Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Time To Get Lost Audio Tour: drifting round Wangfujing

The Time to Get Lost audio tour is an artist's project by Jennie Savage. It is described as "an invitation to people all over the world to get lost simultaneously" and the designated moment for this to happen was 6.30PM on the 3rd October 2014. A list of suggested starting locations was published so people could chose to start their walk in a common location in their city, if they wished, and possibly get lost in company. The other twist is that there were not one but three, presumably different, recordings that could be followed, one titled 'wanderers' and the other two, 'idlers' and 'drifters'. I tried downloading one of these onto my phone but was thrown off by some technical issues which meant I did not manage to get this done on time. Trying again a few days later it worked fine so, even if a little late for the collective event, I  headed off to the suggested meeting point: outside the Beijing Dept Store 北京百货大楼 located on Wangfujing.

I figured that even if I had been here at the appointed hour, the chances of meeting someone else doing this audio walk in Beijing were slim to non-existent and, added to that, I was not sure if the proposed start time was 6.30PM local time or 6.30BST, which would have required me to have started at 1.30AM on October 4th, not a likely prospect, even with the best of will. So a week late, but round about on time, I went to Wangfujing. There was still a relentless flow of people and standing still for a moment I was approached by a not unattractive Chinese woman in a leather jacket who spoke to me in English and came on a bit over-friendly. Having witnessed this routine before, one which typically finishes in a tea scam as China Uncensored amusingly describe, I made an exit, pressed play and pretty much immediately heard a softly spoken woman telling me to turn left.

This quickly brought me into the night market. I've been here once before so knew what to expect: bright and shiny tourist tat China style. The voice on the recording was at times hard to make out as the crowds around me were loud, the C-pop and electronic toys louder still and the vendors the true volume kings. What's more, the recording itself also had background sounds that seemed to shift in and out of focus. At one moment I found myself in a silk store and the next jammed by the crowd beside a stinky tofu stall, and yes the name is well deserved. The woman described some things she could see: workmen eating their lunch and looking around I could see some half parallels in the tourists eating the weird and wonderful snacks from the market, which not only include stinky tofu but go as far as the infamous scorpions on a stick. Passing a small but aggressively amplified Beijing opera stage, I finally squeezed out of the market and could hear the voice clearly.

I was led back onto Wangfujing and where previously I had been noticing the correspondences between the place she was describing and where I was, I now started noticing differences. For example, I cannot imagine seeing large portraits of politicians proudly displayed in the window of a photography shop in, say, Bristol. A picture of Thatcher of Blair in the window there would almost certainly dampen sales and quite probably attract unwanted late-night fast food or even a brick.

Following the instructions proved to be more an art than a science; there was plenty of scope for interpretation. For example, the way the roads and paths were laid out around me did not permit such rapid twists of direction as those being taken in the recording. Faced with impossible instructions or old ones that were superseded by fresh suggestions, choices had to be made. Without ignoring the tour's suggestions I interpreted them in a way that allowed me to be spat out of the shopping area and onto roads behind the shops as a change of atmosphere felt due. Here, removed from the neon and bustle of commerce, other layers of the city presented themselves. Was this a map of the city and its six current ring roads or was somebody making I Ching doodles while on the phone? 

The basic premise of the walk is that you follow the directions given by the woman on the recording as she is walking elsewhere and describing her environment. This elsewhere turns out to be a composite location for whilst I was delving further into one location, the recording seemed to be continually expanding its scope. This basic premise of taking a walk parallel with someone else in another location is familiar. Last year I wrote about A Walk With Amy by Amy Sharrocks which I took in Stuttgart whilst she was on the other end of a phone walking, presumably, in London. In both that work and this the two walkers are paired and the differences and similarities of their observations make up a considerable part of the work's appeal. Where they differ is that Sharroks spoke live, one to one, from a single location whereas Savage's walk is pre-recorded, for multiple users and is not contained within any one real space.   

The audio tour often seemed to be referring to market type places and global business being what it is, it was almost inevitable I would encounter a shopping parallel. This came in the form of H & M. If not them then it would have been an Apple Store, Gap or Starbucks or some other global brand. Ten or twenty years ago that would not have been the case here in Beijing but the city is slowly becoming predictably normal in the sense of having designated shopping areas with global brands. I wonder if the potential walker in Baghdad, one of the other locations proposed, would be more able to escape the reach of McDonalds and KFC? 

I came across a man taking a picture of the city map and for a moment liked to imagine he was on a similar mission to mine, but his lack of headphones precluded him from being on the Time To Get Lost tour. Taking a picture of a map might indeed look like the opposite of trying to get lost but this map, one showing the city's ring roads and sprawling suburbs is all but useless for finding your way locally, such is the scale needed to contain the entire city on a single panel. Added to that, there is no 'you are here', so it really is more an emblem of the city demonstrating its size and showing all the recently conquered lands that make up the new far-lying neighbourhoods.

There were a section of the recording that featured many cars and this had the effect of inducing some nervousness that they might in fact be in my space. That is a real danger in Beijing as the lines between pavement and road can at times be very fluid with pedestrians often having to walk on the roads and cars driving and parking on the pavements. On at least one occasion I had to check behind me in case a car was rushing upon me. This blurring of the sonic spaces was quite pleasing, particularly as it was done by introducing something new into the area rather than doubling up the existing sounds, which is more commonly done on audio tours that appropriate the existing sonic space for the recording.

The recording then seemed to shift to a developing country and talk about shacks and stalls that had solidified into buildings. The closest equivalent I could see were these soft drink stalls doing bubble tea and what not. This shift in the recording from a British environment to a very different one made some sense given the global ambition of the project.

Although Wangfujing is one of the most developed shopping streets in Central Beijing, I almost never come here so it is relatively unfamiliar to me. It was, then, a surprise to stumble in front of the Foreign Languages Bookstore which I remember looking around the first time I came to Beijing in 1997. Back then I came out of it with absurdly cheap propaganda posters of Mao, Marx and Stalin as well as some translated Chinese literature. Not having seen the place in 17 years it seemed at first glance peculiarly similar, a Communist era time capsule surrounded by malls and tourist markets. This interruption of the tour with a strong personal memory span me off on another tangent while I was being urged to turn left by the insistent voice.

I was brought finally into one of the malls and went up an escalator. In my own Waylosing in Beijing Tour, which I took earlier this year, I found myself similarly putting aside my visceral dislike of malls and trying to get lost in one. The problem with using them for this purpose is that they are usually designed with these central atriums that help you find your bearings and the best that can generally be hoped for is to exit the mall into an unfamiliar space. 

I consciously avoided making any selfie pictures on this audio tour but when I arrived at a mirror it was clearly the moment to place myself in the frame. Looking at this picture of myself now, I am prompted to ask, 'what was I really doing there? What was I looking for?' Without getting too introspective about it, I think I was looking for a disorienting experience which might lead me to some unexpected locations and possibly new realisations. As such, I was bringing my own ideas about the value of getting lost and I rather think this audio tour was doing something else. With it only being 30 minutes in length and taking a circuitous path, it did not cover much ground and was never going to seriously disorient me. When leading a Waylosing tour in Birmingham this year, it took us four and a half hours of dedicated action to reach a location entirely unfamiliar to us all and to sense we were more or less lost. The Time to Get Lost Tour was instead for me an experiment in parallel indeterminate spaces that might result in a little disorientation. Taken that way the experiment worked.

The places I was moving through seemed in general a good deal richer and busier than the locations of the recording. This did not entirely surprise me given the neighbourhood.

The recording did not have a strong narrative line to it, it simply seemed to be about movement through different spaces which, at a certain point and without any climax, came to an end. My final location was this street. I don't know how the other two audio tours would have been different, maybe they would have brought me into more contact with people or to other places, I will never know. Knowing there was potential for the experience to have followed other lines is pleasing in a way, but I have to think back to Auto-theatre an experimental audio tour I made with a three way multiple choice of routes back in 2008. Knowing that this work already contained a healthy does of inherent indeterminacy in terms of which way the listener should walk, I now ask myself whether compounding that with two alternative tours was really necessary. With regards this Time To Get Lost Tour, I will of course never know the scope of the full work. If you are interested to know more about the walk there is an interview with Jenny Savage on Talking Walking in which she goes into the process of creating the walk and some of its intentions. It makes for interesting listening, whether sitting or walking. It is definitely a worthwhile experiment and fun to take, even if the name is a little misleading. I should not be surprised to find myself getting lost again with Savage in the future.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Beijing World Park Tour: around the world in 80 minutes

Beijing World Park is one of a number of Asian theme parks that attempt to represent the world to the visitor. As such, a tour of this place is not only a tour around a corner of Beijing, it is also, in miniature, a tour of the world through its iconic tourist attractions. 

The front entrance has distinct echoes of Disney, which itself was modelled on some of the sites that await the visitor inside the park, such as Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. The references are jumbled but the effect is fine: it looks historic and Western. There's a further bit of history here too, I visited during the national day holidays which marked the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. Visitor numbers were up because of the holidays and good weather but still the place was far from packed: World Park is a 2nd tier Beijing attraction located in the South West suburbs and doesn't have the pull (and crowds) of The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square or Great Wall.

The audio tour turned out to be broken and the machines were at the factory getting repaired. There were no guides offering tours and the only alternative was a land train that wizzed you round or an overly fancy horse drawn carriage designed to dazzle from a distance. Walking seemed like the best option, and this quickly brought me to a Thai Elephant and Crocodile Show. The Thai angle seemed to me slight; it is a type of show that is apparently popular with tourists visiting Thailand... but more to the point, with tourists in Beijing too. This show was the start of a tour then, that was not so much a tour of the world in all its raw vastness but rather a tour of the world's tourist traps and popular attractions. Happy hunting ground for The Tour of All Tours.

I had never seen an elephant show before and found myself warming to it when I put aside the question of the animal's welfare. The elephants managed to do all manner of tricks like kicking footballs and dancing to The Macarena. Around the side of the arena this man pushed a cart of bananas which he sold to the public. At certain points the elephants would approach the seating and those with bananas could feed them. This was a smart way of making a bit of extra money out of something that would happen anyway. Indeed there were quite a number of ways the show managed to make extra money: children were lifted up high in the elephant's trunks for photo opportunities, there were live photos for a price with the crocodiles too, which struck me as playing with fire. 

With the animal show over a new entertainment in the adjacent arena began. This was a dance show that I have never seen anything quite the like of before. They attempted to show the world through dance. They began with a Brazilian carnival display and moved onto a Spanish fiesta, an American Indian ritual and fire dance, a ballet cum acrobatics turn, an Indian Bollywood number and so on. At this point they arrived at Egypt with a pharaoh striding out of the set in the background followed by this team in blue and white. When the veil flew off this turned into a belly dance routine collapsing ancient and modern Middle East into one. The dancing was often far from good but that only added to the thrill of seeing this novel and slightly bad taste spectacle unfold. I wouldn't be able to see something quite as blunt as this in the UK, there would be too many objections from the people it depicts. Not here! They really went for it and gave their best shot at doing each of these dances in turn.

This immediately brought to mind the film The World (2004) of Jia Zhangke as it is set in this same theme park and begins with a scene featuring dancers doing routines very similar to those I witnessed. The film shows a backstory to this spectacle and the human cost of contemporary Chinese development. It is well worth watching and it hovered over the place as a parallel and darker narrative throughout this tour of World Park.

The apex for me was when we got to Chinese Riverdance. I had been warmed up already and this was an icing on the cake moment. That might be because, culturally speaking, Irish dance is more known to me than most of the other things I had seen so far, so there was the amusement of having the familiar made strange and not to say, slightly naff. All of the different routines were, in a way, familiar in the sense that they all belonged to the imagery of big spectacles. This was like a low-budget Olympic opening ceremony showcasing not just the host nation's dances but those of the whole world. I'm going to have to let this experience settle a little but I suspect there is an avant-garde remake of this lurking in the depths of the imagination. 

The section of the park behind me is called Grand Canyon and I am standing on a model Golden Gate Bridge. Yes, this is America. The big country made small. Alongside the sites there are stalls selling food and souvenirs and I was hoping that these would reflect the locations they were paired with but sadly not. I think it was a missed opportunity. That said, a McDonalds would be of little interest to me as I don't eat meat and when I come to think about it, the food is only part of the ambiance, the people are what really make a place feel located. Installing some representative Americans in a McDonalds who would eat and talk in an authentic way would be tricky as they would rapidly balloon in weight more or less replicating the documentary Super Size Me. Similarly, having a British drunk sitting under the model Tower Bridge drinking super strength lager would give it a more authentic edge but this feeling of being in the location is not what's really called for here. The point is to condense the world into a series of photo opportunities. 

The park shows its age by retaining the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in its Manhattan section. I suppose it would hardly do to knock them down in solidarity with the real ones following the 9/11 attacks, but standing there today they stick out like a sore thumb. It is ironic that these towers are probably the most contemporary buildings that are featured in the entire park and they are also the only ones that no longer exist in reality but only as these scale models.

Having recently covered Stonehenge on this blog, I was amused to find a scaled down version of it here in the park that was serving as a playground. I read that in 2008, World Park was one of the three officially designated protest sites and I tried to imagine a Free Tibet rally taking place on this Stonehenge model. I think the official who came up with the idea of making this one of the protest sites must have had a sharp sense of humour.

Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria was one of the spots favoured by the many wedding photographers that were operating in the park. When researching Chinese coach tours of Europe for the Stuttgart Tour of All Tours I noticed that this castle was a point on most tour itineraries. That may be because it not only is iconic but is also well located for transport routes, but nonetheless, it is quite probably the most well known castle in Europe to Chinese tourists. Wedding photography is a boom industry and no standard wedding is complete without some fancy images such as these. Somehow the preferred spots for these photographs are not the sites of the ceremony itself but are instead tourist locations at home and even abroad where the pictures are taken some time before the wedding day. In this way the tourist imagination spreads into all sorts of areas beyond the strict preserve of the holiday itself.  

Hello Brussels! The man who stood here after me underneath the Mannekin Pis managed to take a photo that would not have been possible at the real fountain as it is surrounded by a fence and is perched some way up on a wall. Standing on the far side of the fountain he squeezed his finger and thumb around the little statue's willy. It is probably for the best that the fence exists in Brussels.

I read that Chinese tourists are increasingly suffering from the affliction Paris Syndrome which was previously reserved to Japanese tourists only. Put simply, it is a psychological condition brought about in a small number of visitors who arrive in the City of Light and find it far from the city of their dreams provoking, in some, a state of mental collapse. No such problems here in World Park! You can stay well and truly in a Chinese bubble where no rude waiters or pickpockets are going to puncture the dream. Even if the visitor does encounter a problem, it is a Chinese problem that does not touch Paris, which exists in another world above and beyond that of raucous Chinese children or pushy groups muscling you out of the way.

Dressing up in period costumes for photographs is a bit of a thing at tourist spots in China and this normally means classical Chinese costumes. A few days ago a woman running one such stall in a park suggested I put on her emperor's costume and the incongruity of it nearly persuaded me to do it but, sadly for her, I thought twice and thought better of it. This being World Park the costumes are not just classical Chinese, they are Westerners' outfits like this dress here. Whether or not it really fits with St Peter's Square in The Vatican is beside the point, that's a technicality for historians of costume. It's all about dreams created by the movies and media and in this corner of Beijing it's possible to touch those dreams and have a little piece of them for yourself.  

Of all the sites I saw the most singularly underwhelming of them was The Pyramids. The real Egyptian structure is impressive, I am guessing, on account of its size, age and location. Here however, it was reduced to the size of a house, dates from 1993 when the park opened, and is in a nondescript suburb of Beijing. Of the five continents represented,  Africa and Oceania were the least prominent with Europe being the most featured.

Finally there was a corner of the park that depicted China. There was a copy of the Great Wall but then there was also this garden which was one of the more tasteful areas as it did not try to copy a famous site and end up scaling it down. My enduring feeling about the park is that it lacks ambition to be anything more than a mass tourist attraction. It succeeds in this basic function but I felt it could also potentially serve as an educational site helping to introduce Chinese people to other cultures in a more than superficial way. I also have the feeling that I will one day have to make a tour performance for a site such as this as they have such enormous potential to serve as art locations, so loaded are they with symbols and histories. I suspect that will come at a later point once I've been to a few more of the iconic sites themselves and made studies and performances of my own with them. That said, if someone turned around tomorrow and offered this as a set to play with I'd jump at the chance. Beijing World Park is a gift to the experimental tourist.

PS: this Saturday there will be a further performance of The Tour of All Tours in Beijing Sanilitun, starting at 2PM from The Bookworm. 100rmb.