What do you think about when you are walking from A to B? If you are like me, then, so long as I know where I’m going my mind will wander. I may be preoccupied with other things that need doing during the day or filled with memories or future plans. Often, I’m looking at my immediate surroundings and sometimes I see something, a building, sign or particular aspect of a site I am moving through that triggers an association or a set of associations and I go down a rabbit hole. It’s like surfing the web.  

I’ll give you an example.  I’m walking along the street of a city in the UK. It’s a routine walk for me, nothing special and I don’t have to think about directions. In fact, I know the route so well that my surroundings start to fade from my attention. I’m not thinking about the journey, I’m actually thinking about the day to come; a meeting I need to attend and some emails I have to send. I walk onto the canal towpath and see a canal boat entering a tunnel. A small wave from the wake of the boat laps the canal walls and as I look at the water I start to think of Venice, a place I’ve visited a couple of times some ten or so year’s previous. I carry on walking and I’m thinking of one particular instance in Venice when I was walking back to my hotel late at night. It was misty and visibility was quite low. I’m thinking of the film ‘Don’t Look Now’1. It’s a supernatural mystery and is set mainly in Venice. I’m thinking about the plot which centres around a couple who have lost their daughter in a tragic accident.

I can see myself watching the movie on TV. I’m around 13 years old and am sitting on the sofa in my parents’ home in Sunderland back in c.1979. Back into the film. The male protagonist is an art historian and after some time the couple travel to Venice. The male has some kind of academic research project there involving the restoration of a church. The couple think the trip might help them with the grieving process. I then start thinking about the book that the film is based on.2 I can see myself reading the book which I read much later on when I was in London. I remember the tiny flat, its living room and the colour of the book’s spine. I’m no longer by the 19th century canal but am and back the street which has a modern development that seems to get nearer and nearer to completion every time I passed it. It is made predominantly of glass and steel unlike the red brick and stone slabs of the canal towpath which are still part blackened by the coal dust from 200 years ago. I remember the story was by Daphne du Maurier and I start to remember another black and white film that I saw as a child, ‘Rebecca’ based on her writing34. But this memory quickly slides back to ‘Don’t Look Now’ and Venice. Things take a strange turn when the couple meet a blind woman who turns out to be a medium. The couple then start to repeatedly catch glimpses of what appears to be a small child in a red coat in different parts of the city. They become convinced that it is the spirit of their daughter and try to investigate. And then I am at the end of my journey. My mind snaps back into what we might call the ‘present’ and I get on with the next part of the day. 

In this example a range of reference points become layered, each segues one into each other. The experience is fluid, dreamlike. And yet it is experienced whilst awake and consciously walking from A to B.  

In the early 1990’s I became fascinated by this everyday phenomenon which I still presume to be common amongst many of us. As I thought more and more about it and broke it down into its elements – the different time spaces and events – the more I focused on it the more the ‘everyday’ journey unlocked ‘extraordinary’. I was reminded of William Blake the late 18th-century artist, and poet’s famous quote:  

‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour. There rolls the deep where grew the tree. O earth, what changes hast thou seen!’5 

As an artist, I wanted to find an imaginative way of harnessing the simultaneous layering of historical spaces, cultural references and associations and to be able to people to actively take part in this experience. The idea suggested being present along a journey or at a distance as a reader – or both. 

In the mid-1990’s I began making guided walks and guidebooks based on this idea. I’d design a route and research information to stop and read along the way. The walks were built entirely of associations that the place I was walking through conjured. They were all quotations drawn from factual and fictional literature, newspapers, archives or testimonies from people who still lived and worked in the area. I found myself manoeuvring through oceans of information. I called the walks, manoeuvres and hoped that they would allow walkers to stop and think about a topic. I found that my manoeuvres were quite popular and that I would get approached by art galleries and museums to develop them for their location, some urban, some rural.  I’ve made around 70 of these walks in the UK, Europe and New Zealand. 

The process of making the manoeuvre is similar to surfing the net. I began making the manoeuvres in 1992 when the World Wide Web was not how we know it today. It was there (just) but in an early stage of development for the public. I remember thinking each manoeuvre is a web of information linked by a route.  

I’ve recently developed 3 walks for Manchester, collectively entitled ‘Corridors : 3 Manoeuvres in Manchester M1’. The walks explore the themes of knowledge, culture and sustainability within the Oxford Road Corridor. In the book, you’ll find a diverse set of quotes. From the great library of Alexandria, to the marble quarry in Carrera, Italy; from the effects of British nuclear tests to the appointment of the UK’s first black professor; from floating gardens to the inner city beehives, the walks reveal that the entire world is held within the square mile of the Oxford Road Corridor.   

Each route is like a washing line and the quotes are a bit like the clothes hanging from it. I’ve often been asked ‘do you start with the route, a theme or the route?’ The answer is that its really a combination of the three. I work on the basis that I could create a manoeuvre anywhere. I’m usually drawn to the idea that a particular locale might be good for a manoeuvre. Sometimes it’s because I live or work in the area, I might be visiting for a first or second time, or I might be invited to create a walk by an organisation (in this case for the Oxford Road Corridor). It’s by walking that I’m initially attracted and then it becomes more complex. I might spot something in the area. This might be a new building development, a site known as being significant historically or something much more ephemeral like that of a piece of graffiti, a juxtaposition of old and new architecture, an institution that is considered important (e.g. a museum, hospital, or perhaps some litter. I then start to build a route between these initial spots. Being open to associations that spring to mind leads me to source quotations in books, archives, news media or online. At times a number of themes start to emerge between the quotes and route. Nothing is fixed at this stage, and it is as if I let the process take its course. At a certain point I realise I have a lot of material and I start to pair things back to a walk that would take around 20-30 mins to walk without stopping. I’ve found that 14 stops for quotations is a good number to arrive at and this transforms the length of each manoeuvre to around 1.5hrs or shorter. The editing process really shapes everything into the final manoeuvre which can then be presented to the public live and/or as a guidebook or mobile app. The creative process is very much an iterative one that demands a lot of walking, searching, looking and sifting. 

Each area has plenty to go on: layers upon layers of histories, environmental conditions and associations through memory, records, and cultural interpretations that create the idea of a physical ‘space’ being ‘a place’. Places are never singular in meaning and the edges of a ‘place’ are never completely fixed. Take for instance the Berlin Wall. There are many who remember its physical existence during the Cold War as a very real boundary between East and West; as a place that divided 2 dominant world views; that split families and groups in its construction. I first visited Berlin exactly a year after the Berlin Wall came down. Much of the Wall was still there. The place at that time held a set of contradictions. There was huge celebration as Germany reunited whilst at the same time what had been the edge of West and East Berlin (The Wall) was now the centre of the city and big business was relocating there at the expense of immigrant communities (Turkish, Kurdish and other) who were being forced out through rising prices. It had become a different site of tension and contestation. If you visit Berlin now, The Wall is not physically prominent. Aspects have been preserved as historical artefact but much has been erased. I’m interested in what has been erased as much as what has been left. Each manoeuvre I make not only speaks to what we can see along a route but also alludes to information that is hidden. Each manoeuvre I make is a ‘doing of history’ in which the walker is actively involved in exploring the past, whether it be in the form of recent or long-term experience. Every place has more than one history. Every car park might have a member of royalty buried beneath it waiting to be discovered!   

Over the years I have published 4 manoeuvre guidebooks for Camerawork Gallery in East London, The Mole Gap Trail in Surrey, a wood in Aberdeenshire. Sometimes they include a train journey aspect that takes you from a station to the starting point of the walk. In 2003 I was approached by The British Museum to develop a series of manoeuvres to mark their 250th anniversary. They wanted something that linked all of the museum’s 10 departments. After some digging and thinking, I realised every department had winged creatures associated with it. These intermediate beings might be good, bad or in different but it became clear to me that angels were the common denominator of the museum and so the guidebook was titled, ‘Museum of Angels: a Guide to the Winged Creatures of The British Museum’.  

Many guided walks set out to educate in some ways. There’s an aspect of that in my manoeuvres but they are ultimately works of imagination. I see them as artworks, performances and artists books that are as much about immersing yourself in an experience as they are about learning. This all relates to my work as an artist and an educationalist which for me are closely connected. I’ve been making and internationally exhibiting drawings, paintings, performances, sculptures, photographs and soundworks since the late 1980s and been involved in art schools and universities since the 1990s, including significant periods at Dartington College of Arts, Goldsmiths, University of Sunderland, Massey University in New Zealand and for the past 6 years at Manchester School of Art where I formed and led the Department of Art & Performance as Professor of Art.  How we use creativity in our daily lives can help us to learn, and to problem solve.

My aim is to use walking and imagination to help re-envisage places and understand them as being made up of multiple layers of experience, layers that sometimes conflict and at other times work in harmony. Every step we make is a step into the future.   

1 ‘Don’t Look Now’ (1973). Directed by Nicolas Roeg, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie
2 Du Maurier, D., (1971). ‘Not After Midnight, and Other Stories’ London: Gollancz
3 ‘Rebecca’ (1940). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Lawrence Olivier and Joan Fontaine
4 Du Maurier, D., (1938). ‘Rebecca’ London: Gollancz
5 Blake. W., (ca.1802-1804) ‘Auguries of Innocence’ from The Pickering Manuscript: autograph manuscript fair copy of ten poems: England