Peripatetic practices emerged definitively within contemporary art by the late 1960s with the performance/sculpture A Line Made By Walking (1967) by English artist Richard Long. Considered to be a more refined, civilized, “European” response to the industrial-scale land arts movement associated with U.S. artists such as Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, Long’s work represented for anglo contemporary art patrons a soothing return to the romantic pastoral pleasantries of the romanticised British countryside; an aestheticized landscape obsessively reproduced across millions of geometrically immaculate monochrome lawns in suburbs from Los Angeles to Toronto to Atlanta. In 1989, after being nominated twice previously, Richard Long was awarded the Turner Prize, Britain’s highest honour for contemporary art.
Art about mobility, lightness and freedom. Simple creative acts of walking and marking; about place, locality, time, distance and measurement. Works using raw materials and my human scale in the reality of landscapes. (Long, 2015)
A walk taken in the name of bouding, marking and measurement can hardly be considered to be simple, light and free; especially not in relation to the legacy of the British Empire and its modern epistemologies and ontologies that have contributed so heavily to the fabric of contemporary dominant culture.
A partial listing of Long’s walking works from 1967 onward reveals what cannot but be reminiscent of a litany of Britain’s own colonial legacy (Long, 2015):
· Ireland (1967)
· England (1968)
· Half Tide: Bertaghboy Bay, Ireland (1971)
· Walking A Line In Peru (1972)
· The High Plains: A Straight Hundred Mile Walk On The Canadian Prairie (1974)
· A Line In The Himalayas (1975)
· A Straight Hundred Mile Walk In Japan (1976)
· Throwing Stones In A Circle: A Six Day Walk In The Atlas Mountains, Morocco (1979)
· A Line And Tracks In Bolivia (1981)
· Sea Level Waterline: Death Valley California (1982)
· Brushed Path: A Line In Nepal (1983)
· Dusty Boots Line: The Sahara (1988)
· Muir Pass Stones: A Walk Of 12 Days In The High Sierras, California (1995)
· Cotopaxi Circle: Along A Twelve Day Walk In Ecuador (1998)
· Mahalakshmi Hill Line: Warli Tribal Land Maharashtra, India (2003)
· Karoo Line: A Fifteen Day Walk In South Africa (2004)
· Midday Muezzin Line: Siwa, Egypt (2006)
· River Yangtze Stone Line: China (2010)
· Aconcagua Circle: Argentina (2012)
· A Circle In Antarctica: Ten Days In The Heritage Range Of The Ellsworth Mountains (2012)
What has struck me in my research of peripatetic literature was the dearth of historical and critical examinations of walking practices that emerge and constitute themselves around acts of marking, time, distance and measurement; all acts which share an intimate relationship with Eurocentric scientific knowledge production, cartography, surveying (and surveillance), and the discipline of modern geography itself. Yet amongst the literature, there is little to no consideration of the histories and legacies of such quantitatively oriented peripatetic practices and the ways in which they have shaped and normalized contemporary hillwalking culture within Anglo society.
Whilst assembling a comparative history of colonial ceremonies of possession, Patricia Seed examines the salient characteristics of Anglo conquest that were employed on the New England coast in the first years of the 17th century:
By fixing a boundary, such as a hedge around fields…anyone could establish a legal right to apparently unused land…mundane activity rather than permission, ceremonies, or written declarations created ownership. The ordinary object – house, fence, or other boundary marker – signified ownership. The English preoccupation with boundaries and boundary markers as significant markers of ownership characterizes the earliest English records of sales or gifts of land dating from 600 to 1080 A.D. Called perambulations, they contain highly detailed descriptions of physical objects around the boundaries as if described during a walk (ambulation) around the edges (perimeter) of a property. By the early Middle Ages the cultural importance of boundaries was well established, widely understood, and utilized in acquiring property. Boundaries around land…established ownership in long-standing English practices and legal customs. (Seed 1995, 18-19)
While providing valuable insights into the practices of possession by colonial English settlers, Seed appears to echo sentiments similar to Richard Long and those who similarly read his peripatetic acts as commonplace. In her comparison of English, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese ceremonies of possession, Seed argues that the peripatetic bounding of land was a “mundane” activity, as opposed to ceremony or written declaration, the likes of which were practiced by the French and Spanish, respectively. Further, she construes the building of fences and the placement of boundary markers as equally ordinary. I would argue that the marking, measuring, and bounding of space by peripatetic perambulation is in no way a mundane act; it is endowed with just as much ontological, epistemological, ceremonial, and spiritual significance as comparable practices of other cultures which would appear to the Anglo reader more spectacular in nature.
Seed, Patricia. 1995. Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
“RICHARD LONG OFFICIAL WEBSITE.” 2015. Accessed February 25. http://www.richardlong.org/.