Quite appropriately for a festival there seems to be a walking theme behind many of the Artangel commissioned artworks showing for this year’s Manchester International Festival. Works by Šejla Kamerić and Anri Sala, Lavinia Greenlaw, Francis Alÿs and Catherine Yass all have this thread running through them, and by the time I left after watching Šejla Kamerić’s version of 1395 Days Without Red I couldn’t walk without hearing my own footsteps ricocheting round my head - leaving the Whitworth Gallery I had that magical feeling you get after watching really good films where you step outside and feel totally dislocated from the ‘real’ world, and even running for the bus becomes a poetic act.
The sound of footsteps structures many of the works, especially Alÿs’s Guards, Kamerić and Sala’s 1395 Days Without Red, and Greenlaw’s Audio Obscura (which is a sound piece in Piccadilly Station, all the other works mentioned above are part of the show at the Whitworth). The curt, percussive nature of the sound colours the impression we have of the works and stays in your head like a persistent ticking clock for hours afterwards. In 1395 Days Without Red this tick tock-ing of footsteps is particularly eerie, as we watch people walking through the empty streets of Sarajevo, reliving the trauma of traversing the city in the siege of 1992-1996, and the terror of running the gauntlet down Sniper Alley.
Virtually the only sound we hear as we watch people walking the city is the sound of footsteps, slowing as people gather at the end of the street to wait for the right moment, then speeding up as they run full tilt to the other side, finally breathing heavily with relief and exhaustion. These scenes, which for the most part follow one woman’s journey across the city, are interspersed with footage of an orchestra, assembled on the landing of a strangely beautiful modernist building somewhere else in Sarajevo, playing extracts from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6 Pathétique. The movement between the high melodrama of Tchaikovsky’s music and the sparse and tense percussion of the footsteps gives the work a beautifully cinematic quality, and a kind of film noir sensibility, albeit one which is starker and more claustrophobic than usual.
In Greenlaw’s piece we are subject to a different kind of tension, more akin to high class horror film. Wandering Piccadilly station with the headphones provided, we are permitted to listen in on the sinister innermost thoughts of our fellow travellers, gradually piecing together fragments of their disturbing narratives. Again footsteps help structure the work, with the ambient noise of the station providing the fog through which we catch snippets of thoughts. There are constantly footsteps clicking up behind you and then fading away again, footsteps that ebb and flow like the always mutable nature of the passage of time in a horror movie. The involuntary mindreading that you are forced to undertake leaves you susceptible to creeping worries and you begin to look at everyone in the station with a more prying eye. I found parts of the piece genuinely disturbing, but it worked best when you managed to spot someone on the concourse who could conceivably have been the owner of the voice you were hearing. Then it could truly jolt.
The works shown by Alÿs are all part of the Artangel commission Seven Walks, and were completed in London over a period of 5 years from 2000-2005. In many of Alÿs’s pieces walking through the urban environment is a way of testing the limits of control we find ourselves under in the city, and as such makes a nice companion piece to 1395 Days Without Red. There’s a particular bit it the latter film where a group of people gathered at the end of the street gasp in unison and step back in horror as the shadow that they are hovering in moves and threatens to reveal their toes. This scene bears a superficial relationship to Alÿs’s Shady/Sunny where he takes two walks through south London, his route dictated by following either the sunny or the shady side of the street, but it seems to resonate more with the pieces relating to The Nightwatch and his study of surveillance in London. Displayed next to The Nightwatch (the famous piece where Alÿs let a fox loose in the Tudor and Georgian rooms of the National Portrait Gallery and filmed it’s movements on CCTV cameras) are two similar walks to Shady/Sunny, one following the ‘path of most surveillance’ and one the least. Alÿs has mapped the locations of all the CCTV cameras in central London and plotted routes that either avoid or seek them. Whilst CCTV cameras are less immediately threatening than the snipers of Sarajevo, there is something striking in the way Alÿs is forced to move round the city when taking account of them that is like the woman in Kamerić and Sala’s film, and something disturbing about the fact that we move through the city day in day out without altering our movements. Like the communal involuntary duck of the inhabitants of Sarajevo, we all find a way of adapting to our surroundings. Ours is to walk through the city blind.