Last Sunday I participated in the performance art piece Hamish Fulton did in collaboration with Modern Art Oxford. It took place on a narrow footpath behind Christ Church. Volunteer performers and Fulton himself lined up along both sides of the road, evenly spaced out so that one would be standing at the midpoint of the distance between the two people on the opposite side. We were instructed to start, at the last chime of twelve o'clock, walking briskly back and forth for exactly an hour with phones switched off.
My first reaction was, wow, I'm gonna run out of things to think about. It wasn't till then that I realized my dependence on podcasts had become paralyzing; seldom do I spend an hour on the move without constant chatter in my ears. I used to justify it as efficient time management and an excellent source of alternative education, but the fear of withdrawal symptoms alone is a withdrawal symptom, and I've got no excuse but to face the fact that I'm a bit uncomfortable with my and only my thoughts reverberating in my brain. Bracing myself for some long overdue soul searching, I made my first step.
Except it didn't really happen, at least not in the fashion I had much dreaded. The width of the path was so short it actually inhibited any thought longer than a tweet. It suddenly occurred to me then that the sufis whirl because circular movement guaranteed, especially in limited space, continuity and fluidity. Whereas linear movement like ours inevitably segmented into halt and turn, frequent as they were abrupt. An average Millennial, my attention span is borderline ADHD, having that cut short was actually quite unsettling.
So I tossed my head around, staring right back at passersby for visual stimulation just to keep myself occupied. Although we were told to maintain a constant speed throughout the hour, I couldn't help but speed up a little when a tourist group entered my peripheral vision as I turned around, just so I could catch a few more glimpses – new faces! – on my way walking toward them.
Conscious change in pace aside, fluctuation was inevitable. We all started out at roughly the same pace, but of course gradually fell out of sync. Sometimes I found myself facing a gang of five coming right at me, then a few rounds later we were marching shoulder to shoulder. The first couple of times this happened, the animal instinct in me took over control and succumb to 'peer pressure,' matching my steps with those of my neighbors. But soon enough I started losing count of just how many times syncopation like this happened. What's the rush getting to the other side, if all you do after that is to come back, ad infinitum? So I strolled on, like a Nietzschean chicken.
Except it did eventually come to an end. We stopped promptly when it struck 1, and disbanded almost immediately after. No de-briefing, no chitchatting. An old lady put up the jacket she had thrown onto the ground halfway through, a husband congratulated his pregnant wife with a hug; then they all carried on, in their stoic, British ways, back to their own walk of life.