This is an interview with walking artists Claire Hind and Gary Winters about their experiences walking York in celestial fashion, as part of their project Astronomical. (We also interviewed Claire for our third Edition.)
What is Astronomical, in a nutshell?
Astronomical is an online project created during a period of restricted movement that charts a route through the city of York over a year. Taking the Astronomical Clock at York Minster as a starting point - both as inspiration and its physical location - the virtual path moves through the city, moving incrementally away from the centre point of the Minster and ending up in orbit somewhere out on the city's ring road.
Astronomical Clocks act as timepieces for solar time as well as sidereal time (the system used to locate celestial objects), with a sidereal day being four minutes shorter than a solar day. This anomaly accounts for one degree of spin on Earth's axis, and the project's trajectory will reflect a movement of that amount each day in relation to the Minster (ultimately a full rotation) whilst travelling outward towards the city's edge.
The project will consist of 360 posts on Instagram that will be uploaded in phases across a year, charting the route through photography, textual anecdote, found images and predicated celestial events; our offerings to a daily 'lost' four minutes.
How did you determine the route?
This sounds complicated, but bear with us!
We first took the Minster, which houses the Astronomical Clock, as the centrepoint to work out from. On a map of the city we drew ‘spokes’ emanating from that centre – 360 of them, one degree apart - in order to make a full revolution by the end of the project. We then plotted points along the spokes that incrementally moved away from the centre point towards the city limits, so that by halfway through (spoke number 180) this curving path had reached an outer orbit of the city.
The second half of the journey (posts 181 to 360) remain on a circular path at the same distance from the Minster, ending up somewhere in Huntington. We quite liked the idea of there being two halves, like a day and a night, and that the material or posts from the outskirts of the city – fields, tracks, busy A roads, smaller settlements, golf courses – might portray a different mood to the city centre. We determined this outer path by using the dimensions of the actual clock face overlaid onto our A-Z York map.
Was Astronomical a product of lockdown? If so, how did that shape the project?
Yes, Astronomical was developed within the pandemic. We had some ideas emerging for a similar project pre-pandemic, but for a live and mediated experience for large audiences. The idea was that the two of us would walk together through the city of York, following a route and meeting people on the way and using performance to document a diverse set of communities who would contribute to a film about identity and place.
With the realisation that live performance and large audience gatherings were not permitted, we decided to rethink this concept. We don’t live close to one another, and travel restrictions meant we were unable to walk as performers together (something we are used to doing). So, we decided to communicate as a virtual collaboration. This meant Claire literally walking the path and sending images to Gary to treat artistically for posts. Each image is presented as an art work, an idea, a document of the places Claire walked, with some posts relating to celestial events.
Lockdown shaped the walking experience too, further contextualising our ideas for virtual walking. Although Claire walked the route, our concept invites an online audience to follow virtually as witnesses, as if they are also walking. The images also reflect the pandemic: empty streets, shoes left out on door steps, few cars on the road.
On one level it was curious to walk in a quieter, less polluted environment; yet on another it was a stark reminder of the imposed restrictions. We began Astronomical during the first lockdown, when everywhere seemed strange and Other. Everything had slowed down, and many of us heard more birdsong. Through walking and observing, Claire reflected on what lockdown might have meant to different people.
How have you curated the posts?
We wanted a combination of photographic material from the plotted points and text, textures and manipulations that would surface some of the ideas running through Astronomical: site, place, walking, time, the cosmos, the effects of the lockdown – and also the contingency of things we learn along the way.
This might mean text sitting directly on an image as a caption, a slogan, a provocation, a reflection, a lyric. It might mean the addition of a spectral object or shape to mark the coordinates on our map. It could also mean the mirroring, cloning or copying of certain details in the photograph, suggesting possibilities of other worlds, realities or narratives: ‘what if’s’. There are recurring colours and shapes or approaches that start to build a language for the body of posts.
All of this is done using Photoshop, so at points posts might look like curious bits of advertising, or might be humorous, inelegant or awkward but hold an idea. For the text, we wrote short phrases reflecting Astronomical before taking any photos, and now find a way for these to sit together with material from the walks. We are conscious of how images appear on Instagram, so there are some posts that correspond when viewed together. We also plan to present all 360 posts as a grid, so some which drives some tinting and colouration decisions.
'Walking as a durational act, following the route, means venturing through areas and neighbourhoods one would otherwise pass by, because they are not usually on your direct route. This unearths new things and gorgeous, unlikely places.'
What do you think following a route in this way - creating posts that are scattered across the space of a year - has given you that a faster walk may have missed?
We are interested in durational performance. Many of our performance works - gallery installations, theatre performances or site-specific walking art projects - engage in a practice that commits to a durational time frame. We are interested in how this affects experiences and encounters.
Walking as a durational act, following the route, means venturing through areas and neighbourhoods one would otherwise pass by, because they are not usually on your direct route. This unearths new things and gorgeous, unlikely places. Following points also means negotiating terrain - climbing over, under or through - which creates an adventurous, arrhythmical walking experience.
Because the route can’t be found on any map, it is often challenging to access the plotted points. Many have been located in inaccessible places: inside a wall, a closed museum, a cattle field or a private garden. Often Claire will get as close as possible and photograph from there, with Gary Photoshopping a green circle on the photograph.
Partly for this reason, durational walking is an opportunity to slow down and notice little things: cracks, pavement stains, holes in walls, electricity pylons that sprawl across streets like spiders’ webs. Walking in this way, as an observer of the everyday, allows for the imagination to wander. No matter how ordinary or empty, neighbourhoods, alleys and green spaces feel active and extraordinary. Given the theme of Astronomical, we have also been thinking about what is going on above us, in the sky. Through this lens, celestial-like objects - shapes and patterns mimicking planets, star clusters, comets or moons - suddenly become abundant.
Charting a new route also exposes the dynamics with urban planning and development. It shows how closely deprived and affluent areas coexist, and makes serendipitous connections between places – not necessarily through roads or paths, but through the quality of experience.
Are there any favourite details about York that you’ve learned?
Yes! We love the juxtaposition between history and the art of the everyday. We have learned that a copy of the Wicked Bible, published in 1631, is housed at the Old Palace. We know a man always leaves his trainers in the same position by his front door near East Parade. And we have learned that Melrosegate is truly unique, for there is only one street in the UK with this name.
Have you tried to convey a particular message through the project?
The idea that we are connected to the universe is something we like to think about. But we work playfully, leaving images open to interpretation.
The walk is also a playful dialogue between Claire walking and Gary creatively adding layers of meaning to the photography. Claire feels as though Gary is walking with her. She begins seeing through Gary’s eyes and vice versa. We meet regularly to discuss the walking experience and images, often experimenting with rules for producing text: phrases, stanzas, haikus, nine-word phrases to connect grids of nine images and sites through text. Enhancing details, colours and effects, mirroring or echoing shapes in the photographs, we have also highlighted the celestial dimension. This process irrevocably affects our perceptions of places along the route. Each time Claire walks by the post box on Hull Road, for example, she sees a beautiful and mysterious dust cloud flying out of it.
Will there be any outputs beyond Instagram?
Yes, at the end of the 360 days we intend to gather all the Instagram images to form one artwork that will reveal a hidden image that maps our starting point, mimicking some details of the Astronomical clock face of York Minster. We will then offer talks and create a performance through which each image tells a story about intermedial arts practice, walking arts and our creative practice and collaboration.
'We know a man always leaves his trainers in the same position by his front door near East Parade.'
You can follow Astronomical on Instagram.
Gary and Claire have an international collaboration that spans nine years. They work across a range of intermedial practices, and many of their works involve walking. Dream Yards, for example, takes its audience on foot through the snickelways and yards of York. It was written from a series of dream collection experiences after Gary and Claire worked with a neuroscientist on how dreams travel through the brain when we sleep. They collected dreams donations from participants, wove them into a script and performed them while walking the city at dusk, following the stages of sleep as if the city’s passageways were a sleeping brain. Their walking arts projects have taken them to local, national and global festivals, and are described in critical detail along with walking instructions and scripts in their book Embodying the Dead, Writing Playing Performing.
Check out their website.