Stuck Unstuck – Lizzie Fort
I will level with you. I am feeling a bit stuck at the moment. Like I am hovering with 3D map (literally and metaphorically) that has infinite connections and possibilities. I am visualising it being like stars and milky ways and black holes with so many possibilities and unknowns. Which way(s) to go? I am not an astronaut, but I am a space explorer of sorts. I am a dance artist and researcher working with bodies and objects moving through space and time; this sense of not knowing is part and parcel of artistic practice research and whilst it is unsettling…breathe…been here before…I know the feeling has just got to run its course and the bits and pieces will become clearer in due course, like the constellations in the night sky. I am sure there are rumblings of pandemic fatigue, transitioning out of lockdown and parenting sleep deprivation that are also impacting on this feeling of being overwhelmed and stuck too.
From a research perspective, in many ways, this ‘space’ of being stuck is also a space of finding out – and what a great privilege that is. This space is where I explore curiosities that arise from a walking, dancing and choreographic practice situated in and inspired by my local community, Woolwich, in South East London. It has been brewing since 2018 when I started my PhD journey with a scholarship from Arts and Humanities Research Council, via Techne, an organisation that supports “students pursuing the ‘craft’ of research through innovative, interdisciplinary and creative approaches across the range of the arts and humanities.” Under this umbrella, the research must be original and demonstrate outcomes and new knowledge that benefit the public good. It is a privilege to be given the time and resources to do this…its tough…breathe…and I often feel overwhelmed with this responsibility and its possibilities.
Yet all this thinking can transform from star gazing into naval gazing if I am not careful. “Get out of your head (and your navel) and into your body…and out and about. Go for a walk.” My inner monologue nudges me.
The fresh air that hits my face as I walk out the front door speaks of so much potential. “anything is possible, you can do it, are you wearing the right coat?”
My walks are improvised one step after another, much like most of my artistic moving practice. I have walked pretty much every road in the wards of Woolwich Riverside and Woolwich Common, some multiple times. I usually walk with my dog, and sometimes my family too. I take photos of stuff that interests me, which has been a lot of abandoned chairs most recently.
I pause in places where there is a shift in the air, places that I feel like resting a while to watch world go by.
I often contemplate the paradox of feelings of outsiderness versus localness. One thing I am certain of is that I know my neighbourhood much better now and have developed a deep fondness, or care for where I live. My sense of place, of home is becoming clearer.
This solo walking practice was to be extended to walking with other Woolwich locals as part of the PhD research from January 2021, taking on a role being an artist-ethnographer and finding out more about the places and spaces that local people care about, and why. I wanted to compare these contributions to my own experience of Woolwich and question how I might work ethically and effectively in the place where I live…Am I wanted here? is a question that is driving the research. But Covid put a stop to walking with others and so, instead, local people have been making maps and talking to me about their favourite places, via Zoom. The research is not just about place in a geographical sense. It is about home and issues that people care about like access to public space, regeneration and gentrification, littering and fly tipping. It is about what Woolwich means to them and their relationship with this place.
As I undertake the final few conversations with locals, I am preparing to spend time with other people’s stories and then make some decisions about the next stage of the research. This is coinciding with an emergence from lockdown where we can be together outside again, and also marks the start of new project with Greenwich Dance, Stride on Time, which I co-lead with Maria Ghoumarassi and producer Chenube Ruth Bailey. Maria and I facilitate four walks a week in Eltham, Abbey Wood, Woolwich and Charton; I lead the last two.
And it is here that my PhD-work world and artistic-work world collide.
This is one of my sticking points – albeit an interesting one to have. Does the worky-work become part of the PhD research-work and what are the ethical implications of that for Greenwich Dance, my walking companions and me? Should I keep them separate?
To start the process of becoming unstuck I have had a go at writing about the Stride on Time walks on my PhD blog, Woolwich Wanderings, which is a bit like an open, public notebook that shares some ramblings from my ramblings.
Here are some extracts…
Have you ever walked backwards in a public space for a few minutes? In one of my Woolwich walks for the Stride on Time project we set out walking forwards along the river from Clockhouse Community Centre, followed the cycle path through Thameside Studios and found a quiet green space tucked behind the Thames Barrier on the south side of the river. Picture a circular path around a green centre with benches framing the outer circle. Starting with a simple set of choreographic rules; walk, sit and stand, borrowed from the contact improvisation pioneer Steve Paxton and his work Satisfyin’ Lover (1967); we set about exploring this little space for a few minutes, and spontaneously started experimenting with walking backwards. As we passed each other one of the participants commented that in Chinese culture walking backwards is a regular pastime and connected to wellbeing. So we did it for a bit longer and noticed it was working different muscle groups, required more concentration and was actually very mindful…mainly to avoid tripping over or bumping into something/someone.
After a little more digging on the internet at home, I found out that it is connected to Traditional Chinese Medicine and karmic reversal or correcting mistakes from your past. “100 steps backwards are worth 1000 steps forwards.” And there are studies that have shown the benefits of retro walking, including boosting short term memory, health and wellbeing.
I am left questioning…
- In the act of walking backwards are we more connected to our self as a body moving through space and time, more so than walking forward?
- Are we therefore less connected to the space as a ‘place’ since retro walking requires our senses to be more heightened in prioritising safety and avoiding potential obstacles?
- If we practice retro walking and get better at it does that mean we can do other things while retro walking (like we do when walking forwards)?
- The mindfulness element of walking seems to be experienced very differently when walking backwards, compared to forward motion. What are we mindful about in both experiences?
- Will I get funny looks if I do it in Woolwich? Do I care?
Artist – tour guide – lollypop lady
As I settle into the Stride on Time project, I have been thinking about my multivariant role as a local dance artist who is planning and delivering dance inspired walking experiences in Woolwich and Charlton. The role flipflops through different identities of artist, tour guide, pedestrian and lollypop lady. As ‘artist’ I lead a creative activity to tune the body and the senses to the place and play choreographic games with pedestrian movement. On the Thames walk I attempt to offer some poorly patched together historical information, tripping over fragmented memories as I retell stories about The Royal Iris, an eerie, derelict, lop sided, retired party boat from Liverpool that is slowly sinking by Thameside Studios…something about The Beatles, something about Cardiff, something about The Mersey. I’d be a terrible tour guide, I think to myself. Continuing on, I ensure we can safely cross the road together. As our walks come to an end I might be called upon to advise on the nearest bus stop to travel home. I am surprised about how much I do know about getting about in my neighbourhood, which has largely been fuelled by being a dedicated, mindful pedestrian and paying attention to what’s where and what’s what.
Applying choreographic thinking to planning and delivering these walking experiences is, I think, helping to craft meaningful encounters with place. For example…
In the park walk we take time to notice the nearest and farthest points that we can see; we map a journey from one to the other. We walk to three of these farthest points via a route that I lead since the network of paths and how they connect the selected points are more familiar to me than my walking companion. We talk about Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme of nature, and she tells me about a book her daughter is reading about fungi and how trees and fungi communicate to look after one another. It reminds me of The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence by The Care Collective, and the shared vulnerabilities of being human and how we might develop more effective caring networks.
I introduce Steve Paxton’s ‘walk sit stand’ score in Monday’s walk and my companion connects walking backwards to her Chinese culture. I use this exercise again on Thursday but instead of ‘sitting’ on the wet grass, we ‘lean’ on trees. Its playful and my walking companion comments on the joy of connecting to childhood as we chat on the way back.
I am curious about the mindset that I carry into and through the walking experiences. I am finding that a loose and flexible approach is emerging that includes: body/senses tuning in; a journey to a location with time for chatting; a creative exploration of that location; a playful choreographic improvisation or game; a journey back with time to chat and reflect on our shared experience.
The people I walk with are making connections to home, place, nature and family during our time together and its a joy to share these moments with them. Come rain or shine, this local lollypop lady is happy to guide these somewhat unconventional artistic tours and say ‘STOP’, pause here with me for a little while and absorb everything it has to offer you today.
(blog excerpts end)
So, some naval gazing turns to star gazing and people gazing and place gazing. Looking outwards helps to make sense of some of the stuff that’s rumbling away inside. The feelings of stuck-ness are still there, but through writing these musings from walks I think it is possible to start the process of being unstuck. And, I would venture, slowing down and walking with an open mind and an open heart with time to stop and rest for a while, can help us to know ourselves and the place that we live a little bit better. I would go so far as to say it deepens the sense of care we feel for our neighbourhoods. This space traveller continues to explore the constellations of Woolwich through a practice of wanderings and wonderings and writing. If you are still reading this (thank you if you are!), please come space travel with me sometime soon.