Repeatrepeat Conference

University of Chester

Going Straight: Reflections on a repetitive process, a practitioners account.

In my attempt to understand some of the meanings of repetition and the motivation for working in this way I have made a comparison with another repetitive process, that of walking; a mundane activity which relies on the repetition of the same physical movement; an activity which is simple and straight forward and part of our everyday life; an activity whose meaning and purpose is transformed through multiplication.

The first thing I’m going to do is set the scene by giving you a little bit of information about my practice. I’m then going to talk about walking, focusing on:

(1) success and failure,
(2) creating a space to think,
(3) the idea of trace and memory
(4) difference within repetitive action.

The talk will be rounded off by relating some of these themes back to my practice.

So, to set the scene.

Over the last 6 years I have been making drawings using biro pens and a Spirograph Kit. The process that I use to make the work is repetitive,very repetitive. The same motif, the same little shape, repeated 60 times an hour. One shape every 60 seconds. One shape every minute. Each drawing takes about 3500 minutes of actual labour. About 60 hours of drawing time. Three hours a day, 5 days a week it takes over a month to complete each drawing. All the drawings are timed, so there is a clocking on and a clocking off of manual labour. In total, I have spent approximately 41,400 minutes – just spirographing!

The works are pre-planned and ordered. Decisions are made at the beginning of the drawing and then the process is allowed to take over; pens slip, paper tears, ink smudges. Sticky ink clogs up the plastic disc, my hand aches, the phone rings. As pens run out of ink the paper is embossed by the sharp nib. These mistakes and interruptions are a significant part of the work and are not deliberately concealed.

When I started working with the Spirograph process I had no idea that it would grip me like it has. There has been something addictive, something compulsive, something very obsessive about the process that has seduced me and held me within its power. I move between absolutely detesting it, yet compelled to do it, to feeling excitement and pure joy.

So then, how does it start?

Seated, on a chair for the smaller pieces, on the floor for the bigger ones. Position the template and press down with the left hand & hold firmly. Hold the biro with the right hand Place the nib in the chosen hole of the disc. Start to draw by rolling the smaller circular disc within the larger circle. Round and around until the biro reaches its original starting point. [1]

It starts with a simple step, and then another step, and then another, that add up like taps on a drum to a rhythm. Not dissimilar to the rhythm of walking; the placing of one foot in front of the other; shifting the weight from left to right – right to left – left to right. Most of the time though walking is just a practical exercise. [2] It is a useful habit learnt long ago (a habit Gilles Deleuze would say we have learnt through repetition itself); simply a way of getting from one place to another. In itself, one step is quite insignificant, but they add up. Through repetition they are transformed into something much more significant.

There are many artists for whom walking is or has been central to their practice, for example, Hamish Fulton, Richard Long, Francis Alys & Bruce Nauman to name just a few. Although I think it’s fair to say that this work tends to be about Walking-As-Art, often as a performance, perhaps even, as a strategy to overcome the problematised notion of the art object in the Twenty-first Century. My interest in walking is as a tool to explore real and imagined spaces, as a physical challenge, an arduous task and as a repetitive process, not as a piece of art in its own right, or the remnants of that journey becoming the Art.

I have a particular interest in the relationship between the act of walking and repetitive drawing, as a comparison, as a metaphor, linked by their obsessive and physical nature.

ONE – success and failure

The history of the walker is rich and varied. But the casual stroll, the after-dinner walk and other short meanderings are not relevant here. These are just idle pass-times and what I’m grappling with is much harder than that; something more physically demanding and labour intensive; something that has more in common with the long distance walk – or marathon even – a personal, physical and psychological challenge.

Now, I’d like to share with you something about myself – I like to think I’m a bit of a runner – I go out about twice a week and run for an hour or so. I’ve done a couple of 10 k runs and may even do the half marathon next year, if my knee holds out! Now, I’m not someone who is particularly athletic or sporty, so running is quite a challenge and an achievement. But my running has absolutely nothing on the Marathon Monks who take the idea of repeating, by running around mountains, into quite another realm.

Powered by their faith, the monks make numerous marathons of various lengths over several years. [3] The first task consists of a combination of running and walking 84 km a day for a 100 consecutive days (just to give that some perspective, it takes me one hour to run 10km!). The Monks then go on to complete longer and more arduous tasks. For example, in the 7th year they make a daily 52 and a half mile run – that’s the equivalent of two marathons a day – and they don’t just do it once, they do it for one hundred consecutive days. Not surprisingly, since 1585, only 49 monks have completed the whole challenge! An unbelievable physical and psychological near death experience.

Although a little overshadowed by the Marathon Monks, I want to share with you stories of two contemporary long distance walkers. Not because they are the best or most significant, but because in different ways, they illustrate two important aspects of repetitive action.

The first is Ffyona Campbell. Some of you may remember her from the mid 1990’s for walking around the world. Campbell’s journey began when she was sixteen years old by walking the length of Britain. She then went on to walk across America, Africa and Australia gaining a place in the Guinness Book of Records in 1995. [4]

For most long distance walkers, continuity is the key that holds the walk together, but Campbell’s was a fragmented journey, broken down into continents over several years, with long gaps taken in between for fundraising, planning and sponsorship deals. What I find intriguing about Campbell’s walk is its impurity. For example, she left herself open to much public scrutiny by later admitting that she had missed out a thousand miles of her American journey. She then went back to complete these missing sections after she had technically completed the challenge. [5]

These characteristics of her walk; the discontinuity, the fragmentation, her obsession and bloody mindedness, the lack of clarity and purpose, the mistakes and flaws make the walk human. We get a real sense of the personal drama unfolding before us, warts an’ all….Her mistakes aren’t concealed, they have been put on public display. By admitting that she had cheated, there is an ironic honesty about Campbell’s walk that is rare in the history of the long distance walker; a good enough reason why her achievements are seen by many people as a failure, but precisely the reason why her walk is relevant in this particular context.

TWO – a space to think

The second walker I want to talk about is Robyn Davidson. Her book, Tracks (1980), is a more mature reflection on her trek across the Australian outback to the sea with three camels. This is a great book, not just because it’s a well written account of a remarkable journey and a remarkable person, but because it reminds us about the relationship between walking and the mind.

Mid way in her journey, she says. …strange things do happen when you trudge 20 miles a day, day after day, month after month. She goes onto explain how she, remembered in minute and Technicolor detail everything that had ever happened in my past and all the people who belonged there…. every word of conversation I had had or overheard way, way back in my childhood and in this way I had been able to review these events with a kind of emotional detachment as if they had happened to somebody else… [6] There is something cathartic about walking. The regularity and rhythm is reassuring like a beating heart. At the beginning of Wanderlust – A Short History of Walking, the author, Rebecca Solnit says that, the rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts. [7]

It is this process that allowed Davidson to delve into her past and gave her the time to make sense of it. In other words, it’s the physicality of the repeated process, its regularity and continuity, possibly even, its hypnotic effect, that allows us the space and the time to simply be, time when our minds can wander.Walking strikes that delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It’s a bodily labour that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences and memories.

Both Campbell and Davidson traveled across barren landscapes; wide, open expanses of space. Places as blank as a piece of paper – that open up before our eyes. Without the mundane trivialities of everyday life perhaps we can find the freedom to explore and the freedom to get lost. To lose yourself is to be utterly immersed in what you are doing so that your surroundings fade away.

Walter Benjamin said,Not to find one’s way (in a city) may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance, nothing more. But to lose oneself (in a city) – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling. [8]

In Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present. As Artists, we search for that thing which is unknown to us. And in order to find it, we need to get lost sometimes – to go beyond what we know. It is ironic that I am arguing that creativity, for want of a better word, is achievable through the regular repetition of the same physical action within set parameters; something that you would expect to lead to boredom and predictability, but does in fact lead to the unexpected, and a heightened sense of discovery.

THREE – tracks

Davidson called the story of her journey ‘Tracks’. Probably because, when we travel, we either follow the imprint of a track made by others who have gone before us, or, we leave a track, a trail, behind us. In Stephen Batchelor’s book, Buddhism Without Beliefs (1997), there is an interesting explanation of the word ‘track’ (or Shul as it’s known in Tibet); a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by, a footprint for example. In other contexts, a Shul is used to describe the hollow in the ground where a house once stood, or the channel worn through rock where a river has run, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept. All of these are Shul; the impression of something that used to be there. [9]

Line Made by Walking (1967) by Richard Long is, I think, a perfect shul. The black and white photograph shows a path in the grass which runs straight up the centre to the trees at the far end of the meadow drawn by Long with his feet shuffling forward. We are left with a trace of a journey and a memory of a process, which both records and reveals human experience.

At the end of one of Hamish Fulton’s 24 hour walks, this one with Reinhold Messner, Fulton asked him if he could draw the outlines of his feet. [10] Using a pencil and piece of paper he carefully drew around the shapes – feet without toes – as he had lost them to frost bite on a mountain climb back in 1970 – the empty space, which the toes once occupied, is poignant and powerful.

This idea of absence and concealment is also evident in Piero Manzoni’s drawing, Linea (fragment) from 1959. [11] The work consists of a line drawn in ink on an industrial roll of paper cut to various lengths. Like Messner’s absent toes, Manzoni takes the idea of a shul one step further, by hiding his work. He exhibit’s the drawings rolled up and sealed in cylindrical boxes which are labeled, signed and dated. By placing the work in small containers they are reduced to almost nothing – yet they also expand – like a little idea that is huge in the imagination.

Once ‘lived’ time has been taken away we are left with something like time in its pure state, where the memory of the event, for both the author and the spectator, is often more intense than the original experience. [12]

FOUR – difference

One of the important aspects of repetition is not its sameness but its differences and variety. Gilles Deleuze, in Repetition and Difference (1968)says that it is the change that runs through repeated series that interests him so much. Of course, the differences can’t be too large or else the sense of continuity in the repetition will be destroyed. But it is these variations that give life, intensity and value to the work. There is something infantile, something childlike, about the attraction of a repeated series. And there is a skill (perhaps a skill that we lose as we get older) of being open-minded enough to discover something new in what has become familiar and known.

Back in the summer of 1998, Hamish Fulton held a workshop in the Italian mountains. A group of 25 young people from 15 different countries spent 2 weeks walking to the peak of Mount Bollettone. [13] The walk was the same for each of the 14 days; in the mornings they set off from their base camp and then they returned before nightfall. The boundaries were set; the same route, the same people, everyday. Up and down the mountain 14 times. But no two walks were ever the same; the group was always different – some people took days off because of sore feet for example, the weather changed, from torrential rain to clear skies, and then there were subtle shifts of perception as the route and terrain became more familiar.

If an action or experience is repeated for long enough or often enough, it soon becomes apparent that there is no such thing as a repeated action or experience. It will be different each time. No two footsteps will ever be identical. It depends on what trainers we’re wearing, the weather, the terrain, our mood, how tired we are and so forth. A bit like the throw of a dice: [14] – a risky act, says Deleuze, the outcome of which cannot be predicted or guaranteed.


The Spirograph process is a mundane activity like many others. It has taken me on a series of journeys, a series of walks. Some of them have been long, some short, some of them arduous and daunting, some of them exhilarating and surprising.

In the well known poem, In Praise of Walking, by Thomas A. Clark there is this interesting line which says, A journey implies a destination, so many miles to be consumed, while a walk is its own measure, complete at every point along the way. [15]

I’m still undecided whether my drawings constitute a journey, or a walk. But which ever one they are, the marks on the page remain at the end; a track, a trail, a shul.

For me, there has been something reassuring about working with a repetitive physical process. It’s rhythm and continuity allows me freedom to think. On the one hand it is a known quantity – I am the one in control. I know where I am going with it but, at the same time, I may not know exactly what will happen on the way. Within a given set of parameters there is plenty of room for the unexpected and for subtle shifts of difference to provide points of interest.

No two Spirograph shapes are ever exactly the same. They are hand drawn, not machine made and therefore the pressure of the pen, the quality of the ink; my mood and concentration all affect the end product. With subtle variations and differences each part of a repeated series harks back to and then looks forward to the other parts. There is a to’ing and fro’ing between the past and the future. Each section develops other sections to a lesser or greater degree of intensity. Like a choir, the overall experience is dependant on the sum of the individual parts.

Ironically, the quest to repeat, the quest to do it again and again, has the potential to reveal imperfection, difference, contrast and surprise rather than just similarity, sameness and predictability. Whatever form the repetition takes, whether it is a drawing, a walk, a journey or a marathon, repetition is a universal force that carries an intrinsic level of attraction and power.

Lesley Halliwell (2007)

[1]At this point during the presentation a short film is started showing me working on Going Straight (2007), a close up shot of my hands spirographing and the repetitive sound of the biro scratching the paper. It plays throughout the rest of the talk.
[2] Solnit, R. (2001) Wanderlust, A History of Walking, Verso, p. 1
[3]Fulton, H. Making Art Should Be As Simple As Sweeping The Floor, Andreas Hapkeymeyer interview with Hamish Fulton in, Fulton, H. (2005) Keep Moving, Charta, p.25
[4] Campbell, F. (1994) On Foot Through Africa, Orion, p.1
[5] Asthana, A. Gone, and (almost) completely forgotten, in New Statesman, 22 July 2002
[6] Davidson, R. (1980) Tracks, Vintage, p.187
[7] Solnit, R. (2001) Wanderlust, A Short History of Walking, Verso, p.5
[8] Benjamin, W. A Berlin Chronicle, in Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, translated by Jephcott, E. edited by Demetz, P. New York:Schocken (1986)
[9] Solnit, R. (2006) A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Cannongate, p.51
[10] Fulton, H. op.cit., p.22
[11] Fer, B. (2004) The Infinite Line, Re-making art after modernism, Yale University Press, p.34
[12] Haskell, B. (1992) Agnes Martin: What is Real? in Haskell with essays by Rosalind Krauss and Anna Chave, Whitney Museum of Art, New York, p.26
[13] Fulton, H. op.cit., p.22
[14] Williams, J. (2003) Gilles Deleuze’s difference and repetition; A critical Introduction and Guide,Edinburgh University Press, p.16
[15] Clarke, T.A. (2000) In Praise of Walking, in Distance and Proximity, Pocket Books.

Lesley Halliwell (2007)