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The Walking Project: Desire Lines, Walking and Mapping Across Continents
by Erika Block & Hilary Ramsden

Erika Block
PO Box 441038
Detroit, MI 48244

Hilary Ramsden

The Walking Project is an interdisciplinary performance, mapping and cultural-exchange project collaboratively developed by Walk & Squawk Performance Project with U.S. and South Africa-based artists during a series of residencies in Detroit and KwaZulu-Natal from 2003 through 2006.

What started off as a bike ride along paths through abandoned housing lots in Detroit has led to a series of walks along desire lines in neighborhoods in the city and KwaZulu-Natal, generating conversations, photographs, stories and connections between the two places.

Woodbridge Detroit: participants look at satellite images of a neighborhood before a walk through
Woodbridge in Detroit, March 2005

Copyright © Erika Block & Hilary Ramsden
Our ideas about the practice and possibilities of walking and performance have evolved with this project. We have been asking ourselves how this work operates both off and on stage, how a growing body of research can be applied across disciplines, and how it crosses, or maybe even erases, boundaries between art and everyday life, between people from different places, and across hierarchies of “experts” and “community participants”.

Students from Woodlands Primary School on a walk through their neighborhood in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, July 2005.
Copyright © Erika Block & Hilary Ramsden
  Much like the desire lines we’re investigating, our walking events and experiences refill these absences and reclaim forgotten actions from the past, in the present. We explore the paths made by people who walk across vacant lots in Detroit and across fields in South Africa -- and what connects them. We look at how people make their own paths; how and why people’s paths cross; how they are formed through culture, geography, language, economics and love; and how changing patterns of movement alter perceptions, attitudes and lives. The stories of these walkers and these communities inhabit the paths of the project – through performance, conversation, installation and mapping, literally and figuratively connecting people who live 8,700 miles apart.

Michel de Certeau writes that “ … the operations of walking on can be traced on city maps in such a way as to transcribe their paths…But these thick or thin curves only refer, like words, to the absence of what has passed by. Surveys of routes miss what was: the act itself of passing by…The trace left behind is substituted for the practice…It exhibits the (voracious) property that the geographical system has of being able to transform action into legibility, but in doing so it causes a way of being in the world to be forgotten."
We have shaped a series of workshops and improvisation sessions around the themes of walking, geography and place. We’ve been collecting stories with elders, high-school students and the people we’ve taken walks with in rural areas and urban neighborhoods. We’ve been making connections between walking and thinking, evolution and history, class, race and political action.

We’ve participated in six exchanges between South Africa and Detroit since 1997. These residencies have generated questions about whether Detroit and KwaZulu-Natal are on parallel paths of redevelopment and redefinition, in spite of the vast differences between these two places. And while there may not be any answers, the conversations recur enough for us to keep exploring. There is something worth capturing here – beyond the ephemera of our performances and the shifting geographies of KwaZulu-Natal and Detroit.

Through a series of ongoing GPS walking workshops, in collaboration with the University of Michigan Map Library, we are collecting geocoded drawings, notes, photographs, video and audio material from walks in both countries, with walkers from many different backgrounds, each gathering their own information in Detroit and KwaZulu-Natal. The next phase of the Walking Project uses locative technology to augment our work process, providing new tools with which collaborators near and far can create maps of desire lines and other ephemeral territories we encounter on our walks, imbued with local stories and significance, using alternative audio and visual representations in place of, or along with, conventional cartography. For more information, please visit: http://tinyurl.com/89p6j

Walk & Squawk facilitates collaborative creation processes with both professional artists and community participants. We take source material from everyday actions and attempt to make pieces that reflect the voices of all the artists involved as we explore the material together. The result is often described as collage – a nonlinear tapestry of images, text, movement and sound. We blur boundaries between disciplines and work to create an environment that provides opportunities for invention and surprise, imagination and play.

After its premiere in Detroit, The Walking Project will be available for residency-based touring. Block and Ramsden are also facilitating community walking and mapping workshops separately from the performance.


Artist Biographies

Erika Block
Erika Block is a director, producer and playwright whose work has been produced throughout the U.S., Great Britain and South Africa. She has directed and co-created 10 Walk & Squawk productions including Dirty Little Stories, which was selected as one of the Detroit Free Press’ 10 best theatre experiences of 2002.

Her writing has been published in Contemporary Theatre Review, American Theater, Metro Times and Community Arts Network. She has presented internationally, including a special presentation at the recent Culturelink conference in Zagreb and keynoting the Committing Voice Conference at Goddard College.

In 2002 Erika was selected as the only artist in Crain's Detroit Business' 40 under 40. She is a past recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts/Theatre Communications Group Career Development Program for Directors. She has received support from ArtServe Michigan, the Michigan Council for the Arts, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, the Barbara Deming/Money for Women Fund and the Arts Foundation of Michigan. She was also a shortlisted artist for Artists and Communities, a Millenium Project of the National Endowment for the Arts and Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation. Erika has an M.F.A. in Playwriting from Columbia University and is an Masters of Professional Studies candidate at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

Hilary Ramsden

Hilary Ramsden is a performer, director, educator and co-artistic director of Walk & Squawk. She co-created and performed in all 10 of Walk & Squawk's productions and was awarded an OPIE award for Best Choreography for Dirty Little Stories in 2002. Previous to her stay in the US, Hilary co-founded, devised and toured with the London-based Dorothy Talk Theatre and was a member of the acclaimed Siren Theatre Company.

Hilary has been teaching performance (personal story, physical theatre, movement, clown, improvisation, devising) for over 20 years. She has been a guest artist at universities and colleges in the U.S., U.K. and South Africa including Middlebury College, Smith College, and the Central School of Speech and Drama in addition to numerous schools, theatre companies and community groups all over the world.

Her writing on the Walking Project is to be published in the International Journal of Art and Design in Education in 2006.

She is currently involved in practice-based research exploring rupture and dislocation through walking and rebel clowning, in addition to working on an M.A. at Goldsmiths College (University of London).

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