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”

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 .

to tie a knot in one’s handkerchief

In days gone by, gentlemen would tie a knot in their handkerchief to remind themselves there is something that should not be forgotten. Whenever they reached for their handkerchief, they would be reminded. I believe that tradition is connected with the Greek myth of Ariadne. She was the daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë who gave Theseus the thread with which he found his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. I love taking photos of the threads and knots I find in the streets. Even if these knots were not made consciously by people to remember something, they might as well have been. It triggers my imagination and adds the sense of confusing navigation to the labyrinth of the city.

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Stranger’s journey from city to city

] 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

Stranger in Berlin
Stranger in Berlin

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.

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.

Stranger in Belgrade
Stranger in Belgrade

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.

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.

I’m A Stranger – testing, testing in Trafalgar Square

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.

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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 Series of Escalations

What’s so interesting about walking on escalators?

As a solo sideline to The Demolition Project’s work, I’m starting to explore the experience of walking on escalators.

There are two basic ways to approach an escalator: as a faster way of walking up or downstairs, or as a way of getting down or upstairs without walking at all. I’m generally quite impatient and I usually take the first approach; I get a little annoyed with people who stand on escalators when they could be walking, especially if they’re standing in my way. I find negotiating escalators a stressful and dull experience, full of obstacles. Often they’re in crowded and unappealing urban environments – tube stations, department stores, shopping centres – where it is impossible to move easily.

The idea of exploring these obstacles came from a Site Space event organised by Poppy Jackson and Andre Verissimo, where I came across an escalator near London Bridge station that only led to a ticket barrier. It was a Saturday morning and no commuters were around; instead a steady stream of tourists would get on the up-escalator, then when they reached the top and realised they couldn’t get any further without a ticket they would turn round and take the down-escalator back to the street.  I spent an hour going up and down this set of escalators, trying to find a way to enjoy something that would normally annoy me. I played games with myself, alternating between running and standing or even sitting, tried shadowing passers-by, tried walking the wrong way until strangers shouted at me…  I began to think that the very monotony and routine of walking on an escalator made it a perfect symbol of urban life, and that here was something worth exploring.

The first escalator was patented in 1859 by an inventor called Nathan Ames from Saugus, Massachusetts, who called it “revolving stairs” and seems never to have made a working model. it was the first of a rash of attempts to design and build moving stairs, with Jesse Reno, patenting the “Endless Conveyor or Elevator.” in 1892 and installing a working version in Coney Island in 1896; the Otis Elevator Company built its first prototype in 1899 and trademarked the word escalator. While the modern lift (elevator) is a key technology that allowed the building of skyscrapers, the escalator plays an equivalent role in public (or quasi-public) architecture, wherever large numbers of people need to move through a space on different levels. Wikipedia sums up their uses and advantages:

Escalators are used around the world to move pedestrian traffic in places where elevators would be impractical. Principal areas of usage include department stores, shopping malls, airports, transit systems, convention centers, hotels, arenas, stadiums and public buildings.

Escalators have the capacity to move large numbers of people, and they can be placed in the same physical space as one might install a staircase. They have no waiting interval (except during very heavy traffic), they can be used to guide people toward main exits or special exhibits, and they may be weatherproofed for outdoor use. A non-functioning escalator can function as a normal staircase, whereas many other conveyances become useless when they break down.

I decided to try taking walks up and down 60 escalators sets of escalators, each walk lasting 60 minutes. The number 60 was chosen at random but it feels right. I’ve drawn up a set of rules for myself, which may change as the project progresses. And I’m also going to be thinking about how I can apply anything I discover, and how I can take it further…

 

reclaiming Nevsky Prospect for pedestrians

“There is nothing better than Nevsky Prospect, at least for Saint Petersburg; it simply constitutes everything for the city”, – this is how Nikolay Gogol described the main street of Saint Petersburg in his book.

“There is nothing better than Nevsky Prospect, at least for Saint Petersburg; it simply constitutes everything for the city”, – this is how Nikolay Gogol described the main street of Saint Petersburg in his book.

In July 2013 Nevsky Prospect has undergone planned reconstruction which involved closing part of the street for cars during the weekend. This allowed to make it available for pedestrians’ use during that time. The citizens admired it entirely: hundreds of people were walking, drawings with chalk, playing instruments and making small performances. It even encouraged an initiative to try and convince the city administration to make the main street of the city available for pedestrians on every weekend in the future.

While it remains unlikely that this will ever happen, it is a curious example of how a moment of destruction during which the roads were ploughed up to put new asphalt, created an impulse and possibility for regaining part of one’s own city.

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the second photo says: “Be a Pedestrian!” and the third: “Nevsky to the Pedestrians”

Photos: Alisa Oleva

Transformations at Tesco: a walk round Stoke-on-Trent

Exploring refrains for uncertainly sacred spaces, or a report on walking as imaginative adventure

The other day I went for a walk in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. It’s quite a long way to go just for a walk (about two and a half hours on the train) but there were at least two things that made it worthwhile: it was part of the events around AirSpace Gallery’s Walking Encyclopaedia exhibition which I wanted to see, and it was led by Phil Smith, artist/writer/performer and progenitor of Mythogeography, which is like psychogeography but also quite different (have a rummage in the capacious and inspiring website to find out more).

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The walk, titled Refrains for Uncertainly Sacred Spaces, started at AirSpace, a warm and welcoming artist-run gallery whose Glen Stoker came with us on the walk armed with a video camera. The Walking Encyclopaedia exhibition, which includes Tim Knowles’ solo show, Paths of Variable Resistance, ends on 15th March but I hope it will be archived for future reference at the end rather than dispersed – it’s a dense and wide-ranging collection of documentation of “walking as a cultural practice” by contemporary artists, including artist books, leaflets, instructions, videos, photos etc. There’s also a blog to accompany it.

Before we set out, Phil introduced the walk by talking a little about his current interest in privacy and exposure, and also describing the afternoon as an experiment – so if things didn’t quite work that would also useful. There were about 20 of us – a strange and interesting mix of people, some of us shod for a cross-country hike (me) and others who knew or guessed it wouldn’t be quite so arduous. In fact, we never strayed very far from the gallery – the walk proved to be a detailed exploration of the “uncertainly sacred spaces” all around us, and a strenuous workout for the imagination rather than the leg muscles.

stoke chapel

Those spaces included a patch of wasteland that was once a cinema, the arches leading to Tesco’s car park, some peculiar flower beds seemingly modelled on an altar for human sacrifice, unmonumented plinths in a former graveyard, cryptic marks on a wall, a Methodist chapel suspended in aspic-dust halfway between ruin and restoration, and the empty stage of the Regent cinema. We also walked very slowly around the Richard Long exhibition in the Potteries Museum, trying to get in touch with the spirits of the architects behind the 1960s building, and we clustered into a pedestrian horse outside the horseshoe-shaped doorway of a legal chambers. Along the way we cast health and safety to the wind, climbing over hillocks and holes and broken floors and risking arrest (or drawing attention) by quietly looking for things to steal, committing tiny acts of arson or disguising ourselves in black masks (our own personal patches of darkness)…

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This was walking as an imaginative adventure, full of suggestions to look harder at the urban furniture we take for granted and invitations to create fictions for ourselves, whether projecting a memory of darkness onto an imagined blank screen or stealing words from a derelict space. Some parts worked better for me than others – I was quite shocked that I felt a deep resistance to the idea of desecrating a chapel with sneak-thiefery, even if it was a symbolic rather than a real crime. On the other hand, walking round with a secret piece of darkness in my pocket was deeply appealing and the idea of later using that darkness (a small patch of cloth) as a veil of privacy had resonances I’m still pondering. Geographically, we covered a very small patch of ground but that meant we had time to explore it in detail within the various fictional frames that Phil suggested and supported with small invented (or excavated) rituals. What was on offer was a different way of seeing and relating to the everyday, a way to access something hidden beneath the skin of the banal.

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Thoughts on walking art

I have vague feelings of discomfort around the idea of walking as art, or as a “cultural practice”. For one thing, it seems extraordinarily pretentious to anyone not involved with the art world to label as art an activity as basic and commonplace as eating or urinating. But this is also something I find exciting – it has the capacity to tread that invisible line at the border of art and the everyday, to explore that line and perhaps to blur it.

It can be participatory, pleasurable and potentially open to everyone; or private, esoteric and difficult, available to only the initiated. Or anything between these two. It can be an ongoing project that anyone can pick up and practise for themselves, or a one-off, unrepeatable event only thoroughly experienced by the artist, with the audience allowed crumbs from the table – fragments of documentation or recollection held captive in a stark white gallery far from the action. Either way, it doesn’t easily produce something that can be collected by oligarchs or sold at Sotheby’s for headline-making sums.

Perhaps the obstacle is the label – is it possible to just think of this activity as walking? What is the distinction between undertaking an “art walk” and simply using one’s feet to get around or go for a hike or take an old-school guided tour? All of these walks can have varying degrees of structure and direction. I think the artist’s walk might tend to have the intention of affecting the participant or the audience in some way, whether by involving them in an unusual activity or shifting the way they perceive and process the world. This was certainly true of Phil Smith’s walk, at least for me.

But it can be quite a subtle distinction. Ben Waddington, talking about his current festival of guided tours in Birmingham, says “The Still Walking outlook is that everything around us is worth looking at, thinking about and talking about” – which seems to make that vital connection between walking as a popular pastime and the aims of types of participatory art – does there really have to be a big gap between walking art participant and someone who takes a country walk to look at the landscape or who goes on a tour to learn about the history of a place? But of course, framing a walk as art allows you to apply for a grant or use it as research material for a PhD, which is quite another matter; it can also alienate people who would otherwise engage with and enjoy the experience.

I don’t have a clear answer at the moment. Any comments would be appreciated.

Some links

• AirSpace Gallery

• Phil Smith’s Mythogeography site

• Still Walking festival

• Walk On “From Richard Long to Janet Cardiff – 40 years of art walking”, an exhibition at Mac arts centre in Birmingham until 30 March 2014

• The Richard Long exhibition has ended at Stoke but it will come to Burton Art Gallery and Museum in Devon from October