These moms 'walked' across the ocean using pedometers to redefine artistic success
Carly Butler and Gudrun Filipska chart course from Ucluelet to the U.K. in newly digitized work
The art world has what some call a "travel imperative." Successful artist? Maybe you've been asked to hop on a plane for a far-flung residency or exhibition. Assuming, of course, you have the lifestyle and ability to do so.
So how to redefine success while recreating travel for artists stuck at home? That question is at the centre of a newly digitized multimedia work that charts a walking course for two artists and mothers between Ucluelet, B.C., and The Fens, U.K.
The S Project was named for the first transatlantic wireless signal sent from Cornwall to Newfoundland in 1901: a single letter S in Morse code.
The creative work started before the world was familiar with COVID-19, but has taken on new meaning now, exploring themes of isolation, discovery and the "radical potential" of walking.
Carly Butler met Gudrun Filipska in 2017 through a free, online program for artists who were also moms, which encouraged them to look at the isolation of motherhood as a "site for creative practice." So that's what Filipska and Butler did.
At the time, Butler was living in a camper trailer in Tofino and not sure where she would land permanently.
So the pair decided they would "walk" to each other, but they would do it without leaving the parameters of their daily lives.
"We began counting our daily steps and translating these into distances on a map as we walked towards one another," says Butler.
The "trip" sustained her through the monumental task of mothering young children, she says.
"Rather than having to carve out specific studio time, our art practice could incorporate our daily lives, she says. "A walk to the grocery store, for example, could move my virtual avatar across Canada."
The pair charted multiple routes and collaborated digitally and through physical mail.
"The idea of walking long distances without leaving home also started to force us to challenge other perceptions and perspectives, such as why travelling itself has come to be seen as an essential aspect of an artist's career," says Butler, adding it excludes many artists who are parents, have disabilities or can't afford to travel. "Perhaps a walk to the grocery store can be conceptualized as just as important as a trek through the Arctic? Maybe we actually shouldn't be trekking through the Arctic at all?"
The trip, with real and virtual walking, culminated in a series of exhibitions over the past two years in Beijing, Vancouver and London. They have featured maps, photographs, prints, performance works and an archive of mail.
But when the pandemic hit, a virtual exhibition became more necessary.
Butler taught herself to use ArcGIS, specialized software that allowed her to create a story map and chart her and Filipska's progress. The pair regularly updates the map.
"I'm hopeful that current events will make people more aware of the privileges inherent in global travel and realize that, for many people, staying at home or close to home is a daily reality, even in normal times," says Butler. "I'm hopeful that this new reality will shift some of the emphasis away from the idea of travel always being a marker of artistic lifestyle success."
You can see the S Project story map here and read more about the project on the artists' website here.
This story is part of Digital Originals, an initiative of the Canada Council for the Arts. Artists were offered a $5,000 micro-grant to either adapt their existing work or create new work for the digital world during the COVID-19 pandemic. CBC Arts has partnered with Canada Council to feature a selection of these projects. You can see more of these projects here.