Walk to Guangzhou
November 2016. I walked from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. At the Connecting Space Hong Kong I built an installation that consisted of two speakers inside a box and a screen. The screen showed name and location of the last person logged in the Sychronisator, while the speakers played the steps of all the people who were currently walking with me on my journey. I walked over the border to China. A border that was the last hope for all those people who took issue with the political system in China. They would walk in the opposite direction, then swim over the border risking their lives. I was privileged; I had a visa and nothing to fear. I walked alone with friends from Hong Kong or Europe. For nine days, the application ticked away in my pocket, each day, I typed on my smartphone, publishing my experiences on the Institute Movement website.
I walk #1
I walk. Euphoria. Nervousness. I start with a 15 minutes delay. Walking up the hill with a speed generated in Zürich. Getting wet inside and outside. My two followers leave. I walk. Waiting for others to walk with me. No one... Doubts. Is this working? I get lost. No internet connection. I look around. I am in the moment. I am here, now. What do I do here? If nobody is walking with me, is this still interesting? The App worked and it connects people, but do they find time for a walk?
I walk #2
I am sitting here surrounded by nature. I entered the loneliness. I started writing and this I in the title seemed weird. WE walk! This is a constant struggle for me. Am I taking myself too seriously? Before I started, I always said: I am not the center, everyone is equal in the App and in this walk to Guangzhou. There is no separation between the performer and the audience. We are all both. And still I am walking to Guangzhou. Friends of mine are walking with me while I walk. My presence is not essential, but still I claim it to be my art project.
Today my mobile data was off and I realised how nice it was to walk without caring about others. After I recharged my ac- count in Tai Po I just walked. There was the Synchronisator ticking in my pocket and I walked. Not checking if there was any other one active in the App. That’s how it should be. Otherwise I would be producing precisely what I am trying to overcome: not to be in the moment and connecting only through the screen.
The more I think about the action of walking, the more I find out that my intention is to bring back something that we lost through the digital ways of connecting. It is the body, that in the digital world seems to be obsolete. We should not forget: our body is the vessel of our unconscious mind, and might have more control over us than we think...
I walk #3
I am in China now. I don’t know if anyone is reading this. Maybe not. Maybe it is just another scream into the endless world of servers. I am in the „third day mood“: tired, with muscle pain and not knowing why I do this.
Crossed the border today. Started in the peaceful nature of the Hong Kong‘s New Territories. Walked down through nice little villages. Then reached the border before Shenzhen. Tried to walk across. Walked around 4 km along a fence to find out that I needed to go all the way back. All in the sun of noon. There is no way to walk over the border to China. You have to take a bus that brings you to the first passport control, then a other bus to the second one, and then you are in China. I am exhausted from the last days of walking and with my senses open by nature. Now the city overwhelms me. Too many people. Too loud. Too sticky. I start to walk but realise that it is definitely too hot to walk and I feel too weak. I sit down in the shadow, people pass and look at this strange European as if I was an alien and I feel like crying.
What am I doing here? Is this the right way? Why do I walk in a country where I don‘t understand the language? Does my wal- king change anything? Is anyone moved by it? Does this make any sense or is this just an ego-trip? Am I using the right tools for my action? Should I get louder or should I just get rid of the App? Trump got elected as president of the United States of America. He became president thanks to, not only but also, the technology we built. We thought Internet would drastically rise democratic participation. But the opposite has been true: only the loudest is heard in a world where everyone is cons- tantly and silently feeding data. What can we do? The best way to prevent any social change is to keep people occupied so there is no time for thought. Then, there is this big theme: „the algorithms“. Are they bad? No. An algorithm can never be good or bad. But, to put an example, the algorithm that is trying to understand our social behaviour in Facebook, challenges us with one big problem: it‘s providing nothing new, just similar information we have read and heard before. Opinions can only get radicalised and the world more divided into extremes. So, amongst all those algorithms, how can we, humans, come to- gether? We know we need a change. A global one. Growth cannot be endless. We need to slow down. Our planet will die if we continue fighting for our own benefit and wanting more and more things. I am repeating myself here, I know. But one thing is clear: we need to recover the sense of time.
Time to feel. Time to walk. Let’s walk together.
I walk #4
It is difficult to write about what happened today. Too many impressions I could write stories with.
The most important is that I am fine. Back on my feet. My last post was a bit depressed and I lost hope on the project.
Thanks to all of you who believe in this.
So I will concentrate on writing about the Synchronisator. The whole day the App was running. It ticked besides me. My own steps were send to outer space, to a server somewhere in Ireland and back to me to China. Somehow poetic. A poetic digital demonstration of loneliness. I am finding out that this trip has a lot to do with loneliness and individualism. Today I walked with people from Shenzhen that were enjoying their Sunday walk. The weird western guy with the big backpack must have looked very funny to their eyes. I wanted to tell them that I am walking to Guangzhou, but I didn’t know how. The only inter- action I had was with an old man who asked me wether my bag was not too heavy. Or at least that‘s what I understood. I said yes, and proudly said my only and hardly learned phrase in Chinese: 我要去廣州(I am walking to Guangzhou). He laughed and said something about the distance in km. We walked a bit together and that was it. When I arrived on this crowded trail I felt strange. I was just coming out from nature, where I had been alone. Only me and nature. I needed some time to adapt my walking to theirs, to form a row with them. No more room for individualism. I had imagined that crossing a peak in total solitude would have been weird for my fellow walkers. What is this walking alone with others all about?
Let’s find out, let’s walk together.
I walk #5
Something changed today. I am no longer fighting against the strange looks. I accept them.
Last night I was camping in a little forest on the suburbs of Shenzhen. It was kind of scary: dogs where heavily barking, peo- ple with head torches drove by on old machines, the moon tinted the scenery with a cold light and mosquitos nearly eat me alive. Not a place you fall asleep easily. So I got up around four. Took my stuff and started walking towards the peak Yingtang. A beautiful landscape slightly appeared out of the dusty dawn. After climbing about an hour I found a big rock and decided to have a nap. I dreamed of women turning into witches once I touched them and crazy horses running around destroying everything. It was a disturbingly powerful sleep. Not long after two friendly Chinese stood before me. „Can we help?“. I must have looked like coming from another space. I humbled something like „No, no... I know where I am going...“. I showed them my phone and said my sentence of walking to Guangzhou. They laughed and we started walking together.
There it was. There was connection. By longing for others to join my walk I forgot the moment. And then it was so easy... We walked together and came together. The more we walked the less we were afraid of not knowing the words. In some chinglish we talked about the small things that mean the world. That’s it. I realised that I had been catch by the social media trap.
I felt enlightened. I had imagined that the Synchronisator would be a big thing, that more and more people will be using it and that I will be walking with a group all the time. But that‘s the point, and that’s what my two Chinese friends showed me: longing for others made me like those waiting for more likes on facebook. I was thinking big and trying to bring the world together without seeing the humans next to me.
I had lunch with my two friends and walked on. After a while I needed a break. I sat down before a police checkpoint.
I friendly asked. The officer said ok. I sat down and I told them „I walk to Guangzhou“. They didn’t understand why I want to do such a thing but that absurdity was the icebreaker between us. The officer called his friends and soon I was surrounded by other officers congratulating me on that funny idea.
I felt the connection happening beyond the spoken words. Accepting the absurdity of the situation and not being offended by their reaction made connection possible. I laughed with the smile of a clown that knows exactly where the joke lies, with no bitterness or judgment.
For a moment today I got rid of the Synchronisator. But then I missed the ticking of my own steps. The App has become a humanised metronome that automatically adapts to my own steps. As the code smoothes the walking rhythm, the step I hear is always a bit in delay. When I slow down he encourages me to walk a bit faster and if I speed up he echoes me. So there is a constant de- and re- synchronisation between me and the machine.
I walk #6
Still walking, even if my legs and feet are hurting and the smog of the Shenzhen suburbs is burning my eyes. I don’t complain. I am privileged.
I want to start this entry with a little praise to technology. Since yesterday I have the app „BaiduTrans“ and it helps a lot. You speak english to your phone and it responds in Chinese and the other way around. You can even translate pictures. Very hel- pful. Still a funny way to speak, but you can at least make conversation in a language you have no knowledge of.
I thought a lot about borders today. Before starting this walk I called my project „walking borders“. I thought of the border between China and Hong Kong, an imposed border that separated Chinese over years. And still does. The whole region I am walking through is historically the cantonese speaking part of China before Cantonese got forbidden in China and Hong Kong became English. A fence was built and a line was drawn.
Today I walked through city suburbs, rural areas, along huge factories, construction sites, skyscrapers, malls and along highways. There were different kinds of borders. There were the physical ones, like walls and fences I could not cross, and there were borders between human realities.
I took a road over a hill. There was a governmental construction of electronic grids: lot of military with unfriendly faces and workers with empty looks. At noon I reached a small village where I found a food stand with two tables on the pathway. The young waiter got very interested in knowing what I am doing here. We tried to make conversation and at the end he treated me for the meal. Only a few km later the scenery changed: there was a mall and hip-dressed up people. I saw a fancy coffee shop. My desire for real coffee was too strong to resist and I took a seat. The coffee was bad and costed the double of what I had saved from my meal. It made me think of the absurd correlation between price and value. Here, the waitress was cold and had no connection with the customers neither to the place she worked in. There was a dressed up couple beside me arguing about something. She with shopping bags, he constantly watching his iPhone, ignoring her high and loud voice.
In the evening I came along factories where masses of workers were leaving, jumping on electric motorbikes and driving off. Then I searched for a place to stay and found a strange complex with a lot of fancy cars parked in front where a night costed 900 ¥. I walked on. Found a cheaper one, but probably still one that would not be affordable for most Chinese.
There is another border I thought about, when passing this huge construction site. And that is the step of development; from a developing country to a develop one. Is it desirable to take this step? Would there be another way? Are Chinese people improving their lives thanks to this development, or is it just their adaptation to our capitalistic system? How to overcome this illusion of endless growth? How to educate and inspire people to create a sustainable society? Here, in China, there is a huge environmental problem. But the country is not to blame. On a short term basis they are on the good path. The numbers prove them right. Growth is happening. Environmental protection is seeing as a cost and a constraint. But we are all a part of the problem. I type here with a tool that is probably built around here, polluting the environment too. Here is the contradicti- on, no right or wrong.
For me there is only one way: WE have to come together. No nation, no borders, no self interest. It’s the first time in human history that we can connect so easily with the whole world. We have the means to do it. Let’s do it. Step by Step. Let’s find a global solution. Let’s walk together. Let’s synchronize...
I walk #7
And I walk on...
Yesterday I was talking about borders, today I will write about bridges.
I started the day in a good, positive mood. I had the plan to go to Nansha, on the mouth of the Shujiang River.
A lot of city walk to reach nature once again. When I arrived to Dongbao River there was no way to cross it. The bridge under construction... When I asked, some pointed on one direction, others on the opposite. I looked at the map and decided for the nearest option. I walked 4 km only to find out that on this way -that on the map looked like a nice walk on the riverside- was a huge construction site. Big trucks passed and the dust of their wheels made it difficult to see and hard to breathe. I needed to get out of there quickly. I reached a slum neighbourhood. I was exhausted. It was hot. People where looking out of their windows, with grumpy faces. I understood them. Stupid white guy doing slumtourism. A message from Nuria came in. She was sending it from the Connecting Spaces. No! They couldn’t hear any steps. Really? Have I been sending my steps through the cyberspace only to get a nice ticking thing on my chest? I pulled myself together. There was one last hope. A bridge further inland. So I walked on. Hard steps sound. The Synchronisator ticked and I hated this stupid machine. The road that leaded to the bridge had no sidewalks. All the motorcycles that horned when passing made me really uncomfortable. And then there was this guy on his bicycle loaded with a tent and a lot of camping stuff. He stopped and asked where I was heading to. I said my sentence. He went off the bike and walked along with me. And there it was, the bridge. We, my new fri- end and I, crossed it together and then he drove on. What a nice gesture! As soon as I was on the other side, there was a new rhythm coming from the Synchronisator. Someone else was walking... and another one...
Sometimes it’s hard to find a bridge. But it proved it’s importance. Let’s come together. Let’s walk together...
I walk #8
Eight, what a nice number. I am over a week daily walking. Not much more to go. About the Synchronisator I can say only one thing: digital solitude!
But I was walking through reality and not only in digital space. I was walking to Nansha. Actually I was not walking, I took a ferry to cross the river. To get the ferry it was a long way to walk. Huge trucks where passing me. I asked my self whe- re all these goods are going to. Probably shipped into the world, to be used for a week and then ending in the trash. Hopefully some articles are a bit more durable. I walked along this trucks and hoped to find a quieter place on the other side. The boat ride was beautiful but on the other side not what I expected. China is growing. Nansha is going to be the new Woundercity. Huge construction sites. Advertisements with illustrations of the new City everywhere. I walked on and there where bill- boards praising the socialists core values. Not like the old fashioned communist wording I expected. Somehow modern, with a design that looked like a perfume advertisement. So here is the list: Prosperity, Democracy, Civility, Harmony, Freedom, Equality, Justice, The Rule of Law, Patriotism, Dedication, Integrity and Friendship. I walked on. They where all repeated in single oversized wall papers. I thought about politics and words. It’s the same way everywhere in the world. We use these big words but we empty them from their meaning. I don’t know the details of this project but what does it has to do with these values?
I walked on. Behind the construction sites was a rural area with fishermen on boots and huts made out of bamboo. I liked the image and at the same time I asked myself: Why? What do I have against progress? What scares me so much about these huge constructions? Am I nostalgic? And if yes, of what? I would not want to live in the apartment 42387 somewhere in China. I grew up differently, in a reality where individualism is strongly rooted. Here in China it feels outdated. This morning I walked by a public school where Chinese kids wearing uniforms where doing sport in an orderly fashion. From my european point of view it looked like military training, but to be true, they didn’t seem unhappy.
I walked on. And I said to myself: I do have practically every freedom I wish at the moment. I can choose wherever I want to go. I don’t have much money but enough to choose wherever I want to eat or drink. Totally individual. And am I happy? What do I miss? I do miss the group! After a week of being the stranger I would actually love to disappear in the mass for once.
So here we are again. I don’t want to walk alone but I don’t want to loose my freedom. Another contradiction.
I am in Guangzhou now. And as Rilke wrote, it’s the path what matters, not the destination.
So what have I done? I have walked. I haven’t counted exactly but with all the back and forward it must have been over 200km. I walked over mountains, through valleys, forests and cities. And now I am just tired. It’s to early to look back, too fresh to understand. I apologise for not being able yet to make any clear conclusion. By now, I just know that I walked to Gu- angzhou. That’s it for now. It is not the end.
I will walk on.