Opening up and perceiving space, with all the senses, is one precondition for what a neuroscientist might call 'learning', and this is exactly what happens on a walk. When we walk, we gain and connect knowledge consisting of feelings, visions, memories, and impressions, and walking, as a tool for ethnographers like me, offers a meaningful alternative to detached, staid, and sedentary academic practice. Walking embeds us within the environment, allows us to intensively perceive and reimagine it, through a deep spatial immersion and participation in its ever-shifting form.
The city has always been a locus for artistic and academic enquiry. As the terrain for a complex coalescence of urban life and livelihoods, the city has always attracted voices, both artistic and intellectual, each trying to decode their surroundings. From 18th Century romantic writers living and writing about their immersion within an emergent urbanity, through to creative and cultural sector workers clustered within urban ecosystems of productivity and sociality today, the city has always played host to a creative class.
I'm presenting my work, in the form of an 'academic poster' at the International Making Cities Liveable conference in Bristol this week. I'll be giving a paper also, later on in the week. The poster covers a brief history of walking in cities, ideas surrounding 'walking knowledge', and an introduction to Audio Mapping. Kevin McCloud (of Grand Designs fame) is presenting too!
In his philosophy, Nietzsche poeticises that walking, far more than being a means of moving from place to place, is in fact a prerequisite for his thinking and for his work. The mobility of his body, his capered marching, was simultaneously a traversing through the actual (‘fields’) and the mental (‘papers’). For Nietzsche, the freedom that his walking enabled, and the boldness and firmness of thought it inspired, is one that was impactful not only for his work, but through his work. This is thinking made active through the rhythmic cadence of walking, and captured and reflected in Nietzsche's rhyme and stanza.
In Rousseau’s autobiographical ‘Confessions’ (1782), perhaps the earliest example of a true autobiographical text, walking plays a key part. As he retraces pathways between his life in France, Switzerland, Italy, and England, the convergence of emotion and perception whilst walking manifest in what Rousseau refers to as his heated imagination, most abundant and magnificent when travelling on foot.
Like Thoreau, Rimbaud leaves impassioned, tight fisted, and determined to flee, and to walk, without too much concern for the bearing, and into an imagined wilderness; “Adieu to here, no matter where! (ibid.).”
In Thoreau’s essay ‘Walking’ (1862), the emotionality of walking is similarly bound up in notions of escape and freedom. Thoreau says:
Familial and societal detachment is a necessity to walk like Thoreau. He is a purist, an extremist, a walker enraptured by the romanticism of an imagined wilderness. This urge to flee, characteristic of explorers, hikers, backpackers, and artists alike, echoes throughout literary history. Thoreau’s wilderness, his imagined destination, is not necessarily an actual place just beyond the horizon, but is rather a poetic, spiritual, or metaphorical terrain lying somewhere illusive nearby, and also within.
My research, although primarily concerned with and situated within the creative and cultural industries area, utilises theories, approaches, and methodologies more typical of other disciplines. The use of walking in cities as a means of exploring actual spaces and spaces of knowing simultaneously has tendrils that extend back into 18th Century artistic practice...
In the years leading up to this piece of research, and before my career in academia had begun, my personal and professional experiences not only informed decisions about which university courses to take, but were, retrospectively, instrumental in shaping this thesis. My life and work as a musician in Bristol instilled within me a sense that creative people have emotive, active, and performative relationships with their cities, taught me that the expression of ideas need not only be through the written word, and inspired later thoughts about how the city is best imagined, not as a strictly defined set of spaces, but as a complex terrain upon which people establish their own sense of place. Through my entrepreneurial journeying as a graphic designer, I discovered that the creative economy operates on informal as well as formal connections, and also sowed the seeds for many of the metaphors and terminologies that are present throughout this research. Most recently, through hiking and mountaineering, I developed my interest in walking as both psychical and psychological mobility, and from this, my efforts to establish an on-foot methodology for capturing spatially informed insights has grown.