Visual Studies: Walking, the Western and the Tumbleweed

After collaboarting with Radar to produce Roam: A Weekend of Walking in 2008, Sarah Pink, Phil Hubbard, Maggie O'Neill and Alan Radley edited a special issue of the academic journal Visual Studies on walking and art practice. This included articles by artists commissioned for the project, as well as version of papers presented at the accompanying conference. Below is Claire Blundell Jones' article on her Tumbleweed project, an instantiation of which was presented in Loughborough. The formatted article can be accessed here (academic login required).

Walking, the Western and the tumbleweed

Visual Studies, 25(1), 87-88.

There's something comic and effecting about the simple act, and image, of a woman with a leaf-blower following the unpredictable dance of a living relic from the American west as it traverses various European landscapes. The two, woman and weed, suggest a wilderness within and about us; densely populated suburbias are touched by the cinematic signifier of emptiness, loneliness and distance.[1]

I have been escorting tumbleweeds with a leaf blower through town and city streets since 2006. I become a vagrant straying through unknown territories; back and forth, this way and that, turning round, pacing in endless loops. As the audience follows on, they too may also become vagrants lost in the city.

In strolling, one becomes aware of suburban details and social space. It is escapist and allows a freer creative mindset. Sauntering feels transformative; like a constant state of becoming, allowing for play and daydreaming. In the current arena where vehicles dominate, meandering is becoming increasingly unfamiliar; regarded as aimless and wasting time, it is perceived as a lower-social-status activity. ‘Time is money’, and one is encouraged to be constantly in flux, going from one interior to another, from home to the workplace to the gym. With the prevailing privatisation of ‘public’ spaces, wandering has arguably become a countryside activity for weekends. Mere ambulation through the unknown could be interpreted as ‘going off the path’ in life, which is connoted through the word ‘tramping’.

One of the most popular Western icons is the cowboy: the loner hero. Rugged and independent, the cowboy represents humanity's struggle to control nature. Without property or a family unit, these nomads live outside a community: outside society, alienated yet free. Rootless and closer to nature, they drift like tumbleweeds: destination unknown. Tumbleweeds grow on a single shoot and in their mature stage the wind rolls them off from their roots to disperse their seeds, after which they spin endlessly, without purpose.

Walking is often portrayed as degrading within this genre, whilst horseback is considered the empowering mode of transport. Blondie (played by Clint Eastwood) in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is almost dragged to his death, as he is yanked along through the desert by a noose attached to a horse. During Rio Bravo, John Wayne plays Sheriff John T. Chance. Contrary to his name, he is the stable cornerstone of the community and represents both goodness and security. As the wind sound effect intensifies, a tumbleweed rolls over his feet, provoking us to anticipate danger and uncertainty. The plant represents the unknown and the potential disruption of social law and order. With this in mind I become a solitary anti-hero with a lack of identity, ‘goodness’ and determination. In Westerns, women were predominantly kept indoors[2] This is the case in the John Wayne films CowboysRio BravoShane, and The Searchers, and in Sergio Leone's spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and characterised as bartenders, wives or prostitutes, not as cowgirls independently working on vast plains. The ‘tumbleweed’ performance questions the idea that it is unsafe and unusual for women to be alone. Unaccompanied, I freely pace the streets, drawing attention to the tumbleweed and leaf blower rather than to my body and outfit.

In an increasingly globalised market place, tumbleweeds can even be bought online [3]. These American icons sometimes look alien and at other times strangely at home in English suburbia.

Tumbleweeds are loaded with connotations. They can at once represent both globalisation and an imaginative, undulating poetic landscape: to be both feared and admired. Through their journey without destination and their pestilent associations, they can act as a visual metaphor for internal struggles and conflicts, the feeling of being emotionally or socially uncomfortable and alienated from others. The performance explores the notions of private and public space as I willingly present myself as outlandish – outside of this land, in terms of behaviour and my relationship to strangers. This creates a new playful space between myself and the unsuspecting audience, who can potentially begin to imagine alternatives in their local environment, re-imagining it as the Wild West.


[1] Statement by Gregg Whelan (Anti-Festival director and co-funding director of performance collective Lone Twin) at the Anti-Festival on Contemporary Art, Kuopio Finland, 27 September 2007.

[2] This is the case in the John Wayne films CowboysRio BravoShane, and The Searchers, and in Sergio Leone's spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

[3] From sites such as (e.g. ‘Tumbleweeds for sale! Small: $18.99, Medium $24.99, Large $41.99), or they can be bought from and, based in Kansas and Utah.



Claire Blundell Jones

Tumbleweed Loughborough
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