Last week I went on a walk with Andy Marks, Doctoral Researcher with the University of Edinburgh:
‘Andrew (Andy) is a part-time PhD candidate at the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, University of Edinburgh. Andy’s doctoral research investigates community-building and activism in response to the environmental crisis, with a particular focus on gender and sexual minority groups in the UK.’
Andy had got in contact to find out more about my Queer River reserch, and after getting talking we decided to try walking together at a distance, Andy along the Water of Leith, from Leith towards Edinburgh, and me along my local river the River Avon, on a new stretch to me from the village of Pewsey, heading South.
Before walking together we shared writing that we had each written, relating to Queer Ecologies, and to Andy’s research on Queer community building and the commons, including digital approaches to building community in a time of Covid.
We planned to start and end our walk together with a Zoom conversation on our phones, and in between to share what we each noticed using sound recordings, photos and video sent via WhatsApp. I also suggested to Andy that we use drawing to record our experiences. Andy and I both draw on backgrounds in the arts and the environment, though having followed different paths through education that draw these threads together.
‘Prior to beginning his PhD, Andy received his Bachelor of Arts degree in History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, and a Master of Science degree in Environment, Culture and Society from the School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh.’
On the day the signal/4G my end was next to zero, and so the planned introductory conversation via Zoom turned into a series of snatched and garbled mini converstions as I walked out of the village to try and get some signal, and Andy kept trying to reach me by phone, only to hear some strange robotic voice in reply. In the end we gave up on Zoom and started to walk, draw, take photos and rely on WhatsApp to share what we each experienced by ‘our’ river. Often my photos and video didn’t send, the buffering arrow circling round and round and then sometimes sending later, out of sync to the rest of the thread.
That’s not to say it wasn’t a success, just to describe how it worked, and how the planned structure shifted according to the dips and rises in the land, and the associated strength or weakness of signal. We had talked before our walk about the relationship between urban and rural spaces, about the impact of industry on both, and how our walk/conversation could bring the two places together.
One thing I have started to do since our walk, is to reflect on the process of walking remotely/digitally along two rivers through drawing, and I’ve included the first of these above. A whale and an eel drawn in pencil and homemade botanical inks from plants that grow near my local stretch of the Avon (Walnut, Ragwort and Dock Seed inks). The whale represents Andy’s walk/river/learning, and the eel my own. As we walked Andy was joining pieces of existing knowledge about Leith’s history together, with a realisation of the role of whaling in creating local wealth and industry, sparked by encountering a large harpoon gun on the riverside. In turn, I have been learning about migratory fish including eels and the barriers that they face in the Avon and elsewhere.
Included below is a piece of video that I’ve edited together using some of the material from our walk, it’s pretty rough and quite fragmented, and thats what I wanted, to echo the nature of our communication as we walked, Andy along the urban fringed Water of Leith, and me walking across sun dried fields to gain glimpses of the lush Avon.
Under the video are Andy’s reflections in his own words. We are meeting in real life in September to walk together along a single river, and between now and then I’m going to be spending more time reflecting on the relationship between my own practice-led research and the digital.
Talking and walking with Andy has sparked so many thoughts and questions, that I’m not able to include them all here, questions about where the physical ends and the virtual/digital begins and how this relates to knowing rivers in a time of crisis.
Does the virtual even exist or does the very naming of something as virtual deny its physicality, its materiality and its impact on us and wider ecosystems? What does the commons look like when it’s facilitated/enabled through digital communication? These are new areas of focus for me, but something that Andy has been exploring for some time. Thanks again to Andy for taking the time to walk, be playful and to share his own reflections in writing.
“Online and hybrid online/offline worlds offer a range of ways in which the digital is helping queer the notion of ecologies, offering new configurations of human/nonhuman interaction”The Queer Life of Things: Performance, Affect, and the More-Than-Human – Anne M. Harris and Stacey Holman Jones.
The sound waves were completely distorted when James picked up the phone for our digital Queer River Walk. Cracking and leaping in pitch, only a few words were decipherable before ‘re-connecting…’
“Hello shall we use WhatsApp for now and then chat on zoom later as I don’t think it’s going to work here?”, James messaged. “Sure thing”, I said, and we began our river walks.
I have walked down the Water of Leith many times. Leith is my home and the Water of Leith is central to its landscape and history. Not only was it close to home, but the Water of Leith and I had a queer (in an LGBT+ sense) introduction. I first knowingly connected with the Water on a date with a guy from Edinburgh. We took a romantic walk down from the West End along its banks to the Shore. Since that date, I have walked down the Water of Leith more times than I can count with my partner. My partner (a different person from the aforementioned date, I should note) and I regularly walk down it and enjoy the variety of places and spaces that it traverses and shapes. Whilst my experiences along the river have, I guess, been queer in some way – in the sense that I’m queer and most of the people that I walked down the river have been queer – my relationship with the Water of Leith itself has felt pretty normative. I’ve cycled alongside its paths to meet friends and I’ve taken walks with the dog for a pleasant break from urban living.
And yet, when I began the walk with(out) James, the Water of Leith felt new, under-investigated and almost playful – a whole arena for queer experimentation. For one, I have never been on a river walk solely with the intention of describing it to somebody who was not physically there, let alone someone that I haven’t met face-to-face. James’ absence, and the inability to videocall for the majority of our shared digital walk, meant that I would have to be far more attuned with the river and its surrounding landscape in order to try to communicate my experience of the place. Every image, voice recording, and personal anecdote felt far more important than they would if we were walking side by side. James had no other way of learning about this place. He was unable to experience this landscape independent of my body and the digital technologies that I was using – what it felt like to go through, with and by the Water of Leith. I felt a bit like his avatar and he mine. In order to connect the Water of Leith with James, I really had to connect with the Water of Leith – I felt like a strange intermediary in my own walk, like a kind of human modem.
Another reason for the Water of Leith’s sudden novelty was the curious playfulness that the walk encouraged. It’s hard and awkward to describe what it’s like to walk down a river ‘on your own’ whilst trying to record your experience for someone else. Even more so whilst they are also sharing the same hybrid journey from their route. It became increasingly exciting to record and share things for James. Each message like a new gift to a stranger who I was walking with, but not with. James was in my phone, but also somewhere out there. Any technological malfunction or loss of signal was not a barrier to our walk, but a simply fun twist to move with and see what happened on the other side.
James’ phantom presence also made me feel a little braver. I’ve always wanted to go in the river, but always felt a little too shy. However, as I’m sure anyone who has been to the river would know, the concrete banks and urban surroundings don’t cry out ‘step inside, you’re in nature now’. But something glitched and James’ pictures of Pewsey, with its lush banks and isolation made me feel somewhere between Leith and there, why shouldn’t I put my feet in just for a few seconds?
When I put my feet into the water, I was excited to connect with the water course in a different, more intimate way than I have done before. I was also excited to document the experience and to send it almost immediately to James – to say ‘Look! James, I’m in the water! What are you doing with yours?’. I found myself looking through my phone’s camera and visually experiencing the act through what I would then send to James, frustrated that he would not feel my feet or smell the dusty, salty summer breeze. A dog interrupted and came to say hello to the strange person who was paddling in the water. The owner, slightly wary of my solitary escapades in the water, called the dog back quickly with a confused smile. I felt very alone in that second, but also wanted to tell James in a drawing about what had happened.
The walk was short, but rich in communication – in relating. It was a fun experiment in queering the binaries between collaborative experiences that are either in situ or remote. There was nothing ‘unreal’ about our meshed walk – we were, in many ways, intimately walking alongside one another IRL (in real life) and relating with the landscapes that we ambled through; however, we were also evidently very distant – I couldn’t (for the most part) feel the dry grass that James walked through, but only know a less directly relational imprint of that landscape, a phantom. But I definitely felt like we were walking in two places at one time using digital technologies. Two queers, two phones, two rivers and a very queer river walk.
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This post was first published on http://www.queerriver.com in July 2022