The last walk/invisible walking

Last updated: 4 Nov 2020

Part of a series of posts on my participation in the Walk Exchange’s Walk Studies Training Course – see justification.

Take a walk across a busy part of the city in the middle of a weekday. The aim of the walk is to try to be invisible.

In London the Demolition Project hosted a walk through Westfield Stratford City and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, “one of London’s most prominent hubs of surveillance”, with a lengthy list of tips designed to help you avoid attracting attention. (They are also hosting invisible walks for Calvert 22’s Power and Architecture season.)

By week 4 of the course it’s become clear that issues around cultural difference are at least as significant for me as those around performance. Let me explain…

Despite the Happy Denmark reputation the natives don’t exactly exude joy on a daily basis. Public spaces are still and calm and people watching is unrewarding. On occasion the tourist office offers courses on talking to strangers, because it’s simply not done. Notices on train doors appeal to you to let people off the train before you barge in with your bike. What would be considered a common courtesy in other countries is considered odd: if someone talks to you on the street they are either drunk, mad or American. Dennis Nørmark is good on this.

Taciturnity is, of course, a Nordic trait – in The almost nearly perfect people Michael Booth explores Swedish reticence in depth, undertaking a social experiment on the streets of Stockholm to provoke the locals into communication by behaving as un-Swedishly as possible: jaywalking, talking to strangers, getting into an already occupied lift, etc. In the end he loses enthusiasm, concluding that “the poor creatures could not help themselves”.

On my walks I feel pretty much invisible, despite looking un-Danish and often accompanied by two vociferous beagles. It’s like there’s an invisible force field around us. Sometimes this is dansplained as negative politeness, a different form of sociability. See Lars AP and F**king Flink for more on this. (All this probably also explains why sharing space is a such a challenge. People would rather cross the road than run the risk of having to meet someone’s eye. This behaviour extends to dog walking. End result: a nation of asocial dogs.)

There’s little CCTV in Copenhagen, the societal norms do the job. Universal monitoring is designed in, from the identity number which links the books you borrow from the library with the last time you went to the dentist to the smartest of smart city systems guiding you to the sole remaining (paid) parking spot and ‘intelligent’ rubbish bins. The cashless society is approaching, eliminating another zone of contact. In ten years probably no one will speak to anyone outside their personal circle at all.

All in all, the Demolition Project’s I’m a stranger has more appeal. Interestingly, a Danish equivalent, Tur med en fremmed, involves walking with said stranger.

Here’s my alternative exercise for the week:

Turn the tables: a tribute to Nordic taciturnity, where if someone talks to you on the street they are either drunk, mad or American.

On your walk try to create as many opportunities for contact with strangers as possible and note how they react. Is personal contact being designed out, perhaps via cashless payment systems or other ‘smart city’ developments?

The London walk was part of Antiuniversity Now, which offered a smörgåsbord of radical walks. Lots of artspeak, but several hit the spot, for example the radical(ish) bird walk (birds again!), Hackney Wick beach (in principle only, mind) and ellipsis (one for CPH, too). There was also a handful of classic cultural heritage type walks.

walking invisibly

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