Life’ /‘Good Morning’ from the Beatles. I could fancy doing this as oral history/sociology – people convene; walk out; record; reconvene for a collective recording. It could also be a way of doing a new form of pub crawl – walkers allocated different pubs to record life; then reconvene for the collective fusion.
Meet at The Livery where you will receive a map of the area to get you started. Then you will be sent on your way to wander Old Town Scottsdale on a solo, self-guided journey for about 15-30 minutes.
While walking, we want you to explore and discover new experiences; say hello to a stranger, listen to the birds or a conversation taking place, take a photo of a place or person that looks interesting, walk down an alley, open a door for someone going into a building, turn off your cell phone and find a bench and enjoy the moment that you are having.
If you have been here many times you may have some memories of the place. If you are here for the first time everything is new. The hope is that you find or experience a moment to remember.
With your map, we ask that you document an experience from your walk, by marking the time, and the exact spot it happened. When you return to the Livery, we will pinpoint your experience on a map of the area, and we will also document them as historical document of Old Town.
I contacted the Museum of Walking and was delighted when Chris got back to me – see below
The good people over at the Museum of Walking forwarded your email that you sent to them. Sorry it took a bit to get back to you, but was on vacation last week.
Your projects sound very intriguing and interesting. I wish I was closer to participate myself.
I am glad that you were interested in my project, and would be happy to talk more about my project and any thoughts. A collaboration is always possible.
A little bit about my collaboration with the Museum of Walking, and the residency that I am currently participating (I hope not too confusing). I also attached some photos of the signage that I have done for my History Project.
We are living at a moment in time that seems to be filled with high anxiety. I envision this livery space as a place to find comfort, make face-to-face connections, and maybe discover something interesting about ourselves.
The Livery space offers a variety of unexpected projects and opportunities to work with strangers, and express our community’s anxieties and joys without judgment.
P R O J E C T 1
The History Project
Historical markers are small story-telling signs that dot the landscape with sad, happy, or thrilling stories of known and forgotten heroes and villains, and the histories that were made at a specific location. These signs are the basis for a personal history project
that began in 2014.
This is a project that I have been personally working on for a few years. I memorialize important and not so
important times and experiences in my life, or notes overheard conversations and stories from other’s personal experiences. The signs are placed at the locations where these moments actually occurred.
I will ask community participants to remember a specific place (in Scottsdale) other than their home… where they had a profound, sad, joyful, or memorable experience. They would write their story and I would GPS these locations on a large map (at the Livery, and
documented later on a website) with colored pushpins to designate a felt emotion. This map of Scottsdale would show an emotional and alternate historical perspective of the city.
On the map that was given to participants, then follow up with documenting these “histories” on a map of the area, and a recording of these stories:
THE WALKING HISTORY PROJECT
Welcome to Sc be your first visit. Either way, there is a lot to see here and discover.
For this project I am asking you to take a walk around this area for 15 to 30 minutes, and experience new things, new sounds, new people, and maybe even discover something new about yourself.
Here are some suggestions for your journey:
– While walking… really listen. Put your phone down, and listen to the birds, the wind, or the sounds of the community. Perhaps you can have a seat on a park bench and listen to the conversations around
– Why don’t you say hello to someone walking down the street. Or, hold a door open for someone entering a shop. You might want to offer a stranger a compliment, or just give up a big smile.
– If you want a solitary experience… maybe you can walk down a street that is new to you, or cut down an alley that looks interesting (and safe!). Why don’t you take a photo of an interesting find, but instead of posting on a social media outlet, just share
with a friend in person.
My hope is that you challenge yourself and make a memory that you can tell me and your friends about.
Don’t forget to document your experience by marking the time, and the exact spot it happened on this map. When you return to the Livery, I will document this unique moment as a historical document of Old Town.
Wishing you well, and much luck
SIX: MORE IDEAS
I saw your email on the wan digest mailing list and I thought I’d drop you a line. Your project sounds really fascinating! I have been trying to use walking interviews as a way to conjure up life stories and geographical imaginations both in Northern Ireland and Spain
Garikoitz Gómez Alfaro
10-11 Pavilion Parade
School of Humanities
University of Brighton
BN2 1RA – Brighton
Hi again Stuart,
I enjoyed reading this palimpsest of yours. I wish I could escape to the West Country to join you in one of those radwalks!
There are a few other projects I know of that might be interesting to you – do you read Spanish? There’s a couple of really interesting projects in Spain, ranging from the Anarchist Route in Barcelona (with augmented reality) to derives organised by autonomist&feminist groups in Madrid.
I also wanted to draw your attention to an article by Lisa Hill, who is based at Bristol University. The first half of the article is a very useful academic review of approaches to memory/space then quickly turns into an interesting reflection about new ways of writing about life stories and memory. In addition to that, she puts those thoughts into practice in a very useful way. I hope this is useful.
Garikoitz Gómez Alfaro
10-11 Pavilion Parade
School of Humanities
University of Brighton
BN2 1RA – Brighton
SEVEN: DR HILL
I duly read Dr. Hill’s article about walking in the Forest of Dean, with Ron Beard, who provided the oral history – and here is a synopsis.
Dr. Hill spoke of the ‘spectral’: the ‘temporal disjunction’ that can happen when out walking – when landscape and mind intertwine; when memory (voluntary or involuntary) and time conjoin and disjoin, so that the ‘future-present’ is found within ‘the past’. Dr. Hill argues that different styles of narrative and writing are required to describe this mind-landscape fusion: styles that do have a common theme of disrupting authorial omniscience, however: the writer is in the landscape, not some sort of detached, positivist observer.
Hill draws on Proust, Benjamin, Derrida and Sebald as she develops her individual take on cultural geography and then applies this theoretical position to her walk with Mr. Beard.
Ron recollects and speaks of the past while out walking the Dean landscape. Dr. Hill walks, imagines, recreates, listens, records, with an acknowledgement of how important the senses are to any spectral recreations: the smell of coal dust, the whistle of a train etc.: ‘madeleine moments’.
Dr. Hill concludes by stating that she had ‘suggested that walking with memory could provide a more-than-representational perspective on the past. The act of walking creates powerful recollections because it provokes a distinct and familiar tactility with the world’: ‘the spectral … the revenant …ghostly memories … haunting memories … the haunting of the self.’
And this spectral disjunction of time will require a discourse that dispenses with linear narrative. Instead, a narrative should be one that ‘employs a subtle form of literary montage that operates by a process of juxtaposition and discontinuity – in the placing of text and image, and in the changes of topic and style.’ And this writing could well use ‘authentic’ oral history, but might also move towards the ‘fictive’, using a post-modernist multiple voice narration.
Food for thought! And reminiscent of George Orwell’s description of a ‘slum’ in Down and Out in Paris and London, where the initial ‘succession’ of yells first thing in the morning develops into a ‘variegated chorus’ later in the day. ‘Variegated chorus’ …
Talking of Orwell, Gari emailed me further:
‘Here’s the link for the project on walks and feminist memory in Madrid:
Many thanks to Helen Pomeroy at Archway School for the following translation:
We are a group of friends, feminist activists, who are united for the objective and in the interest of making visible and generating collective memorial spaces about the social struggles which have developed over time in the Spanish state. Also we want to contribute to the story of the emancipation of women. We want to know how we arrived here but above all we want share it and spread to others this interest. This is why we have created this group.
We believe that feminist story is collective, historical, rich, diverse and multiple. A memory which for the most part is not part of any textbook nor in any official stories in history, nor is it reflected in the streets of our city or our museums. It is a memory which is found nowhere, a memory which remains open and active in the heads and in the hearts of those people who are given to the moment of seeking alternative reconstruction who seek to transform personal sentiment to collective and public meaning.
and here the one for the barcelona project, which is probably less relevant as it isn’t directly related to oral history but might be interesting due to the possibilities the technology used offers:
NINE: TIM INGOLD
Also, I can’t believe I forgot to mention Ingold’s introduction to “Ways of Walking”: https://quote.ucsd.edu/sed/files/2014/09/Ingold-Ways-of-Walking-Introduction1.pdfhttps://quote.ucsd.edu/sed/files/2014/09/Ingold-Ways-of-Walking-Introduction1.pdf ‘
Again, I duly read this and here is my synopsis:
This ethnographical overview provides a salutary lesson, with a global perspective on walking. It takes us away from a European and/or urban textual modernity, to walking as a social activity – footprints interwoven for some cultures with the transmission of ‘knowledge’, storytelling and oral history. It may be time to resurrect such an approach here in this country – ‘walking’ can become over intellectualised and dry as dust academic; it’s time to bring back the vernacular, when occasion demands.
And that’s what I am trying to do with the writing of a DIY guide to performative walking for my locality – writing with a voice that appeals to everyone. The hope is that there will be a widening collective sharing of experience, beyond the usual suspects.
More of that in the future – Christmas, in fact.
TEN: TOBY BUTLER
Almost finally, now …
Gari also drew my attention to the Memoryscape work of Toby Butler along the bank of the Thames (oral history in the landscape, rather than in museums or as transcripts) and an article at http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/memoryscape/
I tried to contact Professor Butler but he has left UEL and they have no forwarding email address.
ELEVEN: DR CORDER
Dr Kate Corder also contacted me about HOW (Heathrow Orchards Walks):
When I was planning my HOW events, I observed old maps of the Heathrow area and delved in to histories and archives. From 2014-2016 there were approximately 19 HOWs, three of which were not made public, but I had arranged to talk to people about the area history on route. Oral history of the area was an ongoing dialogue before, after and during the HOW event. Participants spoke to historians, activists and volunteers about the regional history met on route during the event. Even though I am not currently doing more HOW events, I am still working on things connected to HOW, (at the moment two publication essays and my work is included in the Alternative Document group exhibition touring to Stoke, Sydney, Bath and Brighton in the next year).
TWELVE: SAPPERTON TUNNEL AND THE CANAL
As regards the Stroud area, our next performative walk, recording and podcasting will be on October 7th, when, inter alia, Uta Baldauf will perform a piece about legging through Sapperton Tunnel on the Thames and Seven Canal, right there in front of the tunnel. http://radicalstroud.co.uk/i-was-baptized-josephine/
This piece is an exercise in oral history of sorts: a first person voice of guerrilla memorialization that challenges historical orthodoxy and heritage. This recording of a transgressive account (‘Presentism’?) runs alongside (albeit in a parallel universe) official recordings on the Stroudwater and Thames and Severn canals.
But ours are the invented voices of oral history – authentic and valid in a different type of way from the voices of canal restoration.
Beyond the Empirical,
Beyond the Documented:
On the way back on the train, Uta and others asked me about what happened to Joe/Josephine. I explained that I had invented her/him.
Uta turned round and looked at me:
’But, I felt she was a real person when I spoke her words. To me, she was a real person. I think she did exist. She did exist.’