Saturday, 12 January 2019

The Spontaneous Combustion Tour

Spontaneous Combustion was conceived as a site-tour of Nanjing to prepare for a performance festival next year. In true Last Minute Live Art style, it turned into something else.

When we assembled at the famous Gulou roundabout we were asked to sign a declaration that stated LMLA was not responsible in the case of spontaneous human combustion and we were taking this tour entirely at our own personal risk. 

We then vacated the busy street for an elevated park tucked beside Gulou. The tour began with a rapid-fire manifesto reading of sorts: what Last Minute Live Art is and what it has done. That over, we each produced and showed one another objects as we'd all been requested to bring one with us.

We then set out towards our first destination, the supreme court of the Republic of China back in the 1930's, now a dilapidated ruin, a testament to being on the losing side of a civil war. At the back of it was a tennis court fallen into disrepair, thick with a carpet of leaves. Here we made improvised performances: walking, pushing, rearranging, looking, showing, balancing and so on. 

After a solid lunch of noodles we made our way to the second site, the River Yangtze or Chang Jiang as it is known here. With no particular agenda we just hung out by the river and started playing. Each of us did this in different ways, sometimes alone, sometimes together in groups. This slowly granted the group a sense of permission.

Somehow we ended up in a tug-of-war contest that began as Europe vis China, but when it was obvious that Europe was vastly outnumbered some Chinese came to our assistance, including this granny. There were jokes about Taiwan.

There was another more formal style of performance by Gao Shu Yi by the water's edge and this was followed by the burning of the papers we signed at the start, along with one or two things other things added to the fire, I remember a woolen hat ablaze.

There is some video of the tour along with some of the other Last Minute Live Art events from 2018 in this short round up. This Spontaneous Combustion Tour was a good start at making open-ended artist tour. It was very quickly put together and it strikes me that in order to make spontaneous combustion happen more effectively it can help to prepare the situation more in its favor. There will be more of these events in 2019 so lets see how far it can go in the direction of spontaneous participatory street performance!

Sunday, 11 November 2018

The Roaming Through 40 Years of Shanghai Tour

Today's tour had all the potential to be something rather special. It was a walking tour of the older part of the city centre with artist interventions. A collaboration between an art festival and a walking tour company. We gathered waiting for it to begin.

The tour was given in Chinese with no translation so I was a bit on the outside of it all. I got bits and pieces of it and actually that was enough to realise the sort of tour it was: an anecdotal historical building tour of the neighborhood. Even though there was enough space to gather everyone on the pavement, we still spilled out into the road, the guide included.

The ostensive theme of the tour was the last forty years of history - that is to say the period of opening up and reform of the Chinese economy - and how that is manifested in the local area. Normally forty years would not be enough to make something historical in the typical frame of the guided tour but given the pace of change in China and Shanghai in particular this could have been interesting, even if it is working to a government agenda. The reality was more loose and we stopped beside older buildings and talked about their histories quickly letting go of the economic reform theme. This turned into a tour of old buildings with stories connected to them, the standard fare of local history tours. 

The public taking this tour was a mix of artists and a general public who were looking for a local history tour. It seemed as if the art interventions were not so welcome, finally. One of the group, July Yang, made a commentary performance while we were walking between stops and I later joined in, repeating the Chinese commentary imperfectly. When we arrived at the next stop we were asked to be quiet.

The guides used a microphone and portable speaker even though the road was not so loud and the group not so large. I felt this was more about establishing authority, though one of the ladies (there was a rotating cast of guides) probably did have a quiet voice. The stories were not particularly interesting and didn't connect to build into anything more than a series of curiosities. 

This got me thinking that, rather than choosing 40 years as a theme (and then breaking it) how about a much shorter time period? What if you were to give a tour of what has changed in a neighborhood over the last week? Immerse yourself in the contemporary and use that as the way to get to the story of what is happening.

There were some things I noticed along the way such as this sign recruiting female staff of between 160-170 cm and 20-35 years of age. This seemed much more interesting to me than these disconnected stories, which, to make matters worse, did not even deal with the appearance and material qualities of the buildings very much. If a tour can make you see something afresh and then understand something from it then it has done something useful. This tour did nothing to alter our perception, the guide simply stood in front of the building and told a story about it.

The weather was, however, very pleasant. It was great just to be outside on a mild autumn afternoon like this.

We entered a building and I was fascinated by this little room, which looks as if it is rouge construction added at a later date. This got me looking for quick-fixes, of which there were plenty, and then exploring the environment of the tour using different themes again. Rather than suffering the mediocre, it seemed much more fun to make something else out of the day. I didn't share this with the wider crowd, just one or two of the artists, as I could see that to do so would disrupt the plan in a way the local history guides were completely unprepared for. A tour with two guides could be good, but the two should agree some basic house rules in advance so that the tension can be a respectful and healthy one rather than an acrimonious one. This was not the occasion, but I should try to find the time to do just this. What would make it all the better would be to propose a route and let different people make their tours of it, then jam them together. That would be fun!

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Tour Workshop in Hong Kong

Following last year's workshop and festival in Hong Kong, I'll be returning with another extended workshop on making cultural tours. 

I'll be teaching between August 5-12 and then Indy Lee and Uncle Hung will continue the next weekend. We'll be working on how to generate original content, how to draw themes from locations and how to perform tours in a dynamic way.

The working area will be around the bustling streets of Sham Shui Po and if you are prepared to put in extra hours researching your tour there's no reason why you shouldn't have your very own tour of Sham Shui Po ready by the end of the workshop. If you are already busy you can certainly expect to learn some new skills and innovative ways to make and give tours.

What's more, it is not all work and no play. On the 10th I'll be giving my Hyper Heritage Tour, which I made last year. This is a chance for the participants to see how all the theory works in practice, and to learn a bit about Hong Kong cinema at the same time.

I'll be leading the sessions in English and there will be Cantonese translation available, if required. Meet you in Hong Kong!

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

City Centre: a networked walk

I learnt about City Centre through the Walking Artists Network and the idea was people in different places around the world would all follow the same instructions for a walk on May 12th. In this way we'd walk together while also being apart. The walk is one of the many collected in the book Ways To Wander and Blake Morris, who made the call out, has made it his job to try out the whole book.

Choosing a meeting place was not too hard as there is a general consensus, even among Nanjingers, that the centre of the city is Xinjiekou. At the very centre of this area (in the background) is a roundabout, the intersection of the city's main, north-south and east-west roads. At our meeting point, a silly elephant sculpture. 

Our first task was deciding which direction would lead us out of the city centre. This was a weighty decision as it would determine much of what would follow and since many of us knew the city well it was also an unwelcome one. I didn't want to already have too clear a picture in my head of where I'd go and what I'd see so it was left to a game of spin the bottle. Our clothing remained in place as the bottle pointed to the west.

In order to take our modest Journey to the West, we had to descend into the subway station as there are no pedestrian crossings at street level. I have always found this surrendering of the centre of the city to an inaccessible traffic roundabout deeply troubling and I'm irrationally happy when, late a night, I see pedestrians climbing over the barriers and running across the roads. Underground, there is a mirror of the roundabout above with the 24 exits of the station spiraling out from it. At the centre of this underground pedestrian junction, it is possible to reach the centre. This is what it looks like.

Below the central axis was a large model of a luxury real estate development out in the far suburbs. The city is busy eating up the surrounding countryside and as this is a powerful economic force right now it was perhaps fitting to see how, at the very heart of the city, it was the suburbs that we found. We knew we were never get this far out in our walk, but it was good we found them all the same. To understand the city it is necessary to understand what is happening out on its edges right now.

Following the walking instructions of Tom Hall, we edged our way outwards. It is, in many respects, so familiar a score that I already had a good idea of what we'd find. The expectation and the reality are rarely identical, however, and formalising the process of walking out from the centre might just, I figured, change the nature of the experience. What's more, I also wanted to see how it would be to conduct this walk with a group of people, who would come, what we'd talk about and how this group's experiences would compare to other walkers elsewhere.

We covered some distance. The buildings became less lofty but so too were the roads more narrow so there remained a sense of clustering wherever we went. As we headed further out the shops changed and became shabbier, bowel challenging noodle bars, pink light massage parlors and electric scooter repair shops. 

And then, all of a sudden, we came up again the old city wall from the Ming dynasty, which dates back roughly 600 years. None of us were quite sure whether this delineated the edge of the city back then or not, but it clearly was a boundary of sorts both then and now. Today, it marks the edge of the city centre while the contemporary perimeter wall is invisible and forever being moved further and further out into the countryside. Nowadays, satellite towns orbit around Nanjing in the hope of being incorporated in the sprawling metropolis. The city has become rhetorical and speculative, a shape-shifting creature that is far more than just an accumulation of bricks and steel. 

One of the ubiquitous features of the city is the shared bikes. They followed us wherever we went. These two seemed to be enjoying a private moment together, in plain sight. 

As we got further out there was more water. If we would have walked further, we would have  reached the Yangtze in an hour or two. We had to content ourselves with the Qinhuai River, a tributary that flows through the city.

The texture of the city is not uniform and as we left the centre we came to modern residential developments. The one in the foreground is called New City while the old city centre remains visible, a ghost haunting the broken horizon. The city has, in several locations outside the centre, tried to start again and reinvent itself as a 21st century conurbation. These attempts, such Hexi, are usually partial as the real economy cannot fully support an entire community living in luxury high rise apartments. Metropolitan aspirations are then redesigned and more familiar patterns of services and uses of space reassert themselves. New City had so far staved off the bulk of this by not including a commercial centre. 

To the south was this lake, part of the unfortunately named Wanke residential compound.

Walking around the large expanse that Wanke had carved aside for itself, we came to older residential neighbourhoods. These shielded off ailing public housing that was kept alive through patchwork interventions, the equivalent of architectural life support. 

I had expected that this journey would lead us from the familiar to the unfamiliar so I was surprised when, just as I was saying it is time to grab lunch and head back into the centre, we came across this park. I realised I had been here before. Just a month earlier I had come here for a photoshoot and the picture was still on my phone. We made an approximation of the happy couple then headed back to the centre via another route.

To get a sense of completeness it was to the exact same spot we returned. It turned out that  the walk did break some ice and engender fresh connections. From this new group I expect more activities; next month we pledged to walk again. As for the other walkers elsewhere in the world, I'll add links to those walks below, as and when I find them.