The Walk Is the Work: An Interview with Ann de Forest, Adrienne Mackey, JJ Tiziou, and Sam Wend
A city is such a massive concept to wrap your head around. You can spend your whole life in one and still end up lost when you’re no more than a few miles from home. Time spent in one place does not directly translate into knowledge of it. As the demands of work, family, and home life all begin to accumulate it’s easy to lose sight of the possibilities that may be no more than a twenty minute stroll away. Walking is undoubtedly the best means we have to fully absorb our surroundings, but only if proper attention is paid. Thankfully there are people here in Philadelphia willing to go the distance and remain present.
Swim Pony Performing Art’s Cross Pollination project is an interdisciplinary residency program funded by the Knight Foundation that brings together artists practicing different disciplines, whose creative paths would likely never cross, to investigate new methods of collaboration and artistic process. Theater artist Adrienne Mackey, Swim Pony’s founder, launched the program as a means of extending her company to reach new disciplines. Without the pressure of a pre-defined outcome, participants have the freedom to learn from each other and unlock new approaches to creating and thinking about art. Since it began in 2014, the program has paired artists from all manner of backgrounds and disciplines yielding remarkable results, the influences of which continue to reverberate in many of the participants’ subsequent work.
During the last weeks of February, writer Ann de Forest and photographer Jacques-Jean Tiziou—both drawn to Cross pollination as a means of breaking from their familiar artistic routines—along with Mackey and Swim Pony’s artistic associate Sam Wend, embarked on a project dubbed Walk Around Philadelphia. The name is literal. This group of intrepid artists followed the entire border of the city of Philadelphia completely on foot in what ended up being just over a 100-mile pilgrimage. On ApriI 27 they will be sharing stories and lessons learned from their journey at the Philadelphia History Museum. The event is free but space is limited, so RSVP here while you can. In the meantime, we reached out to the exhausted but inspired quartet to learn more about the project and experience.
FringeArts: What shared interests or ideas led to the inception of Walk Around Philadelphia?
Adrienne Mackey: We met several times before our official start of the week residency. Themes that came up were the identity as a Philadelphia artists, our sense of the city and the people within it, as well as how we personally moved through the city in our artistic processes. We had talked about the potential of something that blended the idea of process and product – creating an exploration that was as much about the journey as a particular end goal.
Ann de Forest: We all were interested in maps and mapping, as a means of defining space, of guiding people through a geographical territory, but also were intrigued by the questions maps raise. Are boundaries and borders arbitrary lines that divide people, that foster a sense of inclusion/exclusion? Another theme we discussed was “margins,” which led to us deciding to experience the city from a different perspective, not focusing on the center, but exploring what happens at the margins or edges.
JJ Tiziou: Ann and I talked about trading roles, setting up creative prompts and games, and discussed interests ranging from interfaith dialogue to mass incarceration to community interviews. But we kept on coming back to ideas of maps, neighborhoods, borders, boundaries, journeys, pilgrimages, and processions.
Sam Wend: The idea of walking continued to resonate, as did the focus on margins and interviewing people along them. Then JJ found a rough cycling route around the circumference of the city (which clocked in at a lowly 64 miles due to its compensation for accessibility), and the idea of Walk Around Philadelphia was born: it felt like the perfect combination of walking and exploring margins, with the opportunity to use meals and various stopping points as places to reflect and re-engage with people, all in all a great way to explore all of the many topics we’d been thinking about.
FringeArts: In his blog post about the project’s first day, JJ touched on the relationship between natural and artificial/urban borders. How did that dichotomy play out over the course of the journey? What role did accessibility play during the walk itself?
Sam Wend: The way I see it, there are roughly three kinds of borders in Philadelphia: (1) natural geographic borders, typically water in our case, including Cobbs Creek, Poquessing Creek, and the Delaware; (2) specific, clearly designated street borders, including City Ave and Cheltenham Ave; and (3) borders that feel totally arbitrary, as if someone used a straightedge to draw a line between two points on a map, such as the border between Cottman Ave and County Line Road in the northeast.
Ann de Forest: I’d say those contrasts between natural and artificial defined our journey. And they could be startlingly abrupt. For example, our last morning of walking, we started in the A terminal of the airport and had to dodge airport traffic on not particularly pedestrian friendly roads, then walk underneath I-95 to enter the serene landscape of Heinz Wildlife Refuge, where the wind ruffled the water and ducks paddled placidly. We could see the Center City skyline and the airport, and see and hear the traffic flowing on 95, but we had been transported to a glimpse of what these Delaware wetlands might have looked like long before anyone even had an idea to build a city there.
Adrienne Mackey: Accessibility was a big factor. There are lots of sidewalks that are not at all pedestrian friendly let alone wheelchair, etc – able. I overtaxed a muscle in my foot on the second day and walked through a lot of pain on the third and fourth days of the trip. It certainly gave me a lot of empathy for what it means to really feel one’s desires undercut by the sensations of one’s body. And this is coming from someone who has plenty to be thankful for health-wise. We were definitely lucky that this was a group able and willing to tackle such a hefty physical challenge.
JJ Tiziou: There are also factors of privilege that made some areas more accessible to us than they might be to some other Philadelphians, unfortunately.
FringeArts: I’ve noticed that people, particularly in cities, have a tendency to spend most of their time around familiar haunts or bubbles yet still draw broad generalizations about areas they don’t frequent or visit at all (and I’m no exception). Has this project helped to demystify certain areas of the city for you? How has it altered your conception of Philadelphia as a whole?
Adrienne Mackey: We talked a lot about this idea of a “center-ist” view of urban life. So often we see what is deemed the most valuable placed in the middle and I think there’s a tacit assumption that the “real” city starts in the middle and becomes less and less so as you go out. This project felt like a way to remind ourselves that everything we see is equally Philadelphia. That by seeing all these places that are so often less defined as “destinations” we can get a fuller picture of what this city is. One game we played throughout would be to look left and point out what is “Not Philly” then look right and comment on what is “Philly.” That “Philly/Not Philly” game became an interesting kind of meditation to me, a way to keep remembering that the ground I was on was equally part of my city.
Ann de Forest: It’s altered my perception in that I have a sense of the whole – a mental image in my mind – that I never had before. I also have a much stronger sense of the interconnection between different parts. Divisions become much less sharp when you’re experiencing a city on foot. The transitions between one space and another, even when contrasts are sharp, become more fluid. And because the journey itself was the experience and not some fixed destination, we were attuned to the places that might blur by if we were fixed on getting from one place to another.
Sam Wend: More so than feeling like the city itself is demystified, I feel like its great size and scale are demystified, and like I have a great deal more work and exploring to do to get to know all the areas I never even thought about in my previous considerations of Philadelphia. This is true of the Northeast in particular. Because we spent so much time in the woods around the creek or skirting the outside of the Franklin Mills Mall and next to no time in residential or even non-mall commercial areas in that part of the city I feel like I got very little sense of the people/communities of the region, yet it is such an enormous region.
JJ Tiziou: We’d set off imagining an urban exploration project, but found ourselves quite often in nature, actually seeing very few humans, even when in industrial zones. The experience definitely helped me get a more concrete sense of how vast the city is. Sometimes I like to think of myself as plugged-in, connected, knowledgeable about Philadelphia. This exercise was a very good contextualization of how little I know. There’s a few tiny facets that I know somewhat, but it’s so much bigger, richer, and more complex than that. I can’t possibly imagine the mayor’s job, trying to be responsible for and accountable to such a diverse and complicated population and set of interconnected interdependent parts.