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.

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