Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The Veiled City and Hyper Heritage: new work in Hong Kong

I'm delighted to announce that I'll be giving some workshops and co-creating a performance next month in Hong Kong. 

The workshop, called The Veiled City, will take place on the 19th and 20th April and it is organised by CCCD. It will be a practical workshop on how to interact with the city to discover its hidden performative potential. It is called The Veiled City because I believe most of the city's potential escapes up most of the time. While it is not literally put under wraps like a Christo artwork, it is dormant most of the time and requires specific actions performed by the right people for it to be activated. We cannot completely change our identity but we can transform it and we can change our purpose very greatly. We'll find some ways to look more closely and interact with people and places in order to see a little more.

Hyper Heritage (Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, Sunday 23rd April) is a performance I'm making with postgraduate students from the Chinese University of Hong Kong for the festival Saving The Past For The Future. We are looking at the surrounding neighbourhood and its representation within Hong Kong cinema. This is heritage in the sense that it is a collection of stories drawn from and projected onto the neighbourhood, the city and its people. These stories, told over the last century about intrigues stretching back into ancient times and events in a not yet seen future, are fictions that have not just reflected different realities but have also helped shape our sense of it. What are the sources of today's myths? How much is today's Shek Kip Mei a fiction with reality intruding into it? What would the film of films of the area look like? Join us for a Hyper Heritage tour and see.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Audio Tour Experiments

recently wrote about tours whose contents are disconnected from or only loosely connected to their geography. I followed this observation up today with an experiment. The idea was, to make an audio tour that is based upon a text from one time and space and to inscribe it, through precise spoken word directions, onto an entirely new context. In practice this became, how does Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations sound when listened to in a Chinese shopping district.

The results were quite interesting. Unlike most tours, the content is not primarily delivered during stops but rather it flows as you walk along and you have to make the connections yourself. This means that some parts of the text work better than others: the parts where there are links to be made. The choice of route is important too as it can both contextualise the ideas and, potentially, comment upon them. Too deliberate a route and text may feel contrived i.e. listening to Das Kapital while circling the New York Stock Exchange, but too random a combination also has its pitfalls: you might wonder why you are listening to Madame Bovary while walking through a zoo. 

What is quite certain is that this is an area ripe for working in. I've taken book study tours before such as a Machiavelli Tour in Central London where we listened to and debated his ideas as we walked, but this is something different again. A more acerbic but entertaining tour of the mall would have been provided by Arthur Smith's 1894 Chinese Characteristics but Baudrillard's Simulations could work equally well. Hmm. I will be busy!

Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Presidential Palace Tour: the parrot's guide

The Presidential Palace in Nanjing is a large historical site that was once very important. That's about all I knew about the place. When we arrived I thought this building was part of it but it turned out to be a historic themed shopping and eating district built alongside the palace. Often in China, it is hard to know where one starts and the other stops. 

A lack of knowledge needn't prohibit anyone from being a guide: after entering I rented the audio tour and started repeating what I heard. At first I was too ambitious: I listened to the Chinese commentary and gave a very rough and ready summary. More satisfying was  listening to the English commentary and trying to repeat it word for word, with added enthusiasm.

I'm reading Tour Guiding Research (2015) and the authors make a sharp distinction between having a living guide, like the dynamic fellow in black above, and listening to audio tours. While I agree that there usually is a clear experiential difference between the two, the line can be pretty grey at times. I've followed robotic sounding tour guides who might as well have been pre-recorded and here, in the Presidential Palace, I was simply repeating the words of the audio tour, live, to a small audience. Was that enough to make it a guided tour? I've followed guides who speak into your ear via a wireless microphone system, so that even if you are not able to see the guide behind the crowd, you can still hear them. What's more, the technology is developing rapidly to the extent that this distinction is becoming muddier with each year. Still, a living breathing guide my group of two got, even if their guide knew absolutely nothing about the location. 

I found myself repeating stories about a government officer who recognised the situation was hopeless and poisoned himself and another about the liberation of the palace by the PLA in 1949. It was straight down the line communist party history but it must have sounded rather off-key when related by a British man who was camping it up and had no real knowledge of the site. I shall definitely have to explore this parrot method more fully. It can be a good way to take a step back from the intended meaning of a tour, something that is a breath of fresh air when the tour is trying its level best to ram a message down your throat rather that trying than interpret a site in all its multiplicity.  

In spite of the buildings being historically important, and not only in terms of Republican China, they were surprisingly functional. The passageways and stairs had scuff marks and stains half way up the walls from the endless press of tourists rubbing up against them.

The audio tour took us on a long figure-of-eight sweep around the palace and gardens. By the time we reached the stables my legs were heavy, throat dry and there was no more humour to be found in parroting this ridiculous recording. This is not untypical; these sort of tours in China often seem to wear you down by design so you can feel you got value for money rather than deliver an exquisitely timed introduction to a site. The stables were notable for looking older and rougher but, on closer inspection, this was a modern rustic effect for they were a reconstruction of the original stables.

When I wrote about Geyuan Garden and how the historic buildings there had pipes and decrepit machinery quietly rattling away round the back, this is what I meant. The Presidential Palace was exactly the same. I was not taken here by the audio tour, of course, but the joy of these tours is you can follow your own interests between stops. This audio tour is a sort of cultural dinosaur that disguises its age by using a decent quality wireless cuing system. This sort of tour will almost certainly continue to exist for a while more as it is kept alive out of a sense of duty. Given that state of affairs, finding and developing more strategies to rewire the narratives and inject some life into what genuinely are interesting and diverse sites, should be a worthwhile endeavour.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Reality Tour of Nanjing

Moving to a new city brings with it many new opportunities for tours. As well as tours of local museums and historical sites, the usual suspect tours, there are often more informal tours that also accompany any move. This tour is one of those: I moved to the Nanjing last week and was offered a tour of the neighbourhood by a friend and colleague.

As we walked the streets and talked about the city and university that we both work at, the  subject we, or I should really say, seemed to keep drifting back to was accommodation. When I arrived fresh off the train I was first taken to this building with the glass door where the foreign staff are housed. My passport was scanned and I was handed a key by a surly receptionist before I was whisked away to a gloomy concrete block in a different corner of the campus. It seems I got the bum deal and ended up in the overspill apartment block which does not have central heating. When we passed beside this block, which is so suffocatingly hot you have to leave the windows open in mid-winter, I was left to rue my misfortune at being assigned to my fridge of an apartment in a city where winter temperatures can drop to -10ÂșC.

He has a wonderfully sculptural hand which he frequently used to point things out: the subway station over here, the main shopping area down that way. The fact that the hand and finger weren't perfectly aligned made them all the more addictive.  

As we made our way around one of the scruffier parts of the city centre, we talked about the job, the students and our colleagues. None of them were actually there in front of us so this conversation produced a sort of collage of urban bustle and Chinese higher education. Trying to simultaneously focus on the two lead to elisions and omissions but I daresay that some of the connections were not wholly random. While it was clear I was not meant to read one through the other, it strikes me that it can be hugely pleasurable to do just that. This, in fact, might just be the basis of an interesting audio tour experiment: take a forty minute talk on a specialist topic and inscribe it onto a landscape with definite 'turn left, stop at the lights,' directions spoken within the body of the talk. For example, a few pages from the popular economic book Why Nations Fail grafted onto Leeds City Centre might make for an interesting experience. 

His city tour didn't include or even mention the nearby local market but instead brought us to the nearest supermarket which was decked out with card lanterns. Neither did we go through nor talk about the alternative entrance to the campus on the west wall. When I stopped to think about this I realised I have a thing for knowing my entrances and exits and would include them in even a rudimentary tour. The simple fact was he used a different set of coordinates to mine and moved between them using a different system of navigation too.  

Where our mental maps seemed to converge was at the parcel delivery office. I rather liked that this tour was not only based upon the showing of places and things as a detached observer, it also included the guide engaging in some of his daily life actions. Here, the showing took place, at least in part, through the doing. This style of tour is not unusual for  workplace initiation tours or if you have family visiting and you are not busy but it is interesting to imagine how it could function otherwise. Taken to its logical conclusion it would mean a person shows you their unadulterated daily life: you accompany them for a period of time and they explain what they are doing while doing it. I believe that there have been attempts by artists in Berlin to do just this, to effectively market themselves as a lifestyle, but how successful this has been I cannot say. I would imagine the observer's presence must inevitably alters the guide's daily activity because people want to show the best of themselves. This reality tour principle does, however, have the potential to be something rather unusual, if taken to its logical extent.  

The tour came to a close in a very special way. After we stepped outside the university shop, he cleared his throat, spat on the pavement and muttered, "I'm becoming a bit Chinese." I have heard of a number of Westerners, well Western men, adopting this habit after spending time here. Where he still showed his foreignness was in how he forcefully spat it out whereas the far more common way I see the pros here do it is that they first hawk up a glob of phlegm, manoeuvre it to the front of the mouth then simply open wide and let it dribble out. In any case, this was a fittingly unaffected way to end for this reality tour of Nanjing: pavement punctuation, a full stop written on the concrete.