Wait, Look, Drag, Drop

In the week off between the festival weekends I’ve been keeping active with walking activities and adventures. There are always thrilling connections made during the Still Walking festival: people seeing the programme and getting in touch with their ideas. That does mean lots of emails in the morning but after those have been dealt with it’s great to get out and go for a walk (by now, this shouldn’t come as a surprise).

Today I investigated some secret tunnels in the city (more on that later in the week), photographed the William Bloye keystones at Steelhouse Lane Police Station (with nothing to report, other than “lovely keystones”) and stood still in Birmingham Cathedral grounds for around an hour.

I once stood there for 20 mins as an experiment, while thinking how to kill some time before an appointment. I was thinking which café or pub to go to then decided not to go anywhere, just continue to stand. I’d never done that before, and generally nobody does stand still for any length of time, unless they’re smoking or waiting for a bus. At the end of the ‘stand’ that time, my friend Brian passed by chance, looking disturbed. ‘What was wrong?’ Well, nothing: I actually enjoyed the experience and wanted to repeat it. One year on, I went back to spend 80 mins or so standing while the post-work crowds filtered past. What seems very simple (and possibly even a bit daft) actually turned out to have a lot going on. In brief, I came to feel that these were all people coming into my space, for a short time, and I felt very comfortable being there. I don’t think I’ve every looked at so many different faces at relatively close range in such a short time – that alone made the experience worthwhile, though its hard to say why exactly. I wondered if I would see someone I knew again – I did after 30 mins: Jerome from Birmingham International Film Society on his way to the final screening of the Chile 40 Years On festival… but too far to say hello to. I recognised someone who walked close to me but couldn’t remember why I knew her. For the entire duration, I would see a few puzzled micro-expressions, a few caught eyes but in this particular space no direct involvement from passers-by.

Towards the end something intriguing happened. Not everyone there was walking; there are many public benches in that space. Beyond the walkers, I became sensitive to who was resting, who was waiting and who really was doing nothing. There was a moment of high drama when a slightly melancholic elderly gentleman, who I thought was doing nothing, turned out to be waiting. He was met after 35 mins by a granddaughter with hugs, a bouquet of flowers and a stack of chemistry textbooks. Instantly my understanding of the situation was thwarted. Only I witnessed that short story, and now you know it happened too.

In the picture below, two people resting or waiting make it clear to each other that they want to have their own private space on the bench. There was another woman behind me who was resting or waiting too. After 45 minutes of being in that the space, the woman behind me and the man on the left in the picture stood and left together, gently and in silence. So why sit separately? After being so closely involved in the ‘story’, this was such an unexpected twist in the narrative I let out a cry of surprise. I suppose the point is, I would never have seen that moment had I not been watching that part of the city for an hour.

The final observation I made was that the whole experience had a very calming effect on me, though again not sure yet exactly why. While standing, I was peripherally chalking up a ‘to do’ list once I reached Urban Coffee but left the space feeling rested and ready to tackle it rather than anxious and overwhelmed.

The experience made me anticipate two Still Walking events. The first is happening tomorrow (Thursday 19 Sep) which is Francis Lowe’s ‘Free Seeing’ in Digbeth Which I introduced here:

The first Free See in Birmingham will take place in Digbeth on Thursday 19th of September. Participants should meet at 3.00pm outside the Fusion Centre of South and City College, High street Deritend, Digbeth, B5 6DY. Please come, this is open anyone with a keen eye, or those who want one.

The other event I anticipated today was David Helbich’s Drag and Drop. I took part in this in Brussels earlier in the year. In a previous blog I remark how many walking artists have their own take on the Silent Tour and David’s is perhaps the most ambitious I’ve yet encountered. David is also a composer and the principle of Drag and Drop is to create a tightly choreographed walking score around the streets of Birmingham. For you, that means joining one of two group leaders and following (in silence) until a point where you will be deposited to await collection by the next group of walkers. It’s an experience of extremes, from shared group movement to temporary individual contemplation and back again – but be assured that you will always be safe and in control of your environment. The whole thing will be devised, scored and rehearsed within two days and the location of the event will be announced by email the day before the event – but will be within striking distance of the city centre. At this point, that’s all I can tell you, other than you won’t often have the opportunity to experience a walk like this in Birmingham – which is largely the point of the Still Walking festival. Also, it is free!