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.