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