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“In Such an Alienated Society We Do Need to Slow Down”

Alternative DIY City Walks (2016-) are specific to different cities. Starting off with a series of conversations with a number of locals, the artist gains knowledge about their day-to-day experience of their city. Gleaning information from these conversations, together with on-site research-walking, the artist maps out a number of hidden and/or neglected spaces, significant to personal and collective memory, so as to create a fictional narrative based on a mix of fantasy and reality. 

Kristina Borg is a freelance visual and socially engaged artist and an art educator/lecturer. In her interdisciplinary research-practice she spends time integrating into specific communities and devotes her attention to relationships between people.

Portrait: ©photo: Elisa von Brockdorff

Christophe Bruchansky: What motivated you to create DIY walks?

Kristina Borg: I would say that these developed organically. My interest in space has always been very strong and along the years this evolved into space and place, with a specific interest in urban and public space – an urban-collective space and a social context – thus an open space and an already built environment with its own character. In other words, the city. I always research this concept in relation to the community: the locals’ experience and their memory of such a space/place.

The very first alternative DIY walk resulted from a three-month residency in Vienna, Austria in 2016. At the time I was looking into how and why Mercer’s study classifies Vienna as the world’s most liveable city, year after year. Why is it the most liveable? For whom is it the most liveable? What do the locals have to say? And how does such branding impact the day-to-day running of the city? All of these questions led me to a series of conversations with the locals, specifically focusing on the second and tenth districts, Leopoldstadt and Favoriten respectively. Initially I had no idea that the project would develop into an alternative DIY walk. My aim was to present and provide an experience to the public that was as authentic, as much as possible, as that of the local community.

The Cities Within (2016), Vienna, Leopoldstadt _ photo by the artist

I remember that as part of the research process in Vienna, I walked endlessly exploring neighbourhoods off the beaten track while trying to get a first-hand experience of the spaces and places that the locals mentioned during our conversations. As my residency developed it felt natural to address this notion and methodology of walking as an actual artform in itself.

These DIY walks purposefully move away from the city touristic centre and focus on the outer districts or areas which, more often than not, are neglected by authorities. During such one-and-a-half to two-hour walks, one passes through streets and places that are not always so common; they might be hidden, but are significant to the daily lives and the personal and collective memory of the local inhabitants. Such DIY walks are complemented with an audio fictional narrative that I write, based on a mix of fantasy and reality. It is then up to the public participant/walker/wanderer to decide how to interpret the narrative, whether to take it as a fact, a metaphor or a dream.
What role does walking play in these tours? Could you imagine them done by bike or bus?
Walking is the fulcrum of the entire process, from research phase to development and final presentation. As I mentioned in the previous question, during the research process I walk a lot so as to get a taste of and familiarise myself with the spaces, places, and neighbourhoods that the local community members I meet recall. At times these could be actual streets, corners, doors, buildings and any other detail one comes across when passing through a city with an observant eye. As Geoff Nicholson (2009) describes,

“For me walking has to do with exploration, a way of accommodating myself, of feeling at home. …It’s the way I get to know that place. Maybe it’s a way of marking territory, of beating the bounds. Setting foot in a street makes it yours in a way that driving down it never does.”

Indeed, whenever I am in a place, especially when working in new cities, I feel the necessity to feel at home, without which I wouldn’t be able to perform or produce. The target audience of these walks are the actual locals, rather than tourists (though tourists are also welcome), and I invite them to look at their city as if seeing it for the first time so they can re-read, re-interpret and re-live their city. For this reason, when working in foreign cities, I feel that as a stranger I must first accommodate myself and feel at home before inviting anyone to look at their city with fresh eyes. On the other hand, when working in foreign cities, I manage to maintain a more objective view, which I also find more challenging when working in places I know.

The research walks are always documented through drawings, creating almost like an abstraction of maps. I draw my walking routes and annotate my first observations, my first impressions, my first reactions as well as my personal landmarks which I return to during the development process. These form the basis for the creation of the final walking route taken by the public

In the case of Vienna, the DIY city-walk actually includes the use of the underground and the tram. On one hand, these are included for practical reasons to link far-off neighbourhoods together, which if walked would otherwise add a further hour or so. However, this goes beyond mere practicality or functionality. Such use of public transport also follows the conceptual framework of the audio narrative, which the public participant/walker/wanderer continues to listen to while on the underground or the tram. This highlights certain historical stories and how these continue to be reflected in our contemporary life. For instance, when it comes to the two Viennese districts, Leopoldstadt and Favoriten, what I had initially interpreted as contrasting are instead presented as complementary contrasts.

The Cities Within (2016), Vienna, Favoriten _ photo by the artist
“…Unless you’ve already seen it, you should soon pass by the egg of Columbus: the shopping centre which at times, when seen from below, reminds me of a pregnant woman, waiting impatiently for the arrival of her child.”

In the case of Haarlem, in The Netherlands, where cycling forms such a huge and significant part of the Dutch social and urban texture, initially I felt it was very apt to include certain bicycle passages and I remember discussing it with some locals. However, I had three main concerns. Firstly, I did not feel it could add anything fundamental in terms of concept or narrative that walking could not present. Secondly, I do feel that walking offers a unique experience; by nature, it’s a slower process and I do feel that in such an alienated society we do need to slow down. Lastly, I was concerned about the safety of the bicycle users who would have been ‘competing’ against the traffic flow while listening to the audio narrative and its pre-recorded ambience sounds on the headphones. Although the Netherlands’s infrastructure is bicycle friendly, I felt that having someone with a pair of headphones cycling their way through would go against road etiquette. So, this was also decided on with respect to the safety of the actual public participant but also that of the other pedestrians, fellow cyclists and any other vehicle users.

But who knows what future projects will entail?

At this point, regarding this reference to other modes of transport, I feel I must mention another project, entitled No Man’s Land, based in Malta, where I’m from. Although this cannot be included as an alternative DIY city-walk, I adopted the same research methodology and working phases mentioned above. The project in itself, contextualised in Malta’s Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour areas, revolves around the politics of sea and the highly contested invisible, territorial borders that such a space entails. Though I adopted the same form of presentation with a fictional narrative, I felt it was only natural to forget about walking for a while and present the experience at sea, making use of a small electric-powered boat.

Based on the memories you collected for these walks, how would you describe urban mobility?

Well, I think here we need to make a distinction between (1) what urban mobility should be and how we wish it would function, and (2) how it is actually implemented, sometimes badly, in our cities. The Alternative DIY city-walks in fact challenge the latter and invite the public participant/walker/wanderer to rethink the former.

I believe that urban mobility is more than simply moving from point A to point B. It is often done to satisfy a very specific purpose, such as employment, leisure, running errands, accessing goods or services, or visiting family and friends, to name just a few. However, with an observant eye and an open soul I believe we can gain and elicit a more holistic experience of our mobility in urban space.

Through the anecdotes and memories that I collected, urban mobility allows the walkers to experience public space in a multisensorial way, reliving forgotten sounds, smells and tastes, such as when one local in Haarlem recalled the squeaky sound of the milkman’s cargo bike wheels and the sound of placing the metallic milk cans on the street. Urban mobility allows us to act politically and be present in the street, just as one street graffiti slogan declared, “Never let the fascists have the streets!”

As I re-walk my research walking routes I try to reimagine the visuals that I see and interpret my surroundings in an anthropomorphic and biomorphic manner, recalling once again what the locals had shared, similar to when a shopping complex in Vienna was compared to a pregnant women or another block of offices that looks like a shark with its mouth half open ready to swallow you whole.

Last but not least, walking also comes with its surprises and odd encounters, such as when during one city-walk in Haarlem we encountered a guy who walks his two giant pigs on a leash every day in the park. Prior to actually encountering them, this anecdote remained rather fictitious, even though it was a story that a local had shared. Encountering them really took us by surprise!

The Beach Beneath my Streets (2017), Haarlem _ photo by the artist
“- You might also have a queer encounter?! 
  – Yes, … You can always try to befriend him. I’m sure he’s an interesting guy 
  … [he] lives with two giant pigs in his trailer, down at the trailer park. He 
  walks these pigs on a leash every day in the park.”

All this is urban mobility.

Do you believe the lockdown will have a long-lasting effect on urban mobility and our relationship to the city?

I wish I could reply positively to this question, but I’m afraid I don’t have any high hopes! Lockdown has been a perfect eyeopener and, for a moment, everyone started talking about social solidarity – a mere buzzword to me, which never really impressed me, on the contrary it irritated me, for the reason I’m about to explain.

I believe that society is too alienated. Once the lockdown period started to ease down everyone seems to have gone back to the previous ‘normal’ forgetting about all the social solidarity that was highly spoken of. We are surrounded by too many commodities which have actually helped to accommodate our needs and alleviate the burden of lockdown.

I hope that lockdown will have a long-lasting effect on our relationship to the city. There has definitely been some awareness, such as a refocus on the local, but on a wider scale I believe the road is still long, very long.

If you had to create a DIY walk based on your lockdown experience, what story would it tell?

Where I am based, in Malta, we only had a partial lockdown; although everywhere was closed, except for the essentials, we were still allowed to go out without any time or distance restrictions.

As a freelance artist I’m used to working from home, so although all projects were paused, cancelled or postponed, my routine did not really change – it simply became more of the same.

Unlike others who reverted to baking, sewing or past hobbies, my aim for the lockdown period was to simply catch up on a lot of reading that had been piling up for months. This did not happen. Instead, unfortunately, I found myself working endlessly at my laptop, pretty much as usual: revising projects and budget plans to adapt to the new ‘normal’, writing new proposals, applying for funding, updating my website (that was a successful lockdown task!), while I continued to observe, listen and reflect – three skills I constantly make use of in my artistic research and practice.

From time to time, I did manage to go out, get off the grid, refresh my thoughts and go for a walk by the sea or in the countryside, or rather what they have left of it. For those who are not aware of the dire state of the Maltese Islands, we have serious problems of open space being overbuilt and taken over by roads infrastructure, private and commercial interests.

So, my story for the DIY walk based on my lockdown experience, would sound something like this:

I walk in circles, up and down, repeatedly in the morning, afternoon and evening. I walk from one room to the other, chasing the best connection, with a glass of water in hand and my earphones dangling from my laptop, following me around. I walk again in circles, up and down, when a series of clouds wave through the window. I go out on the terrace and as I feel their warmth, I greet them back. 

I walk again in circles, but not for long. I feel the need to taste the salty spray of the waves crashing on the rocks. I sit down and treasure the colour palette as the sun sets over the horizon. It’s dark. It’s quiet. I go back and walk in circles.