By Vithya Subramaniam
(1,961 words, 8-minute read)
We’ve taken more walks these days, haven’t we? Walking isn’t new to us. There hasn’t been a time when we were not walking. But this simple universal act has found new meanings over this last year. Here in Singapore, some of us walked along old train tracks for the first time in years. Some of us walked across the Causeway for the last time in months. Some of us walked all around the island. Some of us can barely walk out of our cramped dorm rooms. In this time of closing in, several artistic productions have sought to open up our worlds through sound and our feet.
I am interested in walking as an ethnographic method, a way of getting to know worlds and its peoples. I enjoy its humble ambitions, for walking as method seeks to follow, not replicate; it recognises that while you may walk in someone else’s shoes, you’ll never walk in their feet. Thus a major part of this method is walking-with. One could walk-with a local, an expert, an activist. Or one could walk-with ‘alone’—with the senses, the environment, things, animals, the more-than-human. ‘Walking-with is a form of solidarity, unlearning, and critical engagement with situated knowledges.’1Springgay, Stephanie and Sarah E. Truman. 2018. Walking Methodologies in a More-than-Human World: WalkingLab. New York: Routledge, p11 In walking-with, knowledge is shared and co-authored, between peoples and material worlds.
Artist and academic Loo Zihan’s Temporary Measures: A Procession of Physical Proximity turned walking-with into performance when he took participants on three-hour-long one-on-one walks along the 9.5km-long Rail Corridor, holding discussions and sharing his found spaces of Singapore’s (then) less-visited landscape. [Proceeds went to Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).] Zihan’s walk in June 2020 adds to the rich history of artists who have incorporated walking into their performance practice, such as Amanda Heng with Let’s Walk (1999) and Tehching Hsieh‘s various durational works.
A photo from Temporary Measures, taken near a migrant workers’ dormitory under quarantine.
Image courtesy of Loo Zihan.
Like Zihan’s walks, the constraints on movement and socialisation in these pandemic times have inspired other experiments with walking. Sonia Overall started Distance Drift during the first UK Lockdown in April 2020, ‘walking together apart’ with a few fellow archeologists. Walking synchronously but individually wherever they are, participants walk in response to prompts shared on Twitter, and usually reply with photographs. These now weekly walks see participants from all around the world, brought together by the hashtag #DistanceDrift. Walking, in these perilous times, is then perhaps less about enjoying the outdoors or the company of friends, but rather more about a desire for community- and place-making. More recently, in January, Malaysian artist Lee Ren Xin led a 10-day workshop, Where Are You: A Walking Study, with participants going on walking rituals in neighbourhoods around them as she communicated with them via email. The Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) also recently announced the inclusion of urban walking experience en route by Melbourne-based company one step at a time like this, as part of its line-up this year.
With the Thaipusam procession called off this year due to the pandemic, Vel Vel: A Sonic Walk by The Arts House replicates that 3km walk of community, faith and music through Little India, Selegie and Dhoby Ghaut. This festival commemorates the occasion where Parvati gives Murugan his vel (spear), and is marked in Singapore by the procession from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Little India to Sri Thendayuthapani Temple in Tank Road, of kavadi and milkpot bearers performing their vows. In Vel Vel, monologues in English, written and voiced by members of Brown Voices, guide listeners through the day as experienced by various participants—the piercer, the kavadi carrier, the milkpot bearer, the family that walks with them, the friends who sing for them. Listeners walk-with these guides and the brilliantly captured sonic soundscape in perfectly timed tracks, as a moving map on the mobile web app marks their journey.
I walked with Vel Vel in the early evening of Thaipusam day on 28 January (also the day of its launch), hoping to see if anyone else also sought to walk the procession route in spite of its cancellation. Bits of broken coconut on the grounds outside the gates of Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple suggest that at least one other person had inaugurated their journey here. It is unsettling to see this temple quiet on Thaipusam day, and the uncanny soundscape produced in Vel Vel heightens that sense of absence. The track begins with the sound of a crowd chanting ‘Vel Vel’ (a ubiquitous choral refrain in this festival), drums and whistles, a devotional song plays far away, a lorry backs up. That singular moment, the lorry, deftly demonstrates sound designer Ramesh Krishnan’s keen ethnographic ear, for beyond the spectacle of kavadis, temple musicians and urumi melams (drum ensembles), it is the people and their labour behind the scenes who make the day.
A urumi melam, or drum ensemble, that provides musical accompaniment on Thaipusam. Image: CK Eng
Director and editor of the monologues Grace Kalaiselvi gives us five interlocutors to walk the whole process with. The piercer (written and voiced by Karthikeyan Somasundaram) and the accompanying friend who sings for the kavadi bearer (written and voiced by Mumtaz Maricar) remind us that the day’s task is by no means a solo project, nor the walk one of solitude. The day is a great coming together and performance of community. Just as one might meet a distant relative or an old friend, strangers also get quickly acquainted as one tenderly asks “Bro, can help my friend pierce?”.
While the singing and chants remind us of the religious intent, the tracks do not shy away from the sensory, human experience of the walk. We hear about the heat of the roads on bare feet and the relief offered at water points, “the smell of Thaipusam” from milk, sandalwood, kumkum (vermillion powder), and vibhuti (holy ash) and the taste of prasadam (food offerings) after a long day (particularly in Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai and Hashisha Nazir’s segments). I have kept my shoes on, I do not feel the heat, I do not smell the smells, but I momentarily recall them.
A supporter touching the feet of a pilgrim as a sign of respect. Image: CK Eng
Tasked to capture the fleeting sonic essence of a specific walk through a familiar landscape, Ramesh astutely threads field recordings to capture the shifting energies the Thaipusam procession brings to this space. The beeping of a street crossing signal in the beginning; singers changing songs mid-way as the group tries to pick the right song; the wearied ‘vel vel’ choral response as families and friends get tired; the recorded tracks and loudspeaker announcements signalling that we’re nearing the end; to hearing the declaration ‘Singapur Sri Thendayuthapanikku arogara’ (roughly, ‘salutations to Sri Thendayuthapani of Singapore’) and the masterful temple musicians on the nadaswaram (an oboe-like instrument) and thavil (a barrel-shaped drum)—how very precious it is to hear those sounds again, to feel the tingle up my back, to have walked-with.
All through my walk, the real world is not absent. My basic earphones don’t keep the sounds from outside and those in the tracks apart. But that mixing also works to heighten the absence. As I walked down Serangoon Road with devotional songs to Murugan in my ear, the rush of Punjabi pop and Bollywood songs blasting from the shops remind me that I’m the only one walking-with Thaipusam that day. Despite that, Vel Vel builds a sense of community with its unabashed candour celebrating the reality of our ways. “Whispers and gossips speak about garbs worn. I hear about the good, the bad, and the gaudy…” (as Lewin Bernard writes and Hemang Yadav voices). I find myself nodding in agreement, this is my community, this is how we come together. I miss the crowd, I miss our mass, I miss how Thaipusam was our way of taking up space, of walking on roads, without care for shoes or the sun, I miss making our sounds, who cares if someone else thinks we’re ‘noisy’. Vel Vel offered a timely chance for walking in solidarity in a solitary year.
Men form a procession carrying the paal kudam (milkpot) on their heads. Image: RR Iyer
Unlike in traditional theatre, the real and performed worlds intertwine in these audio walks. We are called to ‘act’ on prompts and ‘perform’ with the piece. The ‘show’ only goes as far as we are willing to go with it. This is especially clear in The Silence of a Falling Tree and A Bird Calls You To Moscow, audio experiences both presented as part of SIFA 2020. Each offers different approaches for critical engagement with a world not devoid of or beyond the human, but encompassing and greater than just the human. In both, we are told to experience each track in a different location and are guided through getting to know these material worlds. In our rooms and the supermarket, The Silence of a Falling Tree asks us to take real notice of objects, to make selections, to curate, to closely consider the collection. In the park, we are asked to pick and closely observe a tree, to write it a letter by tracing a finger on bark in an evocation of the material biography of paper. Writer-director Irfan Kasban and the voices of Grace Kalaiselvi, Bright Ong and Umi Kalthum, guide us through a meditation on our material and social worlds as they walk us through methods for truly taking notice of things.
Director Tan Shou Chen and writer Joel Tan invite us to take up a different exploration in A Bird Calls You to Moscow. We are asked to roleplay as archaeologists a millennia into the future, and to adopt a ‘quieter method’ of sensing with our ears, feet and eyes to notice the traces in the landscape. A different signal dominates each walk—melancholy in ‘a room where love sleeps’; nostalgia in ‘a park where the trees are old’; and clarity on ‘a circular ride on public transport’. As we set out, we hear an exchange between a couple seeking solitude and love. Voiced by Brendon Fernandez and Julie Wee, their exchange suggests a sort of archaeological find, a trace of something we each might recover in our digs. As my walk in the park comes to a close, and Julie Wee’s character has buried the memory of her love, she asks that “if you find it, whoever you are, remember it for me”, I am uncannily reminded of my own lost memories, in this park in Jurong, of young love left behind and happily forgotten. A Bird Calls You to Moscow calls us into an object-less archaeology that illuminates the traces we each leave in the landscapes of our personal worlds.
A Bird Calls You to Moscow. Image courtesy of Tan Shou Chen.
Like in Vel Vel, these two audio walks are just as much about the carefully crafted sonic landscapes they weave. Pianist Albert Tiu’s renditions of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky underscores each walk of A Bird Calls You To Moscow, providing a non-verbal guide in our efforts to take notice. The compositions by Cheryl Ong, Raghavendran Rajasekaran and Azrin Abdullah in The Silence of A Falling Tree too work to shape our observations—circling through different moods as we reconfigure objects in our rooms; the sound of the flute jars against the bustle of NTUC Fairprice as I try to observe other shoppers; and I wonder if the task is supposed to feel paradoxical. Either way, in both these works, the non-specific familiarity of the music works with the non-specific but replicable spaces they prompt us to walk through.
In returning lost sounds to their spaces, Vel Vel most urgently foregrounds what The Silence of Falling Tree and A Bird Calls You to Moscow invite us to do—to notice the traces. With its timing and intent, Vel Vel ‘seize[s] hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.’2Benjamin, Walter. 1969. ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ in Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, p255, Thesis VI. It remembers the feet that have walked, laboured, prayed and played on those very roads. All these audio invitations to walk-with capture the fleeting landscapes we move through every day. They remind us that ours is a world co-authored by peoples, things, spaces, and all sorts of walks.
Disclaimer: Vithya Subramaniam is a member of Brown Voices but was not involved in the making of Vel Vel: A Sonic Walk.
Selected further reading on walking and walking as method:
Ingold, Tim. 2007. Lines: A Brief History. London: Routledge.
Ingold, Tim and Jo Lee Vergunst, eds. 2008. Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot. London: Routledge.
O’Neill, Maggie and Brian Roberts. 2020. Walking Methods: Research on the Move. New York: Routledge
Springgay, Stephanie and Sarah E. Truman. 2018. Walking Methodologies in a More-than-Human World: WalkingLab. New York: Routledge
Find the following walks here: Vel Vel: A Sonic Walk presented by The Arts House (a mobile-only experience, available till 18 Jan 2022); en route at SIFA 2021 (14-30 May 2021). You can also still access the tracks for The Silence of a Falling Tree and A Bird Calls You to Moscow, which were part of SIFA 2.020.
Vithya Subramaniam is an anthropologist and playwright interested in the agency of objects and the materialities of being. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, UK, and member of Brown Voices, a collective of Singapore Indian playwrights.