Fiona Griffiths’ body wilderness project took place over the course of a week, offering a total of five guided walks in Toronto’s Cedarvale Park for groups of up to 10 participants. Participants were asked to register in advance for a daytime experience lasting approximately 90 minutes. Cedarvale Park is one of Toronto’s larger green spaces, featuring wide, grassy fields at one end, opening onto various paved and gravel paths that funnel into a winding, wooded ravine. Each of the events followed the same basic structure, but the starting points and sites visited varied.
These group “walks” were structured more like workshops than guided tours. Fiona modeled a responsive approach to the site, where ordinary, minor occurrences—a bird singing in an overhead branch, a leaf falling from a tree, a spider spinning its web beside a footpath—became occasions to offer shape to the participants’ encounters with the park. As the event leader, Fiona offered insights into how human bodies intersect with naturalized environments. Her instructions proposed various set-ups for engaging in what could be called “mindful” observations of the site—though mindfulness turns out to be an explicitly corporeal practice. Each of Fiona’s exercises aimed to distribute participants’ attentiveness across their bodily senses while relaxing some of the typical perceptual habits of urban living—our ingrained ways of observing, listening and moving through a world of indoor spaces, motorized vehicles, built environments, and digital screens.
As the project’s title can be read to suggest, the “wilderness” participants were being asked to explore was not limited to the flora and fauna of the park, but also included what could be understood as the wilderness of our own bodies. What is there to discover when we take a step back from our prescribed and familiar ways of moving and sensing in order to monitor aspects of our being that we generally leave to our bodies’ mysterious and generally unexplored autonomic functions?
Participants were encouraged to put aside the passive mode of observation we tend to fall into as audiences when we watch a performance, where we allow emotions to wash over us while our bodies are stilled and a spectacle unfolds before us. body wilderness begins with the notion that nature is not just something that surrounds us, or even that we are immersed in, but also something we are a part of. This understanding supports a style of observation that is both active and activated. As active observers, we are aware that we can consciously move toward and away from objects and energetic fields, and even intervene in their workings. Activated observers also bring awareness to the dynamic internal sensory effects—emotional and psychological as well as physical—that accompany shifts in our relationship to our surroundings, without necessarily trying to regulate or control those effects. This is a way of being in which we monitor not only the dynamic external world, but also our ever-shifting and responsive interior landscape, discovering the ways in which they are inseparable parts of a single whole.
Fiona considered several locations near the Eglinton West neighbourhood where she was then living before settling on three Cedarvale Park sites for body wilderness. (Two of the three sites had the same starting point.) One of the first routes she considered was a section of Toronto’s Beltline Trail, roughly between Memorial Park and Oriole Park. The Beltline is a recreational cycling and walking path that traces the route of a former rail line. This is a location Fiona knew well, as she was then in the habit of walking there with friends. In thinking through how she would work with a larger group, however, and imagining how participants might get absorbed in the exercises she was proposing, this site seemed perhaps a bit too heavily trafficked. During peak daytime hours, it can often feel more like a cycling corridor and fitness track than a haven that beckons bodies to linger.
Cedarvale Park, on the other hand, has paths that encourage a more leisurely pace, with a larger fringe of surrounding green space. One is much less likely to wander into the trajectory of an oncoming bicycle, and there are many enclaves where small groups can congregate without fear of blocking any routes. This park was also a familiar place for Fiona, as it had been a favourite dog-walking destination for her.
While it is true that the park’s relative expansiveness can accommodate larger groups and offers a range of terrains, like most urban green spaces, Cedarvale is subject to the perpetual pressures of its urban surround. The noise of the city from construction, traffic, and planes flying overhead is never fully absent, and signs of human presence—from the screams and shouts of children in the playgrounds and playing fields to the footfalls of dog walkers and hikers—are equally evident. It is an environment of marginal zones, shaped by various competing interests. It is certainly possible to find signs of wildlife such as deer, coyotes and foxes there, yet the park’s “wilderness” remains makeshift, constrained, and hybrid.
For each body wilderness event, participants were asked to meet at a specific location. Before arriving, they had received some advance reminders of basic preparedness for spending a few hours outdoors in a wooded park—e.g., the usefulness of having sunscreen, bug spray, comfortable footwear, and drinking water.
Once all of the registrants had found their way to the designated open area, Fiona invited them to gather and sit together for a few minutes. She facilitated introductions and took some time to explain the goals of the project and outline how the experience would be structured.
After this orientation, the group set off on an initial shared exploration of the chosen site, following a path into areas of more dense vegetation. Participants were encouraged to focus on how they move through the space, exploring the plant life not only with their eyes and ears, but also through smell and touch.
This group acclimatization led into a more individualized sitting exercise, where participants were asked to find their own place, preferably out of sight of other people, to sit quietly with their back against a tree, and allow their awareness to expand into the surrounding space.
After the 15-minute sit, Fiona called people back together for a different type of interaction. Moving from the physically passive activity of quiet monitoring, participants were now encouraged to find ways to align their bodies with the plant life around them, taking more mimetic physical stances that mirrored the shapes and subtle movements of the trees and bushes.
This was followed by an exercise in which participants were asked to reorient their gaze by lying down to look up through the trees toward the sky.
These various sensory exercises culminated in a period of reflection through physical recording and interpretation, where participants were asked to translate or document their experiences and insights through drawing or writing.
For the final section of the event, participants were given an opportunity to share any descriptions, thoughts, or reflections with the rest of the participants in an informal group discussion.
Digital records: video simulation (participant’s point of view)
In my discussions with Fiona about how to document body wilderness, we agreed that recording a published walk with registered participants would be intrusive and could interfere with the kind of experience she was trying to create. Instead, we chose to make a separate real-time video recording that followed the same structure as the public events. The camera, operated by me, offers an unedited and unrehearsed visual and audio version that mirrors a participant point of view—albeit shorter than the public events because of the lack of group interaction. The recording was done at Cedarvale Park, at the area we had designated as “site 1” for the public walks.
In keeping with the intentions of the KinesTHESES Digital Toolkit that I have outlined in previous entries, the recording included here might be approached as offering a specialized set of instructions for inhabiting an environment—for generating one’s own experiential occasion—rather than being viewed as a recording of body wilderness as a past performance art event.
The recording includes a captioned option that focuses primarily on the human dialogue, but also includes occasional reference to the background sounds that informed the experience in order to make the video more accessible for the hard of hearing.