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.

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