Shooting Mr. Burns
Walking can be understood as the relationship between a body, a landscape and a path. Whilst walking, the ever-changing landscape slowly unfolds before the walker and a space for critical thinking opens up. The act of walking forces us to take a certain distance from what is experienced and in this distance criticality is found. Within this repetitive mechanical act of placing one foot in front of the other, we lose part of our subjectivity and subsequently can think about repositioning ourselves and our social roles beyond our functions, our discourse and postures. Walking opens up the possibility of looking beyond the individual and into the common. Within this act we become commoners.
The fires which started in the early spring, were finally dying down. First came the fires, and then came the lava. The lava continued to make its way slowly down the flat lands, but the worst was over, according to the news. On screen, people still have time to collect their belongings and leave their houses before this mass of molten rock, as unstoppable as the blob, engulfs them in flames. The villagers tried to stop the blob before it reached the town, building mud defences with specialised machines, a great feat of technology vs. nature. But there was no stopping the lava.
The news didn’t mention the tar sands, either out of ignorance or because they’re helping in the cover up, but everyone in town knows they are the real cause behind the fires.
None of this mattered now of course.
The Walking Reading Group’s (TWRG) practice takes place in the time and critical space of a walk. Participants read the preselected texts and armed with this knowledge they prepare for the walk. Yet before setting off they are encouraged to leave behind any fixed positions of knowledge that may be exercised as power and any pressures to speak for something or someone as authority, and to take with them only their personal interests in the reading of the texts. In the route to be walked little is left to chance, as each walk is carefully planned in advance by TWRG, defined and contextualised as much as possible by the proposed texts and themes. Like in a complex board game, there is a set of pre-defined variables, however when the group sets off, conversations happen naturally, encouraged by one of the few guidelines of TWRG: speak without fear of being wrong. As participants walk and talk in pairs they take part in an ephemeral act that leaves no trace of thembeing there, an act made possible by all our commonalities: from humanness to language. And as the walk unfolds, walkers are conscious or unconsciously connected and affected by the landscape. Each walk in its own right is an experiment in creating and sharing knowledge, a dilution of authorship, an attempt at walking as practice and in this case, an ongoing piece of research into commonality.
You don’t say much. You simply watch, drink in hand. I am aware that you have been struggling all winter to make ends meet. Building flat packed-furniture for the time-poor middle classes has its perks, or so you said. You have become an expert air guitar tutor, snack chef, rubbish and recycling disposer, grass cutter, clothes folder, small talk companion, line queuer, wardrobe organiser, whistling teacher and parcel deliverer. No one has needed a tv-watcher yet, so the terror on the screen is for you a rare moment of unpaid holiday.
Walking for pleasure can be a subversive act. A small act of dissent and disobedience followed by the real or imaginary act of mapping out private and public spaces, common ground and private land. Walking for pleasure is equally a common act; walking is but a way of making the commons tangible, by physically inhabiting common spaces. In TWRG’s practice it is also a shared experience.
The news continues to roll at the bottom of the screen in the bar of the Hotel Cala Font. Eighty nine rooms, 168 beds, seven floors, one breakfast bar and two evening bars, a pot-holed tennis court, one adults’only pool and a splashing pool: all soon to be covered by lava. The sound of someone jumping in the pool wakes you from the heat-induced stupor and it is at this moment that the familiar structure appears on screen. The camera pans into a large house that is about to be devoured by heat and there she is, mother, in what is actually a school classroom, waving out of the window and seeming completely unaware of the situation.
Mother had worked at that school for over 20 years. We look at each other, with a look of understanding that comes from all those years of a shared upbringing. Perhaps she didn’t hear the news. But we know this isn’t true. That school is in a rural area in indigenous land, close to the tar sands. The tar sands shine for their absence but the men at the bar know someone had to be sacrificed and they’re glad it wasn’t them.
When thinking about the commons what first comes to mind are the resources we all share: water, air, space, internet, the digital. But underlying these resources there is also the presumption that we share them because we all have something in common. The current status quo conveniently takes for granted that there is a common good, and a common agreement or understanding of what this common good looks like: common sense, common knowledge, common spaces, common land, and community, Platonic ideas known by all. Can this really be true while the politics of othering define much of the larger policies, such as those related to equality, environment and climate change, our largest shared common resources?
The white men in the white lab coats found a way of blocking the sun. They got their ideas from supervolcanoes and decided to carry out this godlike feat for the common good. What the men ignored is that not everyone lives under the same kind of sun. Common suffering and common sacrifice are costlier for certain peoples and the unwanted neighbours are always easier to sacrifice than our own people.
As the lava slowly engulfed everything in its way, none of this made a difference now.
For many the current idea of the commons presents a serious alternative to the capitalist model. Unfortunately capitalism has the power of being all-absorbing and all-encompassing, a gigantic dark hole that swallows everything within its gravitational pull. So it came to be that the common economy, now known as the shared economy, is part of the new wave of capitalism where spare space, spare time, a spare car, spare electronics, spare parking, spare life, have been transformed into the newest commodities.
The neighbours wanted us to join in the protests: against the sun’s blocking, against the tar sands, against the lava defences, but the new laws don’t allow any kind of gathering and besides, you didn’t feel like taking on unpaid marching jobs. Especially not after all the unpaid work experience you had to do when you helped me pack for the evacuation.
So the plans went ahead and temperatures did go down for a while but as we thought, the droughts were followed by the fires, then followed by the lava. Drought in one place is floods in another and with floods come boats with people. No one likes the boats these days, but who has time to worry about boats when there are cabinets to be built?
If we walk to reinvent ourselves and to open up possibilities then walking whilst discussing is a great feat of commoning we can undertake.
The Walking Reading Group (TWRG) is a collective project (started in 2013) run by Lydia Ashman (London), Ania Bas (London) and Simone Mair (Bolzano) that facilitates knowledge exchange in an intimate and dynamic way through discussing texts whilst walking together. In this reading group the table is broken up by the street and the dominant voice is replaced with conversation partners talking simultaneously. Anyone can participate and the walks are free to attend.
Maru Rojas is a Mexican artist, writer and facilitator based in London and a graduate from the MFA Art Writing course at Goldsmiths, University of London. She writes fictional narratives mixed with critical and theoretical texts.