Monday, 29 December 2014

London & Beijing tours Feb/Mar 2015

Some new dates for the calendar here. 


Thursday 5th February 7 PM start outside Richmix, Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6LA
Saturday 7th February 2 PM start outside Richmix, Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6LA
Price £8 
Duration 110 minutes approx. 
Bookings info (at)


Saturday 7th March 2PM start inside The Bookworm, Sanlitun, Beijing
Price by donation
Duration 100 minutes approx.
Bookings info (at)

This will be the last Beijing tour for a while and it is being given on a donation basis so anyone who wants to see it can do so.

There are some new tours planned for 2015, details to be revealed in the new year. 

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The London Tour of All Tours Video

This is a simple promotional video giving a flavour of the London Tour of All Tours. The music is a remix of Mozart's Turkish March, I now see there are quite a lot of DJs busy with remixing classical music.  

New dates have also been announced, there will be a tour on February 5th 7PM and one on February 7th 2PM both starting outside of Richmix in East London.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Documentation and Tours: performances and their records

I recently had an article published in the online arts journal Felt Acts. The issue is devoted to the theme of 'Approaching Documentation' and also features the writing of Harriet Thompson, Aparna Sharma, Jesc Bunyard, Rafaela Lopez, Georgia Rene-Worms, Antje Seeger, Simon Farid, Joana Quiroga, Joanna Bucknall and Bryony White.

Video still from Lijiang Tour 

Here is a sample:

There is no standard way I approach documenting my own projects and The Tour of All Tours is a case in point. The performance has had to develop as a performance in its own right first and only in the project’s second year have I begun adapting it for the camera. This I have done by doing away with the live public altogether and concentrating upon performing the work directly to the lens. 

If that floats your boat then do take a look at the downloadable journal for the full article and the articles of the other authors too. Best of all, its free!

Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Private Tour of Qianmen: the new old Beijing

Qianmen is a bustling historic district in central Beijing, a stone's throw from Tiananmen Square. It's many shops and restaurants make it a popular tourist destination but also a rather shallow one, as it lacks obvious attractions. It's special hook is that it comes over as 'Old Beijing' though paradoxically, much of the neighbourhood, though far from all, was given a heavy makeover for The Olympics and has been thoroughly modernised. The contradictory result is that it can, on first appearance, look like a theme park and then, if you turn some corners, look like a slum.

My guide Mark Hu is a genuine Beijinger who grew up very close to Qianmen. As well as being a qualified guide he is also a post-graduate linguistics student specialised in English. This made him a very suitable private tour guide. As far as I can see, there are relatively few public guided tours in Beijing of the sort familiar to people in Europe by which I mean a guide (or company) advertises that there will be a tour of a certain area at a set time, people gather there for the tour, take it then go their separate ways. Things work more according to groups assembled by travel agents which take in all the significant attractions in an area (i.e. tourist traps) and give you at least a full day of being led around in a crowd by a person with a stick, jumping in and out of a coach, eating together and having a proper group experience. It's either that or you hire a private guide or else simply do it yourself. I've done the group tour before, the DIY trip too, so it was now time to see how it is to have a more intimate tour experience with a guide. We headed into one of the most narrow hutongs (traditional style alleyways) in Beijing where I heard about its former life as a financial centre.

We paused in front of a historic cinema which, I learnt, was the cinema that screened the very first Chinese movie. Film posters from another era quietly faded in the pale Winter sun. Detached from the urgent bustle of the 10 kuai shops (pound stores / 1 euro shops) on street level, these grandparents' heartthrobs hovered over the scene like guardian angels. The new Qianmen would prove somewhat unfamiliar to them; even Mark said the place had been completely transformed from how he remembered it pre-Olympics. Back then it had been a place that local people used and few people from elsewhere visited. Nowadays, it is a major shopping destination. He also said that the majority of the shop people were not locals anymore, new people from out of Beijing had recently moved in to make quick money. As we were in search of the real Old Beijing, we kept on walking, heading over to the Dashilar area where there were more traces of it to be found.  

These rabbit statues that we stopped to look at were, I learnt, part of a specifically Beijing mythology. Inside the shop there were more Beijing curios stacked up high such as cicadas dressed as miniature monkeys. Mark told me that he had travelled quite a great deal, not only around China but also more widely in Asia and Europe and one of the things that travel had taught him was that he liked Beijing above anywhere else. He really is a partisan Beijing guide who wants to show visitors the best the city his to offer. It is easy to see the problems in the city such as the depressing frequency of lung blackening smog and the wilful destruction of historic quarters, but the attractive side of the city is less obvious. The genuine attractions are often mobbed with crowds and the quieter neighbourhoods like the one we were in, require interpretation to be made interesting. He saw it as his role to provide this.

A feature of the tour was the translation of street signs. Mark knew I am learning Chinese so made a point of explained some of the ways the history of the area could be read through the street names. Dashilar Alley was one such example, this common street sign another. As a result of this we sometimes stood in very ordinary locations looking at beaten up street signs taking the experience away from the conventional tourist one. 

We entered a small cluttered secondhand bookstore run by an old lady who lived in the hutong. The place can best be described as a communist era nostalgia trip. She had collected many of the more attractive books and objects from her past and stacked them up high. She knew where things were and there was an internal sort of order, but to the visitor, it was like seeing this lady's imagination externalised and turned into a living sculpture. I love these sorts of shops. She had some records and I am a collector of vinyl so I went through the slim pile and finally chose the red flexidisk that was on the record player when we entered. It's a collection of Chinese songs from the early 80s. Needless to say, it doesn't sound a bit like Duran Duran.

We spent a while talking with her and she picked up on Mark's idea of showing me the real Beijing and offered to take us around the private courtyard behind the shop. It was more or less how I imagined it would be, having seen a number of similar ones during Beijing Design Week, which takes place in the same area. What was different was this courtyard was not self-consciously arranged for visitors, and I was being shown it by people from the area not by newcomers who had 'discovered' it. This relationship of the guide to the place is quite interesting: when the guide is a part of the place they can talk about 'we' and when the guide is a visitor he or she will talk about 'they'. I was told that the wooden pram collecting debris was the type 'we' used to use, but nobody has a purpose for anymore.

There was a moment of confusion when, walking down the road, Mark asked me if I wanted to see a historic brothel. Everything up to now had been quite above board so I was unsure if he meant would I like him to take me into a brothel or what. Seeing as prostitution is rife in Beijing, I had seen some guys piling out of an upmarket foot massage club at 3AM the night before looking like it wasn't their feet which had just been taken care of, and I was aware that there was a part of Qianmen where it still existed, I was confused. I need not had been as Mark took me to what was a Qing dynasty brothel and was now a local communist party office that also plays a cultural role in the neighbourhood. He knocked on the door, entered and asked a man in the office about going upstairs to take a look at the former brothel. It seemed the right person to show us up there wasn't around so we had to admire it from afar. It struck me as an unusual thing to show me, seeing as it came out of the blue and the building we were looking at was old but rather nondescript. 

There were points of the tour where we did get more typical tour guide information. For example, here we stopped in front of this doorway and Mark explained the significance of the hexagonal beams. 

After an hour and half's walking in freezing conditions it was time to thaw. Tea houses can be expensive so, following Mark's suggestion, we headed to the Golden Arches. I generally use the place only for its toilet facilities but the coffee was acceptable and there was space to sit and warm up. 

Mark showed me a map of Beijing that he had designed. We started talking about how it could be read and used by foreign visitors. I had the impression the work was a real labour of love sustained by his passion for the city. Now that it was more or less complete he was faced with the problem of how to produce and share this map with actual people, which is to say, to be confronted with how the map is valued and used by others. He seemed a reluctant businessman who was trying to find a model that best suited him. I believe it all too often happens that it is the more profiteering sort of guides who become the most prominent and those who ask for less are valued less highly resulting in the public face of the city often being a rather off-putting commercial one. I hope for Beijing's sake, people like Mark get to be seen more.

I have to admit it: I'm a softy when it comes to Beijing's winter weather. At night it regularly drops to -8 and taking a tour in this sort of weather for me means sacrificing any attempts at style. Hell, it's not just when on a tour, it is stepping out anywhere in this fridge of a city. Mark, like a typical Beijinger, put me to shame and toughed it out. This tour of the new old Beijing was an interesting experience and a difficult one to pin down exactly. This was because it being a private tour it worked less according to a set itinerary and was instead more responsive to both me and to what, or who, we found as we made our way around Qianmen. This then made it feel a lot more like everyday life than standarised guided tours, which always have an echo of theatre to them working as they do with repetition on a regular stage of sorts. The tricky thing here then is that everyday life might be more recognisable from a somewhat theatrical position (and vice-versa) and here I was getting the everyday life of Qianmen in a form that was itself also quite everyday in presence. This is not in itself a problem for a guide to worry too much about but it is a question that can arise once you look at these tours with a performance eye.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Lijiang Tour: A COART festival experimental performance / tour

This is a necessarily incomplete account of the tour I made and gave in Lijiang for COART festival. It is partial because I was leading just one part of the performance and did not get to see the other parts of it as the public did. The tour of the village was organised by Chinese performance makers Xiao Ke and Zihan Zhou who delegated sections of it to different artists featured in the Now Theatre Programme of the festival, while they took care of the overall system and provided two additional points on the tour, too. 

Unlike some of the chaotic performance stories you hear coming out of Chinese festivals that Western artists tell with a kind of 'I survived it' pride, this event was well organised, well attended and began on time. It started with the public being invited to join a Wechat group set up for the tour. Wechat is the essential app in China right now and it is like Facebook and Skype rolled into one. There was a lighting designer I met at the festival who said he doesn't use name cards anymore, he only works through Wechat. He is far from alone. It was through this group chat that the instructions and suggestions for the tour were passed onto the public. The messages were both practical, telling people where to go, and also artistic, suggesting things to think about or look at.

These messages brought the public to different points around the city where they might encounter a performance such as this dance improvisation on a bridge.

I know a little more about this performance by a young man from the local Naxi ethnicity as it was his which led directly into my part of the work. A theme of the festival was how the different ethnic minorities in this area relate to it as their home. Throughout the festival there were many music and dance performances, as well as documentary film screenings, about the various ethnicities in South West China. My personal favourite was the film Yak Dung (at first given the rough and ready translation 'Bullshit') that seemed to suggest this plentiful residue could be used for absolutely everything. The young man on the horse sang a Naxi song while riding one of the stout horses that drag tourists around the village in decorative carriages. We saw him the previous night singing karaoke in a bar and he is a proper entertainer telling nightclub jokes between numbers. That was fun but I was glad to see this other side of him too. The bar, I should add, was notable for the drinking games already laid out on the table for guests, which of course we played, but I digress.

I awaited my tour group alongside super-translator Zhu Miyi, both of us standing on the same plastic stools that I used for a different performance of mine 'The Customer Is Always Wrong' the previous evening. I like recycling in general and artistic recycling in particular, so these were an ideal portable stage lifting us above the heads, and inevitable phones, of the public. 

The performance was essentially a miniature Tour of All Tours. I introduced the idea of it and then stopped in three locations to talk about different tours that might be had in Lijiang. It had to be necessarily short as I was part of this larger performance and it was being given in two languages: English and Mandarin. I gave a performance in Mandarin the previous day which, with proper preparation and sticking to a pre-written script I can just about manage. Something more improvised like this is quite beyond me right now, however, so it had to be translated, which of course slowed things down considerably. I was blessed with excellent translation and by keeping things to a modest length brought a new energy to the procession without hijacking it and keeping the crowd hostage.

I began with an account of ascending Jade Dragon Snow Mountain a tour I had taken a few days previously. When giving a tour like this, where I project other location's tours onto the site we are in, I always like to make sure I include at least one actual tour from the place I am giving the performance. That gives me a better sense of the location and how the other stories I tell might fit in. It also gives me more material for future tours and, I should admit, it is a nice way to mix business with a little pleasure. The mountain was out of sight from street level, but I spotted a painter's studio by the side of the street with a large, not so subtle, painting of the mountain which he was willing to exhibit outside. This formed a suitable backdrop. 

The other two tours I covered were Political Tours' China at the Crossroads Tour, one which I have not taken myself but have pieced together from internet research and a very curious one which I took in Fujian Province back in 2011. This was a tour of a Hakka ethnic minority village which, upon arrival we discovered was on strike! The villagers were locked in a heated dispute with the Chinese tour bus operators who wanted to replace the local guides with their own. As a small group of Westerners we were not a part of this story so were quietly allowed in round the back and shown around by ourselves. It was a exceptional moment of peace and quiet in a normally bustling Chinese tourist site. 

My mini tour completed, I handed over to another musician who serenaded the group onwards encountering another performance before we rushed through the crowd to the village square where there was a musical finale and much swapping of Wechat contacts. It was a great opportunity to test out how I might approach a Chinese tourist destination and l found, like so many things in China, it quickly became political and I needed to exercise discretion in how to tell the stories and which features to highlight. A pattern I've started to notice in Chinese tourist resorts is that they are all a bit the same: the same selection of small shops and restaurants which finally crowd out everything else turning the place into a tourist consumption zone. Whilst this pattern has its obvious shortcomings it does mean I can insert myself into it relatively easily providing my ironic and critical descriptions of the tours on offer, which are also somewhat standarised yet also diverse in their formats. I saw in Lijiang, for example, horse tours, carriage tours, 4-wheel drive buggy tours, shopping tours, trekking tours and historical tours without looking hard at all. The particularities of each of these tours, especially when they go a bit wrong, can be quite revealing and are anything but standarised. Lijiang proved every bit as rich in possibilities as a tour of a Western tourist location like Bath, so I will definitely have to make a point of developing a tour for a location like this in the not too distant future.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Tour of All Tours Bath video

A short promotional video of the Bath Tour of All Tours.

Walking apps under development

I'm talking to an app developer about creating an app that can encourage people to walk and I'm interested in making something that artists might also be able to find useful for art projects that involve the city, travelling around it and so on. I have a rough idea of some of the features I'd like to see, but if you have some ideas of what you might look for in such an app, I would be keen to hear. 

Right now we are talking about an app that can record and post real time and/or recorded data about walks onto a shared platform, and it should allow walkers to connect, i.e. you could say I want to take a walk in XYZ neighbourhood on Saturday afternoon, anyone else interested? Images, texts and sounds from previous people's walks can be public and discovered by others heading the same direction. This way it would be possible to create treasure hunt structures which give out information bit by bit. The app should also produce a GPS map at the end showing where you have travelled. What else might make it useful to you?