23 October 2020

A Slow Walk for Canberra makes music on our streets

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Ham Darroch

Ham Darroch with his modified piano in front of the carillon. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

What would induce a man to drag a piano around the streets of Canberra, along the lakeshore and through crowds of oblivious weekend walkers, dogs and small children?

The man is Canberra artist Ham Darroch, the work is called Slow Walk for Canberra and if you’ve seen him pulling the piano behind him, he’d love you to stop and say hello.

The performance is part of Contour 556, the three-week public art festival that takes its name from Lake Burley Griffin’s water level.

The piano has been modified with plumb bobs that strike the strings as he walks. The way he walks and the pavement surfaces themselves both change the way the instrument sounds as he wanders along.

The idea is that he records the pavement – the rhythms of the city, the way in which people’s bodies and everyday activities shape the city.

“People transform the space, wherever we are,” he says.

Piano in Italian means gently, slowly, and as Ham strolls along the lakeside, he encounters people who are curious, people who are oblivious and people who probably give him a very wide berth because they think he’s mad. And that, in turn, becomes part of the performance.

And it’s not the first time Ham has taken to the streets, hauling a modified piano. He first performed with the piano in London back in 2009, walking 16 km through the city and chatting to people as he went.

He reflects today that such an event would no longer be possible in a city like London that’s been transformed by the threat of terrorism. The spectacle of a man pulling a mysterious large object and stopping to talk to people along the way no longer seems so benign.

READ ALSO Contour 556 takes art from the lake to Canberra’s streets

But here in peaceful Canberra, it’s still a way to slow people down and ask them to look at their surroundings and think about how they interact with them. What impact do they have on a space? How do they change it by simply being there?

“I don’t set out to make it a pantomime or a giggle, that’s not my aim in performance art,” he says. “The viewer or passerby or anyone I cross paths with will only see and hear me for a short time and I don’t stop long to put on a show.”

The piece is recorded within the piano and can also be exhibited with the instrument and photographs.

Opening the 2020 event, author and academic Chris Wallace reflected on the value of “pulling the open-ended power of art in the way of people’s daily lives, where they walk, run, sit in the sun and think about the world”.

READ ALSO Contour 556 fills the city with sculptures (and big ideas)

Contour 556 continues as a public art installation at multiple sites around the lake and in the city’s heart until 31 October.

The program includes cultural activities and talks in collaboration with Tyrone Bell and Thunderstone, poetry on the lake by Lurk Collective, a symposium at CMAG about making art in Canberra’s public spaces and participatory drawing near the National Library.

The Localjinni guided interactive walks through the city continue until 28 November. Most Contour 556 experiences are free, although there are a handful of ticketed events. You can find out more at Contour 556.

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