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Monday, 27 January 2014

Walking Across Europe with a Trolley

Continuing on the theme of Photography and walking, Martin Toft contacted me about his walk to Kosovo in 1999. It sounded interesting so I asked him a few questions and here are his very long and very interesting answers. Make sure you read the section on the mechanics of walking across Europe with a shopping trolley.

Landscape painting, performance, ready mades and land art are all referenced by Toft. I'm not sure everything connects together as simply as that, but it feels that the walking, the spontaneous decision making and the openness of Toft's interpretation of his walk was quite liberating in its openness and its very direct geographical rethinking of the photojournalistic tradition.

An installation of a performance of a man walking alone through Europe to Kosovo

1. Why did you walk to Kosovo? 

My reasons to walk by foot to Kosovo across Europe from my studio in South England was motivated by many different factors. These were a combination of political and aesthetic, philosophical and artistic and physical and psychological. If possible, I will try and unpick and describe some of these as to the best of my ability.

The project itself was conceived as a performance using interdisciplinary activity and presenting it in an installation of photography, video, sound and sculpture using found objects. In essence I was trying to make a total work of art, similar in ambition to the German concept of Gesamtkunstwerk that would engage with everything I was pre-occupied with at the time both intellectually and artistically.

The idea of walking itself began at the time when the UN decided to intervene in the conflict in the Balkan. I was watching TV most nights and witnessed both the ethnic cleansing by Milosevic' troops and the bombing by air by UN forces and felt angry in equal measures. At the same time I was having heated discussions almost daily about the conflict with a fellow student who was a Serbian nationalist. The documentation began with me photographing the news broadcast on television as screen shots (in my book dummy these are presented as contact-sheets).

On another level I also had a desire to go to a war zone, not in terms of being on the front line but rather experiencing an area of conflict and how it shaped the landscape and its people. When I began my walk on 21st July 1999 the conflict in Kosovo was still raging and I had no idea what to expect or what would happen once I got there. In the end it turned out that when I arrived in Kosovo the fighting had stopped approximately 3 weeks earlier.

The walk from my studio in South England across Europe to Kosovo was conceived as a performance piece. It was in essence the ultimate road trip, following in the footsteps and tradition of the great American road trip from Evans, via Frank through to Shore. On a more personal level, I also wanted to travel across Europe at the dawn of a new Millennia and was curious about cultural differences between countries that are bordering each other in the heartland of Europe. In the pictures I took, I wanted to photograph the landscape from the roadside as a position of a passer-by by comparing one country to another as typologies of both places and people I encountered along the road as a I made my way across the European landscape.

On a practical level I bought a map of Europe and drew a Crow’s line from South England to Kosovo and tried to follow it as close as possible with no intentions of wishing to visit any particular site along the way. In contrast, I was interested in the ordinary and my route took me across 15 different countries in Europe.

I was also motivated to produce a new body of work for an exhibition I was planning in 2000 at the Museum of Photographic Art in Odense, Denmark (now renamed, Brandts.dk), The then Director, Finn Thrane wanted me to show a series of pictures from my work on street homelessness in London, but I wanted to do something new as a large exhibition of this work had just been shown in Copenhagen at the Worker’s Museum (‘Sat Ud! Hjemløse i London’ 12.5-17.7.1999) I had been given a space within the museum for young emerging photographers called Platformen, and my exhibition was scheduled at the same time as the annual Danish Press Photography Award exhibition was announced. I knew that many Danish photojournalists would show pictures from the conflict in Kosovo and my intention was to put together a different picture and exhibition about that area.

2. Were there any people who inspired you in photography/art? 

At that time I was studying a part-time MA at University of Portsmouth while trying to make a living as a freelance editorial photographer in London. One of the reasons I began the MA was to challenge my own practice and preconceived ideas about documentary photography. I was pretty naive then, but hungry for knowledge and it was during my studies that I first encountered Duchampian conceptualism and became very interested in land and environmentally-based art often involving elements of performance and video.

Reading Thierry de Duve’s book Pictorial Nominalism which supplies a psycho-analytical interpretation of Duchamp’s abandonment as a painter with the introduction of his Ready-mades in 1913 as an attempt to ‘give painting a new meaning by acknowledging what has happened to it’ and by ‘relating it to the very conditions that made it objectively useless and subjectively impossible to pursue’, (1) was a big catalyst and it gave me the confidence, both on an intellectual and artistic level to abandon or rather ‘leave behind’ my previous practice into photojournalism and B&W social documentary within a humanist tradition. At the time I was also reading a lot of about post-structuralism, and my ideas was informed by Derridean discourse about originality and fixed identity using his method of deconstruction as a tool to re-think my own practice as a photographer.

(1) de Duve, Thierry. Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade. University of Minnesota Press. 1991

Studying west coast artist, Chris Burden early performances and Dennis Oppenheim’s body art works from the 1970s which involved a strong physical engagement using their own body as a material to make and question the possibilities of art and challenging the relationship between artist and audience inspired me immensely. This idea of physicality and pushing your body to extremes in order to make art was a big influence on my decision to walk almost 3000 miles across Europe. As I wrote in my statement at the time, the destination was not the essence of the walk, but merely a stop or ending of the performance. A major source of influence also, was Bas Jan Ader and in particular his last work In Search of the Miraculous, 1975 where he attempts to sail from he East Coast of the United States to Europe. Sadly he never made it and disappeared at sea and I view him as an artist who managed to be both romantic and conceptual and at the same time produce work that is also critical and analytical of his own artistic practice and myth making.

My interest in landscape photography began with reading about early landscape painting from the period of Romanticism notably John Constable, J. M. W. Turner and discourse around the notion of the Sublime. I specifically liked German Romanticism and Caspar David Friedrich. His painting The Wanderer above a Sea of Mist (ca 1818) with the lone figure standing on an rock outcrop and looking away across a wild and ferocious landscape seemed to me to encapsulate both, the solitude I was about to experience but also the feeling of the great unknown and wonder that you feel before setting out on a new adventure. Both, at the same time terrifying and awesome.

My study into Romanticism came about as a diversion from looking at the origins of New Topography in America and the Düsseldorf School of Photography. There is no escaping that I admired (and still do) the work and road trips across America by, Robert Adams, Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld in the 1970 and 80s and was influenced by the Bechers’ concept of Typology and studied closely the work of some of their famous students, Thomas Struth and Simone Nieweg. It was an interest in photographing a social landscape which was not romanticized and that showed man’s influence on and relationship with the geography of a place - both in terms of the build environment and urbanized populations as well as how we like to control and manage nature through recreational, leisure and national parks  

My walk was also a desire to free up my imagination and make art outside the studio in a spontaneous and uninterrupted manner. I wanted to challenge the distinction between art and life, myself and the work whilst putting myself under intense physical and psychological stress. After all, I had to carry on walking every day, moving through the European landscape until I reached my destination while attempting to make art at the same time.

I was interested in parody and creating an alter ego that would allow me to act out a different role. In my statement I said that; ‘in the guise of a landscape painter (Monet) I began walking through Europe putting myself in the picture as a frontman; my own subjective broadcaster, interpreter and adventurer. I wanted to challenge the artist's social function and explore people's perception of art and its possibilities of creating a dialogue for peace. The European landscape was my canvas to set marks upon and to draw a line. To interrupt and to engage with the environment and with the people.’

In order to be spontaneous and free to experiment whenever an opportunity presented itself I carried everything a painter would take with him on an excursion in plein air i.e. an easel, canvas and paint brushes, tools for sketching etc. – everything except paint itself. I made a number of video based performances along the way, which at the time were pure experiments in engaging with the practice of painting. In my statement I described this as ‘Using my own body as the medium to express, reference and question the notion of pictorial representation and practice through the use of photography and video instead of paint to a canvas.’

Afterwards when I returned home these little spontaneous and environmentally based performance became a series of videos entitled Plein Air 1-5. The visual style of these films was based on silent-movies, especially, Buster Keaton and was filled with humor and sarcasm from my love of W.C Fields. My intention in these films were to challenge the aura of the painting and the artists as genius by using parody in appropriating the process of making pictures outside in nature (plein air) as a continuum of the concept of the readymade. Even Duchamp recognized that the tube of paint, the canvas and even the act of painting as a readymade. He wrote in his notes: ‘thus the act of selecting from paints to make coloured surface was in principle no different from the artistic selection of those other manufactured objects, the ready-mades.’(2). In these video series Plein Air I-V there is the play of repetition, of identity and duality; is it a film about landscape painting alias Monet and the Haystack or a film about making a film. Or, a documentation of a performance of a man attempting to paint a picture. Am I a real painter or just in disguise? It sounds a bit pretentious now, but at the time I really believed in what I was doing.

(2) Sanouillet, Michel and Elmer Petersen (eds.) The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, Da Capo Press, 1989 (org by Oxford University Press. 1973.

I was of course aware of the hugely influential work by Richard Long and Hamish Fulton. In my walk I did explore the body of the artists in the landscape, albeit in a different way by recording its physical trace through the use of mainly video which would record 2 sec every 5 minutes of my feet as I made my way across Europe (I will discuss this in more detail later in Q3)  

3. How did you combine photography with walking? 

Use of photography: The way I approached photography while walking was to adopt a pre-conceived formula of using one camera, one lens and video camcorder attached to my trolley I was pulling along the road with all my belongings inside. Aesthetically my pictures are mainly deadpan and I photographed everything horizontally. This was done to represent my peripheral point of view; as you are walking ahead you tend to scan from left to right or vice versa rather than up and down in a vertical movement. All the portraits I made are also in full figure with the person(s) almost dead center. I wanted the portraits to be environmentally based in order to give context and show the area or landscape. In my statement I describe my aesthetics and sensibility as:

‘My accession to landscape photography is my interest in the human made landscape. Landscape photography is often associated with an affirmation of concepts about national identity or nature's divinity. For me it is rather a constellation, a desire for knowledge, an interest to study relationships between nature, culture, identity and landscape - behind or rather besides current representations and associations. In my photography I especially look for that which normally does not get photographed. I endeavor not to take pictures, which are immediately conceived as beautiful or interesting - but attempt to bring different forms of aesthetic meaning to question. My pictures are neither romantic nor socio-political and there are no invested priorities in composition or motif. But the pictures are not devoid of engagement, anger or joy. They can be quiet or busy, but remain silent and are a combination of 'democratic' and 'topographical' photography of the European landscape as seen and experienced from the roadside.’

The process of photographing was to find anything of interest from the roadside. As I was on a mission to reach Kosovo at some point I didn’t deviate from my route, which meant that I could have passed something really interesting from a photographers point of view without knowing it. It was important to me that I focused my camera on what I encountered along the way and not getting distracted with exploring one area. In that respect you could say that the walking itself, i.e. putting one foot in front of the other was more of a priority than stopping and taking a picture. In truth it was a constant battle, as I did not carry my camera around my neck, ready to shoot when a situation or picture-taking opportunity presented itself. For safety reasons and actually more to do with practical considerations as I needing both hands to either pull or push my trolley; my camera was locked away inside my bag on the trolley, which meant that in order to take a picture, I had to stop walking, putting the trolley down, unzip and get the camera out which at times was very time consuming and frustrating if I was on a good stroll. Therefore, in order for me to stop I had to feel a strong sense that this was important enough to record. In my statement I describe my process of photographing as:

‘The point of view from the immediate roadside is of importance since the roads are a network that enable us the freedom to connect with the rest of Europe and its people. But in normal terms we do not think of the roads as a potential source of interest. We use them as mere transport routes between one destination to the other, one place to the next. Roads have a concrete and specific relationship to time and space - we use them to be transported both in time and space, and often with a purpose. Concurrently driving on the road is outside time and space; the travelling time is often experienced as time wasted - you only get a fleeting impression of the landscape that you are passing - and the landscape seldom has a meaning in relation to the journey's purpose. My inclination by walking and taking my time is to 'get off' and explore an unknown and overlooked terrain. What is left, as a remainder of the ultimate adventure is pictorial vestige representing the uninterested and unnoticed from areas of Europe at the turn of a century. Fragments and visual souvenirs captured like postcards that are too late, recorded after or before the event. Postcards that do not inform us about an essence, but a mere existence’.

Use of video: Now, most photojournalist use video as well as stills-camera to try and tell more multi-faceted stories from the frontline. At that time it wasn’t something that I was aware of. For me, at least, it was something new and different using a video camera in combination with stills-photography. As well as making spontaneous video films along the way (as describe above), I also attached the camcorder to my trolley so that it recorded my feet walking in the landscape for 2 sec every 5 mins. In the end this amounted to over 30 hours of video, which was an attempt to remove myself from, being behind the camera and make editorial decisions about what and whom to film. All the 2 sec clips were put together at random and made into a 4-hour loop video viewed as two separate films that are shown on 4 monitors as part of the installation. This video as very fragmented both in visuals and sounds and the idea was to show the fragmented nature of travelling through a place where you only really get to experience brief moments which in your memory and recollections are played out like fragmented images and sequences of events – similar to a dream. In reality, you only remember certain things and it is impossible to represent everything in a chronological and linear way.

A lot of material from that trip has never been used or seen e.g. I have a few   video films made from mass graves and other encounters with people telling their personal stories from both the war in Kosovo, but also video recordings from people who lived through the fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina. These video testimonials will be part of my new book layout/design. In any case I didn’t what to make traditional war reportage in a journalistic sense and the films are more observational and abstract rather than person-to-camera interviews.

4. Did the photography interfere with the walking? 

In some ways I have described above how walking and photographing at the same time created some tension between when to stop and take a picture and when to carry on walking. The decision to walk rather than travelling by car or any other more conventional modes of transportation was made spontaneously after a conversation with my mentor and good friend, Finn Larsen. It wasn’t something I had pre-planned or thought that much about, but it seemed the most obvious way of exploring the European landscape and its different cultures. After I had made my decision to walk I was off two weeks later. It was pretty instantaneous and I did not have time to practice, or get myself fit for the physical task ahead.

I remember on day 1 walking out of my flat in Petersfield, Hampshire and making my way down towards the South Downs that this was much tougher than I had expected. In the beginning I only managed to walk 15-16 km a day, but towards the end I was walking 50-60 km a day. On a physical level it was pretty tough as I did in mid summer from July to Sept and had to cross both the Alps and the Dolomites along the way. On a practical level it was fairly ad-hoc as I started with a backpack but soon discovered that this was too heavy and impractical. Upon arriving in Calais, I went to a DIY store and bought a suitcase on wheels. An aluminum trolley that carried all my gear and actually lasted all the way soon replaced this. Repairing and customizing the way I carried my equipment became a daily ritual and I spend many nights sleeping outside DIY tool shops waiting for them to open the next day after another mechanical break down. To represent time and the idea of wear and tear I decided to include in my installation all 3 sets of wheels we worn out pulling the trolley along the road. The total distance I covered was close to 3000 miles (I do have the exact figure in my note books, but they are locked away at this moment in time), and I pretty much walked all the way to Sarajevo, which took me 49 days. 

I had made a promise to myself not to get any lifts, which was at times pretty hard when you are exhausted and someone pulls up and ask you if you need a lift. In total I probably accepted a handful of lifts in situations where the weather was so bad or if it was very late at night. But, I did travel from Sarajevo to Montenegro on an overnight bus because of safety. When I got to Sarajevo, the news came out the Serbian army was defeated and that they were retreating from Kosovo. I didn’t really fancy meeting a Serbian army truck or being stopped by a roadblock somewhere along the road between Serbia and Kosovo so I decided to enter Kosovo via Albania. This seemed like a good idea but in Sarajevo I went to the British Council to get some information and travel advice for entering neighbouring countries such as, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo. I remember I was a bit shocked when I received the print out from the Foreign Office on travel safety for British citizens. In terms of volume the advice for going to Serbia was 2 pages, 4 pages for entering Kosovo and a total of 16 pages about the danger of travelling in Albania. Upon reaching a remote border crossing between Montenegro and Albania I immediately felt unsafe and if it wasn’t for two local guys who helped me and escorted me all the way through Albania to the border town with Kosovo, Kukes I’m not sure I would have made it that far.

5. Does walking change the way you see or interact with 

a)    the people you meet
Walking along the road with a trolley behind you eventually will attract attention from people you meet and passers-by. They will stop and enquire what you are doing and where you are going. In a way this is where the boundary between art and life blurs as you are having conversation about life in general with a stranger but at the same time you are part of a performance. I have travelled on a motorbike around Australia and photographing at the same time and felt that this was an ideal way to explore a place and a people, but walking take this to another level and you not only see things more slowly, but you also hear and smell the area you are in which brings in other senses to your overall experience. In terms of meeting people, walking is a much more softer way of engaging in conversation and allows more opportunities to photograph people in their own environment. On my walk, I often was invited into people’s houses for a drink or small bite to eat. I didn’t accept the invitation automatically as it depended on my schedule. These decisions were also determined, as suppose on me judging this opportunity to be a worthwhile exchange for making a picture. I did not have any specific preferences of types of people whether to do with sex, gender, race or age and my portraits represents a broad section of different Europeans from young to old across different nationalities and cultural and social backgrounds.

On a more negative side, I did also encounter a fair mount of aggravation, mainly from motorists who at times deliberately were trying to unsettle me and in some cases trying to run me over. On quiet a few occasion I had to jump into the ditch. On one specific occasion a black Mercedes driven by the Minister of Police in Bosnia-Herzegovina nearly mauled me, whom 2 hours later had me arrested as I was shouting obscenities after his car drove off. Also, the French Gendarmerie were by far the most obnoxious and difficult of all police and law enforcement authorities to try and explain why I was on the road, what I was doing and where I was going.    

b)   the landscapes you encounter?

In terms of interacting with the landscape I encountered walking made you see and experience the environment slowly and in small incremental steps. Although I was restricted to my view from the immediate road I was also using these limitations creatively forcing myself to find an aesthetic interest in otherwise overlooked areas. I was trying to adopt a disinterested look and often found the space in between houses and building the most fascinating. I deliberately looked for the ordinary and not the extraordinary but obviously I passed through some stunning scenery along the way, especially as I crossed the Alps and the Dolomites, and it was a real challenge not to take the more obvious panoramic view as seen on postcards for tourists. Instead I was trying to bring forward an alternative view of Europe as seen from the roadside. The roads I was walking was meant for cars and often the road network are designed with the priority of getting you from A to B in the quickest ways possible with little regard to aesthetics or any other pleasurable experience. As I have already mentioned in my statement I was looking for

…that which normally does not get photographed. I endeavor not to take pictures, which are immediately conceived as beautiful or interesting - but attempt to bring different forms of aesthetic meaning to question.

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