‘Ambulant Architectures’ at Sideways, Belgium

The Sideways Festival, running for a full month, August-September 2012, was an ‘interdisciplinary art festival “in the open” and “on the go”’. Largely devoted to art based on walking, it could not be accused of lacking integrity, as it made its way from Menen to Herzele to Brussels to Turnhout to Zutendaal, straggling across the Belgian map and stopping for mini-festivals on each of the five weekends. It was a stupendously ambitious project, impossible to deliver seamlessly with such a small team (led by Andy Vandevyvere). Yet they did deliver it, and despite one or two problems, they deserve to be congratulated.

I don’t have space to discuss all the other projects here, but they are worth discussing and some are documented on the festival site www.sideways2012.be

As for me, it must be admitted that my body was in shock. I walked 24 km the first day I arrived; 18 the next. On other days, walkers completed up to 36 km.  Interesting to watch as one’s brain turns towards survival: I must eat; I must sleep; I must rest. Creativity diminishes and so do manners. The mayor of one town meets us, but we rush forwards unseeing to cram our mouths with the peanuts on the table, exhausted after walking for hours. Only my sense of the ridiculous pulls me through, but this, too, entails a loss of manners.

We walk further than is good for us and eat strange, disorientating foods: pesto icecream; pickled radish; fried leek root; raw fennel. We spend time waiting for things and desperate for sleep. We are woken in our tents by the braying of Biegel the donkey who accompanies us, eye-ore-ing at the end of his semi-circular tether. I was only there a few days, but my experience was partly this sense of watching my endurance crumble, discovering the limits of my footsteps, my creativity and my kindness.

I was there with Wrights & Sites, to explore what we have called ‘Ambulant Architectures’. The idea was that the walker might become a form of architect, intervening in the built environment. The reality seemed to be a little different. The objects were not really architectures at all, but, as Elke Van Campenhout beautifully put it, the objects ‘grew out of the fantasy of architecture’.  We called them ‘Shapes’, ‘Plinth’, ‘Boat’ and ‘Beacons’. My object, or rather objects, for I took 5, were based on the idea of a beacon, an architecture that calls out across the landscape, to travelers or to others of its kind. I carried five, because I intended to leave four behind me. Enigmatic tangles of wire, they had no lights, bells or imposing forms – a fact which initially filled me with dismay when our designer showed them to me. It was something I came awkwardly to embrace.

The objects, then, were not exactly architectural interventions, but became lenses for seeing. They remembered lost industries. They remembered modernism. They had a natural affinity with certain other objects and materials: railway crossings; industrial machinery; reflective surfaces; yellow, red and black paintwork; numbers; rust; obelisks; street lights; glass; sundials; lanterns; roadsigns; barbed wire; cairns; slide projectors; ghosts.

On my first day of exploration we begin in an old mining site and I find many places that my lantern illuminates, but I don’t leave one behind… waiting, I think, for a hill, or for the day to pass. These mines began in the early 20th century, displacing the farms and heather, the artists’ picturesque and the farmer’s graft. Immigrants served them through the 20th century, as locals avoided the danger and darkness. The mosque that we pass is probably testament to this.

As we continue, it becomes clear that there are no hills. We circumvent the slag heap. We walk through miles of suburbia, where traces of industry are fewer and the landscape lacks metaphorical, as well as actual beacons. These neighbourhoods are characterized by kitsch garden ornaments and designs.  We are baffled by the lack of people on the street. The houses are still and silent. Someone suggests that children don’t play outside any more.

Tiredness gradually overcomes me, and the camp site becomes the beacon. I place my ‘beacon’ twined in its useless sundial.

On my second day, we pass huge heaps of rubble, detritus of demolished housing, making way, presumably, for the suburban fortresses we pass on the route again today. They have little homogeneity of design, with modernist box placed next to shuttered castle and each with pillar-boxes that do their own thing on the front lawns. Many of these houses are forbidding, with ugly dogs barking behind gates.

Here, in the dump, the houses they replaced have come to die, in tangles of wire and heaps of broken tiles. The backdrop is the vast IKEA warehouse, promising its ubiquitous good taste and speedy delivery to bring comfort to those new but chilly Belgian villas. Here, my second ‘beacon’ dangles from the razor wire.

Later, another mine, preserved as an arts complex. The headframes have become sculptures. My next ‘beacon’ sits on the end of one headframe. The contrast in scale makes it almost invisible. So after industry, art appears, though I feel a little dubious about art’s role in the new economy suggested in the catalogue for the C-Mine exhibition ‘Machine’. It sounds like a re-hash of the early years of the 20th century, and we know how that turned out. This is an invigorating site, if not an entirely convincing one. Inside, an exhibition by Lara Mennes contains photographs of Belgian architecture, presented with a dreamy tenderness.

On Saturday we have the Symposium in Zutendaal, where we sit at a table in a tent and welcome walking symposium participants to join our conversation. Fierce, confused and going somewhere, we have too little time but it’s a useful exchange. Later, as we party around the fabulous Lekkermakery, the mobile bar, I leave the last ‘beacon’ in the fire. After all, a beacon should have light.

From industry, to ruins, to kitsch, to art, to fire. Sundial, razor wire, mine shaft, fire. My last ‘beacon’ will come home. The ‘beacons’ invite connections and perhaps this is about homes all along.

Peter Ankh, who leads the donkey, says there is a need to re-map the world, now that we’ve been to Mars. Monique Besten stitches white designs into the lining of her jacket. My ‘beacons’ are like stitches in the lining of the landscape, almost invisible, as delicate as a trail of shadows. If what we are doing means anything, it might be that it seems easier to see world shining if you walk longer than pleasurable with a wire sculpture in your hands, in step with a donkey.

Despite the tiredness and the blisters, we are dancing. I feel grateful to the team, who so generously treat us as if we were as young and energetic as they are. And so, in the early hours, I get to dance to the Clash without irony, and maybe even without nostalgia. What a privilege.