Oliver Barnes in conversation with Erik Benjamins
“Reflexology walking paths are designed spaces for wellness. Common, but not specific to countries throughout Asia, these pathways are easily identifiable with their signature bumpy surfaces, which usually consist of rounded river stones half-set into concrete in various patterns or configurations. Traditionally found in parks or neighbourhood courtyards, these pathways are public facing social spaces that promote exercise and restorative health. They are activated when walkers remove their shoes and take ambulatory circuits over the sensorially stimulating grounds. I like to think of these walking paths as a simplified and accessible extension of a larger practice of reflexology, which incorporates the application of pressure to the bases of the hands or feet as a means to promote healthy circulation throughout the body among other benefits like reducing stress.
Oli and I both share a common love of and curiosity for these walking paths and it was an honour to work with him and the 221A community to help realize this critically engaged and deeply generous project. In the wake of its recent completion, we conducted this interview to share a bit about Oli’s process, points of reference and intentions.”
EB: Where did the idea to create a reflexology path within the Semi-Public garden space at 221A stem from?
OB: After finishing work on the x̱aw̓s shew̓áy̓ New Growth《新生林》in 2019, (as part of the original youth cohort that planted the garden with T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss), I took a trip back to Macau where I grew up. I happened to be visiting in the dead of a heatwave and so I ended up spending time outside revisiting the reflexology paths that I used to see in my childhood, which are integrated into most of the public parks there. I hadn’t really remarked on them before because they are so prevalent in the communities I grew up in. But on this visit, I took time to really watch people utilize the parks in Macau and noticed how reflexology paths are such an interconnected site for leisure, recreation, familial relation and wellness. I would notice how seniors visited in the morning and families in the afternoon. And I became really curious about the health benefits these paths had to offer.
I came back to Vancouver with a desire to create a public installation that would be interactive for the community, something that would specifically benefit the seniors population in Chinatown, which is where the x̱aw̓s shew̓áy̓ New Growth《新生林》is located. Then, last fall I encountered this “play sculpture” in Jones Park, a giant concrete snail set in playground sand. I thought it was such a cool union of urban recreation and the unwavering presence of nature. Its back was studded with pebbles, which immediately made me think of an acupressure pathway! So the idea to build one just clicked.
EB: What is your relationship to reflexology walking paths? How do they make you feel? What do they mean to you? How do they benefit public space?
OB: Because I grew up in Asia, reflexology paths are familiar to me and I am always excited to find new ones and try them out. I love the way particular sensations are felt in the body when acupressure points are stimulated on the soles of the feet. Reflexology paths also promote longevity and good health to the public for free, something I believe in. In China you generally find them in public parks and gardens where seniors and families in the community go to congregate and just get their daily exercise, walk or stretching in. There are generally a lot of recreational facilities provided in parks over there. I like how exercise, leisure and wellness is seen as more communal and public, versus how it tends to be privatized here.
As for the experience of being on a reflexology path, I view it as a kind of slower course for encountering a space. You take your time, feeling your body in connection with public space.
EB: This project is rather unique in how it functions simultaneously as a public artwork, a space for wellness, and a meeting ground for local communities. Do you connect to any of these ideas?
OB: Since the beginning of COVID, I started noticing that a lot of public greenspace in the DTES was getting fenced off, like Oppenheimer Park, Strathcona Park and Crab Park. Ones that stayed open, like Maclean Park, had all these paved concrete sections with no function, offering little as far as leisure or comfort goes. This bugged me because it was COVID (not to mention a summer of brutal heat waves!), and people really need spaces to relax and stay healthy outside.
So when we started planning the reflexology path, I was thinking through a lot of these questions – how can public space be more inviting? How do we make that invitation and what could it look like? My dream is for people in the community to feel more welcomed into the x̱aw̓s shew̓áy̓ New Growth《新生林》because of the pathway. That they might feel more comfortable and stay longer, take their shoes and socks off and connect with the garden in a more participatory way. And that it becomes a regular meeting place for all kinds of folks in the neighborhood.
Already, the path has inspired all kinds of new connections. Every day we were working on site, we would fall into conversations with neighbours who wanted to know more about what we were working on. We have a neighbour Fu Rong Tan across the alleyway here who is a barber and owns the Sunshine Barber Shop. He’s taken to coming by every few days and saying hello. We chat with each other in Mandarin and when we get stranded in language we turn to our smart phones for the assistance of translation apps. Today he asked to borrow one of our buckets that we were using for installing the reflexology path. He came back later with the bucket and had made a rat trap for us!
EB: Share with us a bit about your process for the creation of the path. How did you decide on what stones to use? Where did they come from?
OB: River rocks were a natural fit because they are smooth. The majority of rocks in the path were collected from the rivers in the area, mostly on the North Shore of the [Burrard] Inlet. The main site we gathered from was beside the Capilano Reserve, under the Lions Gate Bridge where the river meets the coastline. We also went to one of the rivers that is closer towards the Tsleil-Waututh Reserve, right by the Second Narrows Bridge. We also picked up some rocks on a separate trip to Secwépemc’ulucw in the interior [of the province]. And Nicole our Art Aunty and her literal nephew Axyl did some rock harvesting of their own in Treaty 6 territory on the banks of the Red Deer River (these rocks are noticeably not from this region as they have the colour palette of dinosaur bones).
T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss taught us ethical harvesting practices and proper protocol for collecting these rocks. She taught us that the rocks are our oldest relatives and are like grandfathers, and therefore need to be collected in caring and thoughtful ways. We avoided harvesting rocks that are home to creatures, or stones that you need to tug at to release – they might not want to go!
I really like the rocks that have a diverse array of colors in them. You’ll see some of these rocks have spots of bright, brilliant green inlaid between dark blue, grayish colors. We’ll also find some bright salmon colours, and light red and orange hues as well. I did have some criteria for selecting the rocks, sort of a template for size (fits in your hand) and shape (smooth, flat, oblong). But ultimately, I guess the perfect rock is one that feels best against your foot! Towards the end of the harvesting process I actually started choosing rocks by walking carefully in the river and just feeling with my feet.
EB: I really love the inclusion of the ceramic mooncakes. They provide a playful visual contrast while directly speaking to the walking path’s location and 221A’s history. Where did this idea come from and how do you think they add to the overall design and experience of the path?
OB: The idea stemmed from jaz whitford and I overhearing a story about the early days of 221A. The very first exhibition in their original location in Chinatown was called The Moon Cake Show, which was curated by co-founder (and current Head of Finance and Equity) Michelle Fu. At the time [in summer/fall 2008], a Chinatown bakery needed temporary space to store thousands of pounds of mooncake ingredients [traditional sweet pastries produced annually for the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival], and 221A agreed to sublet out their space – so that ended up being the show! Jaz and I thought it was cool that for their “debut” as a “gallery” 221A decided to pay homage to the community, honoring the multigenerational relationships and exchanges that exist within Chinatown. The reflexology path feels a bit like a continuation of that idea.
The ceramic mooncake tiles you’ll see embedded in the path were made by our friend and artist Serisa Fitz-James. Thanks Serisa!
EB: What was it like to create a project for a public? Did you have a specific audience in mind?
OB: The primary audience I was thinking about when creating the path are the seniors in Chinatown, who I realized would have to travel great distances to access a reflexology path. To the best of my knowledge there are no freely accessible reflexology paths in the neighborhood. I know there’s one in Richmond, but that’s far away. I was also thinking about lower income folks in the DTES and how health and wellness is so often treated like a luxury. I don’t agree with that. So this is a way to make a path to wellness completely free for community members. This summer, all the spray parks in and around the DTES were closed during the heatwave, which is nuts. We really need to make spaces for delight, pleasure, leisure and wellness publicly accessible to our low-income neighbours.
EB: Is there an ideal way for a visitor to experience the path?
OB: One step at a time! You can take off your shoes, leave your socks on or go barefoot. Just start walking as you would on flat surfaces, but take it really slowly. Plant your feet slowly and deliberately and explore the surface area of the stones with your weight. The different points and placement of the rocks will massage pressure points on your foot and trigger sensations throughout the rest of your body. Use your own discretion and judgement! There’s a bench that also runs alongside most of the path, so there is always the option to sit and rest at any point.
EB: What is your hope that a visitor to the path takes away from the experience?
OB: I would like the path to inspire a DIY ethos to physical health. Sure, you can use exercise machines or go to fitness classes, but you can also just explore a playground or park space and find ways to be good to your body and stay healthy. I’m interested in challenging societal (capitalist!) norms about what exercise is and where it should be practiced. I hope that the garden becomes a place for visitors to slow down and take the time to connect to their bodies. And at the same time, maybe also connect to the animals, birds, insects and plants that are present all around us.
EB: Now that you’ve spent so much time working on the path (and walking on it!), do you have any advice for curious walkers?
- Be kind to your feet! They help us out a lot and are portals to the rest of our bodies.
- Be on the lookout for new experiences! It might be a new fruit flavour, a different texture of sand or clay, or a new family of plants and creatures to encounter!
- Always, be mindful of the territories you travel on and through. Think about who has inhabited and stewarded them, and who continues to live on them in the present.
“I’ll be the first to admit that the anxieties and complexities of our current moment can have the effect of propelling us to keep to ourselves and to keep our heads down. Thankfully, we have project’s like Oli’s and spaces like 221A that remind me of the power that creative acts have to empower and to tend to community in nurturing, generous ways. How can we best summarize this gesture that has set roots within T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss’s lively outdoor space? Is it a public artwork? Landscape design? Garden intervention? Social space? Community hub? Platform for performance? Gloriously, it’s a bit of all of these, furthering its potential to connect to all kinds of participants and visitors. Importantly, this walking path materializes as a reminder to us to tend not just to our own bodies, minds and spirits, but those of our neighbors. While I have yet to visit due to COVID travel restrictions, I patiently await my time to finally, and joyously, remove my own shoes to take a walk and have a sit. I have no doubt it will be grounding and rejuvenating.”