Editor's Note #4

Pictured: Reggie Wilson, Marty Pottenger, and Deborah Jack during "The Artist and Civic Imagination," Painted Bride Art Center, October 2015.

Editor's Note #4:
these liberty walks
by Lauren Bakst

Editor's Notes frame and weave together the narratives and practices emerging from Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia, drawing connections among the projects of the three Artists/Thinkers, Communities-in-Residence, and field notes contributed by invited artists and community members.

​Drawing on a story Reggie Wilson shared during a recent public dialogue, Lauren Bakst considers how walking has emerged as a shared (radical) practice within Re-PLACE-ing Philadlephia.

 

On October 17th, an intimate group of people gathered at the Painted Bride for “The Artist and Civic Imagination,” a public talk with Re-PLACE-ing Artists/Thinkers Reggie Wilson and Marty Pottenger, moderated by artist Deborah Jack. During their discussion, Deborah aptly prompted Marty and Reggie to consider their points of entry into the multiple layers of history one encounters in Philadelphia, particularly in the context of a project in which they are invited to make work in, around, and through those layers. Reggie responded by recalling a visit to Philadelphia during which he embarked on what he referred to as “this liberty trip”—a walk from his hotel to the Liberty Bell. Reggie, whose anthropological approach to choreographic research has taken him from the Mississippi Delta to Senegal, spoke of walking as a way to orient himself within a place, to land himself where he is. Reggie's sentiment is shared by bell hooks, who in Belonging: A Culture of Place, writes,

Like many of my contemporaries I have yearned to find my place in this world, to have a sense of homecoming, a sense of being wedded to a place. Searching for a place to belong, I make a list of what I will need to create firm ground. At the top of this list I write: "I need to live where I can walk. I need to be able to walk to work, to the store, to a place where I can sit and drink tea and fellowship. Walking, I will establish my presence, as one who is claiming the earth, creating a sense of belonging, a culture of place.

Reggie is a storyteller, no doubt. Writing to recall Reggie’s story cannot transmit the energy generated by his telling and our listening. While he was speaking, something clicked in the room; a collective a-ha moment. See, Reggie never really made it to the Liberty Bell, or to be more specific, once he made it to the Liberty Bell, it was no longer necessary that he see it. It was what he encountered on his way there that held significance—first, The Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church. Founded in 1794, Mother Bethel was one of the first African-American churches in the United States, and not inconsequently Reggie’s father’s side of the family belonged to an A.M.E. church in Mississippi. The coinciding of personal and historical, here and elsewhere, now and before, gave Reggie pause. Continuing his walk, Reggie found himself at 6th and Lombard, in front of a historical marker for the 1842 Lombard Street Riots. The history of these riots—during which an Irish Catholic mob attacked a group of African-Americans who were celebrating Jamaican Emancipation Day—is the fraught history of the Liberty Bell and the monuments of “freedom” that mark this city and this country. Listening to Reggie’s story, I couldn’t help but think of Fred Moten’s recent lecture at MoMA, “Blackness and Nonperformance,” in which he unpacks the ways that slavery and freedom have been constructed as mutually constitutive, when they are in fact not. “What is it to be enslaved to freedom?,” Moten asks. Moving through these layers of history, Reggie continued his walk, and ultimately found himself standing in front of the Divine Lorraine Hotel, which led him to research Father Divine’s spiritual and community-building actions.

As the Editor/Interlocutor for Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia, I am constantly paying attention to the repetitions that occur across the project, to notice where shared ideas emerge between those who may not even be in direct communication with one another. Listening to Reggie speak of “this liberty walk,” I couldn’t help but be reminded of Wilmer Wilson’s contribution to the website, in which he shares images and contextual writing from his performance, uncannily titled: Liberty Walk. Wilmer’s text speaks for itself, so I’ll advise you to read it, rather than offering a summary here. But you can see that in this repetition of language—“liberty walk”—emerges a kind of thought-duet between Reggie and Wilmer. In both cases, their liberty walks call attention to the ways that particular bodies-in-motion meet the official historicization of the city, and how through these meetings, another kind of history is enacted. In Wanderlust, A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes,

Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.

It is not only for Reggie and Wilmer that walking rises up as a way of re-ordering, re-orienting, re-place-ing oneself in the world. Artist Donnell Powell walks everywhere in Philadelphia—walking is his practice. In my conversation with Donnell, he took me on one of his walks by way of the polaroid images he captured of the city as he traversed it, honing in on the contradictions he observed. And in July, Brenda Dixon Gottschild led a meditative walk in Wissahickon Park. Reflecting on that time, Barbara Braxton shared that, "Saturday’s walk allowed me to look at some of my favorite places with new eyes." Returning to Solnit, she writes that,

“...the subject of walking is, in some sense, about how we invest universal acts with particular meanings.”

I am compelled by the gathering, connecting, and sharing of these "particular meanings," and what they might tell us otherwise about how our moving-walking-reflecting bodies engage with and resist their place-ment in relationship to Philadelphia's history.

 

Lauren Bakst is the Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia Interlocutor.

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