Walking Library for Women Walking, Moving Out of Doors, Geelong 2017

16 November 2017, Geelong: The School of Lost Art, Noble Street – Mayfair Drive – Camden Road – Windmill Street – Noble Street, 12-1.30pm

The group of women carved a circle through residential streets of Geelong, a city southwest of Melbourne, Australia, following in the footsteps of women from Victorian suffrage groups who went door-to-door in these streets and those across Victoria in 1891 collecting signatures for what became known as the ‘Monster Petition’ presented to Parliament to demand the right to vote for Victorian women. The ‘Monster Petition’ included 33,000 signatures and was 260 metres long. With every step along this walk Misha recited the names of the women from Geelong who signed the petition and the streets where they lived.

This WLfWW was commissioned as the keynote for ‘Moving out of Doors’, a day long symposium and art event exploring the artistic labour of women and it marked the first Walking Library event to be held in the Southern Hemisphere. This day also held its own auspiciousness in the struggle for equal rights as it followed the announcement of the positive result of Australia’s national postal survey for same-sex marriage, which would lead to its legalisation in a bill that went through Parliament and became law on 9 December 2017. This news gave a particular spring in the step of the walkers and a celebratory air to this iteration of The Walking Library.

The walk began at The School of Lost Arts, Mary-Jane Walker’s artist-run teaching studio in the grounds of one of Geelong’s most historic properties in the area of Newtown. After a few minutes walking down Noble Street, the group halted and gathered together at a particularly scenic place along the walk where the sidewalks and houses stopped with one side of the road opening into the empty cricket oval of Windmill Reserve and the other giving way to a pull out at the edge of a steep slope that offered an overlook of the River Barwon winding through the valley below. A group of rubbish collection trucks had assembled here as well and their drivers (all male) were eating their lunch together enjoying the view. Here Lorna, Melbourne inner-city activist and elder, simply held up the spine of The Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein and repeated the authors’ name suggesting this said it all and enough. She wrote in her comments following the walk ‘In shining black letters, her name – Getrude Stein. Her face bending forward as she searches for a new truth – can you tell a book by its cover?’

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The library for this walk was a temporary one, comprised of books brought together for the duration of the walk by the walkers and dispersed again at its end. In this final account, we have chosen to reference all the books read from, giving a sense of the richness created from such diverse fragments. Some of the titles carried by the walkers echoed those in the rucksacks walked across Belgium with the first Walking Library, including Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain and David Abrams’ The Spell of the Sensuous, but others responded to and reflected the specific landscape of this walk, such as Dark Emu: Black Seeds Agriculture or Accident? written by Bunurong and Melbourne-born author Bruce Pascoe.

Devina reading Dark Emu

With the view over the River Barwon before her, Devinia shared a reading from Pascoe’s work that she said moved her to think about how ‘as first people of this nation, although we are moving forward in a lot of ways, there are still a lot of barriers for our people in this country.’ She read an account in Dark Emu of an interaction between colonial settlers and Aboriginal people in 1843 at another river, the Murray, where the settlers misinterpreted the meaning of words shouted at them by the Aboriginal people as welcoming them to their land. Devinia finished her reading with Pascoe’s thoughts on the incident:

You have to work hard to convince yourself, or the governor, that Aboriginal people were delighted to give away their land (Pascoe, 2014, p. 2).

 

The view over the river enticed the group of women to linger and share an eclectic selection of readings, which continued in a kind of call and response to one another from Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love, Kathleen Jamie’s The Tree House and on senses and sense objects from The Bhagavad Gita, which the reader commented is a handbook for life. Shelley read a few of Jamie’s poems which she said ‘resonated with our walk on top of green hills, raining, in late spring with flowers and berries growing and looping around a school and it’s fields.’

With her dog beside her on a lead Rea Dennis read from Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (2009).

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The women continued walking, dispersed in a line of two’s and three’s huddled under umbrellas protecting them from the late spring drizzle of the humid afternoon. From the overlook the walk rejoined the sidewalk that meandered past the front gardens of Newtown’s surburban homes of varied periods and architecture. When the awning of C. Sphinx Consulting Structural and Civil Engineers, a land development business office, offered shelter from the rain, Fiona prompted the group to assemble again for her reading from Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives. Offering her reasons for the selection, Fiona wrote later:

I am passionate about how we experience our built environment given that we engage with it everyday. Sarah William Goldhagen discusses this through a feminist perspective that looks at how we perform cognitively in relation to bad design. She concludes that it costs no more to build something that relates to people than it does to build something that relates to economics.

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The pattern of the call and response of readings continued as the women took advantage of the opportunity for shelter otherwise absent in these streets mostly filled with domestic homes set back by gated front gardens. We heard from Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, Jeannette Winterson’s autobiography Why Be Happy When You Can be Normal and an eschatological laundry list from Sheldon B. Kopp’s If You Meet the Buddha on the Road Kill Him. As we were standing opposite a primary school, Kate read from Marion Molteno’s If You Can Walk, You Can Dance, appropriate for this location because she it was about a young girl and we stood opposite Fryans Park Primary School. It was chosen for this walk because it is about ‘the creative journey and finding a true way to be oneself and to honour oneself but not in a selfish way. Also, the title seemed appropriate.

The selected reading, a description of the sound of the vibrating strings of a cello, was interrupted by the less concordant sound of the rubbish collectors honking their horns as their convoy returned to their work and passed us by. Once gone, a woman in the circle commented on how visible we were as a group of women in these streets, her comment reflecting how The Walking Library works as a kind of intervention and civic performance, but also how a group of women walking in public elicits unwanted attention by passers by as much as a woman walking alone. Behind us we also noted the nervous glances looking out at us through the windows of C. Sphinx’s office. This encouraged the group to return into the drizzle and continue walking across a pedestrian crossing towards the school where the following words painted boldly on the sidewalk met our footsteps: ‘STOP – LOOK – LISTEN – THINK’. Someone laughed at seeing these words and commented that this was precisely what we’d been doing.

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As the walk continued, this interaction with the rubbish collectors and the thinking about women’s visibility prompted a conversation that paused Misha’s recitation of the signees of the ‘Monster Petitition.’ As the circular walk turned left on Windmill Street and joined back onto Noble, a small cluster of women reflected on the courage and vulnerability of the suffragette petitioners who had once walked these streets, speculating about how they might have been received, especially if met at the door by ‘the man of the house’. This conversation continued back into the inviting doors of The School of Lost Arts where the women wrote the following reflections on the walk we shared together:

Created a camraderie through reading and journey.

I enjoyed the sense that when we left the house we were a disparate group, but when we returned we had become a coherent (united!) group.

Walking into a sense of place and into the group – who we are. Fantastic and moving to hear words in the open air. Informal conversation in contrast to the structured considered words of literature.

The walk, a beautiful way to interact, share conversation and enjoy the environment […] Even with the busy world around us we were still able to connect with the land.

 

This iteration of the WLfWW, much like the one threaded together atop a small hill in Leith Links park in Edinburgh, was a ring that in its shape and action joined women together through different times, cultures and ways of thinking, being, expressing and building relationship with one another and place.

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