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On July 15, 2007, Eryn Foster started her vacation predictably enough: by walking out of her Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, home and locking the door. Her destination of Sackville, New Brunswick, lay a couple of hundred kilometres away, or about a two-hour drive. But rather than throw a suitcase into the back seat of her car, Foster threw a backpack on and started the first day of New Canadian Pilgrimages.
Vigorous exercise, mild impoverishment, dirtiness -– not everyone's idea of the perfect way to spend a vacation. "I was just feeling, like, 'I am so tired of working in an office all day...I want to just walk -– for weeks, just walk,'" explains Foster, a visual artist and the director of Eyelevel Gallery in Halifax. For those who feel they spend too much time slumped over a computer, it’s easy to sympathize with her urge to literally walk away. But unlike many sufferers of office malaise, Foster wasn’t paralyzed by her inaction. She rang up Struts Gallery in Sackville and began to publicize New Canadian Pilgrimages (NCP) as part of the Ok. Quoi?! Contemporary Arts Festival. NCP was now an event and everyone was invited.
Marking uncharted territory by foot through rural New Brunswick and Nova Scotia may have a certain rustic, romantic appeal, but the reality of walking for three weeks straight with a 20-lb backpack is punishing, unnerving and lonely. Although Foster allowed participants to join NCP for however long they wanted (after all, not everyone can take three weeks off at a time), Michael Waterman and his 15-year-old son Nic boldly signed on for the entire duration.
"I've done hiking and backpacking trips in the past," says Waterman Sr., "so when Eryn told me about this project, I was immediately interested. There was a lot of time to be with my own thoughts, which weren’t bound by the time and space we were travelling through." Wandering gave respite to their minds and spirits, but Foster and her companions also became intimate with the physical suffering that’s central to the traditional pilgrimage. "The blisters were relentless,” says Foster, “but I actually got into the pain part of it and learned how to take a lot of Ibuprofen, while also tricking my mind into thinking it wasn't so bad."
While New Canadian Pilgrimages shares the physical tribulation, introspection and need for adequate footwear that goes along with such well-known pilgrimage routes as the Appalachian Trail in the US, or the Camino de Santiago in Spain, it diverges in the specifics. There is no trail infrastructure, except for highways and rural routes built primarily for vehicular traffic, and the walk does not adhere to any static geographic location or "sacred path." Planned as a yearly event, Foster wants NCP to be an evolving series of performances about walking. Each year the route, participants and art generated about the subject will vary.
As Foster got used to explaining to curious onlookers, the pilgrimage isn’t “for anything.” She’s not raising money for a cause and by traditional pilgrimage standards, it’s quite secular: no martyrdom or “deal with God” involved. Foster was mainly walking to test an idea, generate new ones and explore the unexpected. "My walk to Sackville was a research project, to see what it would be like to walk a pilgrimage," she explains. "I spent a lot of time thinking: 'Is this art? How could I make this art?'"
One way Foster transformed her pilgrimage into art was by staging performances and interventions en route. In "Laundry Line," for example, Foster and Waterman hung a clothesline between themselves and dried their clothes on it as they walked. "The intention was to create a rupture of some sort," says Foster, "something unusual or slightly absurd to draw attention to our walking, and as a way to creatively interact with each other as we walked."
"I think artists and other creative people have been using walking as a way to think, create, make, contemplate for a millennium," says Foster. "I was really interested in the idea of having a mobile studio as well, to get away from being in front of a computer all the time." As it turns out, Foster has joined an active and expanding international artistic community. From September 17 to November 2, 2007, the Banff Centre for the Arts hosted the “Walking and Art Residency,” which featured the collaboration of over 25 different artists, writers, curators and theorists working in all media. The similarly titled "Walking Project," hosted by the University of Michigan and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, also brought together artists from around the world in a series of residencies from 2003 through 2006.
As rapid transit and urban infrastructure around the world increasingly displace moderate or long-distance walking, the subject is becoming more relevant to artists and other cultural thinkers. According to Will Self, who details his walk from his suburban home in London to downtown Manhattan in his book Psychogeography, travel by foot is neither valued nor supported in contemporary culture, because the way humans interact with geography, space and transport has changed so dramatically. These days, it’s too impractical and time-consuming for most people to approach walking the way Wanderlust author Rebecca Solnit describes as, "an investigation, a ritual, a meditation […] physiologically like and philosophically unlike the way the mail carrier brings the mail and the office worker reaches the train."
"In Europe, people have been travelling from one village to the next on foot for thousands of years, so the car has not completely obliterated the ancient infrastructure which supports such activities," says Michael Waterman. But, he says, a modern-day pilgrimage in North America demands “an improvisatory imagination.” It seems only natural, then, that artists are the ones blazing that trail and inspiring others to do the same.
Eryn Foster will be releasing the details of this year's pilgrimage near the end of March/beginning of April. Check her blog for details. For more information on the art of walking, check out Walking Project and Walking and Art Residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.