Approximately once a month you can potentially witness around 50-70 Russian-speaking people driving and running around London with torches in search for the codes. You might think they are just crazy (once, in the middle of the game when I was looking for a code, a policemen approached me asking calmly whether I was feeling ok) but in fact they are part of an exciting urban game called Encounter.

Approximately once a month you can potentially witness around 50-70 Russian-speaking people driving and running around London with torches in search for the codes written somewhere around the city. You might think they are just crazy (once, in the middle of the game when I was looking for a code, a policemen approached me asking calmly whether I was feeling ok) but in fact they are part of an exciting urban game called Encounter.


For some reason former Soviet Union countries have a rich tradition of urban games which involves solving tasks and riddles, often under time condition, around the city. From early teenage years we get used to playing various urban games and quests: Running City, Pathfinders, Night Watch and even a quest in the Moscow underground – Metrobooks. They have various formats but with the underlining idea of adrenaline, action, entertainment, fun, erudition and, most importantly, a chance to experience your usual urban environment in a totally different way; to view it through a different lens.


Why did it become so popular in the former Soviet territory? Of course Russians are famous for their extremity and adrenaline-seeking. But I would suggest another reason – there appeared a fruitful potential for playing with really extreme urban experiences after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A lot of original Encounter games would involve abandoned factories, underground tunnels, rooftops and high fences. One of the most well-known examples is when during one of the games the participants were actually caught by the police and, while they thought it was a complete game over for them, they found out that the code was actually written inside the cell they were put in on one of the bars so the policemen were part of the game! Of course such things could only be done in Russia.

Encounter, which was organised first in 2001 by a group of students in Minsk, Belarus, is played today by Russian communities in several European countries. The statistics says there are around 300 000 people playing Encounter in 11 countries. Of course it had to become a bit more mild as it had to adapt to the particular laws and context of each individual city. Only recently the London branch of Encounter (recently re-named into City Quest) has organised its first game for English-speakers, which went very successfully and inspired organisers to continue making games for Londoners. If you want to experience all I have been talking about above, I suggest you participate in one of the games. All information can be found here.

Sounds of the city

We often talk about the city in terms of what we see – think of sightseeing, tourist sights, eyesores; architecture that frames a vista or lets in the light or blocks the view. A sound walk offers a different type of urban encounter, one that radically shifts the way we perceive the world, away from what we see and towards what we hear.

I reckon most of us (if we’re sighted) tend to think of the city in visual terms, whether we’re aware of it or not. We talk about sightseeing, tourist sights, eyesores; buildings or landmarks that look ugly or beautiful or dull; architecture that frames a vista or lets in the light or overshadows its neighbours or blocks the view of other sights we want to see. Certainly that’s true for me – it’s just that I’m so used to taking it for granted that I don’t even consider other types of urban encounter.

I recently went on a sound walk through part of south-east London, led by artist John Wynne, that radically shifted this perspective. About a dozen of us gathered in the drizzle outside Island Gardens, the misleadingly exotic name of a DLR station at the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs. We’d been told the rules: no photographing, no sound-recording, no talking (unless absolutely necessary), try to stay more or less with the rest of the group. I’m not usually a fan of lots of rules, but it would soon become clear that these were necessary to the task of cracking open our comfort zones and showing us the city as a world of sound.

The initiation

John’s tactic to move our attention from sight to sound was a simple one: the group was split into pairs, with one in each pair wearing a blindfold and being guided by the other, who wore earplugs. After a time, we swapped roles. This was just the first part of the walk – after about 10 minutes we continued without blindfolds and earplugs – but for me it was very effective. To set off walking, relying on a partner I’d never met before to keep me away from collisions and trips, was a jolt. As I settled down and started trusting him, I became more aware of the sounds around me as well as the feel of the ground beneath my feet and the wind on my face. When I exchanged blindfold for earplugs, sound was transformed from something in the world outside myself into an interior pattern of muffled vibrations in my bones. By disorienting and defamiliarising, these artificial handicaps prepared us to listen.

The ritual initiation into the city-as-soundscape took place as we walked through the foot tunnel under the Thames – a site that was interesting acoustically, with its echoes and rumbles, as well as providing an almost-too-perfect symbolic crossing-over. Not that this was spelled out – I wouldn’t want to equate south London with the afterlife, and at the time some of us were just too glad to shed our blindfolds and unplug our ears to worry about the semiotics of river crossings – but it seems typical of the way the walk as a whole was thoughtfully structured to introduce us to sound as a sensory experience and an alternative approach to exploring the city.


After we emerged on the far bank of the river, we followed John through a hugely varied progression of sounds and soundscapes, full of elements that were random and spontaneous but felt carefully orchestrated. The crunch of feet on shingle, the museum-like peace of a tourist attraction on a rainy day, chatter amplified by the high ceilings of a grand hall, snatches of music mingling with heavy machinery, a jostling market, busy traffic, lorries on an industrial estate, construction work, the gush and rush of a small waterfall beneath a railway line… And an hour and a half later we reached a cafe for the after-walk conversation out of the rain.

A couple of people talked about how the sounds of the world came to seem hyper-real, like an exaggerated soundtrack to a film they were in – which was either disturbing or enjoyable, depending on your point of view. Part of the walk, in the market, had struck some people as being like a bad film filled with stereotypical market dialogue – showing that if you listen, you can hear people genuinely talking in clichés in real life.

Some found paradoxically that their other senses were heightened – touch, smell, even vision – once they started paying attention to hearing.

One felt that we were like ghosts because we were moving through the world in complete silence. This was most obvious at one point where we all stopped in a relatively busy courtyard to listen to the sound of music rehearsals in a nearby room – passersby were clearly freaked out by the sight of a dozen people standing still, unnaturally quiet, all listening intently.

We also discussed the difference between indoor and outdoor sounds – outside, you listen to particular sounds with little or no idea where they are coming from; inside a building, you listen to the space – the way the architecture shapes the sounds.

A different angle

One thing that interested me was a double-defamiliarising that I glimpsed from time to time on the walk: not just switching my attention to sound, but a letting go of the compulsion to make meaning from it – to identify sounds as eg cars, footsteps, birdsong, wind in trees – and instead enjoying sounds as pure pattern, pitch and rhythm – as music, if you like. And we talked a little about how once we start listening to sound as music, we stop judging sounds as unpleasant, mechanistic, irritating etc – it’s all potentially interesting.

All of these ideas are interesting to explore further as a way of approaching the city from a different angle (argh, those visual metaphors are hard to escape!). And this is the sort of walk anyone can do – though it helps to take a friend, of course, if you are going to experiment with blindfold/eyes shut at the start. Although having said that, I felt lucky to have the chance to benefit from John Wynne’s expertise and his calm authority as a guide. One tip he gave us (familiar to anyone who’s done mindfulness meditation) was not to worry if our concentration flagged, but to just acknowledge that and bring our awareness gently back to listening.

There’s nothing obviously earth-shattering or agitprop about this sort of artistic activity (plenty of people would argue it isn’t art at all) but it attempts to wake us from our everyday sleepwalking through life, heighten our awareness of the world and shake us out of our habitual views and for me that makes it worth doing and worth talking about. Any views?

sound 1

>> The sound walk was co-ordinated by Tommy Ting, an associate artist at Open School East, a bunch of artists in east London who do all sorts of interesting stuff, including a lot that’s open to the public and free/cheap.

>> John Wynne’s website is full of information on his sound installations and his work with endangered indigenous languages.

In the news: tearing up the city

This is the first in a series of regular posts linking to stuff The Demolition Project has seen and liked recently.

Sochi 2014 is everywhere, of course, so we kick off with a couple of stories about the way the Olympics has reshaped (or devastated) Sochi:

The residents of 5a Akatsy street have lived for years with no running water or sewage system. Construction for the 2014 Winter Games has made their lives more miserable: The new highway has cut them off from the city center. Even their communal outhouse had to be torn down because it was found to be too close to the new road and ruled an eyesore.

Full story here.

And residents talk about being relocated by the Olympic bulldozer on Youtube (English subtitles).

Elsewhere, a mayoral candidate in Paris plans to turn ghost Metro stations into swimming pools, restaurants and night clubs. The pictures look great but the scheme has failed to put centre-right UMP candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet on top of the polls.

The president of Kazakstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has suggested changing the name of the country to Kazak Yeli (Kazakh Country), with the suggestion that the “stan” part of the name puts off foreign investors. Full story here; some photos of the astonishing architecture of Kazakh capital Astana here and here, illustrating the country’s ambitious post-Soviet reinvention.

Lastly, a transitory intervention into the shape of the city – a machine that writes graffiti in sand.

Photograph: fotoserg/livejournal.com

sites we like

Personal, detailed and highly enjoyable accounts of guided tours offering a subtle critique of an aspect of the tourist industry via an enthusiastic engagement with it.

The Tour of All Tours is a blog by performance artist Bill Aitchison, described as:

A creative review of guided tours worldwide and thinkpad for art and tour projects more generally.

This seems to have started as a diary of Bill’s work of the same name in Stuttgart last year, but a lot of the posts are personal, detailed and highly enjoyable accounts of guided tours he has taken, with lots of photos, offering a subtle critique of an aspect of the tourist industry via an enthusiastic engagement with it. The latest posts are about tours around the area of Shoreditch, east London, as research for a site-sensitive performance of the Tour of All Tours he is giving at Rich Mix in July. Easy to spend hours wandering round this absorbing blog and we’re looking forward to taking Bill’s Tour …

Tour of All Tours

Bill Aitchison Company

Picture by Bill Aitchison, from the Alternative Tour around east London

Almost lost in the ancient future

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.

Debbie Kent

sites we like

UK Urban Exploration

UK Urban Exploration documents urban decay in the UK with love and at some risk. The site has the following disclaimer:

The places you will see in the pictures we have taken are dangerous and should not be entered under any circumstances, UkUrbEx takes no responsibility for any harm you may come to if you decide to enter.

– But the atmosphere is more of melancholy beauty than macho daring.

UK Urban Exploration belongs to a group based in Birmingham but it roams all over the UK. However,  the coverage of West Midlands sites such as the Longbridge tunnels or the Central TV studios is particularly fascinating.

Image from The Hoarders House, Droitwich at ukurbex.co.uk