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.
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”
] You will be walking around the city alone – this tour aims to find out the different ways in which different people explore the city, and it involves an encounter – and an exchange – between two strangers. Bring a notebook to write on (or some paper) and a pen or pencil – that’s all you’ll need. [
– from instructions to I’m A Stranger Berlin / Belgrade
I’m A Stranger is a piece we devised for B_Tour, a festival of alternative art tours which began in Berlin in 2013 and branched out to Belgrade in 2014. (In 2015 we’re planning to do it in London, and possibly Glasgow and elsewhere.) While we were talking to other tour-makers at the festival, we came up with a description for it as a make-it-yourself tour – it’s a participatory work in which participants make their own tour and create a map of it in part one, then take a tour that someone else has mapped.
The great (and sometimes scary) thing about participatory work is that you can’t predict what participants will do, and how they will interpret and influence it. Working on the streets of a city contributes more elements of randomness, and the piece takes on its own life, growing up and away from the intentions and designs of its creators… We are learning more about this process as we go, trying to lay down starting points, rules and tasks that will generate something interesting and rich, and trying our best to let go of our preconceptions about how that will turn out. The versions of I’m A Stranger we’ve done so far have turned out rather differently to our plans – and have been quite different from our initial idea.
When we started thinking about I’m A Stranger we wanted simply to arrange a (rather mysterious) rendezvous between two strangers; when they met, they would exchange the routes each one had taken to arrive at that point, and each would follow the other’s route in reverse to find out where they started. The first part would involve working out a path through the city from home/hotel/arrival point to the city centre; the second part would be an adventure of following a stranger’s route in reverse and it could take all day, depending on the length of the route, how easy it was to follow, getting lost etc. Along the way the separate participants might discover a part of the city they had never seen or would see it from a different point of view to their usual one. Perhaps they would arrive feeling a little as if they had walked into the life of the stranger. This idea was more like a walking protocol or strategy that could be set to be taken at any time, all we would do is put two strangers together and arrange the rendezvous; if they shared their reports of the experience it would be online rather than in person.
There are possibilities in this simple version that we have still to explore, but when we decided to pitch I’m A Stranger for B_Tour we realised we would need to make it work in the context of the festival, and it became something quite different. For the B_Tour version we came up with something time-limited and more contained, which could work for a number of individuals paired at random depending on who reaches the rendezvous point first. We discussed it with B_Tour’s Christin and Yael and tested variations in London in the first few months of the year, which pointed up the potential problems and challenges and helped us clarify what sort of experience we wanted to explore.
Starting point in Berlin – the world time clock on Alexanderplatz
London test in Trafalgar Square
Belgrade rendezvous point – the statue of Prince Mihailo Obrenovic
The initial inspiration had come from thinking about the characteristics of the city – as a place where strangers meet and exchange things (goods, services, ideas); and as a place where people arriving in the city have to negotiate routes through unknown streets. At one stage we wanted people to travel symbolically from a given entry point to the city such as a main railway station (in Berlin we were going to start at Ostbahnhof, which had been the main station of East Berlin and was now the city’s second most important station) to a rendezvous at a well-known symbolic meeting point (in Berlin, the Fountain of International Friendship in Alexanderplatz; in Belgrade, the statue of Prince Mihailo Obrenovic in Trg Republike).
Testing I’m A Stranger in London (at Waterloo and St Pancras stations), we discovered that time pressures limited the number of ways you could get from one point to another, as well as constricting the amount of time you could spend recording your route. What’s more, after the exchange, participants had to follow their new route backwards – from the meeting point to the starting point – which added an extra layer of complication.
The solution we came up with was to ask participants to take an hour to walk a very short route – from one landmark to another – which meant they could vary the route and the amount of detail they recorded as much as they liked. In Berlin, for example, the starting point became the World Time Clock in Alexanderplatz; the Fountain of International Friendship is just across the square and you can see the top of its sculpture over the tangle of market stalls in between. This also meant participants no longer needed to work backwards along the route they had been given at the exchange – they could return to the starting point in a few seconds in order to set off again.
While we lost a symbolic dimension of the journey from the city’s periphery to its centre, we regained the ability to give our participants a great degree of freedom, both in how they made a pathway and how much time and detail they used to record it. With an hour to spend crossing a space of less than 50 metres, they could make a route that zig-zagged across the square, looped through the backstreets around it or simply went very, very slowly in as direct a line as possible and included every detail. The only fixed points were the starting time and place, the rendezvous time and place, and the final ending time and place.
They were equally free to record their journey in any way they liked – by writing down, drawing or mapping the route they took, what they saw or what they heard, or any combination of writing/mapping/drawing any or all of these. So the work generated a host of different alternative “maps” – routes participants had made and their records of those routes which could (in theory) be kept as documentation, as works in their own right and as directions for future walks.
At the rendezvous, the participants – the strangers – recognised each other by writing “I’m a stranger” on a piece of paper and holding it up, and these in turn became an effective visual part of the work. It was interesting to see how many people felt awkward doing this and wrote it in quite small letters and/or held it up as inconspicuously as possible. Others didn’t make a sign at all, but relied on finding someone else’s first.
This structure of journeys and exchanges culminated in a final exchange – a sharing of experience between each pair of strangers who had exchanged routes and a general sharing for those who wanted it. We hadn’t really thought about this when we started out (it was something B_Tour were very keen for us to have) but it ended up seeming like a completely logical outcome of the exercise. During the Demolition Project piece that gave us our name we had discovered that one of the most rewarding parts was that it opened up conversations between those who participated, sometimes along unexpected lines. The delicate task for us (we’re still trying to get it right) is how to facilitate those conversations without forcing them. In many cases, people who had exchanged routes were really keen to talk to each other about what they’d discovered or found puzzling on each other’s maps. Sometimes people found unexpected connections in the way they perceived the world – for example, a couple of participants paired by chance in Belgrade had both focused on the soundscape of their routes. Others made fresh discoveries – one participant in Berlin who worked in Alexanderplatz found the route showing him parts of the area he had never noticed before; others who knew and disliked Alexanderplatz for its superficial ugliness discovered how interesting it could be once they started using details as landmarks.
Repeating I’m A Stranger in Belgrade brought a fresh challenge on the second day, when a planned demonstration in the city centre meant Trg Republike was filled with riot police and we had to relocate at short notice. This turned out to be a bonus as we found a fresh site, with a starting and meeting point at different doors to the Bitef Theatre, which is next to the busy Bajloni market amid a tangle of small streets in the Dorcol area of the city.
The marketplace setting gave the tour a different feel – less “touristic” and with a background as a place of outsiders and exchange. Bajloni is especially interesting as it has a mix of official stallholders within the gated market and unofficial street sellers with makeshift displays spread on the surrounding pavements; we were told they are illegal migrants and gypsies who have come to Belgrade from the country.
The necessity of having to move away from the “obvious” meeting place made us rethink the type of site we want to stage our next outing of I’m A Stranger.
Another thing we discovered was the difficulty of documenting the piece without a third and fourth person to run round after participants, ensure they agree to us photographing and reproducing their routes and comments etc. It made us consider how we document our work – and whether that’s important. There’s enormous pressure for artists to document participatory and performance work thoroughly in order to have something to show potential funders and commissioners, to market themselves with and to give something transient a more permanent life.
Maps from I’m A Stranger in Alexanderplatz
At the same time, what seems really important to us is the actual encounters at the heart of it: in the case of I’m A Stranger, the encounter with another person’s pathway, with another person’s way of perceiving the urban environment – and of course the encounter between self and city. We are very interested in the physical product of I’m A Stranger – the route “maps” – but it proved harder than we thought to capture these: it was difficult to photograph them on the spot (bad light, stiff breezes) and people understandably wanted to keep their maps or hold on to the map of their opposite number.
The issue of documentation is one that we really need to sort out in the coming year: how we approach it in principle, and how we make it practically. Is it a prompt for an experience (eg walking protocols such as those of Wilfried Hou Je Bek) or is it a trace or a record of it, or are experience and documentation part and parcel of the same work? On the one hand, there is a lot of depressingly dull documentation of walking art which seems beside the point; on the other, there is work where the record/trace seems to be the work itself, from Richard Long’s Line Made By Walking onwards. With I’m A Stranger we hope to build up documentation that has multiple uses – as traces of pathways actually made, as routes that can be attempted by others at a later date, and as a set of rules that will enable anyone to reproduce it in any city.
On 5 July we tested I’m A Stranger in London for the last time before we bring it to Berlin in August for B_Tour. Earlier tests had taken place around King’s Cross and the South Bank, and Trafalgar Square seemed like an ideal place – it’s a bustling square, a tourist hub and in the centre of several areas that could potentially be explored, including Soho, Covent Garden, Piccadilly and Charing Cross. Our testers had all lived in London and thought they knew it well but found themselves making new discoveries by participating in I’m A Stranger. Below are some extracts from their routes, showing how diverse the approaches were.
Thanks to all our expert testers in London for their brilliant enthusiasm and invaluable feedback: Hannah Breslin, Holly Elson, John Hale, Nan Park, Olivia Vergnon and Nicole Young.
A street becomes a symbol of the power of words on paper; when it is destroyed, a project seeks to rebuild it in words and paper.
The pictures of maps here are from a book made by my friend Mona Kriegler for Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, a really interesting project that makes explicit the relationship between place and the imaginative, between symbolic and physical realities.
The project began in March 2007 when an American poet, Beau Beausoleil, read about an incident in Iraq the previous day – a car bomb exploding on Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, killing 26 people and wreaking devastation. The street, named after a revered 10th-century Iraqi poet, had been home to bookshops, stationers and cafes where writers and artists gathered, and the bombing was widely seen as an attack on the country’s literary and intellectual life.
In truth, the area had started to transform in the 1990s after western sanctions started to wreak havoc on Iraqi cultural life without any need for explosive; rather than a flourishing bookshop quarter, it had become a place where impoverished intellectuals came to sell the contents of their personal libraries, spreading out their books on the street, and a rash of photocopying shops had sprouted to cater to those starved of reading matter by the dearth of imported publications. Al-Mutanabbi Street was not so much an address as a symbol of traditional art and culture. The image of a street of bookshops being blown to smithereens is a powerful one, though, and Beausoleil’s response is an equally powerful symbolic action, seeking to rebuild an area of the city in words, images and paper.
Beausoleil first asked poets and writers to contribute poems in memory of the victims of the bombing, and this became a call to letterpress artists to make broadsides – large posters, of the sort traditionally used for publishing news, ballads and proclamations – as a visual response, focused on text and typography. The next phase was a callout for book art, and between 2010 and 2012 260 artists contributed to an alternative library, which has become a touring exhibition. The third phase is a call for submissions from printmakers to contribute on the themes of absence and presence. The project as a whole already has almost 500 contributors from around the world, so it has clearly harnessed something powerful around the symbolic connections between site and art.
Attacks on culture through the actual destruction of objects, buildings and places is a common feature of conflict throughout history, of course. In a recent talk at the Mosaic Centre in London, London-based Iraqi artist Rashad Salim pointed to the burning of a library in Tripoli, Lebanon in January as just the most recent example. In the real world, Al-Mutanabbi Street was rebuilt in bricks and mortar in 2008 (before-and-after pictures here), generating conflict over whether the government was prioritising its symbolic value over the needs of other parts of Baghdad and elsewhere in the country that were destroyed in the war and/or fell into disrepair. The street’s continuing symbolic reconstruction in words and paper (an inversion of the Demolition Project) can perhaps be extended to a wish to restore all the culture that is lost in war or to iconoclastic rampage – all the vanished streets where artists once met, all the burned books, demolished libraries, smashed statues, ruined archives, ripped paintings…
The book art contributed to Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here includes ingenious and beautiful work, some of it drawing on the image of the map. My friend Mona’s contribution,Pain and Memory, is one of these, using gold thread to stitch together the “scar” of Al-Mutanabbi Street on hand-drawn and aerial maps of Baghdad, an idea that draws on the Japanese wabi sabi tradition of repairing broken objects with a thin gold line along the cracks. The book is largely made up of photographic portraits of people who have been injured or broken in some way, with their scars (some of them invisible) traced in gold paint, thus drawing out relationships between the city and the body. A very different take on the aesthetics of destruction and repair, making beauty out of the tracks of repair.
Mona’s gold-stitched lines made me think about the debate between those who want to build anew and those who want to restore – similar arguments have taken place in Baghdad over Al-Mutanabbi Street and in New York over the World Trade Center site. Do we want to wipe out any sign that destruction has happened – whether by building something completely different or by constructing an exact copy of the original – or do we want to reveal and memorialise it? There is a small round plaque high up on a wall on a street near my house, commemorating the first bombing in the first Zeppelin raids in London in 1915; I walked past it a thousand times before I noticed. London is full of such small, discreet nods to damage caused in long ago wars. Beau Beausoleil’s project could prove a more enduring and constructive way to acknowledge damage through the fragile medium of paper.
More on Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here book art here, here and here.
Have you ever tried simply to walk out of your house and keep walking in a straight line through your city? Imagine how many obstacles you will meet: roads, authorities, fences, closed doors, rivers and forests. Recently a Russian artist Anastasia Ryabova has explored this topic by organizing a ‘Star Road’ expedition, where the participants were invited to walk through the city recreating the shape of a star.
Have you ever tried simply to walk out of your house and keep walking in a straight line through your city? Imagine how many obstacles you would meet: roads, authorities, fences, high walls, closed doors, rivers, ponds and forests. Recently a Russian artist Anastasia Ryabova has explored this topic by organising a ‘Star Road’ expedition, where the participants were invited to walk through the city recreating the shape of a star.
When I say ‘through’ I do literally mean it. The emphasis in the project, a bit similar to the urban practice of parkour, is on the physicality of the experience of the city with your own body. Also, it is not simply a spontaneous act of walking through the city following a certain pattern but is an expedition which is researched into and prepared well in advance. It engages with the history, the structure, the bureaucracy and the authorities of the city. Thus, it offers a new experience and engagement with the city.
As Anastasia puts it in her own words:
The Star Road is a heroic expedition, which aims to carve out a new route over existed urban landscapes. A group of pioneers will overcome all kind of obstacles, and walk through existing concrete/administrative barriers. This new street will be inspired by the form of a star.
‘I live in Freedom!’ Not many people can say that – but some people can. Idea, Freedom, Hope, Ahead!, Happiness, Ideal, Future – if you look hard on the map of Russian Federation you can find out that these are the real names of towns and villages. Do they stand as signs of forever gone soviet utopia? Does it make one feel happier to live in a town called Happiness or it sounds more like a mockery?
‘I live in Freedom!’ Not many people can say that – but some people can. Idea, Freedom, Hope, Forwards, Happiness, Ideal, Future – if you look hard on the map of Russian Federation you can find out that these are the real names of towns and villages. Do they stand as signs of forever gone soviet utopia? Does it make one feel happier to live in a town called Happiness or it sounds more like a mockery?
At his recent show in Vinzavod (19.05-17.06 2013) a Russian artist Mikhail Zaikanov exhibited envelopes, which he has sent to all of the above cities. He addressed them to the non-existed people so that the post office had to return the letters back and make a stamp, which would confirm the existence of these places.
Together with those letters the exhibition consisted of canvases with fragments of the map. All of the colours and details were erased making these beautiful titles of towns and villages as if hovering in the created pauses.
So can you imagine how it feels to write, when filling your address, that you are not from London but from Happiness?
Frances demolished White City flyover in August 2013, because:
Underneath this flyover are is a load of temporary housing; so families are having to live with billions of cars flying above their heads the whole time… so getting rid of the flyover [will] give them a bit of peace & quiet.
Who needs actual historic buildings if we can fly through their reconstructions like a bird and see the layers of the past peeling away beneath us? Time-travelling through a couple of tourist attractions…
The other day I came across a new (or revived) walk that allows walkers to make a modern pilgrimage between Lichfield and Chichester. Called the Two Saints Way, it describes itself as both a new route and as having been “recreated” (it follows existing footpaths ) – it’s not entirely clear how that works – and it boasts a whole bullet-point list of “themes”, one of which seems to sum up the way the enterprise messes with the concept of time: “Journeying forward to the ancient future”.
I was sort of hoping this would involve a time-travelling immersive sci-fi/fantasy experience including aliens dressed as medieval monks (okay, yes, an episode of Doctor Who), but it seems to mean that the pilgrimage trail includes “high-tech interpretation panels” as well as virtual tours you can download to your mobile. And if you’re lucky, as those on inaugural pilgrimage were, you might be joined along the way by Saxon pilgrims from the Poor Cnights [sic] of St Chad re-enactment group (“They fitted in brilliantly and answered everyone’s questions about their get-up,” according to the walkers). This is now on my list of things to do when the rain stops. The project cost £86,000 so those high-tech interpretation panels must be worth seeing.
There’s an exhibition on in London at the moment which sounds as if it’s doing its best to recreate the ancient future – or perhaps the futuristic ancient. Almost Lost: London’s Buildings Loved and Loathed shows an alternative London in the form of digital reconstructions of proposed and rejected developments. You can see how Covent Garden would have looked if the sweeping 1968 demolition plans for the area had gone ahead, the result of a 1950s scheme for “a giant conservatory supporting tower blocks over Soho” and what Westminster might offer tourists if 1960s proposals to wipe out the Edwardian and Victorian buildings around Parliament Square had gone ahead.
Other digital animations show London developing over the years, with buildings and streets disappearing and others being constructed as you watch.
Of course there’s an agenda – it’s produced for English Heritage who are keen to demonstrate how awful the capital would look if conservationists hadn’t rushed in to save its historic buildings. The publicity for the exhibition vaunts its use of “the latest digital technology” including “Augmented Reality” on iPads and something called Pigeon-Sim, which allows you to take “an interactive flight through a 3D photorealistic model of the city”, getting a bird’s-eye view of all the historic buildings that have been saved for future generations.
So, what do we take from this? History = good; high-tech history = even better? Then again, who needs actual historic buildings and pilgrimages if we can fly through their reconstructions like a bird and see the layers of the past peeling away beneath us – not to mention all the futures that might have been? Did someone mention simulacra? Worth going on either or both of these outings to rub up against the contradictions and see if there’s something to learn, I reckon.
Almost Lost is at Wellington Arch until 2 Feb. You can walk the Two Saints Way at any time (weather permitting); some suggestions for planning an itinerary are here.