We walked for 10.5km, and travelled a total of 40km of the city on metro. The walk lasted eight and a half hours. We breathed the air of the the most polluted part of the city and played games in the snow in the least polluted part. We collected frozen river water from the Saint-Laurent River and drank the filtered Saint-Laurent. We took the average walking tempo of the city.
What did it look like? and what did we learn?
The walk was beautiful. Not because we were travelling to beautiful parts of the city but because we were experiencing the city just as we found it to be.
We made contact with:
1. Location with the highest calculated air quality index
2. Location with the lowest calculated air quality index
3. Source of natural water
4. Source of drinking water
5. Most commonly used form of public transport
6. Tourist area
7. Public park / similar to reach when the sun contacts the meridian
So we began at 7am with a cermony which takes the wearer of the skin through each item of the suit. How it works, what it is and what it will gather for the walk. I tell the wearer that this is a pilgrimage, it is about seeking out an environmental snapshot of the city we find ourselves in.
We leave the house at 8am and walk immediately to the most polluted part of Montreal - Saint Henri. Here we spend time noticing the schools, the ice rink, the playground. The sounds are mechanical. We gather an air sample.
We continue on to the canal where we then have a one and half hour walk towards the new and manufactured part of Montreal to gather a water sample from the Saint Laurent River. As we walk condenstation fills the air, the wind is blustery and the temperature is falling quickly below -4. I have ambitions to play games in every location but the cold is too much to actually play in. Freyja, who is the test wearer, isn’t wearing insulated boots so she is freezing. We are trudging through the snow and this is adding unprecedented time to our walk. By 9am we are nearly 45minutes behind.
We arrive at this location pictured above. It is astounding and dystopian to see the skin against this backdrop. The hydrochromic paint has changed from a deep magenta to a pale pink just because of the condensation in the air, the tongue, though it drags along thw floor, is still reletively white at this point as all we have been walking through is snow. The canal has been frozen the entire way as we walk and we are suprised and still when we hear running water from a pipe. We stood, listened and recorded the sound.
By 1030am we are nearly 1 hour behind and we have probably seen only 10 people on our walk so far. Obviously that’s because it’s both freezing (… it’s winter in Montreal after all) and also because it’s a work day. But it is interesting to see the city in the ‘off season’, we look at the beautiful bright red metal chairs sat beside the canal. Clearly made for the summer enjoyment of passers-by. But there is literally no-way we are sitting anywhere. We gotta keep moving.
I’m guiding us on and even though I hadn’t ever walked this route because I have been planning it for the past 3 days. I know it like the back of my hand and rarely look at the map.
Eventually we arrive at Peel Basin to cross over the bridge to head to Parc de Dieppe and St Helen’s island.
We are finally walking on ground, tarmac and of course this makes life a lot easier. We move under the underpass and see mainly trucks, lorries and workmen. There is an extensive patch of yellow and green snow pouring out from a portaloo…… The tongue, dragging across the floor, is now dirty. Very dirty.
We are walking and nearing the bridge we will cross to get to the island when Freyja notices a building. Habitat 67. It turns out Freyja has had a poster of this building on her wall for 8 years. It’s her favourite building. We try to explore but quickly are denied access by two workers. It’s a private property.
The combination of the cold and the restriction to play means that this is a tough part of the walk. We have 2 hours left to go by my guess before we will get a break in the centre of Montreal.
But we keep walking … We walk across the bridge and catch the attention of the only other two people around. Two tourists from Australia who have just moved to Toronto. They came to Montreal for a short, romantic trip only to discover ‘everything on Monday is shut’. We get to St Helen’s island. It is deserted ( again… the whole it’s winter thing!) we see maybe 8 other people and workmen. The manufactured aspect of the environment is striking. We walk to the environmental museum which is beautiful (pictured below) and spend some time here.
We are walking on the island, conditions are harsh and the surroundings are… uninspiring. We take the temperature & sun reading at 1138 (when the sun is at the meridian) on the thermochromic paint. It’s warmed up a bit - 0 degrees.
We go to the point to cross over into Montreal over the Jacques Cartier Bridge, only to discover pedestrian access is denied. Things get a momentarily a little worrying here. Sandrine (who is walking with us and taking pictures) has VERY cold feet and the thought of having to walk back the way we just came… doesn’t sound so great.
5 minutes later we hitch a ride with the fantastic Jeremey…. pictured below.
This contact with another person, the french songs on the radio and the fun of achieving something like this means the mood changes drastically! Plus, now instead of being 2hours behind we are now BACK ON TRACK. We find a restaurant to get lunch & to monitor the walking pace of the city.
I run to the river and gather a water sample from the old port. This was fairly… um…. treacherous to be honest. My arm wasn’t long enough to reach into the water so I had to fashion quite an elaborate hooking device with a bin bag, a hair tie and a stone to weight it down. 30minutes later I got the river sample.
I go back to the restaurant where Freyja & Sandrine are taking the average walking tempo of passers by. Here we take a sample of the drinking water from the location and also drink the water. We say thanks to the staff for the tacos :) and head on.
Next was our penultimate destination the least polluted part of montreal (or as close as we could get considering the time) Honore Beaugrand. After having spent 4hours around relatively noone, in what felt like a dystopian land - we are surrounded by people. And this was definitely a change of pace.
When we arrive we play games by the side of the road. It doesn’t visually seem like the least polluted area, and I know the according to the AQI the actual least polluted area is further north… but this is significantly better than Saint-Henri. We play games and laugh a lot. Jump back on the metro heading to our final destination - base camp - Concordia Uni.
What did we discover?
The sweat panel didn’t gather all that much sweat because… Freyja was freezing! But besides that the skin reacted to the environment well. I think my biggest takeaway is that staring at the dirt, looking at the quality of the drinking water in comparrisson to the river water, understanding that we couldn’t play games because our bodies were shutting down because of the cold and wind.
Walking through the city we don’t consider what is around us and what we are giving into the atmosphere. But when we collect the air and take it with us it makes you accutely aware of this fact. To travel a journey like this one through a city you don’t know is a gift. You see parts of the city you would never normally see and pay them attention in new ways.
I have a thousand billion questions that relate to the design of the route particularly thinking about how to arm myself and the wearer of the skin with the right information that deepens our ability to listen to the environment around us.
But one thing is for sure - to experience a place through it’s environment, with a route that so intentionally exposes us to these aspects is a gift.
It definitely heightens your senses and makes you more able to put your city life in context. Too often I find myself surrounded by tools, rules, technologies and ways of being that we don’t really have the context to question or indeed the right questions that help us to contextualise.
A walk like this one asks you to be close to the essentials water, ground, sun, air, human contact. And to feel how the city and us within the city operates within this wider context.
Critique of project…
There is SO MUCH left to do with the skin, pieces were falling off, some materials respond to delicately to wind and water.
There is SO MUCH left to do with the walk & the wider ceremony of the work itself. I need to flesh out the states of receptiveness to be a rigorous tool that I can use to really understand and assist the walker to take risks & go on a diverse emotional journey with the city. I also need to know which experts I need to help me create the fullest and most meaningful mindsets for each element of the walk. For us to understand the beauty and gravity of gathering water, air, sun, temperature levels, microbes we need to really get what affect they have on our bodies & minds. So lots of clarity to seek but a fantastic first prototype walk and an incredible end to an inspiring residency with Concordia University.