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.

Two maps

The Demolition Project began just over a year ago with a demolition session in ]performance space[, Hackney Wick.


These were some of the first demolitions carried out by participants, making a map of words and a map of holes … Tomorrow we mark a year of demolishing London with the launch of our progress report at Rich Mix in Bethnal Green.

Where next for the Demolition Project? Watch this blog…

a letter to freedom

‘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?

Photos by Anastasia Blyur

Surveying the territory: part one

One of the inspirations for The Demolition Project was a 1946 story by Jorge Luis Borges called On Exactitude in Science. I thought writing something about it would be a good way to introduce the project, but then I re-read the story and rolled it around my brain for a while, and I’ve realised it’s far more complex and slippery than I first thought…

One of the inspirations for The Demolition Project was a 1946 story by Jorge Luis Borges called On Exactitude in Science (English version here; Spanish original here).

I thought writing something about the story, or about Borges in general, would be a good way to introduce the project, which is a continuing exploration of maps and the city and people’s imaginative relationships with them. But then I re-read the story and rolled it around my brain for a while, and I’ve realised it’s far more complex and slippery than I first thought. Maybe The Demolition Project is too; hopefully we’ll find out more about that in the year ahead.

on exactitude

The story – I’m going to call it On Exactitude for short – tells of an empire with a sophisticated college of cartographers. These cartographers make increasingly large and detailed maps of the empire’s territory, until they finally make a map that is as big as the empire itself and covers the whole of it. Later generations find the map too awkward to use and let it decay until there are only a few tattered bits and pieces left in remote places. The brief tale is presented as a fragment of an old history book, thus avoiding the need for a tidy ending (or a neat opening), but it nevertheless has a sense of completeness.

On Exactitude itself is just a paragraph long – barely longer than this summary – and it feels a little like a fable or parable, and also like a shaggy-dog story, without really falling under any of these definitions. The central idea wasn’t original at the time – fifty years earlier, Lewis Carroll included a map the same size as a country in his novel Sylvie and Bruno Concluded. But in Borges’ version there is no enfolding narrative: this paradoxical map and its useless perfection is the heart of the tale. Importantly, though, it’s framed by the contrivance that it is a fragment of a long-forgotten history, echoing the fragments of long-forgotten map with which the story ends. And the title is also part of the frame (a frame around a frame?), telling us that it’s not a quirky fiction but has a larger message about the real world. Which is probably as reliable as any other assertion made by the author.

invisible territory

The image in the story does not just take to extremes the difficulties experienced by anyone who’s grappled with a large roadmap in a small car; it pushes far, far beyond that, over the border of the everyday world into the realm of the absurd. It lacks things that many readers expect in a story – detail, character, plot development, psychological realism. But its sparseness appeals to those who like playing with ideas. A few quick clicks through Wikipedia will let you freefall from On Exactitude to some big ideas in philosophy: Alfred Korzybski’s phrase, “the map is not the territory” (ie our models of reality are not the same as reality); Bonini’s paradox (the more complete the model of a complex system is, the harder it is to understand) and Baudrillard’s idea of simulacra (it’s reality that has fallen into disuse and we are actually living in the map – a copy of something that doesn’t exist).

With its image of an empire-sized map, On Exactitude conveys just enough information to tease out the reader’s imagination, goading us to make our own assumptions, draw our own connections and fill in the gaps with memory and speculation. In contrast, the map described holds too much information: the cartographers draw up ever-larger maps in order to include more and more detail – or at least that’s what the title suggests. When they include as much information as the territory itself the giant map becomes useless to travellers, town planners, invaders, or most of the other people who need maps, who would effectively have to walk around an area as big as the underlying territory to find out what they need to know. And the more closely you scrutinise the image, the more delicate and fragmented it appears.

invisible territory2

Alisa and myself tried to make and use a 1:1 scale map in a piece we made with Nauen Park and Li Yeun Jing called Invisible Territory. For part of this work, Alisa photographed the pavement of a small walled garden and printed out the entire pavement at 1cm:1cm in a series of photos; I then had to put them together again on site, matching each photo to the piece of pavement it showed (the pictures here are from that piece). Passers-by asked me what on earth I was doing and some of them understood straight away that it was an impossible task, as the environment had already changed since the pictures were taken only a week earlier – at this level of detail, leaves, rain, footprints etc had altered the landscape. Plus the photos were blowing away, getting wet and being trodden on.

invisible territory 3

This made me think properly about the (im)possibility of a physical map existing in the world of On Exactitude. There’s little to indicate how this map covers the empire – nothing to suggest, for example, that it is carried on supports or suspended from ropes above the ground. There’s nothing to tell you what it’s made of, except that the map falls to pieces through neglect, implying that it is not infinitely durable – although by the end, animals and beggars use the remnants for shelter, so it can’t be all that fragile either. Our photographs showed only the surface of the ground up to a level of a few centimetres – how would a 2D map show objects above the surface, such as trees and buildings? Does the map cover rooftops, and if so does it leave out sheer vertical surfaces like walls? Does it curve along with contours of hills and valleys? What happens to the map in the area of lakes and rivers? And if it’s permanently in place as a sort of carpet across the empire, what do farmers do with crops and grazing animals? I started imagining the map was made of a sort of porous paper that grass could grow through…

This level of ridiculously literal questioning makes the absurdity of Borges’ story even sharper, and all these questions and more are hiding within its bare bones. Like the Tardis, it’s bigger on the inside. Could a map like the one described in On Exactitude be a map at all – and does it help us think about what a map is? At what size does a map stop being a map?

Photographs: Debbie Kent/Alisa Oleva except b/w photo, François Correia

Part two follows soon, in which some of this might start to make sense