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quiet crowd

Something we’re planning for our next walkshops …

Quiet Crowd will be a programme of journeys around the city exploring the power – and the limits – of public silences.

From silent religious orders to the selectively mute, to one-minute silence keepers, from librarians to Quakers, to Cage performers, from the Silent Parade in New York in 1911 to Erdem Gündüz’s 2013 standing silence in Taksim Square, Istanbul – to be silent in public can be many things.

Quiet Crowd will investigate the effect of shared silence inon participants, witnesses and the city around us. Each Quiet Crowd walk is conducted without speaking. Can we use our silence to open up a crack, create a space for other awarenesses, assert our presence – or erase it? Can we spread silence like an infection?

More details coming soon.

 

Nine days in Vilnius

Reflections on a residency with B_Tour, the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre and Architecture Fund

A response to our residency in September 2016, with thanks to the Lithuania National Drama Theatre, the Architecture Fund in Vilnius and B_Tour.

On our first day in the city we look for traces, clues, atmospheres. Historic borders and public maps. The old ghetto; the missing synagogue. Wilno, Wilna, Вильнюс,Vilna, ווילנע, Vilno, Viļņa, Вiльня, Vilnius: name = identity = (ripped up and rewritten).

Maps and fragments of maps • on paper • on phones • in space • in memory • in the body.

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Benches everywhere – a commitment to public space? So many different kinds of benches. So many empty benches. The meeting point of private and public acts. Continue reading “Nine days in Vilnius”

In/visible walking

Our attempts to be invisible or observe other people’s strange behaviour often make us feel as if we are the strangest, most suspicious people around – by taking pictures, filming CCTV cameras, making notes, indulging in “unusual activities” and “strange comings and goings” we are a perfect fit for the Metropolitan police’s description of potential terrorists.

In recent months we’ve become interested in how to be invisible in the city.

Continue reading “In/visible walking”

Haunting the Rift – from Virginia Woolf to virtual reality

Street Haunting, an essay by Virginia Woolf written around 1930, describes a walk across London on the pretext of needing to buy a pencil. It attempts to track the writer’s footsteps in terms of the walker’s think-steps, or vice versa – an account of what the writer observes while she’s walking through the streets of Holborn and Covent Garden to the Strand, and what she imagines – basically, everything that goes through her head on her journey.

You could try to follow in the footsteps of Street Haunting by wandering down through Covent Garden yourself or even taking a walk through Google Street View to  Rymans on the Strand, but that wouldn’t put you into Woolf’s head in the same way, or immerse yourself in early 20th-century London through her eyes, whether you find that irritatingly precious or delight in the flow of her prose. Either way, Woolf aims to break with the normal experience of walking “wrapt … in some narcotic dream”, as the commuters heading home seem to do. She is lucky enough to have leisure time to indulge in a stroll through the streets – even if, as a tentative flaneuse rather than self-assured flaneur, she feels she has to have the excuse of buying a stationery item.

One image that stuck in my head is the way that Woolf talks about her eye as an independent being, pulling her along: “The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks.

In Street Haunting sight is the most important way of experiencing the world: her eye is what keeps Woolf “gliding smoothly on the surface” of the city, with its sights flowing through Woolf’s eye into her brain, swirling around, picking up all sorts of detritus and then trickling out through her hand (and the crucial pencil) onto the page; then flowing from the page through our eyes and into our brains – where it settles and sinks in.

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Of course this stream-of-consciousness effect is an illusion – Woolf’s essay is actually a highly structured and crafted piece of writing, the stream filtered, mediated and adulterated at every stage of its flow, even before it reaches the brain of the reader. And Woolf’s representation of thoughts and perceptions is very different from James Joyce’s, which in turn is miles away from Kerouac’s or Proust’s or Roberto Bolaño’s or Nicholson Baker’s.

But they’re all bound up with the modernist idea that the writer can and should strive to convey subjective experience as accurately as possible – recreate it for the reader to experience for themselves, across the gap of time and geography. The more I think about this the more disturbing I find it – there’s something peculiarly intimate and claustrophobic about getting inside someone else’s brain and seeing the world through their eyes.

The week I read Street Haunting, Facebook paid a big wad of money for Oculus, a company that develops virtual reality technology. Its Rift headset is supposedly the best attempt so far at a device that immerses its user in a virtual world – although it looks both silly and slightly alarming. Soon you can buy your own if you have £500 or so to spare – it will be on sale in John Lewis and Harrods from September – and try it out for yourself.

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Oculus Rift was developed for gaming but Facebook’s acquisition of it has raised all sorts of ideas about what else it might be used for.  Oculus founder Palmer Luckey suggests: “People already spend hours a day on Facebook. What if it was truly engaging and immersive, rather than a filtered version of your real self?” And Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg says the Oculus Rift headset has the effect of making “you feel like you’re actually present in another place with other people”. According to Zuckerberg, “By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”

So I could stay in my room in London and take a walk – sorry, share an adventure – with a friend in Moscow or Melbourne or Taipei or Tel Aviv or Ramallah or Madrid or Athens, by sending the free-floating eye of my VR headset out to glide along the currents of cyberspace. Is this the culmination of what Woolf and others like her were trying to do with their humble low-tech tools of words on paper?

Zuckerberg adds: “People who try it say it’s different from anything they’ve ever experienced in their lives.” Which suggests that either the people he’s talked to have a rather limited experience of real life that precludes being actually present in places with other people, or it’s nothing like reality.

Chris Milk, who runs a VR production company called VRSE.works, also insists on calling a VR work an “experience” according to Wired magazine – although the magazine points out the technology is still at the stage where the virtual reality experience is cumbersome and sometimes vomit-inducing. The word “experience” comes from the Latin experientia “an experiment; knowledge gained by repeated trials” and was originally used in the context of observation as the source of knowledge, carrying the idea of looking closely at the world – which comes back to what Woolf seems to be attempting in Street Haunting.

What the VR pioneers skip over is that an experience involves more than the eye – walking through a city, for example, means hearing the sounds, smelling smells, sometimes tasting food or drink, touching textures, having aching muscles, sweating, getting wet in the rain or sunburnt or dirty as well as seeing the sights. Will VR’s next goal be to deliver an all-round, fully immersive experience, indistinguishable from the embodied experience of actually being in a real place? What happens to “real reality” if it manages to achieve that?

Virginia Woolf came up thanks to a walk around the West End with the Walking Reading Group .

The Disappearances: field recordings as place-ghosts

Originally presented at the Art and Sound symposium in Leicester in 2015

In 2013 we had started collaborating after discovering a shared fascination with construction sites and with the city as a place of transformation – somewhere that’s constantly in a state of flux. Our two home cities, Moscow and London, both have long, albeit very different, histories of construction, destruction and reconstruction and we were intrigued by the multiple reasons behind these interventions in the built environment, as well as the traces left by such transformations.

We started making work that invited participants to imaginatively reshape the city by cutting up a map in order to ‘demolish’ buildings or streets; in return they provided us with reasons why. This process generated a map of holes and an alternative map of micro-stories. We wanted to use this rich material to make something new and initially we started visiting the ‘demolished’ sites in London with the idea of making an audio tour.

The demolitions generated by the Demolition Project’s work with maps have included flats, offices, buildings, streets and whole areas; also less predictable suggestions such as a tree in Hyde Park, a stretch of water in the River Thames and an entire ring road in Manchester. Participants do not have to make an argument to support their demolition, but they must write down a reason of some sort, whether personal, aesthetic, political or even whimsical.

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This process leaves behind two maps: a map of holes and an alternative map full of words – of carefully reasoned arguments, cries of pain or rage against greed and ugliness, calls for revolution, and tiny personal stories.

While this work is satisfying in its own right in producing thought and discussion about the built environment and how choices are made to shape it, we started to be interested in the rich material it generated and its potential to be developed into something new.

In our earliest stages of developing The Demolition Project, we had been thinking about using it as the basis for an urban tour or walk of some sort through the spaces our participants had ‘demolished’. The first thing we had ever made together had been an audio tour, inspired by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Missing Voice: Case Study B. The Missing Voice uses binaural field recordings and simple in-ear headphones (not the heavy-duty noise-cancelling type) to enable the audience / walker to experience a mixture of sound from the time of the recording with the live, unscripted sounds of the city as they walk through it. We were exhilarated by this collision of past and present – which also, by implication, elides the factual and the fictional, even before the addition of a narrated story. And the use of sound to frame the visual and physical experience of walking through the city gave rise to a heightened experience without disrupting the fabric of the city itself.

This mixture of now and then, fiction and reality also seemed to be implicit in our project. Everyone who had chosen to demolish something from the city represented in our map had committed to the imaginative exchange and taken it seriously. Each session we did generated a parallel reality in which a trail of destruction had taken place, and one that had a vividness and a solid emotional weight – whether that was a sense of release and catharsis, or guilt and responsibility, or simple joy in the transgressive act of destruction. This was something we wanted to capture and communicate beyond the span of each presentation.

We started visiting the ‘demolished’ sites in London and taking photographs, making short videos and writing down ideas, with the idea of making an audio tour inspired by Cardiff’s.

Alisa filming

However, it quickly became clear that the distance between the individual sites made an audio tour a tricky proposition. Instead we found a way to use some of the material we were collecting to make a performance-lecture which we presented at a theatre in east London in May 2014. It took a storytelling approach to the demolitions, highlighting the micro-stories behind each one and ultimately leading the audience into a London that had been transformed, where Oxford Street had become an aquarium, the animals from London Zoo had been released to roam free and the city lay waiting for inundation after the disappearance of the Thames Flood Barrier.

For a while, the project, which we named The Disappearances, was put on the back-burner while we got on with new work.  This included a couple of other audio walks – Groundworking, which recreates the experience of exploring an excavation site long after the hole has been filled in, and Follow Me, about following strangers through the streets. Neither guided the listener along a route – instead they choose their own way of responding to the voice in their ear and the sounds recorded in the place or places in question. We’ve been learning about recording and editing as we go along, borrowing binaural mics to record sound on site  and using Garage Band to mix field recordings with narration and interviews recorded on a little Zoom H1.

When we found time to return to our idea for The Disappearances, we found ourselves looking afresh at the ‘map of holes’ that had been produced by our participants’ demolitions at each presentation of the work. A particular photograph of the shadows cast by one of these maps had the effect of removing it from the everyday context of the streetmap and transforming it into a ghost of our work, an empty space pockmarked with voids caused by the trauma of demolition.

We decided The Disappearances should become an installation involving the map of holes – a memorial to the city’s destroyed, demolished and removed and a relic of a parallel reality. What we wanted was some way to show the traces of what had gone, beyond simply the holes left by their disappearance.

We lighted on the idea of a field recording as a trace of a place caught somewhere between physical existence and willed/imagined non-existence; a ghost, perhaps, of a vanished place. The work of the London Sound Survey in capturing and mapping the sounds of the city is another inspiration here, triggered by a talk by Ian Rawes of the LSS at the Museum of London in which the echoes of vanished worlds crackled across time with a vivid sense of place and life. In a rather different way, Graeme Miller’s Linked – a sound trail in east London in which the participant carries a receiver to tune in to voices, music and sounds from streets that were long ago demolished – helped plant the idea of sounds as a ghost presence, a way that places long gone could haunt the present.

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We decided each void on the map would have its own field recording, a record of the sounds in that place made before its putative destruction, and the sounds would be anchored to their source by headphone wires. The map would take on the semblance of a crumbling concrete wall pitted with holes, each hole sprouting wires in the way that the reinforced concrete of a building mid-demolition sprays out thin steel rods. A visitor to the installation would be able to pick up the other end of a wire and listen to an individual field recording, perhaps going on to graze through all the recordings and build up a picture of the city’s absent places.

When we had the idea for the installation, we did not realise how extraordinary we would find the process of making the field recordings. The act of visiting participants’ sites of destruction has become a form of pilgrimage to an imagined city, in which each journey contains a small disruption between the concrete world we perceive and the knowledge that in a parallel world it has been razed into rubble. Then there is the ritual of silently walking through (or standing in) the demolished site, listening to the environment through binaural headphones as we record it for up to 20 minutes; a way of being in a space that  produces a sense of a heightened reality in which the smallest sounds come into sharp relief, with the mics capturing voices across the street, the rasp of leaves blown across the pavement, the brush of sleeve against coat.

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Then there is the final part of the ritual – playing back the recording later, an act of separating the soundscape from the landscape in which it is embedded. Displaced from their visual and physical context, the meaning of these sounds fractures into texture: fragments of speech; the rumble of traffic; the grind and thump of construction work; rustling leaves; scouring wind; birdsong.

And yet each soundscape – or place-ghost – has its distinctive character. Kingsland Road (demolished in April 2014 by Idel) is a journey through a fluctuating stream of roaring and revving, punctuated by shards of human voice at each junction; Wapping (destroyed, apologetically, by Krystyna in June 2013) is a meander patterned with breezes, bird caws and siren cries, climaxing in a storm of helicopter rotors; Primark in Oxford Street (removed by Neil in June 2013) is full immersion in a shifting, swirling hubbub of speech, muzak and the thrum of commerce.

Eventually, we will present The Disappearances as a historical or archaeological artefact – a collection of sounds frozen in time, each one moored to its void on the transformed map by the cord of the headphones. In the meantime, the process of making the recordings continues to be a complex and rewarding experience for us, transforming our sense of the city with the sense of travelling through layers of time and dimensions of reality.

A version of this was presented at Art and Sound symposium on Place. Art. Life. on 4 July 2015 at Phoenix Square, Leicester.

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Adventures in following

Our experiments in following strangers and what we did with it…

We started 2015 knowing we wanted to follow people in the street. Both of us had had a revelation the previous autumn, when we were in Belgrade at the B_Tour festival and participated in Miloš Tomić’s Unknown Lover tour. Unknown Lover consisted of a series of tasks to be undertaken individually or in pairs/groups, and one of the tasks was to spend 10 minutes following a stranger wherever they went, taking a single photograph of them. We took the tour separately and only came together to talk about it much later – and we discovered that we had both loved this particular task and spent longer on it than the stipulated 10 minutes. The appeal was something to do with the way it takes decision-making out of your hands, forcing you to go further than you would otherwise, along routes you might not choose to follow. It has (or can have) a cinematic quality: focusing on the movement of a figure through the streetscape, a stranger who is mysterious by default as you really know nothing about them. It also has the qualities of a game, in which you have to stay far enough away not to be detected but not so far that you lose them, thus engaging in the substance of the city by challenging you to negotiate all its obstacles from traffic to distractions.

Following in Belgrade
Following in Belgrade

This became one of our main preoccupations in the first six months of the year. We looked at other artists who had used Following in their work – particularly Sophie Calle, and her Suite Venitienne and The Shadow,
Francis Alÿs’s Doppelgänger and Vito Acconci’s Following Piece. We began our own series of experiments in Following, and in the first two of our workshops (or walkshops) at SPACE@ClarenceMews we enlisted friends and fellow artists in our explorations*.

We thought about who is followed, watched or surveilled. Celebrities (one of our walkshop participants talked about spotting Beyoncé in Selfridges and following her through the store); criminals, dissidents, terrorists or people suspected to be any of those (a couple of walkshop participants had been stopped by police or security men who had been watching them because they were “behaving suspiciously” or matched the description of a wanted criminal); people who stand out as beautiful, flamboyant, odd or out of place. Also those who are desired, with the watching/following behaviour on a spectrum of mild interest right through to downright psychotic. Who does the surveillance, watching and following? Paparazzi, reporters, spies, secret police, ordinary police, private detectives, controlling lovers, would-be lovers and vengeful ex-lovers, curious and bored game-players …

Looking at these lists, our desire to follow people began to seem a little questionable. But it was nevertheless a real desire, and we got a genuine pleasure from doing it, as did most of our walkshop participants. In exploring this pleasure we discovered other possibilities within it. For instance, an hour spent following various strangers coming and going from a main station (King’s Cross in London) became a choreographic exercise, requiring fast switches between different paces and ways of walking; repeating and re-repeating short looping routes between trains and buses and hotels and buses and trains and becoming aware of the pattern made by the pathways through a public space and the different ways of taking them.

Following in London
Following in London

Continued attempts to follow and photograph strangers drove home the taboo nature of the task and the small thrill of breaking that taboo. The feeling of accomplishment when you manage to follow someone all the way from their workplace to their front door (or vice versa), or get up close enough to them to overhear their conversation without being noticed – this went along with a bristle of discomfort at invading their privacy or imposing your own fantasies upon them.

The more research we did, the more we discovered in the practice and its shifting power relationships. We were blithely pursuing strangers around London, observing their movements, photographing them and commenting on their behaviour when discussing our “follows” afterwards. And they were oblivious – unaware that we were using them for our research and hence of course lacking in consent to such involvement.

Following in Hackney. Photo: Hanqing Miao
Following in Hackney. Photo: Hanqing Miao

The world (the city) can quickly become a stage or a cinema screen onto which the follower projects their stories. The followed are the performers; after a while it’s easy to start seeing them as dramatic characters, there for your watching pleasure. But equally often you are at their mercy (albeit because you have put yourself there) and must dawdle or run, walk yet again down that long boring road or put on an elaborate show of stopping to send a text or take a call … Once you commit to following someone, it can seem as if they have all the power. You wish they would surprise you, or do something more interesting; take a different route or walk faster, or slower. And sometimes their story is so absorbing that you forget other plans and follow them all day, held by the attraction of your unwitting guide.

Something that arose in our workshops – which makes Calle’s work in both Suite Venitienne and The Shadow particularly interesting – is how far gender influences feelings around following and being followed, and experiences of power and control in the context. Most of our workshop participants were female and almost all had stories to tell of being followed by strange men, or fearing being followed by strange men; whereas men (our sensitive feminist male friends, at any rate!) were more likely to talk about being aware of those fears and making an ­effort to avoid being mistaken for someone following a strange woman when they just happened to be walking in the same direction. (This would come up again when we did Shadow in Berlin, when at least two men reported the fear that passers-by were judging their following behaviour as creepy and sinister.)

Could we make work that addressed these questions? We were determined to return to the B_Tour festival in 2015 as it taking part in it in 2014 had had such a huge impact on us and our work. Building a piece around the act of following seemed a logical step and we developed the idea for Shadow, a performative piece that gives its participants, one by one, the experience of following and being followed. We considered performing it in Lichtenberg area of Berlin, where the former Stasi headquarters were (now a museum), but rejected that on the basis that it seemed too heavy-handed. Instead we chose to do it in Neukölln, an area that is not unlike the Hackney/Dalston part of London in that it mixes traditional working class inhabitants with newer immigrant communities and arty/hipster incomers. With the idea of Edgar Allen Poe’s man in the crowd and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, we decided to take a route that circled Neukölln Arcaden, a shopping centre that could be seen as the contemporary (and somewhat downmarket) equivalent of the 19th-century Paris arcades. Having researched the piece in Dalston, we found a similar sort of route that included narrow alleys, open squares, a crowded main street and a quiet cemetery. The idea was to use the choreographic and visual/cinematic potential of the following exercise, leading the follower through a variety of contrasting spaces and atmospheres.

At the same time, when we listened to the recordings we’d made of our walkshop meetings we decided that the material we were gathering would make the basis for an intriguing audio tour. An early attempt at this failed completely; it aimed to take listeners on the trail of an imaginary stranger made up of a composite of some of the strangers we had followed failed and the routes they had taken – but this proved both too ambitious and too complex. We ended up making Follow Me, a sketch/scratch piece that combined elements of binary audio recording in Hackney, extracts from our recordings of walkshop participants’ following experiences and a scripted thread of suggestions, instructions and ideas in an audio walk that encourages/tempts participants to follow a stranger as they listen.

Feedback from participants in both Shadow and Follow Me suggested that inviting people to perform the action of Following in a more formal framework went a long way to remove the anxiety and discomfort some of our walkshop participants had felt.

In Shadow, they knew they were following a performer, not a random stranger; the surprise was to discover that they themselves were being followed. Surprisingly, only one participant followed the “stranger” very obviously, a few feet behind them; everyone else tried to remain hidden from the person they were following, although we hadn’t told them to do so. Most people were surprised but interested that we had followed, observed and photographed them (the piece ends with a sharing of our observations, followed by emailing them the “surveillance” photos); many of the participants were from Berlin but no one seemed to notice any resonance of surveillance from the days of the GDR, although this wasn’t something we brought up. We’d been warned by friends who had lived in the city that Berliners were far more concerned with privacy and would not like being photographed or seeing other people photographed, but we didn’t experience this at all – not sure whether this is because of the area’s hipster quotient or the recent impact of selfies/Instagram/Facebook etc in making people in general around the world more used to the constant background hum of street photography. We were left unsure whether the piece had sanitised and diluted the Following experience so far that it became no more than a mildly diverting game, and we’re still mulling over what we learned from it and how (or whether) to take it further.

Participants in Follow Me, on the other hand, actually followed “genuine” strangers; however they had a voice in their ear to give them permission. They spoke with enthusiasm about how they had felt safe enough to take risks and go further in following people. The relatively brief scratch piece (about 20-25 minutes) provoked a lot of discussion and thought about the experience as well as recollections by a couple of participants who had done it as a game when they were children. We’re hoping to make extended versions of Follow Me for other sites and other cities.

The next stage in our investigations will take us to Warrington in October for a workshop run by Simon Farid, which looks exciting. Will update about this in the autumn.

• Thanks to Amy, Hannah, Holly, Jayne, John, Kat, Megan, Nan, Olivia, Penny, Sam and Vanessa

death in the city

The city generates danger not only for human beings but also for animals, birds and insects. As I walk through the city and see all those small tragedies in front of my footsteps, imprinted in the urban landscape, I record them to immortalise what has already become mortal.

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Photos by Alisa Oleva