Performing Distancing

Social distancing was introduced to the UK around March 17, 2020

On the basis that art and performance can be used as research, to explore and express personal experience, I wondered what would happen if I walked through Carlisle town centre maintaining 2m social distancing, but do it as performance, choreographed like a dance or with applied dramaturgical principles, and record it with GPS.

A simple algorithm was devised to work like choreographic directions.

Walk in a straight line until I was within 2m of another person, then turn away until the distance exceeded 2m, then resume the straight line.

Where I met an obstacle turn through 90+ degrees and continue in a straight line.

Limit the walk to the central shopping area.

Walk for 1 hour.

I imagined this visualised as a faux maths formula, because moving an idea between forms, like turning word into image, can sometimes reveal a new aspect to the idea.

Faux math formula

Where P is the path of the walk, as an iteration or repeat of p, which is each leg as a straight line a-b until this is changed by meeting a person (the m is an aboriginal sign for a person, basically, the bottom mark left in the sand where a person was sitting) in which case the path p changes (the triangle) by n degrees.

The basic principle of art as research is to make art, in this case performance, and pay attention to what happens when you do.

On the 18th March I did a social distancing walk for an hour in Carlisle city centre, and payed attention to my thoughts and feelings and other peoples response. I tracked it with GPS tracker.

This is the raw GPS visualisation of that walk.

This shows the path I followed as the green line. The dots are simply GPS way points.
This is a satellite view. The image is old and some things were absent in March.

I worked with a GPS track editor and removed as many intermediary waypoints as possible to leave only turns in response to social distancing or turns in response to an obstacle, like a shop front.

I got this, edited down as three images joined together.

Simplified social distancing walk.

What the walk/performance did as research, was give me insight into social distancing, then a very new phenomenon.

Over the hours walk, I started to become anxious when I got close to people. As a person approached me and I anticipated the need to distance, I felt a rise in my level of anxiety. I felt isolated and distanced. I felt sad.

I was also nervous about wandering around in circles for an hour on CCTV. In the end nobody even batted an eyelid. I was utterly uninterrupted and fully ignored.T his added to a sense of aloneness.

Part of the creative process is the period of incubation, in which the creator moves away from the art making and does some other thing. On returning to the theme or the artform, after incubation, new insights emerge. The form created is seen in a new light. I noted this sadness and anxiety at the time, but on writing this, months later, another aspect of my experience of performance/art as research came into play.

I reflect now that this experience gave me insight into how social distancing would feel. Now, months later people are not rushing back to contact, many people appear reluctant to go back to the shops and the pubs and the office. This week, mid-June, the MP is now imploring people to go back to the office and the shops and the pubs. The anxiety prevails.

Also there is growing anger in the UK and clear riotous anger in the USA in some quarters of society. Today I found the following meme.

My experience of children in care is that many are angry and this is just a product of sadness and anxiety. Whilst different, both are connected to loss. Anxiety may be an anticipation of discomfort and danger, but also the anticipation of the loss of safety, the familiar, and the predictable. Our stress response is fight, flight or freeze. We have been unable to flee in lockdown, which leaves fight and freeze, anger and sadness.

On March 18, the day of my social distancing walk, the experience of social distancing was new. This art based research could not be seen as producing a clear empirical evidence based outcome, but I did experience feelings in myself which could have anticipated feelings shared by other people once the lockdown deepened in its impact. I anticipated sadness and could, in retrospect, have anticipated anger.

This work is highly influenced by the arts therapies and dramatherapy and by experiential learning. In the arts therapies, whilst art is made, the role of the artform as an end product, for sale, or for viewing by an audience, is not significant. What is significant is the experience of art making on the part of the art maker. As such it is a form of experiential learning in which direct experience of art forms the basis of learning or research in which the art making is both the mode of research and the outcome of the research. It is part research, part performance, part personal therapy, part play, part experiential learning but is never fully any of these things.

Undertaken with the intention to make this as art, invites the creative process, and as such it is unique, not in any grand way, but in a way that invokes creativity as a simple and easily available act accessible to anybody. The act that makes it art in intentionality and this intentionality can be learned.

My hope is to use this website and my own art making to show ways to learn this. We cannot all be artists but we can all make art. What this experiment revealed was simple and oddly mundane, but also complex and profound. I want to show how art making can help you explore and express your experience of the world.