Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Haunted Holborn Tour

Finally, in the week running up to Halloween I made it round to taking a ghost tour, and it's about time too as I have felt this is a tour experience I have lacked. The tour was free and offered by gotomidtown a Business Improvement District whose package includes street rangers in uniforms and, more originally, guides.   

They have an information point outside Holborn Tube station and this acts as the meeting point for the tour. Note the adoption of the i for information. 

As it was a busy place the guide used amplification. I first encountered these little amps when taking a guided tour in Souther China around some UNESCO sites that were inundated with guides and people selling stuff. To cut through the noise the guides all used these, which of course significantly contributed to the acoustic arms race. Here in Holborn it was useful as the traffic and crowds would have been a bit much to shout over.

There must have been about 25 of us taking the tour and we had to follow our guide through the lunchtime crowds. The timing was tricky not only on account of the bustle but also because of the subject matter. Evening must work far better for ghost tours I imagine. There was no real chance of crating a spooky atmosphere here, indeed the guide didn't even try. He related the stories with considerable distance saying "some people believe this" rather than just telling the story like it happened. This sitting on the fence didn't offer him anything more as a position to narrate from; it is obvious that not everybody believes in ghosts. By the end I was wishing he was in some sort of costume and making an effort to ham it up and scare us.

While waving us on I noticed he was holding these cards which had his script on them, complete with highlighted sections. It is generally a little disappointing to have a guide working from a script and ours here was at least only referring to these cards for dates and facts. What was revealing however was when we arrived at the former entrance to The British Museum underground station. Here he began by reading from a card that had the construction details and dates of this former tube station. These were given in a standardised history tour format. He then moved on from that card and onto a new card which was written with the idea of a ghost tour and not an architectural tour and which contained the story of a wailing Egyptian mummy. My guess is the architectural card belonged to a different tour and was used to introduce the location on the ghost tour. Whist only slightly jarring it did make me wonder about this way of structuring knowledge. It reminded me of wikipedia in the sense that each topic has a discrete entry and you bring your own context and narrative path to the reading and understanding of it. Rather than smoothing over the cracks resulting from the different source materials that the tour's narrative was drawn from this crack was left unintentionally visible. Rather than simply overlooking this minor mistake I feel that there may be something interesting in it if it is enlarged and made deliberate. It makes me wonder if this compartmentalised approach to applying facts could itself become a principle for a tour.

After having taken the ghost tour it was my turn to play guide. The same evening I was scheduled to give a tour around Bloomsbury to a class of students from Birkbeck College. I had neither the time nor inclination to research a Bloomsbury tour so I conducted a little experiment. I decided upon a simple route, looked at what was around and then projected the stories of tours that I had taken elsewhere onto the locations I found in Bloomsbury. I added to these the ghost tour that I had taken earlier and one or two other tours I happen to know about such as the Jehovah's Witness British Museum Tour, so that there was a collection of true and false tours. An example of a false tour was my treatment of The Original Tour, a bus tour which I projected the story of another bus tour The Stuttgart Tour onto.

The Original Tour is in fact interesting for me more generally. I am studying the maps of these bus tours as I will be developing a tour around Shoreditch for 2014 (more on this later) and want to include a bus tour within those I cite. It won't be The Original Tour as the nearest they go is Tower Bridge, following a route that is depressingly similar to the 2012 Olympic Marathon route after the original route through East London was controversially substituted to the sightseeing route.

A curious quality that most of these bus tours have is that they are hop-on and hop-off. This is another way in which the narrative of the journey is flattened as it is impossible to write a beginning, middle and end into such a structure if it is meant to be experienced in that order. What you get instead is an endless stream of touristic information.  

I have noticed that my review of the Sex Tour of Stuttgart is quite popular and tends to get more hits than other blog posts. I'm not sure if this is because people already reading the blog see a list of blog entries and that one pops out at them or if the readers are sex tourists who stumbled across it by accident but one way or another it is a popular subject. I therefore decided to dust it off and apply it to Russel Square. This started with the phone boxes and their prostitute cards which offered the opportunity to talk about a walk I took some years back collecting these cards from Aldgate East to Paddington and looking for correspondences between the services offered and the neighbourhoods. Curiously, Bloomsbury seemed to have a lot of teachers offering to punish naughty boys... In any case I could then move onto applying the Stuttgart narrative to London and cast The Imperial Hotel overlooking Russel Square as a den of high class prostitution.

Another ubiquitous tour that was easy enough to apply was the Chinese Tour, this can be brought out wherever there is a Chinese restaurant. Although this approach has its limitations I rather enjoyed applying tour formulae to locations as this is in a sense the way the tourism industry operates in any case. I think there was some genuine ambiguity as to which were real and which false and this experiment certainly opens possibilities into alternative forms of presenting the guided tour research. 

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Touring Public Spaces: why the growth in artist's walks?

I had an article recently published in Arts Professional on guided tours that followers of this blog will recognise as a compendium of sorts. The link to it is HERE and the issue as a whole is on the theme of outdoor arts. The full text is reproduced below.

A quiet revolution is taking place in outdoor arts. The fire-eating stilt walkers and giant robotic creatures will still be making their way through our city centres for some time to come, but they are being increasingly accompanied by another quieter form of outdoor arts: the guided tour. These are nothing new in themselves as they have been a staple of the tourism industry for a great many years. What is new is the interest that is being shown in this form by artists coming from the likes of site-specific theatre and socially engaged art who have re-imagined the form like never before. What then is this work exactly and what is driving its growing momentum?

Firstly, this sort of work can often be described as site-sensitive, that is to say it does not attempt to significantly alter or close off the public space but rather to use it in a way that makes it more public than ever. At a time when public space in the UK is being continuously undermined to the point that it is often regarded as merely the space passed through on the way to and from work or the shops, this quality of inhabiting and valuing public space as an essential site for cultural and political exchange, or quite simply, as an essential part of a cohesive society, is a defining feature.

Secondly, this sort of work does not necessarily take place in beautiful locations. I have been taken around car parks, through subways, into a McDonalds and around a flea market before, all in the name of art. This work claims spaces that are often ignored and gives them new meaning. Another feature is that this work stresses the live presence of a guide. There have been a number of well-known artistic audio tours such as Janet Cardiff’s ‘The Missing Voice’ or Graeme Miller’s ‘Linked’, but this current wave of tours play specifically with the live presence of the guide. Finally, this work is small in scale, eschewing the grand spectacle and instead connecting with people on a personal level.

Much of the impetus for this work comes from the artists themselves who often juggle the roles of writers, guides and producers. An example of this is the ‘Still Walking’ festival in Birmingham. It is a young and expanding festival that puts on an eclectic programme of guided tours that extend both the types of places a tour goes to and the sort of narrative that strings it together. At the same time it encourages experimentation with what the format of a tour can be. A novel feature of Still Walking is that it mentors local people who have never given tours before, helping them to produce their own personal form of tour. This results in unusual tours that reflect people’s personal interests and geographies, a sort of citizen’s sharing of their different takes upon the city, rather than the more conventional blue badge tour of the city’s great and good.
Another example of an artist-curated programme is that of Arttours, based in Stuttgart in Germany. As well as making their own work, the producers arrange walks and outdoor art events year round, which provide the city’s residents with a way of getting to know the city through regular creative encounters. It was through them that I first developed the project of mine ‘The Tour of All Tours’, a guided tour of guided tours that took the audience on a walking tour of the city centre. It was researched and created on location and it straddled art and tourism very directly, being both an art project that critically, and somewhat ironically, evaluated Stuttgart’s tourism industry and at the same time offered a genuine, albeit unusual, tourist experience in its own right.
The work of the Croatian company Shadow Casters is significant here too and the recent performance ‘Father Courage’ directed by Boris Bakal for Dubrovnik Summer Festival is an example of how this sort of work can be created on a larger scale and integrated with theatre. Some 14 performers, spread over five locations and using the narrow pedestrian streets and steps that connect them, gave a networked performance in which five groups of spectators were simultaneously led around and brought into a number of situations. Each of these groups was of up to 40 in number so this was a show that reached a significant public, was able to expand in moments and properly use theatrical devices yet retained an intimate feel.
When we think of outdoor arts in the UK there is a tendency to picture it as a family-friendly spectacle. I would argue that while that represents a great deal of what is on offer there is more out there and this upsurge in artist’s tours is just such an example. What’s more, if we are serious about protecting public space we should be careful that the way we use it for arts events does not in fact contribute to the problem of access. It is entirely fitting that sometimes our streets and parks are used and truly occupied by celebratory events that allow us to experience our cities in different ways, but this must be the exception and not the norm. Subtler forms of intervention that change our perception of what is there day in and day out have great value too as they can help us better appreciate the poetic qualities latent in our streets. This is coming to be recognised more widely and is, I believe, one of the reasons behind the current rise in smaller-scale artist tours and events.
My advice then is, if you have not recently taken such a tour to do so − you might be surprised at what you find. Tours are quite definitely not only for tourists.

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Winterthur Tour

The second Swiss tour comes from Winterthur a city that was new to me and which I was visiting for a few days to give a performance as part of the Perform Now Festival. There are a number of public and private tours on offer and I took one that is run by Winterthur Tourism, a company that handles the tourist information service for the city. This tour was titled FROM TRADING TO HIGH-TECH LOCATION and it was basically a thematic local history tour.

We assembled in the city centre and there was a steady morning drizzle to dampen the spirits but people seemed used to it and they weren't going to let it stop them. Another thing I noticed was that almost everybody came in couples, I was the only person to have come by themselves. 

Standing outside, we listened to the chimes of the clock tower and when the last bell rang at the stroke of 10 the tour began. This was a precisely timed Swiss tour that really did work like clockwork! First stop was the Gewerbemuseum where we were shown the collection of clocks and heard the varied history of the building.

I suspected that the pubic taking the tour were mostly Winterthur locals and not visitors from afar and this was confirmed by not one but two cyclists stopping to say hello to people they knew who happened to be on the tour. While Winterthur may be the 6th largest Swiss city it is not a major tourist destination, the museums being the biggest pull the city has. That is probably why the tours on offer are more thematic than general so that they are of interest to residents. The tours are given in Swiss German and I benefitted from intermittent bursts of translation as our multi-lingual guide was originally from the UK. 

I heard about one of the other thematic tours which combines eating and walking: you take an aperitif in one place, walk a while then go somewhere else for the starter, walk and go somewhere else again for the main course. I've heard of gastro-tours but this is a nice addition of breaking up the different courses with a stroll and change of establishment. It immediately makes me imagine a version whereby you travel and only eat the same food at each place and so make it a food comparison tour. In fact I have a friend who wrote a North London kebab shop review for The Guardian a few years back, a low cost version of this idea...    

A consistent feature of the tour was that the industrial heritage was told not through statistics but through stories. Here we learnt about the role urine played in the fabric industry. This 'infotainment' approach seemed to strike a good balance and there was some humour which helped keep people's attention too. I wasn't sure if choosing to talk about urine while gathered on a footbridge over a flowing water channel was a subtle joke or not, but it amused me none the less. 

Only having two hands can be a problem when you're trying to show pictures, talk about them, stay dry with an umbrella and not tie yourself up in knots. Solution: enlist your public to hold the umbrella. It made for a simple but effective solution that transformed a problem into an opportunity to connect on a human level.

As often happens on tours there is a steady rhythm of stopping to talk about a location and then walking to the next one. This tour had a pretty good rhythm mixing indoor and outdoor locations and during the walks between them people could ask questions. I rather like this moment in tours when the format becomes more open and conversational but it is also a dangerous moment if the guide doesn't know what they are talking about and are just parroting a script they have learnt. Fortunately our guide was well informed and could answer people's questions. I learnt that the way the tour is taught is that it is first learnt as a script but the guides are then encouraged to do their own research around it so that they expand and personalise the industrial heritage tour in whichever way works best for them.

My understanding of German is poor so while I could follow broad themes and moods I could not really get the detail of anything. For example, one running theme was the relationship between Winterthur and Zurich. There was a lot of contrasting them by saying, for example, that at such and such a time certain things were forbidden in Zurich and allowed in Winterthur and at other times there were things allowed in Zurich which were forbidden in Winterthur. The two cities are perhaps a little too close to one another for such relations not to exist. Another ambiguous story concerned the frauenhaus. I later learnt that my confusion as to what this was, was natural as the place had transformed itself over a long period of time from an officially sanctioned brothel into a woman's shelter. 

There were several moments when I stopped and thought, "this would never happen in a British city" and this was one of them. The group is simply standing on the road, looking and talking. They are here  standing and talking on a crossing and at other times also walked and chatted on the roads. I can only guess that they had this relaxed attitude to road safety because the roads genuinely are safe. In the UK they are not so safe and to make matters worse there is now a litigious culture meaning guides are often quite hyper about road safety. 

The guide knew this tour well and had worked out good spots from which to speak, many of them being natural stages. It is not rocket science but finding steps and elevated points like this helps the sightlines. It wasn't critical as the audience was not so large but she definitely benefitted from knowing her route and how to make the most of it.

The tour was well prepared and the guide had a good number of laminated pictures that served to illustrate her points as well as a selection of other objects she pulled out of her bag, like cotton samples. Inevitably I started to consider these pictures from an art performance point of view and I could see how they could do much more than show what was on the site before or what sorts of things were produced there, as this picture does. For what this tour was attempting to do however, these pictures were perfectly adequate and they were indicative of more general level of care and attention to making an informative tour. In general I'd say this tour of Winterthur was  neither flashy nor particularly ambitious, it was, on the contrary, simple, engaging and well done.

There is an English language audio tour of Winterthur that is also available, in fact it comes as part of the City guide phone app. Starting at the train station you listen to a series of audio recordings of a older man and younger woman talking about the city, its history and architecture. The recordings are linked to a map that shows you the walking route and the points at which to stop along the way and listen to the two recordings. The problem for me was that they chose to have the man play the role of the city's architects of the past and to slip in jokes that are not so very funny. I'm glad they tried to do something more ambitious than a sleepy important building tour like the Sierre tour, however the danger of trying a different form is that if it goes wrong it can really go wrong. Added to that, the application started to crash in the second part of the tour and needed to be reloaded repeatedly. I like the idea but I think it still needs to be worked a little more before it is completely there.    

Finally, when my tour was done and I was at the station about to leave the city, an unusual thing happened. I was instructed by a police woman to leave the platform and to wait in the subway below along with everyone else who was also waiting on the platform. We had to decamp because a train of football hooligans was coming! I was expecting epic brawling like British football in the 80s, the days of the 6.57 Crew having it out with Millwall. But no, this was Switzerland and all that simply happened was that a train passed overhead and out of sight, we were spared viewing the unspeakable hooligans and, when it had gone, we could then go back up the stairs in time to catch the punctual airport train. It all worked like clockwork.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Sierre Tour: lots of Alpine selfies

Sierre or Siders, as it is known in German, is a town in the Swiss Alps that I went to in search of a tour. Well to be more precise, I was paying a visit to ECAV and catching up with some of the people who I met at the Critical Tourism symposium in Nida but, when in a new town what better thing to do than take a tour? And, no please don't answer that with a long list of superior activities.

First stop then was the Office du Tourisme where I enquired about tours of Sierre. The man in the office, a man of few words, recommended the map tour, handed me a free copy and that was that. With this in hand I made my way around the town.

Number 1

The pocket sized map indicated a walking route around the town with 9 stops highlighted and short descriptions of the various buildings, because yes, this map tour was going to take me around nine old and notable buildings of Sierre. Here I am in front of number 1 the Town Hall.

Number 2

It was a fine day so walking from point to point was no hardship. Indeed, I heard that this part of Switzerland is considered one of the sunniest spots and is thus popular with visitors. 

Number 3

The succession of buildings I was directed to was of rather limited interest as the descriptions were very short and revealed little that was not already evident. For example, Number 3 reads, "St Catherine's Church was built in the 17th century. The centrepiece is its alter inspired by the one in St Peter's Cathedral in Rome. It is one of the most representative examples of Baroque architecture in the Valais." 

Number 4

For a little bit of entertainment I decided to go with the tourist self-portrait format when making my way around on this tour. By number 4, La Maison de Courten, the smile was becoming a little ironic. That, I'm afraid is the effect of repetition. I came across a guide to taking tourist self portraits which seemed excessive but after having taken a few I see there are some dos and don'ts even with this format. It is the most basic 'I was here' shot and I remember seeing them being taken not only in tourist destinations but also in a contemporary art gallery in Beijing. It was quite a funny sight actually, a young woman was very efficiently working her way through the exhibits, taking pictures of herself in front of each one. I have to wonder if the prevalence of this form is due to the combination of digital cameras and social media. Were people taking such shots in the 1920s?

Number 5

Another church.

Number 6

I got the impression that Sierre is a town with a significant tourism industry but the relationship is not obviously antagonistic as it can be elsewhere. I remember hearing that the most concentrated tourist spots are up in the mountains. There are luxury resorts up there which are "another world", places the sheiks and suchlike go. Sierre, by contrast, seems to be a comfortable and quiet town, the portal through which the tourists arrive and where they might stop to eat, shop or arrange things.

Number 7

I had the excellent fortune to be staying at number 7 on the map, Chateau Mercier. The building behind me is used for artists in residence and when I had finished my tour I met two of the current artists and some of the ECAV team over dinner. 

I did not visit number 8 because it was not on the walking route. It is strange to indicate La Chapelle de Saint-Ginier and not construct the route to take you to it, but that is what the person planning this tour did. Number 8 exists as an extra stop, a prolongation. Another way to understand this however is that there are in fact two tours, a walking route which takes you past nice places and a parallel tour of historical buildings. The two tours are sandwiched together on the map but are in fact somewhat separate entities. It would be quite possible to visit all of the historically significant buildings in a more ruthlessly direct way and at the same time it would also be fine to just follow the walking route and ignore the churches and houses of the great and good altogether. As there is a often an implicit politics behind the selection of the significant buildings, particularly when they are not framed in any other way than that of being the houses of the rich and powerful, I found the walking route easier to accept as it made fewer demands upon me.  

Number 9

The smile of one who has just realised he has achieved not very much.

I stumbled across the tourism school and noted that tourism is taught as a Bachelor of Science. I guess there are many ways to understand tourism and I have to ask myself how it being considered as a social science influences the shape it takes. I am quite aware, for example, that the type of artistic engagement with the phenomenon of tourism that I am interested in developing, comes from an entirely different position. Reconciling these differences should be quite a challenge if we are to go beyond one being subsumed into the other, such as the arts being managed to promote cultural tourism or, as in my case, tourism providing the source material for an art project. On the subject of which, I'll be giving an address on this point at the European Culture Forum in Brussels 04th November.

I had earlier in the day been given a driving tour around the town and had the impression that Sierre had little centre but was instead dispersed around multiple centres. This indeed is part of the narrative of the town, that it is derived from multiple small settlements joining. From the perspective of the car this seemed to make sense.

Walking around however I came to get a sense of a town with a centre that can be walked around and of tourism being dispersed in the surrounding area. I also saw plenty of signs like this one which show the mountains and give a sense of the region. These are welcome signs for the conceptual tour guide as they provide very convenient visual props to help talk about the distant locations and at the same time understand the infrastructure that brings them closer.