Sacha Kagan: Serendipedestrian colloquy

Serendipedestrian colloquy

Or a re-memb-rance from feettalks at Footwork

Dr. Sacha Kagan

Our Footwork walk (on June 6th 2013) from the University of East London’s Docklands campus, via Woolwich, to Dartford, i.e. walking eastwards from London, mostly along the Thames river, made us pass by a number of urban infrastructures related to waste management (incineration plants, wastewater treatment centers, landfills, metal scrap recycling, etc.). Although we were supposed to walk at the fringes of the city, and turn our backs on the big urban center, we went through one of the hearts of London’s urban metabolism. (The expression ‘urban metabolism’ is used in sustainability studies to understand the flows of materials and energy within cities.)

This urban metabolism imposed itself on my walking conversations with the other participants at Footwork, with whom I had the chance to exchange, in walking duos and trios (more rarely in quartets). This very fact then reminded me of an exciting quality of walking conversations: They bifurcate. In other words: Even if the walkers follow a pre-traced pathway (as was the case for our group, walking along a planned footpath alongside the Thames for the greatest part of the day), their conversations are affected by whatever and whomever they encounter on the way. That is, the conversations bifurcate, if the walkers pay at least a bit of attention (whether consciously or less so) to their surroundings – to their slowly unfolding emplacement.

We can perceive our walk as a meshwork of networks of attachments (borrowing words from Bruno Latour). In that context, the river, the urban infrastructures, the vegetal and animal species, and to a limited extent (because we did not have that much social interaction outside our invitational ambulating in-group) the other human beings we encountered, formed an actors/actants-network which, to varying degrees, affected our serendipedestrian conference.

I am re-using here an almost tautological expression, “serendipedestrian”, which I first introduced in a talk (entitled “The Serendipedestrian”) at the “Sideways Symposium: Moving On”, on September 15th 2012 in Zutendaal, Belgium. I was then addressing, in my talk, two questions which relate walking, art and the search process for cultures of sustainability: How can walking foster aesthetics of complexity? What can the embodied knowing of the pedestrian mean in the search process of sustainability? That Belgian occasion also brought about my first encounter with the “walking artists network” as such, and the questions I raised then, continue to motivate my interest in the activities of the network.

I just wrote above, that the physically co-present actants on our walk affected us only “to varying degrees”, because, as I noticed in my own behavior during this London Footwork walk, I also spent quite some time talking with Giulia Fiocca (from Stalker, in Rome) about her work – actually mostly listening to her. I very much enjoyed the flight of our minds to the urban neighborhoods of the Italian capital. So, the meshwork of networks of attachments was not just constituted of ourselves (the walkers) and our immediate surroundings (the Thames, the urban metabolism), but also of shared re-memberings from past experience. At times, the latter were so present that I missed out on some features of the immediate surroundings. That is a tricky balance, because on the one hand, too much imaginary flight impoverishes the serendipedestrian qualities of the colloquy, if the discussants enter too much into a tunnel and chances for further bifurcations get lost. On the other hand, too frequent bifurcations can lead to merely superficial gleaning.

Another feature of our walk, which interested me while partaking in it, was the extent to which we were (or were not) sharing and communing as a group, beyond the subgroups having conversations. One of the aspects of this issue is thus the extent to which we were talking in smaller groups and (not) exchanging with others and/or switching/shifting groups. I consciously tried out some shifting and transversal strides with several subgroups on that day. Thereby, I experienced splits, shifts and bits of conversations, varying distances and separations. I also experienced repeating and reweaving. These were occasions for bifurcations. But I must say that, even then, I too undoubtedly spent a relatively longer time with Giula than with the other fellow Footworkers (probably because I find the work done by the Roman collective so fascinating, and because she’s a good storyteller).

A related question, which I want to leave open for the footwork participants to reflect upon, is whether/how far we were (and still are now, through the current online exchange process of writing and sharing short pieces) shaping a commons together, and therefore whether/how far “commoning” was/is going on at Footwork.

The plenary reflective feedback with all participants, on the following day, allowed us to reconsider and exchange around some of the insights we gained. For example I learned that John Anderson, geographer at Cardiff University, ‘also’ pointed out one quality of walking conversations, which I was discussing with my first walking partner along the Footwork walk in the preceding morning: By talking alongside each other while walking, rather than standing or sitting in front of each other (face to face), one engages into different, often better conversations, which are generally less confrontational. There is less “standing for something” in a walking conversation.

These simple and direct consequences of prosaic, embodied, emplaced and unfolding situations of social interactions, confirm the importance of a pedestrian choreography of modes of knowing, for the development of aesthetic experiences of complexity.

The second day also permitted a further exchange about the places we had gone through, in their historical and other contexts. Some discussed the purposeful organization of this waste-land (literally, as land for the waste) as historically pushed out of the city, along a relocation of the white working class community, eastwards. The latest episode in this process was the London olympic games. One participant noted that the relatively recent scrapeyard (near Dartford) is much less self-conscious than the Victorian sewage buildings encountered earlier on in our walk. Someone else noted that the incineration plant, a few decades old, does also have a design ostensibly conceived to be representative. In the course of these discussions, someone noted how our Footwork walk had characterized itself as a walk of intention, of purpose, raising certain forms of attentive engagements and inviting to playfulness, more than other walks we engage in on a daily basis.

I am only stressing here a few out of the many threads of insights and conversations we shared with each other at Footwork. Most prominently, I raise the attention to the role of different sorts of bifurcations in the unfolding of our serendipedestrian colloquy. One of the actants of these bifurcations was the urban metabolism which turned up everywhere on our path. This urban metabolism also related to historical layers of urban waste management and anti-social policies, which we could further reflect together thanks to some of the co-(foot)workers’s local and historical knowledge. To them, and all the other participants I learned from, I want to express my thanks.

Besides all that, I also got a pretty bad sunburn at Footwork. I, naively, had not expected that from a day’s walk in London! 😉