What a mobile culture we are in the West: flying across the globe for holidays and work, driving kids to school, commuting. Yet we have been this nomadic travelling culture for a relatively short time. Flight only became widely affordable after the Second World War. The train displaced the horse and boats at the end of the 19th century and the car came soon after. Mobility as we know it now has been around for just 50-100 years. Millions of people in many other parts of the world have been too poor, or too constrained by inequitable border controls, to ever become part of this nomadic culture and live much more static lives.
The artist, Gustav Metzger, is urging other artists to desist from plane travel to reduce carbon emissions and environmental activists urge the same for the general public. According to Dennis and Urry the century of the car was the 20th century and it’s over. The combustion-engine powered car is being replaced with low-carbon alternatives: electric cars, hydrogen cars, battery cars, alternative fuels, and schemes where cars are not privately owned but communal or loaned on short term bases.
One of the most successful aspects of the car was that it became individually affordable for many and thereby became a kind of prosthetic or mobile home – which is also one of the reasons why it is so hard for people to imagine life without their car. But will we eventually be forced to live more constrained lives, close to home, eating food grown locally, contracting to the resources of our immediate environs?
Our lust for mobility took a distinctive form in the 20th century, but it was there before and will re-emerge in another form after the demise of the car and the plane. Archaeological and historical evidence establishes that humans have been travelling since they learnt to walk and were soon getting around on foot, on horseback, in carts and boats. The early trips of Vikings, Greeks and Romans were followed by the voyages of ‘discovery’ by the European colonial powers. Mobility is a fundamental human need: for resources, for trade, for breeding, for intellectual and cultural stimulation, and out of sheer curiosity and itchy feet.
In the 19th century when the combustion-engine powered car was developed it established itself as the technology of choice through races. Now competing low-carbon mobilities vie with each other to become the new dominant technology and the international DARPA Grand Challenge awards a prize to developers of autonomous (driverless) vehicles. I would like to propose a similar race or convention for non-carbon based mobilities or self-powered mobilities, for ingenious forms of travel that use only the energy of our own bodies or of animals and what is on offer from the natural environment. This Self-powered Mobility Convention could take place annually in Glen Nevis, from summer 2011, with inventors and participants gathering in Fort William in the Scottish Highlands and making their way to Outlandia two miles down the Glen.
Outlandia is an off-grid artists’ studio suspended in a copse of Norwegian Spruce and Larch on Forestry Commission land in Glen Nevis. It is located in a landscape of forest, river and mountains with Ben Nevis looming directly opposite. It is performative architecture: a treehouse observatory and a flexible meeting space in the forest. It was imagined by artists group, London Fieldworks, working in collaboration with me as writer and curator, and with Scottish award-winning practice, Malcolm Fraser Architects.
Race seems the wrong word for the Self-Powered Mobility Convention since speed isn’t necessarily a criteria of success in the self-powered world. We already have to accept that non-carbon emissions based travel – on foot, on horseback, by bike, by water – takes time, much more time, than the car or the plane or the train. A train journey from my home in Oxford to Outlandia would take me eight hours. To walk there I’d need three weeks. But there are other criteria in play too: own-energy efficiency, physical aspects (age, health, disability), adaptability to what needs to be carried, changing terrains and weather.
As a non-driver with reclusive, rustic tendencies and itchy feet, the idea of slow travel is nothing new or daunting to me. I have endured long distance train journeys above the Arctic Circle and across the Baltic countries, undertaken research on Land Art in Arizona and New Mexico by Greyhound Bus and lifts, and lived in a hamlet in the South of France with no public transport and a half an hour hike to one small shop. I’d like to convince other people – car people – of the glories and possibilities of slow going.
What we need now, in the face of climate change, is not dystopic, apocalyptic visions, but inspiring and aspiring visions of the kind that science fiction provided for scientists and technologists in the 20th century – artefacts for eco-topia that inspire expansive dreams of a transformed, adaptive future. Those artefacts don’t have to be objects, they can also be ideas, processes, events, ephemera, brief resonant images and experiences. Art is an imaginary practice that can propose playful, humorous, provocative visions for transforming and adapting human life in relation to the environment.
I would like to enquire into self-powered mobilities by collecting objects, drawings, images, models and documents on existing forms, and new inventions. Existing non-carbon mobilities include walking, jogging, leg springs, skate boards, stilts, cross-country skis, skiing, snow shoes, trainers with wheels in them, bikes of all kinds, go-carts, horse riding, horse and cart, and husky sleighs. Rivers, canals, lakes and sea provide means of travel by canoeing, rowing, swimming and ice-skating. Maps could be reimagined and redrawn with no tarmacked roads, just blue waterways and green roads.
In Fort William there are mountaineers, people who know ropes. Maybe someone could realise an idea I’ve had for some time that a rope-swing network could be established – like the one that Tarzan uses – and this could be combined with a carabiner installed in a special jacket so that I could hook myself up and get about with high-speed treetop travel. An Amphicar (a car that can drive on the road and through water) already exists , with of course, a combustion engine. But perhaps it could be redesigned to run on water? Activities currently considered as merely sport and leisure, could become means of travel, as Roger Deakin and John Cheever for instance, envisaged for swimming. Could roly-polys become a form of travel in certain terrains?
The relics of old transport systems could be employed as artists HeHe demonstrate with their harnessing of disused railway tracks for self-powered travel. Other examples of artists’ self-powered mobilities include He Yun Chang walking around the edge of the UK anti-clockwise carrying a small rock. It took him 16 weeks and I walked part of the route with him. Rebecca Beinart has an adapted bike that unfolds into a tea table and small field kitchen for foraged afternoon tea. Energy Café use pedal power to generate electricity to cook breakfast and amplify live music. Claire Long and Anna Keleher invented an ankle-butter churn that employs the walking gait to produce butter for your tea at the end of your walk. Simon Starling turned a shed into a boat, rowed it downstream and then turned it back into a shed. He also made a bicycle to cross the desert with an adaptor purifying cactus juice into drinkable fluid. Andrew Sunley-Smith’s solar powered vehicles have vegetable gardens on the roof-rack and in trailers and he cooks on the engine. Poet-artists Alec Finlay and Ken Cockburn are visiting Outlandia as part of their walk across Scotland following the text of an ancient Japanese poet, Basho.
From Robert Smithson’s writings on travel in the 1970s to curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s Altermodern map last year artists have an abiding interest in the metaphors of maps and journeys. Outlandia could be all at once a Terminal of Mobilities (a place of arrival and departure for journeys), a Museum of Mobilities, an Archive of Mobilities, the publisher of a Compendium of Self-Powered Mobilities. Imagine a world without the appalling noise pollution of car-filled roads.
Bourriaud, Nicolas, Altermodern (London: Tate, 2010).
Cheever, John, ‘The Swimmer’ in Collected Stories (London: Vintage, 1990).
Deakin, Roger, Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain (London: Vintage, 2000).
Dennis, Kingsley & Urry, John, After the Car (Cambridge: Polity, 2009).
Rew, Kate & Tyler, Dominic, Wild Swim (London: Guardian Publishers, 2008).
Smithson, Robert, The Writings of Robert Smithson, edited by Nancy Holt (New York: New York University Press, 1979).
Starling, Simon, Cuttings: Simon Starling (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2005).
Rebecca Beinart http://www.axisweb.org/seCVPG.aspx?ARTISTID=9713
He Yun Chang http://www.spacex.co.uk/pl3artist.html
Darpa Grand Challenge http://www.darpa.mil/grandchallenge/index.asp
Energy Café http://energycafe.wordpress.com
Alec Finley and Ken Cockburn, The Road North http://www.alecfinlay.com
Malcolm Fraser Architects http://www.malcolmfraser.co.uk
Claire Long & Anna Keleher http://www.claireandanna.com
Oxford Brookes University Sustainable Vehicle Research Centre http://tech.brookes.ac.uk/svec
Andrew Sunley-Smith http://www.sunleysmith.com