Written for the Flatpack Festival installation by Andy Howlett.
I had been internet stalking Pete Ashton for several months before I came across a blog post called “Cross City Walks” dated February 16th 2010. In it Pete outlined an idea he’d had for a psychogeographical exercise inspired by the urban walking exploits of Will Self and Bill Drummond. The idea was simple: you take a map of Birmingham, choose a point on the outer circle bus route and from it draw a line straight through the centre of the city and out the other side, finishing at the opposite point on the bus route. You then walk this line. The purpose of such an exercise is to experience the city in a different way and see if you learn anything. I was eager to know what Pete had learnt from these walks but to my dismay I couldn’t find any follow-up posts on the blog. It appeared that for some reason Pete had never put this idea into practice. This bothered me. I couldn’t rest while this tantalising loose-end was left untied – it seemed internet stalking just wasn’t going to cut it any more. I needed closure… and I needed to get out of the house.
I tentatively sent Pete an email introducing myself and suggesting that we do the Cross City Walks together. That way I could get some fresh air, Pete could finally blog about his findings and then we could both go back to our lives. For some reason Pete agreed to this random invitation (I later found out that it’s because he feeds off the energy of people younger than himself) and so we arranged to meet at an 11c bus stop on Lordswood Road, Harborne at 9am on the 27th of October 2014. In the days leading up to the walk I thought about what the walk might be like and what we might learn. I imagined that we would stroll at a leisurely pace, paying close attention to our surroundings, examining the changes in landscape and mood as we passed through the different areas. Maybe we’d stop from time to time to make notes, take pictures and even talk to some of the locals. We may be following a line but it wasn’t going to be about getting from one end to the other as quickly as possible – if anything it would be about slowing down and taking in the things that we usually hurry past on the way to somewhere else.
The big day finally came and we met at the arranged spot. We hit it off straight away which was lucky because otherwise we’d have been in for an awkward few hours. I took a deep breath and tried to attune myself with my surroundings in preparation for the journey ahead. As I was doing so I noticed that Pete was attaching a bizarre piece of machinery around his torso. I knew from the internet stalking that he was into his gizmos and hi-tech jiggery pokery so I didn’t think much of it. Pete explained that it was a chest mount harness for a GoPro camera and he was going to use it to record our walk. He set it up to take a photo automatically every five seconds and once he was sure it was working we set off.
What a thrill it was to be walking alongside renowned internet personality and 2007 Brummie of the Year runner up, Mr Pete Ashton himself! I immediately forgot all that stuff about being in tune with the city and observing the lay of the land. Pete Ashton was tweeting about me! I was enthralled. Everything he said was fascinating, even though I didn’t understand a word of it. He told me he spent the previous night turning selfies into music. He told me about his investigations into “remix culture and the aesthetics of decay through user attrition”. He told me about his idea to turn the BT Tower into a giant periscope. He told me about a new mini helicopter drone that he was thinking of buying so that he could put a camera on it and explore the inaccessible reaches of the city. I spent the next couple of hours in a state of equal parts awe and befuddlement. Next thing I knew we had passed right through the city centre and were approaching Saltley. So much for taking in our surroundings! It was purely by chance that I noticed the River Rea as we crossed it: I had needed a place to dispose of my banana skin and so I peered over the wall at the side of the pavement and there was the river several feet below us, languidly passing beneath the city in its brick culvert. The spell that Pete had cast over me was broken and I was seized by an acute sense of guilt. I had always had a fondness for Birmingham’s forgotten river, the life-force of the city, shunned and ignored but always reassuringly present. And yet were it not for the lack of adequate rubbish disposal facilities in this part of the city I would’ve walked straight past it without so much as a glance. How had this happened? This walk that was supposed to attune us to the rhythms and flows of the city was actually having the opposite effect!
“Pete,” I said.
“It’s the River Rea.”
“Oh yeah,” he said, nodding in acknowledgement before turning back to the walk.
“Can’t we stop here for a bit?”
“No I’d rather get on if you don’t mind, my feet are sore.”
“Well can you hold the GoPro over the wall and get a photo?”
“No that’s cheating.”
That night Pete sent over a timelapse that he’d put together from the photos taken on the GoPro. I saw our walk flash before my eyes at a rate of 10 frames per second, condensing a 3+ hour experience to a mere 220 seconds. It was exhilarating. The walk that I had previously considered a failure had now been transformed into something completely different. It was given a new context that neither of us could possibly have anticipated and it sent tingles down my spine. Pete was clearly excited by the result as well:
“I think we need to do more walks,” he said.
“Yeah,” I agreed.
The GoPro was now our master. We embraced our servitude and we followed obediently where it lead us. No diversions, no dallying, just straight down the line. Outer Circle bus stop to Outer Circle Bus Stop. Via cathedral. Repeat. We were merely two pairs of legs in the service of the chest-mounted Cyclops. Doggedly we marched on through the winter months, maintained by the knowledge that our monocular friend had a plan that would be revealed to us in time. Pete became obsessed with walking as straight as possible and keeping the camera’s view free of obstruction. He developed an extremely efficient, mechanical way of eating and drinking without ever bringing his hands in front of his chest. If he had to break for the toilet or some caffeine he would stop dead in his tracks, pause the camera, go off and do his business, return to the exact same spot, realign himself, resume the camera recording and continue as if nothing had happened. I too became preoccupied with the GoPro, always aware of its presence and the importance its record. From time to time I would catch myself contemplating some interesting brickwork on a canal building or admiring an exposed crop of red sandstone, but these reveries rarely lasted more than a few moments before I’d return to the task in hand. Every now and then I would call Pete back to come and look at something such as a nice view of the city skyline just visible between two houses. On such occasions Pete would stop impatiently, walk backwards with his head over his shoulder so as not to turn the GoPro from its course, look at what I was pointing to, grunt in acknowledgment and then continue immediately onwards.
After each walk Pete would upload the timelapse to Vimeo and I would watch, entranced. He played around with different playback speeds and did things I didn’t understand like “slit scanning”. I think it was his way of trying to make sense of what we were doing. We talked about possibilities for future walks: different ways we could record them, people we might like to invite and the different perspectives they might bring. It felt like there were so many possibilities with Cross City Walks and so many directions it could be taken in. But that would be the next stage, for now the GoPro was king. We had agreed to carry on just the two of us, completing the walks and recording the timelapses until it became clear what to do next.
Although we mostly kept on the move during the walks, there were the odd times when we both felt it appropriate to sit down for a minute or so to reflect and refuel. January the 2nd was a particularly fine day and as we passed through Aston on our way to Stockland Green we took some time to sit beside the lake in Salford Park admiring the spectacular view of Spaghetti Junction. Fishermen dotted the opposite bank and the bare poplar trees swayed in the breeze. Some ducks landed on the surface, disturbing the reflection of the mighty concrete structure. As we sat there eating our sandwiches, listening to the soothing rumble of the Aston Expressway, I was overcome by the implausible harmony of the whole scene and just for a moment I felt entirely at peace with my city and everything in it. Although the walks hadn’t provided all the insights I first imagined they would, perhaps if they could just offer up moments like this from time to time then it was all worth it.
It looked as though Pete had been having a little moment as well, he turned to me with that excited look that he has when he’s about to talk about algorithms or something:
“I’ve just had an idea for an installation,” he said.