Tuesday, 26 September 2017 was one of the foggiest days I’ve seen in Aberdeen—it was the first time I ever had to drive with my fog lights on. It was on this murky, grey, dreary autumnal Aberdeen day that my Performance Art class was scheduled to participate in a slow walk on Aberdeen Beach with artist Bibo Keeley, which she organized in the context of her forthcoming exhibition at Seventeen, Mother Ocean.
We arrived at the beach and were greeted by atmospheric waves crashing on the beach and low-laying fog making the oil tankers in the distance barely visible. We were given very brief instructions by Bibo: we would walk in a single-file line parallel to a jetty, then turn and walk along the coast in a single-file line, then turn and walk parallel to the next jetty (again in single-file), moving toward the shore. When we were all lined up against the opposite jetty, we would proceed to walk across the beach, next to one another, forming a human wave moving across the beach. The reason for the slow walk suggested that we should all slow down and really think about what we are doing, in terms of the products we consume, and the plastic we throw away—plastic which now fills our oceans, threatening their survival, and ours. Bibo asked us to relish this time of having absolutely nothing to do, a brief period in our overly busy lives in which we can stop, slow down, reflect, and be present in the moment. In some ways it was a mindfulness exercise, but in others, the artist asked us to have a conversation with the ocean, perhaps synchronizing with its natural rhythms.
I had been talking to my performance art students about what constitutes a work of art in the context of performance, what constitutes an artist (in that same context), who is the artist and who is the performer in the context of a participatory work of art. So in between the mindfulness and the being present in the moment, thoughts about the connections between this piece and our class discussions kept popping into my head.
For example, when we first started out, I was the second in the line, so I was really only aware of Bibo in front of me. I had no idea whether the students were “performing” behind me, whether they were walking slowly, in a line, or whether they had performed a mutiny and just left! So in this way it felt to me like Bibo and I were performing together, and I was mainly following her footsteps. Because we had to walk really, really slowly (it took us 90 minutes to walk what usually would have taken about 1-2 minutes at a normal pace), it helped if I copied her rhythms—lifting my foot when she did, kicking it forward when she did, and placing it in front of me when she did. At time our steps were in unison, and at times I got lost in the moment and didn’t follow her steps. For the purposes of the performance, this didn’t matter, but in terms of my own perceptions and awareness, it was interesting to go from being hyper-aware of the person in front of me and in sync with her, to lost in my own world, to aware but not sure of the presence of the 15-or-so people behind me. At times I did glance back and confirm that the students were all there, and there was something comforting about knowing that we were all walking in unison, performing the same action, all living the same moment with intense presence. I also kept thinking about the sight that we must have been from a distance (and I won’t be able to see that until Bibo’s exhibition, when the documentation is displayed), and what a powerful image it must have been.
Aside from thinking about my position in the performance, I started out the piece by thinking very much about the ocean—I had a very beautiful view: aside from Bibo in front of me, for the first 30 minutes of the walk I had an unencumbered view of the waves crashing toward the shore. We have had a number of record storms in the US recently, and I sat glued to the 24-hour news watching the floods in Texas and Florida, in horror and awe at the sheer force and power of not only Mother Nature, but specifically water, in terms of both rain and rising water levels in the floods, as well as wind. I thought about how powerful these forces are—they have the capacity to destroy homes and lives; yet we exert an equally powerful force on Mother Nature every day, as we discard piles and piles of plastic and rubbish, which also has the capacity to destroy lives and ecosystems in the ocean, not to mention come back to impact on human lives.
But I have to admit that I didn’t think about the ocean or the environment for the duration of the walk. Aside from the passing thoughts about participation and what it means to perform, I also increasingly started to notice the cold; my nose started sniffling; my hands were cold; my shoulder started to hurt because of the (albeit light) bag I had to carry because it had the attendance sheet in it; and my back and feet also started to hurt. That said, there was this weird sort of tension between wanting to savor the moment—as Bibo said, it is incredibly rare that we get to just stop and not “do” anything, just think, reflect, slow down—and wanting to be in my pajamas, in a warm bed with a cup of hot tea. But as I thought about leaving the walk, I realized that I would have plenty of moments with a blanket and cup of tea in my future, but probably no moments of that kind in my future at all—of course, I can go to the beach again and even do a slow walk, but it won’t have that same special autumnal foggy atmosphere, and it wouldn’t be with that particular group of students.
There was something really wonderful about sharing this piece with my students. On the one hand, I was surprised that as many stayed until the end. Admittedly, by asking them to do the walk I was asking them to really go outside of their comfort zone—literally and figuratively (I felt so bad seeing their cold faces at the end!)—but they met the challenge with great aplomb and, I think (or at least hope), learned something about performance, performance art and performing that no lecture ever could teach them. Even the fact that we were subjected to the cold and wind and a long walk may have demonstrated something about the endurance and pain that many performance artists suffer in their work. There was also something really unifying about doing the performance together. For a brief moment, we became part of a community that shared something very unique—this really brought home to me all that I know about the artists that I have researched working in Eastern Europe under communism and performing group activities, such as Fluxus concerts, walks (like those of the Aktual Group and Milan Knizak in Prague), and groups actions (such as those of Collective Actions).
At one point I started to question myself. Bibo was consistently looking out at the sea, whereas I alternated between looking at the sea, checking out what was going on on the promenade above, looking at the sand (and my footing), and looking at the dogs walking along the beach 🙂 . At one point I thought to myself “Oh no! I’m doing it wrong, I’m not doing it how Bibo is doing it!” And then I thought: “But in this instance I, too, am the artist—Bibo is the author of the work, but we are all participants, and we were all asked to participate in our own way, and besides, this is what I always tell my students! This is also what Joseph Beuys would say!”
I also found it very hard not to document the event as I was doing it. Bibo’s husband Brian Keeley (also an artist) was documenting it, both with a film and video camera, so I knew there would be pictures and records of the event, but I do a lot with social media for our department, and I really wanted to be able to share the photos of the event immediately. I’m sure I could have taken a selfie of the line extending out behind me, or Bibo’s feet in front of me, but I deliberately resisted the urge, trying to remain in the moment as much as possible (my compromise was that although I couldn’t really control my thinking about it, I could control whether I acted on it). [Note to readers: after posting this reflection, Bibo Keeley kindly shared this photo of the walk by Brian Keeley]
The last stretch of the walk, when we were all walking next to each other across the beach, was the hardest for me. I noticed a few students had dropped out (I had told them they should participate as much as they felt comfortable, and if they needed to leave early, to get to a class or for other reasons, that was fine), and I began to worry that the students were cold or bored. I was also cold, and seeing the beach stretch out in front of me and knowing how long it was going to take to get across it, I was again torn between wanting it to end and not wanting it to end. I knew that once it was over, I would be sad that it was over (which I was). Despite these tensions, there were also moments when I felt so relaxed I started to feel sleepy, as if I could fall asleep mid-step. Indeed, that night I was incredibly tired, more than I usually am after the work day, and I wondered if that was from the exertion of such a deliberate type of walk, the influence of the wind and sea air, or the fact that taking a moment to be mindful did, in the end, calm my mind.
**Mother Ocean runs from 3-7 October at Seventeen (17 Belmont Street, Aberdeen)**