12. Fade Out

*It’s all true – except this – I didn’t spend the first night at a service station, because I didn’t leave on Thursday evening.

I left at around 11am one morning, and made it to my friends in Munich’s place by that evening. I then got to tell them the whole story too, and they felt at once inspired and potentially conned by the ‘inszenierung’, the staging, that was taking place. Cheers. Its wonderful though, to stop off for a lovely meal (some of which was grown on the same terrace upon which we sat), a warm warm welcome, and a good dose of art criticism. All the other stories of being picked up are true.

And perhaps you would like to know more about what did happen when I got there. You can here one story by listening to what I recounted to the guy in the call centre during the second performance. Apart from this, I’ll just leave you with this image of the sky, shot in a park in Le Puy En Velay.

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11. The Ending

The following text was projected on the wall at Kunst Raum Richard Sorge in Berlin, during Part 2 of the performance lecture on the Sunday 48 hours after I broadcast live from the petrol station during the Part 1 of the performance. Below you can hear part 2 of the performance lecture below.

It was all true. Nearly all. I did meet someone in Istanbul, I did hitchhike, and I did get there (more on that later). But not now. Now I’m in Berlin, and I have been since Thursday.

On Thursday, I was in Nikolassee, south of Berlin. I did get a hitch, and they would have taken me to Leipzig. But I had already been; I surprised the girl I met in Istanbul two weeks ago.

During the first performance, I mentioned that there were two audiences: one in Berlin, and one in Lyon (an audience of one). They knew nothing about each other – the audience in Berlin was told they knew more than this girl. But they knew less. She, too, was surprised, shocked to see me arrive, and tap her on the shoulder. We stood two metres apart for ten minutes, laughing. So the surprise was genuine, but it didn’t happen when Berlin was watching.

Maybe you no longer trust me, maybe you feel cheated. Maybe you trust me more, because you understand what I had to do. I didn’t choose to go earlier because of a fear of failure. I had to see her earlier than the performance date; life was taking over. It didn’t wait for the date of the performance; it couldn’t. There was a conflict between art and life, and my aim was to please them both.

And the second reason to leave two weeks ago was to avoid my cliche. Not completely – we spent a selfish week together, and I forgot about art and life. But the Berlin audience was denied the Hollywood ending it expected.

This isn’t a fake. Everything you thought was real, was. I really did hitch, I really did surprise her, and I really did get a lift live on Thursday night. But the timing was shifted, and the two audiences were offered different things, each for its own needs, each understanding little of the other.

To the friends and critics who were concerned about my making this into an artwork – don’t worry, she understood.

This evening’s performance will take the form of a live audio piece, in which I will attempt to relocate the story within the everyday.

The visitors then heard a telephone conversation broadcast live on the sound system. It was not accompanied by any images, they were simply presented with an eavesdropped, and somewhat awkward and uncomfortable, conversation.

As STA travel invite you to ‘Call (800) 836-4115 if you need assistance while traveling’, and I needed advice on love (and travel to a love interest) I thought they might be the people to call. I made repeated calls to the same number (in the US), each time explaining slightly more of the story to a new call centre worker: a stranger, and a part of our economic fabric. Each time I had to negotiate a different person, building confidence, and using the same skills I would use to sell something, or, indeed, to charm anyone.

You can hear the full version of the first conversation here:

At around 8 minutes I ask the call centre worker if he has ever had a long distance relationship.

Or you can listen to a short version here:

This clip of this evening’s live event gives you a feel for the piece, and my attempts to explain my story to several call centre employees, with varying levels of success.

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10. Thistle stop

With the sun getting distinctly low in the sky, I had a scout around the petrol station on the road where they dropped me. There was a trimmed hedge on the edge of the forecourt which might have been able to conceal my tent, or the thistle infested slope behind that. Luckily a woman picked me up as I was deciding which of the two seemed better, and – she was going all the way to Le Puy en Velay.

Just to make it even better, she wanted to talk about the project. She herself seemed really content in her relationship. She told me about a friend of her’s, who ‘was in love with two men’. She was (still is, I presume) married to one man, and had just recently told her husband of the affair she had been having for a year, and how she loved the two. I felt awful for the husband, and the other man too actually, and almost hoped she would lose them both, but maybe they are Hollywood morals. My driver and story teller agreed: she didn’t hope, but it seemed likely that neither relationship would work out.

I also asked her more directly, as it was now a pressing issue for me that I hadn’t previously thought too much about: when I get there, how should I surprise her? I mean, ring her (mum’s) doorbell? She herself had had two experiences of this when she was younger, both of which had ended badly: when she rocked up, the boy she had come to see was, well, accompanied. She must have been gutted. One was when she was a teenager, and he lived in another town. The second was when she was a student, and she took a night train all the way up to Paris, and fell asleep in the doorway of his flat, for him to stumble across a sleepy her… with his Paris girlfriend in tow.

Apart from the disastrous results of her stories, it was a great ending to my journey, she was again charmed by my story, gave me lots of stories in return, and drove me not only into Le Puy, but across the town to the camp site. Couldn’t believe I made it. Not only that, but a school friend I hadn’t heard from for six months called from the States the moment I walked up to the camp site, waving goodbye to my last hitch. ‘Sounds biblical,’ he said, after hearing where I was. Funny though, everyone just seemed to be going about their business. It was around 9pm. More tomorrow.

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9. ‘Le Puy en Velay’ sign in sight

Le Puy* sign number 1, outskirts of Saint-Etienne

Le Puy* sign number 2, outskirts of Saint-Etienne

It was getting pretty late, so every time someone drops you after around 5pm, you have to have half an eye on whether there is anywhere out of the way to spend the night. I still felt confident I could make it further today, despite some advice from some workmen making their way home that it wasn’t going to happen.

Around half an hour later, two young guys picked me up. One of them didn’t have any legs. Now I feel a little uncomfortable mentioning this, as if its something worth commenting on – in a politically correct world, I wouldn’t. The thought went through my head that perhaps they didn’t need to be helping someone else. But that’s one of those thoughts you shouldn’t necessarily share – I didn’t feel this strongly enough to act upon it, thankfully.

A little techno later, they dropped me on the outskirts of Saint-Etienne. After the Neuchâtel experience, I made 100% sure to be very clear about the drop off point whenever I was picked up. With these guys I persuaded/they offered to drop me on the far side of Saint-Etienne, so I could catch traffic leaving the city (I had been dropped just before Zürich, and then had difficulty finding anyone who wasn’t simply driving into the city).


 

*She lives in Le Puy en Velay, south of Saint-Etienne, not in Lyon. I just said Lyon because it’s the nearest big city.

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8. The God of hitching rectifies the Neuchâtel wait

I was told by a middle aged Spanish couple in a petrol station outside Zurich that you can’t hitch in Spain – too many murdering hitchers. I heard similar stories about France (not the ones about stab-happy hitchers, but that people are scared of hitchers). But I just got picked up by a single woman, and I got a several genuine ‘I would take you, but I’m not going that way’ responses too. Sometimes you don’t know if its true, it could just be an excuse. The first night in Berlin it was – there was another guy trying to hitch there too. I told him why I was hitching and he said he was hitching for love too – to put up an exhibition of his late father’s paintings. He was hitching West, and I went South. So when I told him that I’d just asked one couple for a ride and they told me they were going West, he told me, ‘hmm, they just told me they were going South’. Shame. Maybe its nicer that way, better than everyone saying, ‘no, I don’t trust you’. But with the last woman who didn’t take me in Zurich, it was clear it was genuine – she spoke to me, not vice versa. I even said to her ‘wow, would you have taken me, as a woman on your own?’ She said she wouldn’t have taken everyone, but she seemed to be able to judge me pretty quickly (I mean I know I’m not a murderer, just have to persuade everyone else to agree).

This was a good hitch. I asked one woman, and by the time she’d said no, I’d looked down and seen that her baby was taking up the back seat. Then I asked another woman, who agreed to take me to Chamberry. Had to wait roughly 45 seconds.
She was pretty quiet. I kept trying to bring the conversation back to the subject at hand, but it wasn’t working. I was a guest in her car, as I am in all the driver’s cars, and I have to behave like a guest, respecting their space.
She dropped me at the entrance to a pay booth for a toll road. I thought it could have been terrible; although the cars were stopping, I was technically standing on a motorway, and the officials all wore hi-vis jackets. I played out a conversation in my head, in which they asked me to leave, and I explained that was just what I was trying to do.
One person stopped after 2 minutes to tell me I needed to stand four booths further over to be at the right exit, and two minutes later another woman picked me up. She made recipes for supermarkets, and was content with her partner, but still liked the idea of the trip. She had test packets of ready-made pasta in front of the passenger seat, at my feet.
This is getting exciting now, I’m getting close. When I shut pulled my bag out of her car, I had to bend down and share my excitement – ‘I can’t believe it’, I said, peering through to catch her eyes in her rear view mirror -‘I’m really going to get there’. Its going to happen. Fuck.

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7. Still Neuchâtel

St Blaise: A lovely place to spend 4.5 hours standing on the road, if you're ever in the area

I’m never hitching from the side of the road again. Never.

Four hours, and I’ve moved from one end of the high street to the other, about 600 metres (with a lift though, I didn’t walk).

After standing by what I thought was a turn off for the motorway for about 20 minutes, a nice driver stopped and told me a was standing by the wrong exit, and suggested I get the bus to the other and of the town (its actually not Neuchâtel, but a town before it, the very first one where they speak French). I said I didn’t have any Francs, and after looking noticing that he didn’t either, he drove me to where I needed to stand… which I did, for a further four hours, until another nice guy came up and suggested I try the petrol station 10km up the road, which he drove me to. He not only drove me there, he tried to help me find a hitch there, but I said I would be fine. Sure enough, after maybe 20 minutes, I was on the road again, with a documentary film maker (or ‘a professional tourist’ as he called himself), heading to Geneva.

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6. Neuchâtel!

Ah, what a perfect place to reach for the night – the first French speaking town in Switzerland.

I made it far as just before Zürich, and it was going dark, so, I was scouting the service station for a place to pitch my tent (suitably hidden). I asked round the service station for lifts for quite some time. The problem is, I was just before the city, not after, so everyone was on their way into the city rather than leaving. I met a German who asked ‘so, do people still hitch in Germany?’ He had hitched between Berlin and Munich more than 50 times, but now had a car and a job, and didn’t do it anymore. Then I told him it was part of an art project, and he was disappointed, slightly annoyed even – ‘das ist zu künstlich fur mich’ (that’s too artificial for me). I tried to persuade him I was still doing it all genuinely, but it didn’t matter.

Then I got a ride from an Italian Swiss guy to Neuchâtel, a couple of hours up the road, which was lucky as it was already dark. We spoke German again – after complaining about everyone in Germany speaking to me in English for years, it was now proving difficult to shift conversations into English, I’m so used to German and it seems unfair to try to push English (I wanted to for the sake of the recordings).

As we got closer to Neuchâtel, he called his sister, who he was going to visit, to ask where he should drop me, where I could pitch my tent or be close to the motorway to leave in the morning. It was all in Italian, and it wasn’t clear. I felt a bit like I was putting him in an uncomfortable position – I mean, would you know where to throw someone out for the night? It had started raining too. Anyway, we noticed a sign near the ‘port’ (it’s on a lake) which said ‘no camping’. which sounded good – if it says no camping, it means there is a place people would like to camp. So he dropped me and I wandered off towards the lake. Perfect! A quiet picnic site on the lakeside, complete with trees to hide my tent, and a toilet block. Couldn’t have asked for better.

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5. Sweet family: hunky tree surgeon, his wife and cute kid

Is it sexist to say ‘and his wife’? Unless I can defend it; it’s from my point of view as a man; or that he was the driver; or that he was the only one who described what he did; or that it was him I happened to speak to – perhaps because having a stranger in the car, an unknown man, they, I and society all feel more comfortable if I speak to the man.

Seven year old Oskar offered to put my rucksack on his knee, but as it weighed quite a lot more than he did, I declined his offer. I did however take him up on his offer of a boiled sweet.

I squeezed my rucksack in the back, and explained my story, keen to get in the I-want-to-record-our-conversation point in earlier than I managed the last two times. I didn’t manage it, and the woman said there was little point at this stage, as we’d be there soon. I felt very comfortable as the guest of this apparently very content little family, and even more excited about the progress I was making. I wasn’t even thinking about my final destination and why I was on the road (and who I was aiming to surprise), but just the thrill of making progress on the back of stranger’s kindness. I felt a little selfish and manipulative intending to exploit the journeys for their stories, but nonetheless excited to be the guest of all these people.

I felt quite immature, with this family, getting on with their lives, working, bringing up a kid, and apparently very happy. The couple weren’t much, if at all, older than me. And I was drifting through Europe making an art project few people will see. Well, not drifting, I had a clear aim. They drove me down to dreieck-somewhere, where all the motorways en route to Munich meet, a good spot to get the next ride.

The next ride was with a smart young chap in a BMW. Single people are the most open when you’re getting lifts. I’m still amazed at their trust; not that I expect them to consider me a murderer or thief, but it’s just that we are going to have a conversation for an hour or three. I told him the whole story, and he seemed charmed by it all, and kept grinning and asking more. I was charmed by his (career) success (he was around my age). Unfortunately we didn’t really get onto him. That’s how its seems to work: I explain my story, that of art and love, and hope they’ll respond. But it takes a while, and in this case, we didn’t get as far as him.

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4. Sabrina, Conrad and Elizabeth (Pflegeleicht)

Good going – made it to Munich by (late) lunchtime, 4 hitches. Last night was spent dozing at a table in a service station, which made it pretty easy to make an early start. I then got a lift all the way to Nuremberg with Sabrina and her children Conrad (8) and Elizabeth (10). The kids were as she described, ‘pflegeleicht’ (‘easy care’, as in synthetic fabrics), i.e. nice.

She told me about her daughter who she was visiting in Nurenberg, who met her boyfriend a few weeks before she went on high school exchange to the states for a year. I wondered if that relationship had been cemented through this physical absence which forced a period of solely written and oral communication, and if I could learn something from this. Perhaps this would provide my first ‘lesson in love’ from someone who picks me up.

Sabrina, like her daughter now, had married her high-school sweet heart, and they’d spent 23 years together until he walked out one day, leaving her emotionally distraught, with four- and six- year old children to look after. It was really touching. I wanted to talk to people about their relationships en route, but I didn’t think I would encounter this intimacy.

She explained how because he had left without saying anything, just one day to the next, and it was as if the person she loved had died, in two respects. Firstly, she was shocked at the sudden loss of her companion. It reminded me of the times when more and better communication in itself would have eased situations. She said would have loved some time to talk to him, she had so many questions to ask. It wouldn’t have changed anything with her husband, she didn’t need to work things out with him and he still would have gone; but maybe he wouldn’t have died, had there been a few more words. Like when you spend time with someone in the airport before they leave: they still leave, but you have a moment to get used to the idea. Secondly, she was saddened that the person she knew and loved could do this – walk out on his kids, and this is how the person she had known, had effectively died.

When we got out of the car, I awkwardly said that the main reason I was hitching and not flying was because I wanted to talk to people on the way there, to make the whole journey about something more than just me and my story (and record these accounts). She said that she enjoyed talking, and that was fine (to record her), and as the batteries on my audio recorder had run out, I used the video function on my iPod. She knew I was recording, but as I was only interested in the audio, I didn’t point the camera in her direction. Maybe it would be easier if I made art that didn’t involve me doing things like this I thought. I felt like I wanted to get something out of the (kind) woman; a story, an experience; and that this wasn’t very nice. This is what had made it so difficult to turn the recorded on whilst we were still driving, it had felt like an imbalanced exchange: sure she wants to talk, but who knows if she wants to provide content for an (or ‘my’) art piece?

On saying goodbye, I may be mistaken, but I think she welled up a little. She hugged me. I didn’t expect her to, but I like hugs. It was a bit awkward because I had sunglasses hanging in the neck of my t-shirt, so when we hugged, the sunglasses stuck uncomfortably into our chests. I was thinking about pulling back and removing the sunglasses from my t-shirt, and trying again, but it seemed a bit much.

It was sad, and true, and tragic, and dramatic, and everyday, and as I knew things would, it put my tiny story into perspective. I was living a theatre monologue, yet it was true, all more dramatic than theatre. I was touched, and felt nourished by my journey and the honesty of the world.

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3. The Girl and the man

The next hitch I got was with a good looking 50-something year old man and a completely gorgeous younger woman, who couldn’t have been older than me. She mentioned that she was visiting her parents, and nodded in the man’s direction. But it wasn’t until 10 minutes before I got out of the car that I realized that they were father and daughter. I had felt bad for finding her so attractive. She was just about to start studying art, and had moved away from Berlin the day before. Shame. I explained about the girl and the project and what I was doing, and they were interested, but because I hadn’t worked out the relationship between them, and I was sitting in the back, it was tricky to draw the conversations out.

They were driving to Frankfurt, and via Frankfurt would have been a more direct route to Lyon. When we stopped and it was time to go our separate ways, they said they were going to have a bite of lunch, and I asked if i could join them on the bench. They said yes, and I started to explain the reason for my trip to the daughter again, confident she would be charmed by it, while her dad went to the toilet. She laughed and liked it and told me how it reminded me of a film by Fatih Akim, in which a girl hitches to Istanbul, and is picked up by a guy who is driving there to surprise a girl who he knows will be on a  bridge at a certain time. They have all sorts of adventures, and when they reach Istanbul, he realizes he has fallen in love with the girl he met on the journey.

The crazy thing was, this is the first time I had sat next to this girl, face to face. And, as she explained the plot of the film, she was making the plot come true right there – I could have fallen for her right there. The very act of her explaining the plot, made the plot happen.

She didn’t make a comment about falling in love, and experience or anything, but she did just what I hoped people would – she gave me something beyond my imagination, beyond my conceptions. Reality always delivers.

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2. Leaving Berlin

Apparently the sound was really bad last night, what a shame. It’s a shame because if it was good, you could have heard me getting my first hitch. Obviously I didn’t know if this would work – wandering around a petrol station asking for lifts, mic-ed up to a space in Berlin, a third party in on the hitch. This is live – will anyone trust me?

They did. Three sweet young people, about 40 mins after I stopped talking directly to the art space in Berlin, said ‘jump in!’. Luckily I had five minutes to chat to them in the car before we drove off. This was long enough to tell them why I was hitching to Lyon, and they were charmed. I then turned the phone (relaying the audio to the art space in Berlin) off, and explained what was going on. I then turned the phone back on for the people in Berlin to hear us driving out of the petrol station. Good start.

And the mobile internet stick is working!

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1: A Performance Lecture About Falling in Love, Part 1

@ Mindpirates, Berlin, Thursday 28th August 2010, 7:30pm.

The promotional text for the performance simply read:

Partly autobiographical and partly fictional, Oliver Walker’s lectures are notes and observations on the complex emotional workings of falling in love.

Part 1 of the performance lecture: 'live' hitching-hiking.

 

But the ‘performance lecture’ involved me trying to hitch to Lyon, to surprise a girl I met in Istanbul six weeks prior to the performance. This was a surprise to those who came expecting to hear a talk. I stood in a petrol station south of Berlin (next to Nikolassee S-Bahn, just next to the autobahn), with a skype video link relaying images to the art space, and a mobile phone with hands-free kit working like a radio mic and enabling me to walk around the petrol station and relay my thoughts to the art venue in the city centre. It was live.

I then invited viewers to wish me luck on my trip, and follow my progress on this blog, updated from the road.

A lot is at stake. This isn’t my girlfriend I’m surprising, its someone I spent three days with. I really don’t know how it’ll turn out.

Art and life are coming together here in a way I’ve never experienced before. Its incredibly difficult to plan an art project around something as fresh and unstable as a genuine meeting between two people. The date for the performance was set long before I met this girl. I met her and realized little could be more live than this: meeting someone and falling in love.

There are two audiences here. One is standing in a space in Berlin, viewing this via skype, and the other is in Lyon, not aware that this is being created. Neither knows anything of the other: the Berlin audience doesn’t know her name, what she looks like, or anything about her, but she is at the centre of this. She plays the violin. The girl in Lyon doesn’t know I’m coming, and doesn’t know this is part of an art work.

Will she feel exploited when she finally hears the whole story? Will it lessen the effect? Would you? Just yesterday, another friend and his girlfriend had opposing feelings about the project: she felt it was great, but if she were at the centre of such an action, she’d be unimpressed that it was an artwork. He didn’t. Do these ‘two audiences’ cancel each other out? They experience different actions: The viewers in Berlin not only know nothing of this girl, they are going to find out little about me meeting her.

You know those strips at the sides of the motorway that make a noise if you ride over them? They are called rumble strips. They stop you veering, straying, and in my art practice, I have them too. There is one for cliché, one for self-indulgence, and actually one for making art about art. I’m in danger of rumbling my way through all three of them at the moment. I hope I can avoid self-indulgence by looking at other people’s stories en route, using my story to tease out stories and advice from the people who pick me up, and recording them in written and audio form. And cliché? By avoiding the hollywood ending. I have to work on that one en route to Lyon.

I’m also concerned about leaving Berlin without a strong concept at my side to defend me from the possibilities of artistic failure. Hitching to see a girl you met? Hardly critical, is it? But let me break down what I’m making – indulge my honesty. Perhaps if I present my doubts, if I wear them on my sleeve, it will shield me from failure. Perhaps this isn’t a trip to see a girl, but a trip to see what an art work ‘about a trip to meet a girl’, would look like. But that makes it not very romantic either, does it?

Wish me luck folks.

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