Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Still Walking Festival Tours

Over the weekend I had a heavy fix of alternative guided tours in Birmingham: I was at the Still Walking Festival. The programme mixes walking tours of the more conventional form of showing you a series of locations and talking about them with walking tours that experiment with the form of what a tour can be. 

The first tour I took was called 'Lost and Found' and our guide was artist Iris Bertz. It started in the foyer of Ikon Gallery in a rather peculiar manner: festival director Ben Waddington introduced the tour and lead us to the first location, a room in the gallery where a member of the Ikon's team gave us a short introduction to contemporary art and to the Shimabuku exhibition before showing us one of the artist's film. We then got a further introduction from the artist Iris Bertz and I began to wonder if we were going to be passed from guide to guide throughout the tour. But no, we settled with her and began the main part of the tour. These multiple beginnings were given directly and clearly so to set the frame and make non-art audiences not feel intimidated but rather, welcomed. At first I feared this was going to be over-explicative but as the tour moved on from this point I came to see it as building upon a solid foundation.

We were then led around and Bertz shared what she saw when she looked at the different areas, buildings, walls and plants that we stopped in front of. Here she made a connection between this abandoned and boarded up ghost building and Rachel Whiteread's 'House' sculpture. 

This sign, showing a shrinking list of places to go to in case of emergencies, she likened to an artistic intervention that made an ironic commentary upon regeneration hubris, the sort of work that could form part of an institutional critique programme. I was glad that she moved into this social and political dimension as this layer of reading the city gave the tour added resonance.  

At one point we had come across an incongruous crocodile sculpture on a houseboat and later we saw the animal's form repeated on the wall. This was a nice touch as it began to give the tour more of a history: one observation fed upon another and this made something that would have been a minor sight into something more significant within our narrative.

The tour finished in front of a 'found painting' and my abiding impression was that it was a tour of her artistic imagination first and of the neighbourhood second. It was her way to show how art had helped her to better see forms in daily life. This it did in a modest and unassuming way, but was no less effective for that. 

The next tour 'Pedestrian vs Car' was led by Roxanna Collins and the geographic palette was car parks and subways. Our first stop was Pershore Street Car Park where, chance would have it, an Ikon Gallery project had taken place some time ago, its trace, this crumpled poster, still visible. There were however not so many explicit art references on this tour, it really was themed around the spaces.

Because the spaces we passed through and stopped at ranged from mundane to depressing and even potentially dangerous whilst the commentary remained minimal, I found my attention moving onto the guide herself, and more specifically, asking the question, why is she attracted to these places? She had said that she did not drive a car and yet was attracted to these city locations that are the result of the motor vehicle and its dominance in the city's planning. This was quirky and I suspect there is a further story yet to be told lurking within this tour. This was however the very first time the tour had been given and this was indeed her first ever tour so I suspect it will mature and expand with repetition. 

This was a nice detail highlighted in the walk: two large stones used as improvised steps to scale the wall and make a short-cut over the road. This brought my attention to just how car friendly Birmingham City Centre appeared to be and how pedestrians often had to either run the gauntlet across lively A roads or else make lengthy detours through subways. It also drew my attention more generally to the improvised solutions to pass through the city, the desire paths, the holes in fences and barriers ripped aside. 

Something that was a feature of these tours was that the group ended up talking between itself. There was an interesting mix of people taking the tour and most had something to say about the spaces too. From the top of this multi-story car park, for example, we had an architect talk us through a nearby stalled tower that he had been working on. Conversation moved onto city planning and the economy and then to photography before finally continuing in a local pub. The social dimension is a feature of these walks as at the end of all of them there was an opportunity to talk with the guide and to one another. 

The final tour I took on a damp Sunday afternoon was 'WALK * LOOK * DRAW * KNOW' led by Tom Jones. The basic theme was perception and the approach to heightening it was the use of simple sketches. The point was not to produce beautiful drawings, it was to draw in a way that helped focus the eye upon a detail so that it could be better understood. 

We did this through a series of perceptual tasks that Jones guided us through. In this square for example, we were to focus upon parallel lines as we made our way through it. This active reading of the space was not only to be done with the eye, we were also encouraged to be open to metaphorical readings the space. In this square's case it was to consider it as a drawing room, as an inwardly focussed space that encouraged intimacy rather than an outward focussed space that, for example, inspired awe. 

To do this we undertook some funny looking tasks like this one where we stood in a line looking at the shift in the pattern of the paving stones as we slowly lifted our gaze from under our feet to a point in the distance where perspective made the stones appear to converge as parallel lines. We must have made a nice sight ourselves. I had the feeling that this very conscious approach to seeing did make me read the space in a new way and I could tell that Jones had led generations of drawing students through these exercises as he was confident and in control in his guidance. It is a question what the purpose of this approach is and I suspect it is multiple, not single. It seemed that while it could aid ones drawing skills it was primarily there to improve ones perceptual abilities and here it could be seen as something that simply makes life more interesting. This tour was related to the first tour of Iris Bertz, also an artist tour focussed upon perception. The difference, as I saw it, was that this one was based more upon how we use the eye and that of Bertz upon how art has influenced how she perceives the world. The two of them made good counterparts.  

We finished in the park observing plants and the exterior of the rather beautiful new Birmingham Library, a building which features a fantastic view over the city. A defining feature of the festival is that it helps people who would not normally give tours develop them through its mentoring programme. This struck me as a very good idea as it meant a whole array of different sorts of tours came into being as a result, tours that were far from the blue badge guide style heritage tour. The festival is still quite young but growing, and it has the potential to create a new public for guided tours in Birmingham by offering a range of tours that are less about showing the city of the great and good and more about sharing its citizens' perspectives on the their hometown. I did not catch the tours that were more actively playing with the form of the tour itself but they are part of the programme too and with more coming this weekend, it is a must if you want to see something new of Birmingham.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Bridges of London Tour

This was a boat tour, a first for this blog but hopefully far from the last, and it was led by broadcaster and architectural historian Dan Cruickshank. Upon embarking at the Tower of London pier I was offered a glass a wine and then made my way to the top of the boat where a growing crowd of us waited for the boat to depart and our tour to begin.

I was not aware of Dan Cruickshank's programmes but quickly guessed he must be something of a celebrity as, during the pre-tour wait, a number of people introduced themselves to him and asked to have their pictures taken beside him. Obligingly and with good humour he did so. Looking now at the substantial list of programmes he has researched and presented for the BBC I see the 2012 broadcast that was the template for this evening's tour: The Bridges That Built London 

Dan Cruickshank explores the mysteries and secrets of the bridges that have made London what it is. He uncovers stories of bronze-age relics emerging from the Vauxhall shore, of why London Bridge was falling down, of midnight corpses splashing beneath Waterloo Bridge, and above all, of the sublime ambition of London's bridge builders themselves.

This was basically our tour too, except we were not watching it on the box but were taking it in a boat in the company of the presenter himself and could enjoy a glass of wine along the way. This was, in effect, a television made real tour.

It just remained for the captain to make some brief health and safety announcements, a somewhat familiar protocol (e.g. Victoria Park Memoryscape Tour), and we set off into the dusk.

That's when the light food was offered. It made a welcome return later in the cruise too and this made me wonder if this was in some way a 'bribe' to endear us to the event. Upon reflection however, that is the thinking of someone who has taken a few too many walking tours and was unaccustomed to river cruises. This most certainly was part of the package and it is wrong to try and separate it from the rest of the tour, just as it is a mistake to not include the pub at the end of the walking tour that often plays its role in the event. That said, we were in effect taking our tour on a floating bar with the staff bringing a steady flow of wine and tea up to us. This gave the whole affair a much more relaxed atmosphere than a walking tour where you have to make continuous effort. 

The commentary began with Tower Bridge and we were told about its construction: dates, architect, technology, rationale, style, cost, reception and consequences. This included a nice story about Queen Victoria being secretly opposed to it as she thought it might jeopardise the security of the Tower of London, still considered in the late 19th Century a refuge of last resort in the case of a republican uprising. We headed upstream and heard a similar type of description at each bridge and in the stretches between them also heard more general observations on things that could be seen from the boat such as how The Embankment narrowed the river and changed its character.  

Some of the bridges were architecturally interesting and we heard a good deal about the evolution of materials and methods used to construct them. The new London Bridge however is no charmer, as the forced labourers used as guards for last year's Jubilee Pageant would probably agree.

By the time we reached Blackfriars Railway Bridge dusk had truly given way to night and as there were no lights above deck Mr Cruickshank had to use a pocket lamp to read his notes. I have the impression he is somebody who communicates a lot with his hands and this created a choreography of light, a pool of illumination skipping between the bridges, his notes, circling in the air when he was thinking and stopping upon me, it seemed, when he was making a full stop in his sentences. The woman in the foreground acted as his assistant holding the pages when the wind whipped them up or fixing his lamp when it switched to red for no good reason. Mr Cruickshank, to his credit, took these things in his stride, acknowledging any mishaps, making light of them and moving on.

The night only got blacker still and finally there was not so much to see except the lights from buildings on the riverbank and bridges caught in moments of flash photography. Here is Westminster Bridge looming out of the night. This left me feeling that the tour would have worked far better if it were arranged as a weekend afternoon cruise when we could have clearly seen all the things that were being talked about. What's more, the boat's progress along the river and the spoken descriptions could have been better coordinated. The text that acted as his source material had been been written to be narrated for a documentary and not developed as a river tour. This meant that there was sometimes too much to say in some sections which were interrupted by the next bridge while in the fallow zone after Westminster Bridge there was not so much to say. A tour that is developed for a specific route and honed over time has the opportunity to deepen its relationship to the route, for the guide's timing to become precise and detailed observations particular to the route to be made. This cruise was however a one-off event and as such was more freewheeling and, it must be said, was largely taken in that spirit.  

After passing Vauxhall Bridge the boat turned around and made its way downstream back towards The Tower. We descended below to the warmth and light and Dan Cruickshank interspersed the homeward journey with some short literary readings such as Wordsworth's Upon Westminster Bridge. The final impression of the tour was rather mixed for me as it was on the one hand rough in its surface and on the other I was aware that this was an influential version of the capital's history that I was listening to being given live. This mismatch between the simplicity of the event with all its attendant niggles and the impact of the tour, a TV tour made real, was curious to observe and I wondered whether people were watching the actual event of whether they were using it as a springboard for a televisual imagination. This is a way to say I wonder if the same tour was given by someone the public knew nothing of whether they would perceive it in a similar way or not. I suspect that they would view it quite differently but then again, if it were given by someone unknown it would be a very different sort of event as the expectations would not be the same. In any case, Dan Cruickshank held together both the real and the TV tour, with charm and a depth of knowledge so I can see how this makes him most suitable for broadcasting.

Thames Festival who presented this cruise have a number of other tours and art events coming up this week and next including a series of walks along London's lost rivers by Tom Bolten who is interviewed about these on Talking Walking and several other tours around and about the river and indeed some walks along the river bank itself. It looks like a good program.

Friday, 6 September 2013

The Sun Walk: a continuous dawn to dusk walk in the direction of the sun

For some, a self-guided tour simply means taking a tour without a guide accompanying you and showing you the way. In this sense, the Memoryscape audio-tour of Victoria Park, reviewed here on thetourofalltours, could be described as self-guided. I found, however, that when taking that tour there was both a voice and map offering me directions along a distinct, predetermined route and that I either followed the tour as it had been laid out or I did something else. There was very little room for me to exercise my own choice of route and still remain on that tour. If I try to imagine a self-guided tour in a way that excites me I like to imagine it more as a tour that requires the walker's active contribution to a significant degree. This is, admittedly, a blurry definition and it might be good to do a few tests around the margins to see how well it stands up, but for now it works well enough for me.

This is an example of a self-guided tour I made in 2003, though it might better be described as a sun-guided tour. What I did was to begin this day-long tour at sunrise on Trafalgar Square and then walk in the direction of the sun until it set in the evening. Using the sun as my guide, I walked first eastwards, veered south as the morning wore on and then made my way more towards the setting sun in the west, though with less energy as my legs tired in the late afternoon and early evening, thus accounting for the asymmetric pattern of the walk. I finished south of Croydon. 

The ways the roads are laid out did not allow me to follow the sun as precisely as I would have been able to had I been on a vast expanse of open land. Instead, I had to work with the contours of the road layout which, in South London, is cut up and obstructed by the many overground train lines that criss-cross it. I was frequently confronted with a choice of paths and had to decide which of them would most likely allow me to continue walking towards the sun the most precisely. This, then, is a tour of South London that I would call self-guided as I both had the idea (which has almost certainly been done before but by whom or when I have no idea) and had to make many choices of which way to go in the moment of making the walk. I think of these two aspects of conception and execution, it is second, the choosing the path as I went that was the more significant. I believe it is possible, even inevitable, that when you take someone else's concept for a tour and then try it out yourself, you'll experience vastly different results.   

Monday, 2 September 2013

The Victoria Park Memoryscape Tour

I have neglected audio tours on this blog up till now so it is time to put that right. I therefore took a free audio tour around Victoria Park in East London a tour that you can download HERE. It is just one of several that have been produced for different sites around London by Memoryscape

To take the walk you need to have the map which indicates the points where each of the 11 tracks should be played. It begins at the south entrance of the park with some legal notices about not accepting responsibility for any harm that might befall the listener. It is a peculiar start that made me wonder if there was some likelihood of trouble, teenage gangs picking out solitary walkers, rupturing their historical reflections at knifepoint with demands for money, phone and credit card. This opening could even provide the inspiration for an audio tour of its own, an audio tour on knife crimes and violent assaults that have taken place on the route of the tour. An audio tour complete with heartbeats, footsteps, Psycho violin sounds and gunshots. It presents itself as a local history tour with a crime focus but is actually just using this as a pretext and is simply trying to scare people witless. I even know the perfect location for this tour: The Murder Mile Tour of Clapton.  

The listening points are not fixed in the way they are when you have a live guide to direct your attention. Instead you press play when you get to what looks like the right location on the map. Here for example I listened to the proprietor of the cafe talking about, and more or less welcoming, the gentrification of the Hackney yet the cafe was shut for the evening and there were some drunks knocking back cans of Special Brew and Super K cider stood in front of the cafe. This disjunction between the sound and image was funny but it made the recording slightly ridiculous as it was unplanned and outside its frame. This more general problem of focal point was a recurrent one because a great deal of the commentary was about what was there in the past and not what is there now. This meant the descriptions often wafted over the landscape not settling anywhere in particular while the park remained buoyant. The one aspect of the tour that was however more connected to the landscape was the sound design which mirrored existing ambient sounds, added some others for effect, and sometimes created genuine confusion whether what you heard was the recording or the actual park.     

I was listening to it on my not overly smart phone that placed the sound files in different places. The tracks were all there however and with the walking time added on the whole thing took about an hour and twenty minutes, the classic sort of tour duration: 75-90 minutes. For those without their own means of listening it is possible to borrow devices from the park hub. 

One thing that struck me about listening to a tour on headphones rather than being given one by a guide is that this format is suitable for controversial content. Where it might not be acceptable to say certain things out loud someone listening to them on an audio tour can hear this information unbeknownst to those around. The Tate a Tate audio tours made in protest at the Tate's acceptance of BP sponsorship is an example of this. These offer a very alternative and unofficial commentary to the gallery's standard audio tour. 

The way the recordings work is the narrator carries the bulk of the work and the physical guiding responsibilities. He introduces the different people who relate their memories of the park saying, for example, "the lake in front of you was used for model boats." He then says, "Norman Lara" and we hear Norman saying, "I'm the chairman of the Victoria model steamboat club. Been the chairman for at least 20 years." 

There were a great many people who shared their memories and the structural difficulty of this audio tour is that people's memories obey neither the logic of the walking route nor any chronological or thematic logic. This meant that the interviews were heavily cut and pasted, but even then it was impossible to organise the tour according to one central principle. It was instead pieced together according to effect.

There is a purpose to these oral history audio tours and this one did a competent job at capturing different memories and putting them together with enough narration to give them some context. It maintained an upright and respectful tone, like that of a teacher or some other sort of minor authority figure. All the time I was listening to it however I was thinking about how it could subvert itself and become a little less upright. Maybe that is just my schoolboy imagination or maybe there really is a need for us to be able to construct our own mythologies about the places we occupy rather than accepting those of the council's.  

As I was coming to the end of the tour I saw the three towers of The Lockton Estate, an unglamorous council estate that I had re-imagined in a previous performance of mine as the site of weapons of mass destruction threatening the Olympic Park. Sensationalist fear mongering whose purpose was to look at where the quite genuine fear came from. If history can help us understand what happened and how we came to where we are, so too can art which, as Picasso puts it, "is a lie that helps us see the truth.