Sunday, 22 December 2013

End Of The Year Tour: a party pub crawl gone wrong

Thanks to everyone for your support and encouragement this year. I have met many wonderful people along the way, have been on some unusual and thought provoking tours and have been able to produce a number of artistic tour events of my own. And this is just the start! 2014 will see some of this work and writing going to some new places on the other side of the, or should I say my, world. 2014 will also see some new types of tours too, so plenty of challenges and, I have to hope, innovation. The Tour of All Tours is on the move! 

I was meant to round off the year with a Christmas Party Pub Crawl Tour but this did not quite happen as expected. I'll tell the story when I come round to taking it again but this time round it would have basically have turned into going clubbing with some hard drinking Aussie and Kiwi girls. Whilst it would have been a new one on me, I figured that was not the tour I wanted to end the year on so I'll be looking for an alternative tour to close things. In this sense I sometimes like to use a tour as a vehicle that helps me see things in a new perspective. We'll see what sort of tour, if any, that tour will be.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Machiavelli Tour

The The Machiavelli Interpreted Tour is one that I found out about via the Walking Artist Network, which is worth signing up to if this sort of thing floats your boat. It was held on the 500th anniversary of Machiavelli's seminal text The Prince being first mentioned in a famous letter the author wrote to Franceso Vettori. I also note that the tour is also on the Artangel 100 list along with The Tour of All Tours!

We gathered beside The Tower of London in a cafe and signed in with the organiser. I found, to my surprise, that I knew some of the  fifteen odd people who were on the tour and, interestingly, knew them from quite different contexts. Some were more from performance, others were in academia and there was one woman I could swear I had spoken to before but who I couldn't for the life of me place. Encouraged, I guessed this meant I was in the right place and in good company. It also echoed an idea I had recently when writing about the Queen Mary University East End Tour, namely, that walks and tours are almost inherently interdisciplinary bringing together somewhat disparate ideas and histories in the same way the city functions to bring together and connect people in a defined geographic space. 

We stepped out onto the terrace and, with The Tower of London as a backdrop, were given a short introduction to the event by its curator Mary Ann Hushlak. There were few formalities with health and safety which gave the sense this was not a tourism industry product but rather a walk that had grown out of an engagement with political and ethical thinking, and an interest in walking considered as an art event.

We were asked to find partners to walk and talk with, and we were reassured we would rotate as the walk progressed. This walking in pairs is something of a format that I was amused to see is also common with children in school groups. I was at The British Library yesterday and saw a group of 8 year-olds in yellow reflective tops enter in pairs, wait in line while their teacher found their guide, before they descended noisily into the basement. We were more or less the same as them save the reflective waistcoats, the high pitched chatter and the fact that ours was a walking reading group. I had already heard about a Walking Reading Group, a new format for me, operating in East London and had been meaning to attend one of their walks, but now I found my way onto another one. The idea is, when walking, you talk in a different way to how you do sat in a cafe or seminar room. What's more, because we switched partners every ten to fifteen minutes it meant there was not the problem of getting stuck with someone tiresome or running out of things to say. It also meant, however, that some conversations had to be dropped mid-sentence as a reading from The Prince began and we had to fall silent. My first partner was a Greek theatre director and translator of medical and literary works. This was not a typical cross-section of the British public. 

We stopped after a short walk in a garden and former execution site, right next to where the Ripping Yarns Jack the Ripper Tour begins. We then listened to artist Bram Arnold, who was waiting for us, give a short reading from The Prince. He was dressed smartly, in some way assuming the role of a contemporary Machiavelli or, at the very least, dressing and speaking in a way that was supportive rather than disruptive to the text. With a bite-sized snippet of renaissance political philosophy to chew over, we resumed our march north into The City.

The drizzle began to fall as we passed through Leadenhall Market so this was the last place I felt able to use my better camera as it was dry under the market hall's cover. It was back to pocket snaps for the rest of this route until the very end of the walk when it dried up enough. Leadenhall Market is another Harry Potter film location and so features on the Potter tours. It was also one of the places the London Olympic Marathon got rerouted to when the Whitechapel / Mile End route to a stadium finish got dropped. The tourist imagination flows so much more fluidly here. 

We made up way up Bishopsgate and past the stalled construction site of The Pinnacle or, as I know it, The Pimple. I call it The Pimple for two reasons. One, it is currently no more than a static concrete stub rising out of a construction site, a stub awaiting a court ruling and planning permission before it can soar up to compete with The Shard or be torn down and redeveloped in some other way. Two, even if it does get the go ahead it will be about as attractive as an oversized zit. Have you seen the design? No wonder it's having difficulty getting off the ground.

The choice of doing the tour on a Sunday around noon was a good one. The City has a uncanny quality at this time; it is practically a zombie film waiting to happen. These deserted streets revealed a very different character to that of their weekday buzz: the historical layers were far clearer. Some of the stretches between the reading locations were as long as fifteen minutes, which is far more than you'd find on a guided tour. These spaces were filled with conversations which were made all the easier by the lack of modern traffic jammed into medieval streets and medieval people jammed into modern suits screaming into mobiles and fighting their way through a corporate rat race.

We stopped in front of Guildhall and were told about its history, as indeed were two other groups also parked on this multi-tour site. There was a trio to the left who were getting a Spanish tour and a larger group in the distance getting what looked like a heritage site tour. The woman in black caught in the middle was, like me, taking photographs and so was floating around and joining the group from different vantage points. The other place where there were tours others than ours was around Westminster. I noticed that there you can take tours of parliament, but they are not so cheap. In fact, come to think of it, I did request a tour of Big Ben from my MP (you have a right to a free tour but must book it via them). I emailed my request but nobody ever got back to me... and they want a raise.

We made a stop at Bart's and had a brief historical reference to The Huguenots and how they related to this location followed by another reading from The Prince. The tour was in a sense a two hander with the curator introducing some of the locations and Bram then giving a reading. They were co-ordinated as a pair and in no way like the Tour with Two Guides that I reviewed earlier this year. Here you can get a good view of the group and, as you can see, people were sensibly dressed and as you might be able to imagine, in some sense an 'in-crowd'. This made for some harmony when we were talking to one another as there were plenty of shared interests and possibilities to take the conversation in engaging directions. I had to ask myself however, "What if this walking reading group had been drawn from a very different pool of people? Would it have worked if it had been business people or politicians and lobbyists paying £100 a head to participate?" I suspect they might well have been interested in conversing with one another using The Prince as their starting point. That said, from what I gather, you are more likely to see people from Meryl Lynch and KPMG together on the 5km City Race or last week's Santa Run than on tours like this.

We passed the plaque that marked the place of William Wallace's execution (yes he of Braveheart), next to Smithfield Market. We passed it in conversation and did not stop to investigate. It was the Scottish flags that caught my attention and I took this snap. I now realise he took a similar tour to ours on his day of execution: he was taken from The Tower of London and brought here. His journey was considerably less comfortable, however; he was dragged naked through the streets behind a horse. This did make me briefly imagine an execution themed guided tour which would consist of gruesome stories and graphic descriptions of people similarly transported before being disemboweled and their genitals cut from them and burnt in front of their eyes. The list of tortures employed is long, so a full-length tour could surely be sustained. The route would pass through many spots we ourselves passed through and the collaging of financial services and Pret a Manger with cruel, degrading, barbaric tortures and executions might make for an interesting tour.

We stopped at a damp and mirror like Paternoster Square, the original target of Occupy. The reading concluded here with some observations on the character of men and how they prefer the well trodden path to the revolutionary one. This canny thinking on the reliability of ones supporters must have been relevant to all sides during the tent occupation of St Paul's Churchyard and Finsbury Square in 2001/12. These connections between the various passages from The Prince and sites we stopped at were allowed to exist but were not underscored at all. Incidentally, although Occupy have long since been evicted, they are still running tours and I will be taking the Occupy Tour of The City in January and also finding out about the 1% tour that took place last year too. Reviews to follow.

About half way into the tour the rain picked up from a light drizzle to a proper shower. Umbrellas up and carry on regardless was the only option. Here we found ourselves in a quiet corner of Central London that was pretty much typical of the places we were led to. The route was chosen with considerable care to weave us through the city using minor roads and passages which had the effect on depositing us at familiar locations in often surprising ways. Bram, our reader, did not accompany us and so made his own way between the designated reading sites. This 'now you see me now you don't' approach was probably not so tricky to achieve as we, as a group, were usually very indirect and thus slower than him. This spot here was the exception where we waited a moment for him to come down the steps behind us. I have had the experience of seeing a person on a route who magically seemed to reappear further along and must have needed to race 'backstage' to make such a reappearance. No such tricks were needed here. Not even a bike. I did question how necessary this reticence was as it did not bring so much more to the reading except perhaps to absent Bram from the ensuing conversations

A general trend in the readings was to say it is better for a ruler to start his reign violently, get the evil out the way early and then rule justly over subjects who will then be too afraid to rebel. This was held out as being a superior ethical position as doing the opposite would only in practice result in more bloodshed in the long run. The unpalatability of this stance and impossibility of selling it to a populace are clear, however. Many chins were scratched over the course of the afternoon.

I found that over the two and half hours of the walk I developed strategies for how to deal with the new walking partners I was thrown in with. I started rather naively with the sociable, "Hello, who are you? How did you find out about this? Oh you know such and such, is that through XYZ? Oh and have you read The Prince?" line of approach. This was fine at first but as we progressed I grew tired of it as it had echoes of speed dating and I found myself repeating questions and answers from previous conversations. I therefore switched tact and got onto Machiavelli more directly. The conversations were none the poorer for this. Later in the pub, one line of discussion was around why dating had switched so much to online sites. One thought was that there are fewer contexts for unforced encounters between strangers than previously and there was no consensus in society as to what sort of flirting was acceptable and what was not, leading to caution in the public sphere. Walks, one woman smartly observed, were a rather good way for people to meet someone, particularly for the over 30s who might be somewhat beyond boozed up nightclubs and the sorts of encounters that you can expect to have in them. Machiavellian dating strategies? No, a rather simple and direct approach but one that does make it clear that many intentions and ideas are in circulation in these walking talking groups and political philosophy may simply be a pretext.

We came to a halt in front of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and here there was some idea that this might be where Machiavelli, if he were alive today in the UK, might be employed. Seeing as he was a professional diplomat this is not impossible. Other ideas were that he he might be a Jonathan Powell like figure, Downing Street's Chief of Staff and advisor to the last government. I'm not so sure that this is exactly how to imagine him, however, as he was a playwright and man of letters as much as he was a diplomat. The Prince is not only an early work of political science, it is also written with much flair and rhetorical flourish. He seems to delight in exposing hypocrisy and cutting to the chase with the justification that his harsh ethical code is a superior basis upon which to act as a leader. What's more, the book was written to win favour with the Medici's and reinstate him from exile so the intention of the text as a whole is anything but transparent. Today I cannot see the political and literary worlds in the UK as having room for such a dual figure, the best we seem to manage is Jeffrey Archer or should I say Lord Archer who, despite resignations over scandals and imprisonment, is still pumping out pageturners destined to fill the shelves of charity shops the length and breadth of the kingdom. 

We passed parliament square where there were many flowers fanned out around Nelson Mandela's statue as this was the day of his burial. Round the corner a bevy of Ukrainians with banners were lined up protesting at their government. It is something of a circus though one all the poorer for the absence of the late Brian Haw who was 10 years resident here until his recent death. I would have liked to have gone on his tour if he ever gave one.

The walking over, we retired to The Red Lion, perhaps the most famous political pub in Westminster and to underscore this point one of us saw Frank Fields MP exiting as we descended into the cellar. For a place so supposedly bound up with centuries of power politics it was a surprisingly unremarkable place to the eye. Berlin has Cafe Einstein, for example, and while it is not crazily ostentatious it is a high-class establishment suitable for the political and intellectual elite to meet and mingle. The Red Lion however, looks much like any other unfashionable local boozer that fills up at the weekend. From this I am not sure what to conclude: whether it indicates a lack of taste, a desire to retain a down to earth place to relax in or what. I'll pay the place a visit again on a weekday and see if it tells more.

Over a pint of beer and a mince pie I talked about the tour with some of the others around a table. The curator then joined us and asked if we'd like to know more about the route. You bet we did! We were then given what amounted to a key to unlocking the rationale behind the places we passed through and their connection to the text. There were explanations for practically every road and passage, for building after building that we passed oblivious to, consumed in conversations on politics, ethics, the city, language, the renaissance or else flirting, buttering up professional contacts and 101 more things besides. From this I had the impression that the basic premise of the walk was a psychogeographical one: the city is full of power architecture that exerts an influence upon the individual as they pass through it. Even if this impact was unconscious, we were being exposed to it and it was informing our conversations around The Prince. While that may be true I also felt that I would have liked to have been able to take this onboard more deliberately whilst doing the tour rather than receiving it as a postscript, even if that meant disrupting the free flow of the conversations. With so many symbols and forms of architecture to view and so many alternative ways to understand the spaces we passed through, some tuning of the city to Machiavelli might have made the walking element more meaningful for me. On the other hand, I must admit that this space of meaning was instead colonised by the conversations and I was fortunate enough to have an interesting succession of walking partners. Either way, it seems, Machiavelli does still have relevance today and this event gave us an intriguing format to consider his ideas.    

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Imposter's Tour

This is a rather unusual tour, even by the standards of this blog. It is a tour of Broadgate Tower which in itself is nothing particularly special other than that there are no public tours of the tower offered right now. What qualifies it as unique is that I had to assume a completely different identity to my own in order to take this tour. 

I arranged a tour of office spaces in order to get a better picture of a private corporate tour, since most of the tours so far covered here have been public one way or another. As the gentrifying march of the City of London, north into Shoreditch, and east into Spitalfields, is one of the key themes to have emerged as a subtext to the many tours I've taken locally, I felt it necessary to get at this story from the inside, as it were, rather than only hearing it from the perspective of the soon to be displaced. I was told I'd find the entrance opposite the giant reindeer, and so it was while in the background is the mouth of Liverpool Street Station, a short walk away.

I arranged an appointment with a company that specialises in renting office space in Broadgate Tower to smaller businesses. I made up a cover story that was inspired by a scene from the James Bond film Skyfall, that was filmed in the building, a scene in which the tower was made over to look like a swanky office block in Shanghai. My cover story was that I was representing a Chinese film producer, a Mr Gao, whose movie was going to be filmed in London next December. This film, Snow Warrior, would require an office for its team to do pre-production work starting in October and they would require more space still, once the full production team arrived for the shoot. Many of the shots were to take place in Hackney and Tower Hamlets, hence the logic of siting their production office here in Broadgate Tower rather than in Soho next to Chinatown, which would seem a more natural choice. With my story prepared I turned up at reception in the company of a friend Elo, who was cast as the photographer. To dress the part I had to wear a suit and tie. The suit was no problem but I was surprised to find that the only tie I had to hand was a bit of a joke tie I acquired recently, a tie decorated with the flags of the European member states. In order to justify the Eurocrat tie, I came up with the story of having to go to a meeting at Europe House immediately after this tour.    

The reception desk downstairs asked our business, took our names and issued entry passes. We ascended an escalator into the future then used the passes to open a polished steel security gate and gain access to the lifts. These lifts were unlike any I have previously used for when I saw one open I jumped inside and looked for the button to stop at the twelfth floor in vain. A woman already standing inside politely evicted me, pointing back outside where I found a glass panel in the wall which, when pressed, asked me to select a floor. Pressing twelve, it paused a moment, then indicated I should go to lift C which opened, we stepped inside and were whisked skyward.

After a false start at the wrong reception we found the right one, were greeted with a smile and asked to sit. Refreshments were offered and our contact was called. After a short pause she came around the corner and introduced herself. She took us to an office where we sat and began the tour. This started with questions about what I was looking for and I launched into the Mr Gao story. It seemed to go pretty well and I was relieved I had prepared my story sufficiently in advance so that I could just roll it out with a smile.

The tour of the offices then began. We were shown into some empty offices and also into working offices like this one. There was an absence of clutter, as much of the equipment like photocopiers, binders and water coolers, is shared and located outside. 

One after another, I entered the spaces and talked about Mr Gao's requirements. It became easier to maintain this story once it had got a bit of momentum up; it was almost as if I were starting to believe it myself. Given the context, I had to think of The Yes Men and their infiltration of the corporate sector to make activist art. While I am well accustomed to switching between different fronts in daily life, this level of pretence is something else and required some acting skills, quick thinking and complete investment in the mask coupled with a relaxation into the role, inhabiting it as myself and bringing personal qualities like humour and inquisitiveness to it. While it is completely unforgivable and I in no way condone it, I do start to see how it was possible for British police infiltrators to settle into their roles of  environmental activists to the point that they formed sexual relationships with the people they were spying on and even fathered children with them. It was Plato who said "the mask which the actor wears is apt to become his face.There is something mildly intoxicating about maintaining a front and the thrill this can provide could, I imagine, blind one to the ethical dimensions of it.

This is the view out a window facing North and East out over Hackney. Running across the centre of the picture is the Overground line with Shoreditch High Street Station the concrete lump in the middle. My tour of tours next year will be covering part of this territory and surveyed from up here it mostly looks like low-level run-down buildings, railway yards and waste grounds begging for redevelopment. The City might imagine itself doing the area a favour by recasting Shoreditch in is own image; where there was once deprivation let there now be tall, shiny offices with a Pret a Manger on the ground floor! A curious marketing hook that was cast my way by my guide was that this was a creative space somehow distinct from the number crunchers down the road in the heart of The City. The basic idea is that the frisson of Shoreditch rubbing against 
The City produces a different sort of business environment. Evidence used in support of this was that there were recruiters renting offices here. They qualified as creative in this world.

This is the view opposite and to the south. It didn't strike me at the time but it does now that if you had a good vantage point and a very powerful lens you could probably read what was on the desks of these people. Reason enough to draw the blinds. 

This is one of the meeting rooms I was shown around. I seem to remember this room was called Battersea, another was named Camden. They all bore the names of respectable London neighbourhoods giving the offices a connection to the wider city they were located in. There were no Leytonstones or Newhams however, this was a city of desirable neighbourhoods only. These rooms came with video conferencing facilities and tea and coffee were provided as part of the package too. They were really quite desirable for what they were. I learned that some of them were leased not only by the hour for meeting but more long-term. There was an independent business school that used two of the larger ones as classrooms into which were packed, predictably enough, a largely Chinese student body learning the finer points of global investment.

We returned to the office and talked over the terms and prices. Unfortunately the computer presentation didn't want to open so I missed out on that but I received it in a file to go over at my leisure. It is not at all what I require but I can imagine the package would be of interest to businesses looking for a foothold in The City. I was struck by the fact that Broadgate Tower advertised itself as a filming location and made it easy for people to film inside of it. Skyfall was not an isolated event but part of consistent stream of media productions that use the building to portray such things as intrigue, Shanghai, chic dining, insider trading and 
the future.

And here is Elo who got roped into the story as the photographer. This was a good role for her to play as it was close enough to her real life presence that it could be played quite naturally. What's more, it meant that I had my hands free and could concentrate on playing my role with the documentation being both taken care of and explained as part of our story: Mr Gao would want to see pictures of the space. Thank you Elo.

Our tour of Broadgate Tower concluded with us returning our security passes. Here I had to take this picture myself with my phone as taking a picture of the security infrastructure with a camera would draw attention to us for sure. The phone however is a godsend as I could appear to be looking at messages, perhaps finding the address of my next meeting... at Europe House in Westminster.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Queen Mary University's East End Tour

Today's tour was a little fractured beginning and ending with other tours... maybe it can be called a sandwich tour. The filling, however, is in no doubt, that was an audio tour provided by Queen Mary University of London.  

The sandwich metaphor can be stretched just a little further as I began my evening in search of the Charnel House in Spitalfields which I had been made aware of on a different tour and marked on the map as occupying the same spot as Costa. Today I found it and to my surprise it is not right to call it the Costa Charnel House, it is much more the Pret a Manger Charnel House, as you can see in the picture. There do seem to be an inordinate number of these sandwich stores in the city.

The Queen Mary University East End Tour began round the corner at Liverpool Street Station. There is something very appealing about starting tours at stations as they are portals full of potential and generally not observed closely enough since people are usually in a hurry coming and going. To encourage this transitory nature, there are, apparently, sonic devices called MOSQUITOS that emit a sound that is particularly annoying to people under 25. These devices are used (by people over 25 we can safely assume) to discourage gangs from congregating and Liverpool Street Station is meant to be one of the stations that has this ultra-sonic sound played as a constant. I was unable to hear it and so simply put on my earphones and started the audio recording. The Queen Mary Tour told me to exit via the Broadgate escalator and in this respect  treated the station much like everybody else: a non-place that leads you elsewhere.

The instructions were at first quite clear and spoken by a woman who articulated very thoroughly. She told me to go down this lane, which I did, and that is where the tour got going with some descriptions of the narrow passage. The narrator acted as the host and from time to time introduced lecturers from Queen Mary who would speak on their specialist topics. Here for example there was, if I remember correctly, a professor talking about how the East End was viewed as being a terrible place full of crime and social problems. The fact that the experts were from different departments of Queen Mary made it clear to me that this tour was an inter-disciplinary initiative bringing together the likes of the English department with the Geography department. This was interesting in that it demonstrated how geographically framed tours (e.g. an East End Tour) by their nature tend to dip into different subjects; a bit of history, a bit of politics, a bit of geography and, why not, a bit of literature. Still, there was an assumption about what it was interesting to talk about and this mostly meant talking about the past. A tour that mixed two disciplines and did not take such a historical frame would be far more curious indeed. You could mix, for example, crime and botany and while you'd have two rather separate streams of information you'd probably find some points where they informed one another.

The tour took me to many familiar spots, such as Petticoat Lane Market. I'm not going to refer back to the audio so I can be clear about what was said, I think it is better to rely on memory so that what I write here is what is remembered, the impressions the tour left me with. Here then, I think I was told that this was one of London's oldest markets. I seem to remember they added some market sound effects too: audio doubling.

I passed Happy Days fish and chip shop which is one of the Jack the Ripper sites and I remember Barnaby, the guide on Ripping Yarns Tour, saying they do really good fish and chips. He was absolutely right. With a bag of chips in hand, I continued my tour.

Once again I got the immigrant story of the area and it was the Jewish Soup Kitchen that was the site for the telling of the story this time round. The tone was quite high and modestly academic with quotes from period sources and considered commentary. The story was, however, identical to that told on regular tourist tours.

Because this tour was going over well trodden ground, I interested myself by looking at the sites obliquely, such as at this 'designated locked site' on the side of Christ Church. I listened obediently to the story then to the instructions telling me where the next listening point was and then stopped the recording and made my way there. This form of engagement with the tour was less intense than a guided tour during which you are still more part of a tour during those marches between locations and it was certainly much less intensive than the immersive Sound Map Tour which surrounds you from start to finish.

True to form the tour took in the Brick Lane Mosque and there I heard about its history, as I had on almost every other tour that comes this way. It might be necessary to map the points that appear on multiple tours and those that only feature on a single tour. A specialist tour of tours would try to connect the single use points whereas a generalist tour of tours would select only points that feature on at least two or three tours. What is nice to observe are points that feature in multiple tours and which are talked about in completely different ways, like SO Gallery on Brick Lane which combines Jewish heritage and contemporary art.

The tour took me to the park where there was a story about discrimination against  Bangladeshis in the 70s. The story finished in a curious way. The narrator said, "if you want to end your tour now, go to Aldgate East Tube station over the road." She didn't go so far as to say, "you'd be a mug to continue" but there was something of a sense of "you've seen the best of it" in her tone of voice. Taking this a step further I imagine a tour in which you are repeatedly invited to finish it at one point after another and in a variety of ways. 

There next followed a long walk from the park to Whitechapel during which there were no recordings. This is more or less that same problem that the Walk The Line Tour faced: this stretch of road is not obviously interesting. I therefore had to think of the young lady on the Chinese tour bus I previously mentioned who pointed out a TESCO whenever she passed one. Since there is this one on the route, I do so in memory of her. I was starting to think I should have taken the narrator's advice and quit while I was ahead.


I also noticed several stores with signs like this: 

Money Transfer | Job Centre | Travels & Tours | Hajj & Umrah 

This got me thinking about pilgrimage and hajj as a tour. It's a huge topic that I'll have to return to at some point, hopefully in the context of a pilgrimage site or tour. Briefly though, I remember visiting Lourdes in Southern France and being surprised at how this Catholic pilgrimage destination managed to be simultaneously kitsch and impressive. I also remember hearing about virtual Hajj that was a big story a while back. When Second Life was in its prime you could send your avatar on pilgrimage to Mecca and I seem to remember other forms of virtual pilgrimage too. More research that needs to be done!

I downloaded the MP3 audio files and PDF map onto my phone but I found that my phone would not open the map file. This meant I was reliant on the audio instructions to find my way. By about two thirds of the way through, the audio instructions started becoming vague and I had to start guessing and looking around to make sure I was on the right path. As there was no street sign to indicate Mile End Road, for example, I had to scan the business plates till I found this one confirming I was on the right road.

The tour took me to progressively less and less glamorous locations such as this slither of green space that used to be important for meetings and public speaking. It is hard to imagine that happening now. You'd have to shout over the buses that roar past and the relentless flow of Mile End Road.  

The nadir moment of the tour for me came when I realised I must have completely missed one of the audio stops. I could not see anything like the place I was looking for and so I just pressed PLAY and listened to the next track hoping I could get a clearer picture of the place from the recording. I found myself listening to a discourse on geometry and social values while looking into Topps Tiles. At this point I realised I might as well make what I will of the tour and find my own sense in it. This was actually quite a liberating moment as I stopped feeling like I was making a mistake but instead allowed it all to be experience that could be interpreted however I wished.

Cut adrift then, I came to SFC (Stepney Fried Chicken) nestled alongside Stepney Green tube station. While I might smile at the woman who maps the country with TESCO I must admit I have my own version of this with the fried chicken outlets that proliferate in London. I used to take pictures of their signs and after some months had quite a collection. There is a nice transference of signifiers in these as they are basically copying KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) which in turn is probably a copy of something else, and substituting Kentucky with another location, usually plucked from the American South. Some however are resolutely local like SFC and then there are the PFCs (Perfect Fried Chicken) which in turn have their imitators who copy the PFC logo but insist they are Philadelphia Fried Chicken. Where the copy of the copy will go next is anyone's guess...

Making my way back to Liverpool Street I passed the locations I missed towards the end of the Queen Mary Tour and saw how I managed to miss them. I have to admit it did not feel like any great loss as I listened to the information anyway, none of which was of a nature that depended on being there. When I arrived back in The City I came across another tour of sorts, I was barged aside by a trail of Santa Claus clad joggers. I passed them twice in fact and their distinctive costumes made them stand out in the street. Earlier in the day I had read about a City of London run and now I was amidst another group making their high speed tour of The City. It is debatable to what degree a race like this is really a tour but for me it is enough that they make this formalised circuit of the City as a group. 

I wondered what the route of their tour was and where they would finish and I guessed it must be nearby as some of them looked like they were at breaking point. I opted for Spitalfields Market, made my way there and sure enough I found a large number of city workers in Santa outfits eating mince pies and drinking mulled wine. I also saw them being timed and something of the charity operation they were doing this for. So the way this 5K race works is that the runners represent their companies and both the individual winners and fastest company teams are awarded a prize, symbolic I suppose, on a small podium. While I have a general sympathy for people doing daft things in public the Santa outfit has become a bit overused in my opinion; I saw a similar gathering of jogging Santas last year in Portsmouth, I've seen Santa dressed pub crawls and the goodwill that the costume typically invokes has also been used by Fathers For Justice who have campaigned in Santa outfits on several occasions. Maybe what I mean by this is simply that it has become ever so slightly ordinary.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The First Thursday Tour: Whitechapel Gallery's free bus tour of exhibition openings

The First Thursday Bus is a free bus tour that you can take on, unsurprisingly enough, the first Thursday of the month. It has been running a while now and it is part of the much broader First Thursday initiative by which East London galleries stay open late and often hold not so very private views the same evening. The bus tour departs from Whitechapel Gallery and takes you to a selection of participating galleries.  

I was instructed to arrive at 6.45 in order to pick up my ticket. Upon arrival I found the front desk besieged with hipsters as there was another event taking place in the gallery that evening and people were picking up tickets. The staff were ticking off names, answering the phone, handing out different coloured stickers for the various events and answering the inevitable random questions. There was also a 'meet-up group' trying to form amongst those standing around but nobody seemed to know who was and was not part of that group so it  was slow to happen and more than a little self-conscious. Next to this there were book stalls and some people selling raffle tickets for a youth project. It was proper London art bustle.

The tickets for the tour were not all collected so someone from the gallery went around checking to see who was on the waiting list, handing out yellow stickers accordingly. Because it is free to enter into the ticket lottery to go on the tour (you apply a few days in advance) there must routinely be quite a number of people who do not collect their tickets. If you really want to do this tour then, it is probably quite possible to get on it simply by arriving in advance at around 6.30 and adding your name to the waiting list. Nothing beats actually being there.

I don't how it happened but the map of the tour on the official website is wrong. As well as having no number 1, Gallery SO is actually located on Brick Lane and not north of Bethnal Green as shown above. The rules dictating the shape of the tour, as far as I understand them, are 1) it starts at 7PM 2) visits 3 galleries in the East End and 3) returns to Aldgate East at around 9PM or shortly after. This time frame is set so that it works with the timing of the private views most of which are winding down by 9. It is interesting to note that there is another First Thursday tour also available from the gallery and that one is a walking tour which obviously covers a shorter distance. Common to both are these bold red lines which connect one gallery to the next like a teleporter zapping you from opening to opening. For those pounding the pavements they must therefore decide for themselves how to make their way from one point to the next as the precise walking route is not specified. Some roads might present themselves as the obvious path but there is an element of active choice here as it is not always obvious. While at first I thought this an oversight I now see potential in deliberate ambiguity and will have to file this thought away in order to retrieve it at a later point when I need to direct people somewhere but not direct them too precisely.  

The bus was waiting for us outside the gallery. It was a nice comfortable Mercedes.

The 20-odd seat bus filled slowly and there were quite a number of empty seats. It was perhaps a little over half full and I had the whole back row to myself. We left Whitechapel 10 minutes behind schedule, probably the result of the ticketing being so complicated and hoping a few latecomers would arrive to bolster numbers.

First stop was SO Gallery which I was excited to enter because it had already featured in the Sound Map Tour I had taken barely a week before. This overlapping of spaces is what happens when working with several tours that cross a more restricted geographical space. It invited me to speculate whether there was a connection between the Jewish heritage referenced in the previous tour and the art of the current one. 

After the gallery's curator said a few words we then got an introduction to the exhibition from Leo Fitzmaurice, the artist whose work filled the space for his solo show Post Match. He talked about his inspiration and process but generally avoided trying to define the meaning of the work too firmly. The exhibition comprised of the tops of cigarette packets that had been unfolded and modified in order to look like footballer's tops. It was a simple idea that was well realised and which allowed for many connections to be made between the worlds of smoking and football. To me at least, it invited a semiotic reading of these two fields that had been unified in the artwork, and the subsequent rubbing of tangential orders of symbols (eg. the Bundesliga vrs cigarette brand design) against one another to produce new meanings. Thinking about this further the CH N KATZ. sign above the window is not so different, or at the very least, has the potential to create a similar crossover of symbols.

When I stepped out of the gallery I saw someone I know, Hydar Dewachi, being dragged into a disagreement with a man on the street. It seemed to be about the right to take photographs and the man on the left appeared to be angry and looking for someone to shout at. I was about to jump in and come to Hydar's defence but the tour bus was waiting for me (I was last person to leave the gallery) and my intervention would probably have only escalated the tension. I later heard that thankfully things resolved themselves OK. It was for me a moment that popped me out of the First Thursday Tour and into a very different situation. I guess most conventional tours function like worlds unto themselves and such events do not happen though I did notice that on the Winterthur Tour people taking it bumped into friends of theirs who happened to be passing in the street, so this is not unprecedented. 

Developing this idea, it amuses me to imagine tours that encourage this fluidity more, either by deliberately going to places connected to the individuals on the tour or going to public meeting spots where such things happen as a matter of course. This First Thursday Tour did already have something of that quality as First Thursdays is, for people connected to the London art world, a significant monthly socialising event. I did in fact bump into another person I knew while waiting at Whitechapel Gallery and met him again later in the evening on the street outside. This happened because I  was in a context I have a place within. As for general public meeting spaces, those are few in number in London as the city is large and anonymous. In smaller cities these function better, such as the pedestrianised cafe zone in the centre of Zagreb. Even there though, it is not a hub for everyone but it does function far more effectively as a random meeting zone to the extent that if you are in a hurry it is a place best avoided. 

Dave Roberts, of Dave Roberts Foundation was our tour guide. He gave a brief introduction at the start of the trip and said a few words about each space, like he is doing here, before we arrived at them and the coach emptied. The coach was in fact very well equipped for guided tours, there was even a microphone just to his right that he could have used in order to look and sound like a proper tour guide. He was never going to go there however.

Beach, the next gallery we stopped at, was smaller and much more crowded. They were showing the work of an artist usually associated with street art who had recently moved into making ceramic 3D works. There was also another event taking place simultaneously in the gallery and a woman was handing out bottle after bottle at the entrance. I was less excited about the work, indeed there was less of it on display, this place was more about meeting people and taking advantage of the drinks. On leaving I took one for the bus ride.

By the time we were back on the bus and moving agin we were running late and our last stop was still a little bit of a drive away and the traffic was inching along Brick Lane. By this time a few people had dropped out of the tour and a new couple had joined us as there was plenty of space. There was in general a more informal atmosphere on the bus with the drinks flowing and people chatting to one another who an hour and a half ago had been strangers. Drawing close to our destination Chisenhale Gallery, we were given another short introduction as to the sort of gallery it is, namely a publicly funded space that typically offers rising artists their first major solo show in London. 

We entered and were immediately asked to take our shoes off before proceeding any further. I have heard of performances at which the audience is required to be fully nude, fortunately this was a more modest request but one which changed our relationship to the space nonetheless.

We entered the gallery proper and sat on the carpeted floor in front of the screen and watched the video. Unlike the other galleries there were no drinks and there was no scene, in fact we were the only people in the gallery. We watched a video work of Jordan Wolfson that was a mix of animation and exterior shots mostly taken around SoHo in the artist's native NYC. The work was OK and reminded me of when I briefly worked for a SoHo gallery in the 90s but I found myself drifting off and asking myself how this piece of work ended up in front of me. I came to the conclusion that this is a two part question the first part of which is how I ended up on the First Thursday Tour: how the tour came into existence and how Chisenhale Gallery ended up on this tour. The other side of the question is how did this video end up being shown in this gallery and that is also a rather complicated issue, particularly as this was not the work's first showing and Chisenhale usually commissions. Both these questions are basically questions about the mechanics of the London (and global) art world where private and public money mix and different interests are served. A woman from the gallery talked a little about the work and why it was here when we were back outside but I felt there was a lot more to this encounter that was left unsaid. To really get inside of a seemingly simple question such as "how did I end up looking at this?" could easily be a PhD study in itself so I will not go any further here as I've probably already said enough.  

The evening ended when the bus dropped us off at Aldgate East a three-minute walk from Whitechapel Gallery. My over-riding impression of it is this is the sort of tour that does not feed you that much information but instead is rather open-ended and you can make of it what you like, depending on what you bring to it in the first place. Someone who hates art and thinks it pretentious will most likely come away thinking it was evening spent amongst tossers while someone interested in contemporary art and the edgy fashion of the London art scene will be right in their element and return bringing their friends next time round.