I’ve been walking a lot lately. Since university finished, I’ve joined the tribe delivering spam direct to your mailbox. I live in fear of being busted by an acquaintance. This could be because I feel guilty contributing to a world of wasted resources and landfill, but mostly I think its because I feel everyone I meet on the street despises the whole enterprise, and me along with it. In suburbia I am now a second-class citizen.
But there are some upsides besides the exercise, especially for an artist. One is that doing repetitive mundane physical action allows the mind to wander, the other is that you notice things. I think I know a suburb, but covering every inch of both sides of every street and cul-de-sac, takes me to spots I’ve never been before. Being on foot with no distractions allows the luxury of time to register intriguing objects and unexpected vistas.
Last week, collapsed in a comfy chair after four hours walking, I came across a Tate Talks podcast of a philosopher called Frederic Gros in conversation with Richard Wentworth. Gros recently published a book called A Philosophy of Walking. It’s good. After listening to him talk I immediately ordered a copy. Things that have been rattling around half formed in my head are expressed beautifully and clearly by Gros, and new concepts are introduced that feel stunningly right.
Different chapters cover the effect walking has on our perception of time and space, as well as various philosophers’ engagement with walking. The ideas, habits and idiosyncrasies of (among others) Kant, Nietzsche, Rousseau and Thoreau are discussed. Working while walking is a common thread: leaving other routines behind, being available for new ideas, and more receptive to thought. Nietzsche and Rousseau both created en route. Gros contrasts this with the alternative:
“Books by authors imprisoned in their studies, grafted to their chairs, are heavy and indigestible. They are born of a compilation of the other books on the table. They are like fattened geese: crammed with citations, stuffed with references, weighed down with annotations” (19).
One of my favourite sections of the book addresses strolling in the city, and the urban flâneur of Baudelaire and Benjamin. A city large enough to provide a seemingly endless ‘landscape’ bustling with a preoccupied crowd, provides a stroller with anonymity and therefore the opportunity to be the unobserved observer. I especially loved Gros’ description of the flâneur as one who ‘practices urban foraging’:
“…he captures, snatches in flight implausible encounters, furtive moments, fleeting coincidences. He doesn’t consume, but nevertheless continues to capture vignettes, to bring down on himself a drizzle of images stolen in the improbable instant of the encounter.” (180)
Whether physically collecting, photographing, or just noticing, – chance sights, images, memories, juxtapositions, material qualities, everyday waste, overheard conversations, unintentionally funny signage – can all be gathered by an artist wandering the streets in a receptive frame of mind. Fragments can be stashed away for later contemplation or reuse, as an author might assemble snippets for a book.
A Philosophy Of Walking, by Frederic Gros, is published by Verso, London, paperback edition 2015.