As I walked over to the Grand Theatre from the hotel just after 5 o'clock on a Saturday early evening in downtown Calgary, I could not find one single coffee shop open. Less a gripe than it is an indicator of the street life in the city, the walk over echoed the advice from the desk clerk that shared, "Oh, that's too far to walk. It could take half an hour. You should drive." Walking is a void mentality in Calgary as it is in many other centres, but time and time again, I find that a city without pedestrians is simply not a city at all, but a spectre of activity with little heart or heed. And so to walk, especially in such a city, becomes a constant intervention.
A small troupe of individuals gathered before artists Renato Vitic and Kay Burns as the tour got underway. Looking like he fell out of the Looking Glass, Vitic and a traffic vested Burns led us around downtown Calgary--which was not so ironically deserted save for the participants of a Zombie Walk, where one of them shouted, "That's great of you guys!" and in doing so confirmed the fact that ordinary walking is actually odder practice than pretending to be a walking zombie.
Walking in a procession, whether we were tied together (as we were at several points) or as individuals traversing the city grid, shocked stares from faces inside of cars and restaurants gawked at the spectacle of people actually walking along the city streets. Save for Vitic and Burns who were visibly different in attire, I believe it was the sheer number (which was maybe 20 - 30) that caused the perplexed faces that made me feel like an alien. With walkable streets, even Stephen Avenue where the street is shut down from traffic on the weekends, almost barely anyone walked with or against us through the core of Calgary. As discussions of walking unfolded over public spaces, enforced structures, and exercises in socializing the act of urban walking, what I feel was lost was the premise that walking in any urban centre is by its very nature a solitary act. It is hard to decipher in a deserted downtown that urban walking's greatest pleasure is to lose one's self in the anonymity of the city, and that strung together with a bunch of strangers, we are still very much alone in the guise as a spectacle. But highlights from the walk included:
- a run-in up in the plus 15's with dance choreographer Melanie Kloetzel's troupe of dancers that cleaned and alienated our interactions with liminal spaces
- Citizen Justice (aka Morgan Sea) sling shooting gummi bears at us from above Milestone's restaurant
Photo credit: Erica Brisson, 2008
- And standing in the far side of the bowl in Millenial Park as Vitic and his spray painted gold bullhorn read aloud Cindy Baker's essay/manifesto about the isolation of regional contemporary art practices to our diminishing group of shivering walkers, often drowned out by the rolling slide and heavy landing of a few skateboarders in the otherwise empty park.
*First appeared for M:ST Festival 4