Sometimes Nicola Dale and I make work together — we are friends and we shared a studio as students. These days, she’s a full-time artist and I’m a writer that can’t quite let go of the idea of making things for their own sake. During 2020, we each developed our own lockdown rituals. With her studio in Stockport closed and her teaching in Leeds moved online, she reconfigured her workspace and did daily Joe Wicks workouts with her partner, Darren Nixon. In London, I just carried on working remotely for some architects and attempted to home school our five-year-old son, Wilf. We tried Joe Wicks once.
It was a warm spring in London, which was lucky, as there was really nowhere to be but outside. At the end of each day, after dinner, Wilf, my husband, Nick and I would go for a walk. In the summers before Wilf was born, we always used to go for a walk after dinner, and it was nice to reinstate this ritual as a threesome. It was a chance to get out, watch other people do the same and put the day to rest. There’s something about the conversations we have when we’re walking, as though they fall into step with our feet and that movement dislodges new ways of thinking about our worries.
We had a favourite route, which we called the ‘Hunts Slip Loop’. It was short enough for an hour’s walk, not too hilly, relatively quiet and green. It went through the garden, down the side of Gipsy Meadow, across the road and down Alleyn Park to Hunts Slip Road, which bridges the rail line to Sydenham Hill and borders the cricket pitches of Dulwich College. At the end of this road — the halfway point — we would turn right, past the white picket fences along College Road, the entrance to the woods and church, predicting how many cyclists would pass us before we turned right at the top, crossing the corner of Dulwich Wood Park and walking home past the blocks and sixties townhouses on Lymer Avenue.
I looked forward to our walk as the end of the working day and our only social encounter. We would often bump into neighbours, wave at people from a safe distance, ask if they were doing ok and vice versa — we started to see the same strangers too, sometimes passing them at the same time of day, often in the same spot. Bored of wearing the same clothes, I started to make an effort and would change my outfit, brush my hair and put makeup on. Not in any committed Cindy Sherman way, just to look a bit smarter. Nick started to change his t-shirt, and I dressed Wilf in something bright. As the walk had grown in significance in our day, it felt as though we were stepping out as a family on a promenade.
There is a photo of my grandma and papa taken in Skegness in 1946 — a ‘walkie’ by Wrate seaside photography. He’s in a suit, she’s in a tea dress, both are in shades and they look like film stars. They are walking along with a reluctant toddler, my uncle, between them, pushing my aunt in a pram, followed by other, more pedestrian couples.
Nicola and I had talked about doing a project together; something new that could come out of the situation, rather than a train of thought that was disrupted by it. We had both been walking. I mentioned the promenade, the pleasure of being out, seeing other people, and being seen — the family that passed us in matching, custom-made cycling jerseys, the Spanish tradition of strolling in the early evening, the walking writers that Nick read. We weren’t sure what form this collaboration would take, how I could describe our route, or how it related to Nicola and Darren’s walks in Stockport, but she suggested I start by recording audio.
When I did, it happened to be a fairly eventful walk: we bumped into a friend, we talked to a neighbour, who was setting out on the same circular route in reverse as we arrived home. It was warm, I was talking about an oven we had just had fitted, and how relieved I was that it slotted into the gap where the old oven was — it might not have done, they didn’t make the old model any longer, it’s an irregular size. Wilf walked along people’s low garden walls and tugged at our clothes if we dawdled. I sent the audio to Nicola, apologising that it was over an hour long, curious to see what she would make of it.
Nicola has a unique way of looking at and ordering the world. At art school, she re-typed every word of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in alphabetical order. She once moved a pile of rice from one table to another, using tweezers, one grain at a time. Over the years, her performances and sculptures have evolved, but there is still a conceptual rigour and a kind of madness to her practice; a determination to investigate ideas to their conclusion. She still reads difficult books of criticism and philosophy, so does Darren. They don’t have a television, they resist smartphones. I wondered if our circular conversation about ovens, coronavirus and school closures would sound inane, wondered how many times I told Wilf not to do something, whether I fussed too much, whether the phone had picked everything up from the microphone clipped to my bag. I only listened to the first minute or two to check before I sent it.
Nicola pulled out sections of the audio she was drawn to. Repeating these snippets, she found links and contrasts, like the rumble of a car and Wilf’s voice. She ordered the individual clips for each of us by length to make loops of sound, tweaking it to make sense according to her rules, and adding an echo filter effect to smooth out the background noises. The result is dreamlike and hypnotic; a half-remembered, looping journey through voices and layers of sound, which follows the pace and rhythm of our walk. It’s appropriate for the time that it’s a distortion of our familiar rituals.
Listen to the sound piece and read more about the process here: Work in progress – Nicola Dale