We speak with artist and AirSpace Gallery Director Glen Stoker about his recent body of work. Tell Me Where To Go is a series of one hour walks performed in Stoke-on-Trent via a digital collaboration during restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic.
How have you approached Tell Me Where To Go as a body of work, Glen?
For the last few years my personal practice has morphed into my organisational work with AirSpace Gallery. Because that organisation is a bit hungry for time and labour, it’s not really been possible to create a separation between that and my personal practice. But, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, there was some increased spare time, which allowed a chance to have a think about my individual practice. The initial lockdown one hour allowance of daily exercise offered a specific time structure in which I could incorporate my practice processes and interests – walking as journey, duration and urban environments – and I started to think about how to utilise the few possibilities this new situation allowed. Tell Me Where To Go was a structured response built around that one hour window.
And are they new walks or familiar ones?
Generally I tend to walk at about four miles an hour so, potentially, for these 1 hour walks, I’m looking at a four mile circumference from my front door. I’ve lived in Stoke-on-Trent for twenty-five years or so, so I’ve covered a fair amount of the city, so in a macro sense, the surroundings are very familiar, but because I was giving control of my navigation away, these walks sent me on routes that I wouldn’t necessarily routinely walk. Ordinarily, you use regular routes, going from A to B, the quickest or the easiest, but with these walks, taking decision processes out of my control, there was a sense of the unfamiliar within the very familiar.
What has been the structure of the walks?
I wanted to find a way to walk with people at a time when we were isolated from people. The idea was, to give away my directional decisions. Using communication via mobile phone, my remote walking partner became my internal sat nav. At each junction, I would ask my partner whether I should turn left, right or carry straight on. In the hour there would be anywhere between 40 and 70 directions. The only things I’m in control of are my feet and my senses. My walking partner had the option to “see” my walk with me, with a photograph at each junction, allowing a sense of the environment, or they could choose to walk “blind”, and receive all photo documentation at the end of the walk, when they would find out where we’d been. At the end of the hour, I’d send my partner an image of our final destination and then head home to reflect on the walk. I revisited the walk in my head, remembering where I’d been, noting down all the streets, mapping the walk out in the form of a faux Google Map. Each walking partner would then receive all the photographs taken, edited and post-produced – acting as a an ordered visual journey and three pieces of design work – a grid of images, a chosen image from the end of the walk and the map.
How have you been choosing the collaborators?
The first couple were done with a friend and colleague, to test the walks. After that I put calls out over my own networks. I walked with Pandora Vaughan, an artist based in London; Bram Arnold who is a fellow walker, artist and academic based in Devon; Dr. Alison Lloyd, a walking artist based in Nottingham; Terry Shave and Jo Ayre, both artists based here in Stoke; and on one occasion, my partner was a coin-toss mobile phone app.
How does the character of the city itself play out on the walks and in the photographs?
There’s something interesting about the separation between urban and rural environments. I live in a city that has more green spaces than most, with lots of overgrown Brownfields. Nature is a really present and visible phenomenon in Stoke. Most of the final images from the walks depict this natural ecology in urban location. Whether I’m drawn to those instinctively, or I’m subjectively searching for them, these are the things I’m fascinated by. We don’t necessarily need to see urban environments as concrete jungles. In this city, for me, the natural habitation is the dominant one. For instance, at the end of one of the walks, I found myself standing in front of these two trees, beautiful intertwined, hanging over this gently flowing brook – a tributary of the river Trent. I could have been in a forest in some beautiful National Park, and yet it was about two minutes’ walk away from one of the busiest roads and biggest council estates in the city.
With reduced road noise and less people around, have you noticed anything that you might not notice normally at this time of year?
Absolutely. I found it more than easy to walk in the middle of roads without fear of oncoming cars! One of the things that strikes me when I’m walking is the hierarchy of vehicle – cars, bikes, pedestrians – it was nice to be able to claim the territory. The fruit tree blossom has been incredible this year. From talking with friends and colleagues, apparently it’s down to a super-bloom which is what happens when we have a frost-free winter, but I wonder whether it’s also an effect of less vehicle fumes. Particularly in the early walks, at the end of March and start of April, there’s an ever present pink or white hue in the background of the photographs. I think nature has been one of the winners of this situation. I think it quite enjoys the lack of human presence, as do I.
The work is a record of this time, the seasons and conversations with somebody. How do you think the works might be received in the future? Are you interested to show these works in the future when restrictions are lifted?
As snapshots of the time, they are sort of fascinating because the streets are empty and it’s pretty rare to see urban locations so devoid of life. I’d say this is sketchbook work really, with some sense of individual resolution to each part of it. It’s important that my participants get something which is in a sense final, from their co-operation. Also, these particular walks have stopped now, as the regulations and restrictions have changed and we’re allowed to walk for as long as we want every day now.
Strange that we are speaking on the day when these restrictions are lifted (13 May 2020). What’s next for the work?
The expansion of our one hour exercise limit means I think there is maybe one more of these walks left to do – an unlimited walk – so I would stop when I was hurting or exhausted. It might be quite interesting to see where I end up eight hours on, but finding someone to join me for that amount of time might be difficult! As I usually walk solitarily, I’m interested to explore some collaborations further, outside of the narrow ‘walking artist’ paradigm, and undertake the walks with other practitioners – such ecologists, historians etc. That’s maybe where my energy will go next.
Is there anything further you’d like to add?
The work comes from a constant DIY ethic and from finding opportunities where immediately you think these might have been deprived. My first instinct when lockdown happened was “How can I make work in this situation?” but quite quickly you can look at what your new situation is and find a creative space within that. Not only am I quite pleased with how I adapted and responded, but it has really helped as a focus for coping with what has been a very strange situation. I’m always an evangelist for the benefits of walking – even if it’s only for an hour. In terms of wellbeing and jogging the creative processes – for me, it’s a failsafe.