A week ago I took part in a work commissioned for The Art Crawl in Nottingham by Katie Doubleday and Andrew Brown. I was given a map and instuctions for 'Stillness, Slowness and Stopping: A walk for a group in a city at night'. Kitted out with an ipod shuffle and a clear instruction to turn it on and follow its commands at exactly 7.50pm, I found myself to be part of an artwork. Immaculately timed and choreographed, the recorded directions led me and about 25 other people traverse the streets of Nottingham. The narration was monotone and factual but not unfriendly, yet commanding enough to want to follow through what it was telling you to do. Simple commands began with ‘speed up your pace until you reach Clumber Street…Slowly come to a halt and begin walking again at a normal pace.' Jointly narrated by the artists, a trust was gained to follow their verbal mapping of the city centre. Being part of a group also meant there was safety in numbers and one did not feel singled out or foolish. In fact it soon became a pleasurable experience to feel as though one were part of one physical entity that made its mark on the cityscape. The most poignant instruction to stop coincided expertly with the Council House beginning its chimes. This was when people about the streets of Nottingham began to take notice of the collection of people all stood as still as sleeping automatons, dotted about one of the busiest shopping streets in Europe.
Comments began to filter through the ipod headphones….
“Oooh, what are they doing?”
“What’s it for mate?”
“What are you standing still for?”
“Don’t they look daft?!”
“Whoa, that’s well freaky!”
People, who wouldn’t normally notice your existence or catch your eye in the busy hustle of the city, were now approaching the stationary group of us and waving in our faces, trying to prompt laughter or movement. But not for long, our aural tour guides told us to begin our journey again. At times the pace was fast, sometimes slow, sometimes serendipitously timed to make a graceful crossing over the tramlines. Until we realised we were forming a neat geographical grid in the most public of places in the city, the Market Square. 5 lines of 5 people – evenly spaced, stood still in the at a time when most come on a Friday night to meet their friends and lovers at the left Lion statue before going for a pint or to a club. The clock eerily struck 8pm at almost the exact second when the grid took its intended shape. All eyes were upon us, and it felt like Nottingham’s nightlife were expecting us to put on a good show.
I wondered what we would be instructed to do next, slaves as we now were to the collective hive mind of the ipods – almost like a scene in a science fiction movie – my sense of surrealism kicked in and I wondered if we would turn into a zombie army or be beamed up into the sky to the mother ship. A friend commented after the event that he was worried that we would all be instructed to take part in some sort of choreographed dance like the Youtube favourite of the orange suited prisoners in a Thai jail who had mastered a mass performance of Michael Jackson’s Thriller dance.
This was not the case as we all were instructed to resume our journey in a similar fashion to how we had arrived in this public square in the first instance. A few hundred yards away, we were given our freedom from the collective mind and permitted to walk at our own natural paces back to the starting point. This permitted participants to regain their anonymity and cease being surveilled, or living sculptures, or the followers of an artists work. I for one was enchanted by this interlude where I was able to travel through the familiar city, which I have walked through several times a day for over 20 years, in a new and enlightening way because I was part of a group. Somehow feeling foolish had been averted and all felt a collective amusement and sense of wonder.
Review by Jenny Syson June 2009: http://www.nottinghamvisualarts.net/review/jun-09/lets-go-walk