You can join in the walk or arrange to check in with them when the caravan comes to a halt during one of the five festival weekends. Or you can follow their progress via the internet by connecting with DonkeyXote, the festival’s multimedia beast of burden.
The mission of festival organiser Trage Wegen, a non-profit based in Ghent, is to promote slow travel. This means leaving motor vehicles behind and taking to lesser-known paths in order to get from A to B. “We’re an environmental organisation, but at the same time we always try to open up the scope of what we do,” says coordinator Andy Vandevyvere.
Beyond sustainable transport, slow travel is about improving quality of life, exploring our relationship with the landscape and reflecting on heritage. “For years we’ve been playing with the idea of inviting artists to work on these paths and on all the topics connected with them,” Vandevyvere explains. “We also noticed that a lot of contemporary artists are doing interesting things in this regard, using walking, for example, as a means of expression or as an art practice. A lot of artists are doing interesting work on landscapes, spatial planning, rural and urban development. All of these things are connected to the paths and trails that we promote.”
The idea of creating a moving festival came when the government of Flanders agreed to put money into the project. "Usually these paths are a very local matter and our work is mostly with local communities," says Vandevyvere. "We had to ask: how can we work all over Flanders? Then we had the idea of trying to walk across it using these paths, to make it a mobile festival and to traverse the country."
Sideways begins on 17 August in the West Flanders town of Menen, close to the French border. Over the subsequent week, it dips down into the Walloon province of Hainault before coming to rest in Herzele, East Flanders, for its second weekend. The following week’s journey takes Sideways to Brussels, then the week after that it turns north to Turnhout, after which it shadows the Dutch border back south to finish on 17 September in Zutendaal, Limburg province.
The 33 projects by international artists that make up Sideways fall into two broad camps. There are the wayfarers, who will walk some or all of the route, and the site explorers, who will create work specifically for the weekends when Sideways stops over in a town or city.
For some of the wayfarers, the journey is part of an artistic performance. For example, the Russian/American duo making up KM Performance Company will walk the whole route connected by 2.4 metres of rope, while Flemish artist Benjamin Verdonck will be hiding artistic booby traps between Brussels and Turnhout.
Then there is Boris Nieslony of Germany, who will travel part of the way with a table tied to his back. “From the outset, this was a very strong image that we liked a lot,” says Vandevyvere. “It was only afterwards that we started to think about its significance, and it’s actually pretty rich. Just the act of doing it is affecting.”
For others the walk is an act of research or creation that will result in works that can be presented later on. The simplest example of this is Flemish artist Reg Carremans, who walks with pieces of canvas strapped to his feet, later assembling them into a “pathscape”. “He picks up traces along the route,” says Vandevyvere. “He will be painting while walking, turning walking into an art work.”
Different traces will be picked up by photographer Daniel Nicolae Djamo, sound artist Davide Tidoni and story tellers Joe Baele and Hugh Lupton, who will share the results of their research along the way and over the weekends.
The site explorers are also mobile, but in a more localised sense. For example, the OKNO partnership plans to lead people on a search for edible plants in Brussels, while Jacqueline Schoemaker and Jozua Zaagman explore a labyrinth of informal pathways or “desire lines” in the urban fabric. Jeremy Wood will instruct people in Menen and Brussels how to create art with a global positioning system (GPS), while the collective Glasbak will lead sound-assisted explorations of the fringes of Brussels and Zutendaal.
A more tangential project is Flemish artist Filip Van Dingenen’s re-staging of a canal journey between Antwerp and Brussels described by Robert Louis Stevensen in his 1878 book An Inland Voyage. The results will be presented in Turnhout. “This opens our reflection to consider waterways as passageways in the landscape that could also be used for mobility purposes,” says Vandevyvere.
The juxtaposition of old and new technologies is in fact an important theme of the festival. “We didn’t want to fall into the romantic ideal of the solitary walker having some sudden flash of inspiration,” says Vandevyvere. “It’s important that it’s a group dynamic, and we wanted to have a diversity of approaches.”
So, alongside storytelling and plant gathering are projects involving satellite technology and new media. The best of the bunch is DonkeyXote, the multimedia donkey, accompanied by Italian artist Peter Ankh and kitted out with a camera, computer, GPS, sound recording system and solar panels. “It’s a bit like the social hub and mobile office of the festival,” says Vandevyvere. “This will allow us to document experiences, encounters and impressions along the way.”
These encounters are an integral part of the project, and people are expected to get involved. “If you put on your walking shoes, go outside and walk, it’s not as passive as buying a ticket and watching something,” explains Sinta Wibowo, the festival’s production manager.
Some people will simply come along to see what is happening, but others have already asked if they can participate in other ways such as documenting the festival with cameras or other media. “Some people are coming along to write; some will walk in silence because they are meditating,” says Wibowo. “It’s up to people how they would like to interpret the walking expedition.”
“Each day is open,” Vandevyvere adds. “If the group of people walking or some of the artists feel they should make a detour, that’s possible. A lot depends on the people you meet on the way; if something is happening 500 metres further on, and you want to go and have a look, you can. That’s what walking is all about.”