Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Videos of Tours

I was recently invited to contribute to a programme of talks and interventions in London organised by Something Other on the theme of migration. My perspective on this is an unusual one as I am a British artist living in exile, and not self-imposed exile as most assume, but genuine exile as I was not allowed to live with my wife in the UK under new visa rules. This was the basic angle, along with what I have found in China and the role of borders and artistic interventions I was asked to explore through three questions posed by curator Alessandra Cianetti (Performing Borders). 

Following an excellent suggestion of hers, I took the the streets, and malls, of Nanjing city centre. Using just my phone's video it was possible to get some pretty usable results. 

Walking around the same territory that I am currently staking out for my Adam Smith audio tour, it felt like a very natural format. What's more, nobody seemed to trouble me, since a person speaking into a phone is such a common sight it could be assumed to be a video call or a selfie session.

I've often struggled to find a way to record video of the tour type performances I have been making as they simply don't lend themselves to the camera. You really have to be there and to take in the multiplicity of the place. With this format, however, the commentary does at least return to sender stage and the intimacy that the phone provides allows some quite revealing moments too, like this daft one above. I think it is safe to say there are going to be more videos like this in the future: Watch This Space!

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The Veiled City and Hyper Heritage: new work in Hong Kong

I'm delighted to announce that I'll be giving some workshops and co-creating a performance next month in Hong Kong. 

The workshop, called The Veiled City, will take place on the 19th and 20th April and it is organised by CCCD. It will be a practical workshop on how to interact with the city to discover more about it. It is called The Veiled City because I believe most of the city's potential escapes up most of the time. While it is not literally put under wraps like a Christo artwork, it is dormant most of the time and requires specific actions performed by the right people for it to be activated. We cannot completely change our identity but we can transform it and we can change our purpose very greatly. We'll find some ways to look more closely and interact with people and places in order to see a little more.

Hyper Heritage (Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, Sunday 23rd April) is a performance I'm making with postgraduate students from the Chinese University of Hong Kong for the festival Saving The Past For The Future. We are looking at the surrounding neighbourhood and its representation within Hong Kong cinema. This is heritage in the sense that it is a collection of stories drawn from and projected onto the neighbourhood, the city and its people. These stories, told over the last century about intrigues stretching back into ancient times and events in a not yet seen future, are fictions that have not just reflected different realities but have also helped shape our sense of it. What are the sources of today's myths? How much is today's Shek Kip Mei a fiction with reality intruding into it? What would the film of films of the area look like? Join us for a Hyper Heritage tour and see.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Audio Tour Experiments

recently wrote about tours whose contents are disconnected from or only loosely connected to their geography. I followed this observation up today with an experiment. The idea was, to make an audio tour that is based upon a text from one time and space and to inscribe it, through precise spoken word directions, onto an entirely new context. In practice this became, how does Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations sound when listened to in a Chinese shopping district.

The results were quite interesting. Unlike most tours, the content is not primarily delivered during stops but rather it flows as you walk along and you have to make the connections yourself. This means that some parts of the text work better than others: the parts where there are links to be made. The choice of route is important too as it can both contextualise the ideas and, potentially, comment upon them. Too deliberate a route and text may feel contrived i.e. listening to Das Kapital while circling the New York Stock Exchange, but too random a combination also has its pitfalls: you might wonder why you are listening to Madame Bovary while walking through a zoo. 

What is quite certain is that this is an area ripe for working in. I've taken book study tours before such as a Machiavelli Tour in Central London where we listened to and debated his ideas as we walked, but this is something different again. A more acerbic but entertaining tour of the mall would have been provided by Arthur Smith's 1894 Chinese Characteristics but Baudrillard's Simulations could work equally well. Hmm. I will be busy!

Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Presidential Palace Tour: the parrot's guide

The Presidential Palace in Nanjing is a large historical site that was once very important. That's about all I knew about the place. When we arrived I thought this building was part of it but it turned out to be a historic themed shopping and eating district built alongside the palace. Often in China, it is hard to know where one starts and the other stops. 

A lack of knowledge needn't prohibit anyone from being a guide: after entering I rented the audio tour and started repeating what I heard. At first I was too ambitious: I listened to the Chinese commentary and gave a very rough and ready summary. More satisfying was  listening to the English commentary and trying to repeat it word for word, with added enthusiasm.

I'm reading Tour Guiding Research (2015) and the authors make a sharp distinction between having a living guide, like the dynamic fellow in black above, and listening to audio tours. While I agree that there usually is a clear experiential difference between the two, the line can be pretty grey at times. I've followed robotic sounding tour guides who might as well have been pre-recorded and here, in the Presidential Palace, I was simply repeating the words of the audio tour, live, to a small audience. Was that enough to make it a guided tour? I've followed guides who speak into your ear via a wireless microphone system, so that even if you are not able to see the guide behind the crowd, you can still hear them. What's more, the technology is developing rapidly to the extent that this distinction is becoming muddier with each year. Still, a living breathing guide my group of two got, even if their guide knew absolutely nothing about the location. 

I found myself repeating stories about a government officer who recognised the situation was hopeless and poisoned himself and another about the liberation of the palace by the PLA in 1949. It was straight down the line communist party history but it must have sounded rather off-key when related by a British man who was camping it up and had no real knowledge of the site. I shall definitely have to explore this parrot method more fully. It can be a good way to take a step back from the intended meaning of a tour, something that is a breath of fresh air when the tour is trying its level best to ram a message down your throat rather that trying than interpret a site in all its multiplicity.  

In spite of the buildings being historically important, and not only in terms of Republican China, they were surprisingly functional. The passageways and stairs had scuff marks and stains half way up the walls from the endless press of tourists rubbing up against them.

The audio tour took us on a long figure-of-eight sweep around the palace and gardens. By the time we reached the stables my legs were heavy, throat dry and there was no more humour to be found in parroting this ridiculous recording. This is not untypical; these sort of tours in China often seem to wear you down by design so you can feel you got value for money rather than deliver an exquisitely timed introduction to a site. The stables were notable for looking older and rougher but, on closer inspection, this was a modern rustic effect for they were a reconstruction of the original stables.

When I wrote about Geyuan Garden and how the historic buildings there had pipes and decrepit machinery quietly rattling away round the back, this is what I meant. The Presidential Palace was exactly the same. I was not taken here by the audio tour, of course, but the joy of these tours is you can follow your own interests between stops. This audio tour is a sort of cultural dinosaur that disguises its age by using a decent quality wireless cuing system. This sort of tour will almost certainly continue to exist for a while more as it is kept alive out of a sense of duty. Given that state of affairs, finding and developing more strategies to rewire the narratives and inject some life into what genuinely are interesting and diverse sites, should be a worthwhile endeavour.