Saturday, 14 April 2018

The Lighthouse in a Concrete Sea: Remembering Jonny Walker



On Wednesday 14th March at 11.13am, Jonny Walker died peacefully at Leeds General Infirmary, surrounded by family, aged just 37. Jonny was a professional busker, performing regularly in city streets across the UK. He was a passionate campaigner and founder of the Keep Streets Live Campaign, advocating for freedom of creative expression in public spaces and challenging attempts to regulate busking and criminalise the homeless. He was religious but unfailingly open-minded, holding more carefully thought-through, nuanced philosophical viewpoints on how human beings relate to each other than anyone I’ve ever met. He was someone I looked up to, cherished and respected deeply. He was my friend.

I was on the train home from a long day at work, casually scrolling through Facebook on my phone, when the news appeared so unassumingly on the screen. Only the weekend before, he had been performing one of his regular Leeds night-time busks, streaming live on Facebook. Then, suddenly, gone. It was his last performance.

Hearing these facts while commuting, the most routine of everyday activities, everything seemingly the same as normal – they were difficult to comprehend; didn’t feel real.

In the days since his death, the outpouring of memories and tributes to Jonny has, in many ways, intensified this feeling that he is still present. Particularly videos from his live performances, but also his recorded music, photographs, and more. Our relationship already existed predominantly online, and living in opposite ends of the country I was never faced with the physical reality that Jonny simply isn’t breathing anymore. It was unimaginable.

*

Like most people whose lives Jonny touched, I can’t say that we knew each other especially well, on a personal level. In total, we only met in person a handful of times. So it can only be a testament to his warmth, and his ability to captivate audiences through his music and dedicated, articulate activism, that I can say I have lost an individual who inspired me more than almost any other in my adult life, since we first met in 2014.

Telling the story of how Jonny and I came to know each other is perhaps the best way I can describe what he meant to me, and how he changed my life.

I was in the second year of my undergraduate degree at Cambridge, and like all Geography students, I had to decide on a topic for my dissertation. I’d been looking online to find any interesting current news topics with geographical themes, and on social media I came across a story that a group called Keep Streets Live was campaigning against Camden Council’s plans to licence busking in what is, famously, one of London’s most creative and culturally diverse boroughs.

As a long-time appreciator of buskers and public art, and with a keen interest in politics, I soon decided that this was the topic I needed to study. More than this, I felt I could get involved in something truly important. Not just for Camden, but for how we make sense of what public space – and our freedom to express ourselves within it – means in our society.
                      
For my research, I needed to interview the full range of stakeholders, including buskers, local councillors, Camden residents, and activists. As both a professional busker who enchanted audiences nationwide, and leader of the Keep Streets Live Campaign opposing Camden Council’s proposed licensing scheme, Jonny was top of my list to interview. But having never approached a single person for a formal academic interview before, let alone conducted one, I didn’t really know what kind of response to expect.

So it’s fair to say I was apprehensive when I first messaged Jonny on Facebook in July 2014.

I needn’t have been, because I couldn’t have wished for a warmer response. He apologised for the (short) delay in replying and told me that he was very happy to help in any way he could. Even with everything that he had achieved as a campaigner and musician, he showed an almost unwarranted level of respect for the research I was doing.

A couple of emails later, I’d agreed to meet him in St. Albans on a Saturday in early August, where he was busking that weekend.

On the day, my train arrived a couple of hours before we were due to meet, so I wandered around the town to get my bearings.
      
As I strolled down towards the clocktower, the faint, echoing sounds of a guitar reverberated softly through the narrow streets. Then the voice I recognised from internet videos began as I emerged onto the square where he played, his melodies somehow enhanced by the ambience of the street, buoyant on the tides of chatter and traffic that filled the air. In front of the tower are a couple of long, curved wooden benches creating a sort of street-level amphitheatre, which were almost completely occupied by Jonny’s audience when I arrived. I found a spot to sit, and listened to Jonny for the next hour and a half.

Jonny was a ‘professional’ busker – even if that sounds like an oxymoron – because he was just so good (charismatic, skilful, charming are a few adjectives that come to mind) that he could earn a decent living through his performances.  Wherever and whenever he busked, he seemed to emit this welcoming aura that passersby would latch onto and want to stay with; often for much longer than they anticipated. And Jonny would talk to them; embracing everyone and hearing their stories, helping them if they needed help, offering signed CDs, and ultimately treating everyone he met with the same level of respect. This is how Jonny made so many friends, and why thousands of people would tune in when he broadcasted his busking sessions on Facebook Live.

He had perfected his style to include a blend of classics, original songs, and other interesting covers. His repertoire was enormous (though of course he had favourites), and he could handle the vast majority of requests that came his way.

In this St. Albans performance in particular, the song that sticks in my mind is a cover he played of The Postal Service’s Such Great Heights. For those who don’t know, it’s an electronic song with a pretty fast tempo – in other words, not exactly the kind of music that Jonny tended to play. But on his guitar, Jonny’s version was slow and gentle, almost a lullaby, and the lyrics took on whole new interpretations in my head. Even as someone who greatly admired the original, Jonny made it something more – and I told him as much when we spoke later on.

After Jonny had finished his performance, we started chatting properly and agreed to eat a meal together. Jonny, as always, had about twenty tons of equipment with him, so we ferried his things a short distance to the neighbouring Zizzi where we sat outside. Jonny went inside to get some menus, and when he returned, told me to order anything I wanted. The manager of the restaurant was so enamoured by his performance – and the customers who’d stopped there to listen – that he’d offered both Jonny and I our meals completely free of charge.

One of the largest high-street Italian restaurant chains, offering both a busker and a mere spectator anything we wanted, no payment necessary. It was pure magic.

Even before the interview had started, I’d received the best possible lesson about what busking means to the communities in which it takes place; its power to transform the atmosphere in public spaces and create the conditions for positive social relations.

*

The interview itself was extensive and in-depth, going on for a full hour and 45 minutes – and would have gone on longer if I didn’t have to rush off to catch the last train back to Kent. We talked about many subjects, including what constitutes a healthy busking ecology, the state of local democracy, using voluntary codes of conduct for buskers, the regulation of public space, and maintaining cultural freedoms.

When preparing for the interview, I managed to find the legendary deputation that Jonny made at Camden Council before their vote on whether or not to introduce a licensing scheme for buskers.

In his powerful speech, the phrase that has always stuck with me is his evocative depiction of buskers as ‘civic lighthouses’:

“Buskers act as civic lighthouses. We give directions, we break up fights, we call the police when we spot trouble. We talk to the lonely. We create moments of enjoyment between strangers, and contribute to the social and cultural enrichment of shared urban spaces. We are an integral part of the ecology of the street. We care deeply about the well-being of the places where we perform.”

During the interview, I prompted him to expand on this image of busking which had captured my imagination so intensely:

“We are all responsible to each other – we are all our brother’s keepers. I’ve done a lot of evening busking in the past, and the streets at night can be quite a forbidding place – for women on their own, or where there’s groups of marauding drunks around. Buskers change the nature of that space. Their interaction with that space is to create an atmosphere where there’s a human presence. An alleyway with another person there is a safer alley than an empty alley. It’s a disincentive; a sense of community. Would we rather be in a place where people are singing and dancing than fighting, for instance?
In my experience, busking is all about relationality and exchange. You can’t be successful at busking without some degree of being able to relate to people and being able to interact with them in a positive way.”

What struck me most about this vision was how it valued busking way beyond the individual act itself. While for many people busking would just be defined as ‘playing music in the street for money’, for Jonny and Keep Streets Live it was a whole network of relationships formed by interaction and shared presence in public spaces.

But more than this – in fighting for the rights of buskers to perform unregulated, Jonny upheld these positive, pro-social effects that busking can have as conditions to be actively promoted in public spaces everywhere; as the guiding principles of a healthy ecology of the street.
         
“If spontaneity and informality is preserved as a sort of universal principle, then it would create an ecology, a nexus of cities across the country following the Liverpool [voluntary guidance for buskers] model, which would truly be light-touch regulation because it’s involving the buskers, it’s putting things in place. Then it would remove bottlenecks, it will allow intermingling, it will allow for flourishing. Where busking hasn’t happened before, it might allow the culture to emerge. It has the potential to transform the civic landscape. It’s so important.”

In my favourite quote, which came from the end of the interview, Jonny made the case that it is the responsibility of everyone who currently enjoys these freedoms to protect and extend them, and looked towards the role Keep Streets Live would play in facing up to this challenge worldwide, in the future. I love reading and re-reading these words because, for me, they represent the very best of Jonny’s personality: passionate, intelligent, principled, and hopeful. Overflowing with moral fibre.
                                                         
“I love this country, actually, and I love the tradition that I think we’ve got – civic freedoms and political freedoms that have been really hard-fought. And we’re incumbent on people who have inherited those freedoms; we’ve been born into a privileged culture. Bearers of privilege have a moral duty to not only defend rights that have been hard-won, but for the traditions of common law freedoms. We have a duty to extend that – to hold our institutions, to hold our corporations, to hold our government to account, and also to hold them to account in the way that they treat other people. And to try and see that this level of freedom is extended to other people, and is not allowed to be eroded. And that’s going to be a constant battle, but I think it’s one that’s really, really, really, really important.
That’s my way of saying that I recognise that buskers are not necessarily the persecuted minority, in the way that people all over the world are facing genuine persecution. But that’s not a reason not to protect what we’ve got now, and to extend it, and then to try and extend it to our brothers in places where you can be killed for public music, or where it’s completely unauthorised. We’re a nation of minstrels and choristers and great, let’s take it to the world. I personally think that Keep Streets Live – once we’ve got a beachhead in the UK that’s proper…there’s all sorts of stuff going on all over the world, and I think some minstrels from the Keep Streets Live Campaign could have some fun! Travelling and building networks…it’s not just about England; not just about the United Kingdom.”

This first research interview demonstrated to me that the events in Camden were just one flashpoint in a much larger battle to keep public spaces open to spontaneous and informal street culture, amidst increasing attempts by officials to regulate any behaviours that could be deemed problematic. Keep Streets Live wasn’t simply reactionary; a Change.org petition that would declare victory or defeat, and then move on. It was a set of philosophical ideals premised on a fundamentally hopeful view of human relations that, when granted the freedom to be creative, to interact freely in public spaces, to embrace the diversity of human characters and behaviours, our streets and the interpersonal relationships that take place in them could truly flourish.

*

The next time I saw Jonny was in November of the same year. Camden’s busking licence had officially come into force, so Jonny had arranged a protest busk in Camden Town as part of the ‘Church of the Holy Kazoo’.

The story behind this noble faith bears all the hallmarks of the principled, persistent yet light-hearted campaigning that Jonny lived and breathed. It started with the Citizens’ Kazoo Orchestra, which Jonny formed alongside Mark Thomas, Billy Bragg and John Gomm before Camden’s busking policy had been implemented, to ridicule the fact that their proposals singled out wind instruments as worthy of heightened regulation – which would include those as unthreatening as a small, plastic kazoo. Since Camden’s busking policy had come into effect, however, Jonny found another element of the regulations to subvert: an exemption which meant that performances forming part of a religious event did not need a licence from the council to go ahead. So Jonny reasoned that there was room for a new religion in our society, whose only belief was that busking is a sacred act, and whose hymn book consists of every piece of music ever written. And so the Church of the Holy Kazoo was founded.

Church of the Holy Kazoo was Jonny all over. Yes, it was humorous stunt, but Jonny knew it would bring the headlines and big names that the campaign needed to draw attention to what was happening in Camden. And underneath the witty façade, it always asserted the fundamental right to express yourself in public space, and harnessed the interpersonal and even spiritual relationships that busking cultivates in the environments in which it takes place.
        
Although by this point I was well and truly a signed-up member of Keep Streets Live, attending the protest was still technically ‘research’, so I had a research diary with me and took plenty of photographs I could use as visual data in my dissertation.

During the protest, we encountered a couple of PCSOs and, later, police officers. It was during the first interaction that I captured this photograph of Jonny. As well as forming the front cover of my dissertation, it later appeared in Josie Appleton’s book Officious: Rise of the Busybody State.


It remains one of my favourite photographs I have ever taken, based on how purely it portrays Jonny’s character, both as an entertainer and an activist. In the face of attempts to curtail his freedom, Jonny towering above the uniformed PCSO, turning away and continuing to face his audience, guitar in hand; calm in the face of authority as he asserted his right to play. The light shining on his face endowed an almost angelic quality to his appearance, as he lit up the pavement by Camden Town tube station where he performed.

At the time, Jonny explained to the PSCO in the photograph, in his composed and articulate manner, that his performance was not only exempt from Camden’s licence on religious grounds, but also that he had written confirmation that busking as part of a political protest would be allowed under the licence’s exemption for a ‘protest march or similar event’. Unable to deny Jonny’s reasoning and knowledge of the legal situation, the PCSOs soon wandered off.

The second encounter with officials arose from a rather different situation.
      
Enter DJ Grandpa, a bizarre act involving a man standing in a Perspex box blasting out piped dance music, pretending to be a disc jockey, while wearing a latex ‘old man’ mask. On the pavement around his box, DJ Grandpa would draw a circle out of chalk and label it the ‘dance floor’.

Exemplifying the absurdity of Camden Council’s licensing scheme, he had been granted one of their special licences for performers using amplifiers. Empowered by his ‘official’ status, he had been seen nearly every afternoon and evening in the same spot by Camden Town tube station since the summer of that year, to the derision of Camden’s busking community. He monopolised the pitch and annoyed pretty much everyone else in the process.


Within minutes of DJ Grandpa setting up, drawing his circle metres away from where Jonny was performing, Jonny moved his equipment and played right in the centre of the ‘dance floor’, to the cheers of the crowd of spectators that had started to gather in numbers.


As a licensee, DJ Grandpa wasn’t happy and rang the police, who he assumed would take the side of the ‘official’ busker.
                   
When they came, Jonny was once again forced to justify his actions in front of officials. But this time I remembered I’d printed out a copy of Camden’s Street Entertainment Policy, circling the relevant passages, which I handed to Jonny as the officers talked to him, surrounded suddenly by an expectant crowd who sensed the significance of what was unfolding. Some of their responses threatened to descend into anti-police sentiment, but Jonny – with his impeccable crowd management skills –  explained that the police are just doing their job by responding to the call. It was the policymakers at Camden Council who were at fault for creating the conditions for such a pointless dispute in the first place.

Seeing then that there was no lawful reason why Jonny should have to move, the police left, and DJ Grandpa soon followed, his tail between his legs.

Before I left that evening, Jonny thanked me heartily and, with one hand on my shoulder, produced a Keep Streets Live badge, which he pinned on my coat. “You’ve definitely earned one of these today,” he beamed. It was a triumphant day.

Jonny and the other musicians in attendance played on into the fading autumn night, his portable gas lamp aglow as waves of commuters lapped up and lingered on the pavement outside Camden Town tube station, singing along, dancing. Even in a place with some of the most punitive restrictions on busking in the UK, in one day Jonny had brought joy, laughter, and hope for the future of street culture back to its spiritual home in Camden.



*

My connection with Jonny, and most other people in my life, went dark for the next 7 months as I spent my days completing my dissertation and eventually my degree in summer 2015.

However that summer, temporarily freed from the shackles of academic work, I was keen to get more actively involved in what Jonny was doing, and contribute more meaningfully towards the goals of Keep Streets Live.

The first opportunity came when Jonny organised a Keep Streets Live ‘Activist Forum’ event in Leeds, which was billed as chance to build community and ask questions about how we can protect street culture, amidst the climate of ever more stifling regulation. I was desperate to go, but living in rural Kent and eating through the remains of my dwindling student loan, I asked Jonny if he could recommend anywhere cheap to stay in Leeds.

Jonny went one better – he offered me his home’s spare room.

I got the coach to Leeds and met him at around 10pm, as he was setting up in his usual pitch on Albion Street that evening. For the first time, I was to experience one of the famed Jonny Walker night-time busks first-hand, serenading the streets of revellers, concert-goers, and passersby into the early hours.

It became clear to me that night-time busking demands a different kind of performance style and awareness, and Jonny was an expert. Sound carries much further at night, so Jonny knew that even if the street in front of you was empty, people would still hear, and often slowly make their way towards the music. At one point, when big crowds of people started walking in our direction, he remembered the artist who was performing at the First Direct Arena that night and sang some of their songs, which immediately led to more dropped coins and notes.

And perhaps most significantly, he showed extraordinary patience with the heavily inebriated, who typically wanted to shout down the microphone, or stumble up to him and start a conversation mid-song.

And, of course, make the timeless request:
 
“Play Wonderwalllllllllllllllllllllll”

To his eternal credit, he managed to play it two or three times before he told people to think of something else. He certainly knew how to keep a crowd happy.

Being tall helped, but it was his composure, his peace-making demeanour, that meant things never got out of hand. Thinking back to the ‘civic lighthouses’ metaphor, it made me wonder how many potentially dangerous, uncomfortable or upsetting situations have been avoided because Jonny’s presence was there when needed. How many good or even bad nights had turned into memorable ones thanks to his desire to share music, stories and smiles with strangers on the street.
            
Jonny insisted that he could take me back any time that night if I was tired, as he played on into the early hours, but I stayed out for the whole performance. It was a privilege to watch him at work; making momentary connections in the night, watching people getting pulled magnetically towards Jonny’s voice, changing their nights unexpectedly and always for the better. In the end, we drove back to his house together at about 4.30am, I believe.

Jonny and I got about 3 hours of sleep that night.

We woke up at about 7.30 so we could help prepare for the Activist Forum at the Wharf Chambers in the centre of Leeds. It was that morning I met his wife and two young children, boundlessly energetic and endearing as kids that age are, even so early in the day. Jonny offered me breakfast and I was treated to a big, warm bowl of porridge, insisting that I was welcome to stay any time. I was in awe of their generosity despite the circumstances, with Jonny and I rocking up clumsily at stupid o’clock in the morning.

When we arrived at the venue for the event, we set up about 30 chairs in a large circle, which were quickly filled up by a mixture of buskers, non-busking artists, activists, academics, and those simply interested in maintaining spaces for public art. The session was led by a professional workshop leader who did a fantastic job at giving everyone a chance to speak, and it was informative to hear people’s stories of how they came to know about Keep Streets Live, and why busking and freedom of creativity in public spaces was important to them. It was a lively dialogue during which important and, at times, provocative views were aired regarding the work of Keep Streets Live, which only served to emphasise the value of open discussion for both sharing and critiquing different ideas and opinions.

In the afternoon, the attendees split off into smaller groups to discuss the various issues affecting street culture and its regulation, and Jonny chose me to lead a group talking about public space, being the subject I’d studied extensively within Geography. It felt hugely rewarding to be using the knowledge I’d gained through my research in a setting where it felt like it could make a difference, and with people who may not have spent much time considering what we mean when we call a space ‘public’, and why its regulation matters so much. Jonny understood that establishing an effective opposition would benefit from drawing on a wide range of expertise, including musical, political, legal, academic, and technical, and the forum was a valuable opportunity to pool together the knowledge and experience of all who are passionate about creative public expression, to help achieve the aims of Keep Streets Live.

*
      
It wasn’t long after the Leeds event – less than a week, in fact – that Jonny and I joined forces again, this time in my home city of Canterbury. I’d recently been shocked to learn that the city council were briefly considering using a PSPO (Public Space Protection Order) to regulate busking in the city centre.

Jonny had already made contact with staff from Canterbury City Council, and arranged a meeting to discuss the subject, to be attended by councillors and licensing officials from Canterbury City Council, a representative of the Canterbury busking community, Canterbury Connected Business Improvement District, the East/South-East Regional Officer of the Musicians’ Union, and Jonny and I from Keep Streets Live.

I met Jonny outside the council offices, and the other stakeholders in the reception area where we walked into the meeting room together. Within minutes, it was clear that everyone in attendance was on the same page. Jonny, who’d already launched a petition gathering over 2000 supporters, set up a Keep Streets Live in Canterbury page, and met with members of the local busking community, had already won the argument. After a few queries and discussion of finer points that affect Canterbury’s specific busking ecology, it was decided that Canterbury City Council were to adopt the same voluntary guidance for busking that Jonny had campaigned for in Liverpool, York, Chester, and Birmingham, with minimal changes.

The beauty of the Guide to Busking approach Jonny established is that it always encourages dialogue between the stakeholders involved in an issue around busking, rather than creating unnecessarily heavy-handed and resource-intensive legal restrictions on buskers, enforced by officials. It says that whenever there is an issue involving a busker, the people affected should always, in the first instance, talk to the busker to explain what the problem is, and attempt to find a solution together without resorting to any kind of enforcement. The guidance recognises that, in the vast majority of cases, problems can be resolved by a simple conversation – which could, for example, lead to a small adjustment of volume or position. If a busker does not engage with the affected stakeholder at this point, the local busking community will get involved to try and address the problem. Only if a busker continually refuses to engage with anyone, while continuing to cause a genuine nuisance, will there be action by the appropriate authorities – by which point the busker’s behaviour is, by definition, antisocial. Ultimately, Jonny had masterminded a code of conduct in which the response always ends up being proportionate to the issue at hand.

With the job done, we ate lunch together in my favourite Chinese restaurant, and then hit the streets. Town was bustling with the usual summer crowds, and within five minutes of walking up the High Street, Jonny had already managed to give money to two different buskers, strike up three conversations within people he’d never met, and have an argument with a fundamentalist Christian preacher.

With his guitar and amp in tow, Jonny found a pitch in the shade by Whitefriars Shopping Centre and started performing a range of gentle, earnest songs for the ambling shoppers. I decided to stay with him for the rest of the afternoon to watch him play (though, of course, this meant I was officially responsible for looking after his equipment when he made trips to the toilet, and to get him some much-needed coffees after his early-morning drive down from Leeds).

As his acoustics sailed on the warm breeze, there was one of those beautiful moments that Jonny specialised in fashioning. Halfway through his set, he dedicated his next song to me.

It was Such Great Heights by The Postal Service.

Over a year without mentioning the song at all, and he remembered.

That is the measure of the kind of man Jonny was. Even for someone who opened his heart to so many, he still found room in that remarkable brain of his to remember something so seemingly insignificant, solely for the purpose of making a friend happy.

*

I was planning on getting the train home that day but, in typical fashion, Jonny insisted he’d drive me back, right to my front door.

It was a bright, clear evening in late summer, sun sauntering toward the horizon, turning everything golden. We talked about a number of things on that journey home, which appear like amber in my memory – glowing, precious moments yet somehow inaccessible. But the one part that sticks in my mind is when I asked him what plans he had for making more of his own music. He confided that one of the most difficult sacrifices he’d made to pursue his relentless campaigning had been finding time to work on his own material, a project which had largely been put on hold.

I only saw Jonny once more in person, for a brief afternoon busk in Canterbury, before he had to head up to Covent Garden that same evening.

We’d been communicating earlier in the year, however, when for the first time Camden Council had brought charges against unlicensed buskers in Camden. The defendants had been sent a 73-page prosecution dossier consisting of ‘evidence’ being brought against them, including CCTV images and spurious complaints from well-known anti-busking residents. Jonny and I messaged about it, and together we agreed that I’d write a response to the dossier that framed these events within a wider argument about how democracy is being subverted in Camden. I stayed up late that night to finish it in time for the beatboxers’ court appearance the next day, and with a few edits from Jonny he posted it on his Facebook page and the page for Keep Streets Live in Camden the next day. The outrage and disbelief at Camden Council’s attitude towards buskers only grew.
      
The events that were to transpire over the coming months were even more testing for Jonny: the EU Referendum (for which Jonny had fought wholeheartedly for Remain), the election of Donald Trump, alongside the ever-increasing number of councils proposing to use PSPOs to target buskers and the homeless. Both in the form of physical protest and online activism, Jonny was a tireless campaigner, and spent a huge amount of effort engaging in debate with both acquaintances and strangers on topics he cared about, which were many. Particularly with the snowballing effect of online commenting, it was difficult at times to watch someone who wears their heart on their sleeve, like Jonny did, being harangued by faceless people on the internet who had no idea what kind of person he was. Yet still he persevered, firm in his convictions and willing to engage with conflicting viewpoints and personas to ensure his arguments were heard.

You wouldn’t find anyone in the world who shares exactly the same views that Jonny did – there would always be something you disagree on, and being partial to a debate Jonny was quite good at finding it – but it would never be personal. On this point, I recently rediscovered an interview Jonny did with the Church Times, in which he said “When I’m not angry or wound-up – which I am too often – I have a great love for people.” And it was his compassion for others that was the very attitude driving his movement of bringing different stakeholders together to agree on guidance for buskers.

“I want to live in a culture where if someone’s got a problem, they’re encouraged to engage and relate to each other, and to become involved. Because once people get to know each other – once people see the other person as a person with interests, concerns, with feelings just like theirs, then it makes conflict less likely. So much conflict, so many disagreements, so many arguments are caused by people who don’t see the other person as a person with interests, with needs. It’s dehumanising. When actually you break down that barrier and see a person with vulnerabilities – a human being who’s got needs, wants, desires … I think the more barriers you break down, the more you can see that it’s in people’s common interests to work together.” Jonny Walker, research interview with Jack Lowe

Of late, however, it seemed that he had taken a step back from the front line of activism. It was especially heartening nonetheless to see more social media posts about memorable times spent with his family, particularly his two young children. In light of the circumstances now, that fact seems especially profound.

He had also started a Patreon project, of which I was a patron, to support his work and the production of a new album of original songs.

In my final message to Jonny last July, I was responding to a talk he’d given that evening on his journey to becoming a professional busker and founder of Keep Streets Live, which he’d streamed live on Facebook. I told him how fantastic it was for spreading the word in a relatable and engaging way, and said that I’d love to get more involved in these kinds of events, and Keep Streets Live in general. I also shared with him a piece I’d recently written for the Manifesto Club on busking and the regulation of public space, which in part talks about the work of Keep Streets Live in opposing such measures. I was really proud of it. He didn’t reply, so I never knew if he got around to reading it, but I’d like to think that he’d approve.

As I reflect on the situation now, I can’t help but think of all the loose ends. Half-written songs; activist and community projects never undertaken; performances he had yet to deliver. For me, that’s what hurts the most about Jonny’s passing – how much more he had to give. To those who knew and loved him for the music he made, the movements he led and the inspiring man he was; to the unyielding love he gave his family and friends; and perhaps, most of all, to the strangers he hadn’t met yet. Knowing first-hand how his energy filled up the lives of those who had the pleasure of meeting him, it’s heart-breaking to think of those anonymous others who otherwise would have experienced this warmth, but now cannot.
       
It was exactly these rare qualities – the ones that could build a whole community around one single person – that made you want to be like him. His passion for everything he cared about, musically and in his campaigns, was infectious. This is how Jonny saved lives, literally in some cases: he radiated an irresistible enthusiasm that inspired people to care.

Now, at least, it will be the ambition of I, and the many others whose lives he touched, to be more like Jonny – to let his example grow within us, to make us who we are, to guide what we do.

Jonny’s light hasn’t gone out – it’s ours to keep burning. And all the time we continue to carry the torch for the causes he championed; his vision of a compassionate, creative, inclusive and, above all, free community in public spaces, the streets will always be (a)live.

-----

If you’ve been moved by this piece, please consider donating towards this fundraiser, which will help to support the causes Jonny was passionate about, including Keep Streets Live, as well as helping to cover funeral costs and other expenses incurred by his family.

Here is a comprehensive and well-written obituary in The Times that gives a deeper insight into his life, and recognises the contribution he made in protecting the rights of street performers.

Read this excellent short piece by the Manifesto Club, remembering Jonny’s tireless efforts in campaigning for civil liberties. It’s much more concise than mine!

A heartfelt and honest account by Nick Broad, co-founder of The Busking Project, of memories shared with Jonny and work they did together.

Jonny’s friend and fellow performer Steven Heath organised this fantastic live-streamed gig in memory of Jonny shortly after he died.

Visit Jonny’s Facebook fan page to find more ways that his life is being remembered.



Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Unfinished Cities: Canterbury



It was a grey Saturday afternoon in September, and I was walking into Canterbury city centre. Heading to the public library in an attempt to get some work done, I took my usual route from Canterbury East train station: crossing the grassy oasis of the Mary de Castro Garden and zipping past the rows of terraced houses and shops on Castle Street, before crossing onto St Margaret’s Street by the Three Tuns pub. As I stepped up onto the pavement, an unfamiliar shape caught my eye. High up on a bastion of scaffolding surrounding the derelict, almost unrecognisable Slatters Hotel, a helmeted builder was perched precariously on a horizontal raft of poles. With the white sky beaming through angular gaps in the metalwork, it appeared almost as if he were floating above the street.

Struck by this anachronism, I grabbed my smartphone from my pocket so I could document the moment. I felt a little self-conscious in my act, being aware of the heightened Saturday foot traffic this close to the High Street, but I took the photo anyway. To my surprise, the subject of my photograph spotted me and shouted down jokily, as he balanced in the air, “I hope you’re not health and safety!”

Continuing on and looking ahead, Canterbury Cathedral emerged between the alignment of rooftops and frontages jutting out into the street, itself plastered with scaffolding. I thought that Canterbury at this time was a city of scaffolds, with swarms of fluorescent yellow workers tending busily to their unfinished projects, hanging above the pedestrian world like puppet masters. Each fragile, temporary nest of timber and metal a monument to the city’s (re)construction.

*

Further down St. Margaret’s Street, hiding between the Superdry store and Yorkshire Building Society, is a narrow alleyway that for years served as my lunchtime shortcut; a shorter, less cluttered route between the library and Whitefriars Shopping Centre where I’d go to buy a sandwich. Turning into the passage, the busy, small movements of the pedestrian crowds are replaced abruptly by stillness, and within seconds the words and melodies of the High Street fade into a distant murmur. It has the effect of creating a kind of micro-wilderness where space and time itself appear warped and refracted. In the cracks of the cobbles, clovers peer up toward the light like the treetops of a vast underground forest.

These in-between spaces are ripe for all kinds of anomalies. Odd, incongruous objects like chairs with legs missing and pieces of coloured cloth; graffiti in seemingly inaccessible locations. In the brick wall behind Superdry, where the commercial bins are stowed, is a plain white door with no handle, sign or identifying features, which has become over time a site of personal myth. It’s the mystery I’m drawn towards – an object that presents more questions than answers. What lies behind it? What is its purpose?

I’m starting to believe that some spaces are designed to be forgotten. Does anyone ever think about these enclosed pockets of land, behind rooftops and spiked fences, where shop goods get delivered and waste taken away? Iron Bar Lane, a link between the chain stores of St George’s Street and the cosy boutiques of Burgate, is one such space, taking up a surprisingly large area in the city centre yet remaining invisible in the mind’s-eye view of most inhabitants. It is quite remarkable that such an environment – perpetually unclean, unused pavements green with grime, caked in dirt, animal excrement and plastic packaging – lies only a stone’s throw from Canterbury Cathedral, the most prestigious landmark in this corner of the country. Yet without its potholed loading bays and dusty back entrances, so much of the everyday activity that takes place in the city wouldn’t be feasible.

Every city needs these spaces of transition; changing rooms for the urban uniform. The challenge for ‘stakeholders’ in the city is how effectively they can be obscured, folding in on themselves until nothing but the alluring, illusory facets of the city remain.

*

Since mid-October, I’ve been working for Canterbury Business Improvement District (BID) in the city centre as a Visitor Welcome Ambassador. One of the main responsibilities of my job each morning is to walk around each street in my designated area and report environment problems, including (but not limited to) broken glass, faulty street furniture, loose paving stones, and on-street waste. Although you’d think it rewarding to take on a role that can have a positive impact within the local environment, the task can feel crushingly futile. In many cases, my reports seem to achieve nothing – piles of vomit are left to dry and stick to the pavement; rain rinses off the residue; the urban fauna are left to peck and gnaw at bags crammed with waste, as residents and business staff alike put them out expecting them to be taken away, never to be seen or thought about again.

Never a single day with nothing new to report; always something remaining to be fixed.

Even long-term solutions are always temporary. Shortly after I started my position, I discovered that my favourite little alleyway in St Margaret’s Street had been swiftly and brutally closed off; truncated by tall metal gates that seem to stay permanently locked. These measures were taken to address concerns about the endless accretion of waste and graffiti that occurs there. Yet within days of the gates being fitted, great masses of limp, sodden cardboard piled up high against the metal bars, as if revolting against this new imposition. Spray-painted tags still plague any wall that can be claimed. Ultimately, all that has been achieved is the closure of a route reserved for those with insider knowledge of Canterbury, to momentarily bypass the obstacles of city life.

It is inevitable, in an urban ecosystem where diverse forces interact in such high concentration, that things get ignored and abandoned, things rot, mistakes are made, objects collide and break, or at least uncomfortably coexist. Cities aren’t orderly places; in many ways, disorder is their defining characteristic. Which makes our attempts to manage the chaos somehow artificial. In our urge to tame its wildness, what we are ultimately guided by is an imaginary version of the city, one that has never existed and never will.

*

As part of my job, I have visited Canterbury’s Roman Museum twice in recent months. There is a wealth of material to see there, leading you along a timeline of the city told through a comprehensive collection of artefacts, information boards and interactive tools which paint a detailed picture of the daily lives of our ancestors. But what tends to draw my eye are the artists’ impressions of what Canterbury looked like during different time periods. My personal favourite is from the era when the city was re-occupied by the Anglo-Saxons after the Romans had abandoned it. The image depicts dwellings of wood and straw settled between crumbling stone walls; the mossy remnants of the empire now acting as the foundations for new, living structures. I try picturing what it would be like to make a home amongst ruins, and contemplate that, ultimately, this is what ‘dwelling’ means; it is the necessary precondition for inhabiting a place. What varies is the visibility of the decay.
       
Towards the end of the museum walkway you find the main event: the Roman pavement, a stretch of decorative mosaics preserved exactly where they were excavated, alongside a dusty stone hypocaust (Roman central heating system) that served the Roman townhouse whose ruins the museum is built around. For all the site’s cultural significance – being a Scheduled Ancient Monument and the only remaining example of an in-situ Roman pavement mosaic in the UK – it was an act of destruction that brought about its discovery. The WWII Baedecker raids of 1942 razed the majority of the buildings from the pavement’s site on Butchery Lane to the modern-day ring road (including Iron Bar Lane) and with them a significant portion of the medieval street layouts and buildings that Canterbury is known for today, from those areas that survived the bombardment.

Consequently, it’s in this quarter of the city centre where you’ll find the greatest concentration of modernist architecture, as the post-war rebuilding effort took shape. Recently, I found out that the building where Superdrug is currently housed, which I’d never paid much attention to previously, won the 1957 RIBA Bronze Award for its unique serrated roof and columnar design. Previously, all I’d associated with it were the heaps of cigarette butts that collect in the colonnade, where taxi drivers and nearby shop workers alike go outside for breaks. The disparity in perspective makes me wonder how these newer spaces will be valued in the future. What will the criteria be, in the decades and centuries to come, that determine whether a landmark is preserved or ‘redeveloped’? What events will define its fate?

Like flies in amber, the Roman mosaics today are encased in glass; yet still the pavement is unexpectedly warped, sloping and buckling on the uneven ground upon which it is spread. Not even the extensive preservation efforts can prevent the slow shifts of the earth’s crust beneath it.

*

One of the characteristics that distinguishes Canterbury from many other cities is the ease with which you can discern evidence of different historical periods in the built environment. Nowhere is this starker, perhaps, than in St. Radigund’s Garden. Bordering the unkempt grass and paved area on one side are remnants of the city wall, which has marked the limits of the city centre in Canterbury since the Romans. In its irregular surface, you can recognise a wide variation in texture and shape, containing materials including flint, mortar, sandstone and even brickwork, having undergone successive acts of construction, damage and repair over the centuries. On the grass nearby is a fascinating signpost matching each section of the wall to the time period from which it originates.

We’re particularly prone to these patchwork surfaces here, retaining elements of the old as we claim spaces anew. On Stour Street towards St. Mildred’s Church, you’ll find an incongruous sight where the front of a three-storey brick edifice – just the front, the rest has been demolished – is coated in scaffold. This building was formerly a warehouse for the old Tannery, where animal skins were treated to produce leather, which operated in Canterbury for over 150 years. Now, the building is being converted into housing. However, the red-brick façade is being preserved due to its historic interest, creating the unusual situation where the new construction is concealed by the wall of its predecessor.

How do we decide when the cultural value of an object overrides its practical difficulties?
               
Mere metres away on Gas Street, the entrance to Canterbury Castle – a stone keep in situ since the 12th century – is closed off due to falling masonry. Surrounded crudely by metal barricades, piles of flint lay tiredly at the feet of the sagging walls. The site has been closed since the summer and shows no signs of re-opening any time soon.
          
That word we use to talk about the changing face of the city – urban ‘development’ – often appears to be a perpetual process of stemming the tide of chaos and destruction, like a leaking dam. Destruction is inevitable, but which surfaces we prolong and which we surrender is a choice; a slow current consisting of countless individual decisions, all adding up to something – or nothing.

*

When the weather allows, I eat my lunch in Solly’s Orchard Garden, a cosy riverside green space with planted trees and flowers, overlooked by the 13th century buildings of the Dominican Priory.

I often like to sit on a brick wall bordering the river in summer, watching the wildlife busying itself with innocent endeavours and listening to the boat tours as they paddle behind me.

From the number of times I’ve heard the tour guides speak, I now know their script for this part of the river almost off by heart. As they approach the garden, its former use by the Blackfriars as an orchard is explained. Due to the River Stour’s former status as an open sewer, cider was safer to drink than water in previous centuries, which they made using fruit grown where the garden is located today. The guides then stop a while by the black, wrought-iron floodgates, in place since 1829, to observe them in action as the water cascades downstream, before revealing that the properties in this area are some of the most expensive in the city, with house prices in the region of £1 million. Despite, in previous centuries, being one of the most squalid parts of the city due to the river’s stench and habit of flooding.

Resting on the wall with the Stour flowing by, no single droplet the same; an image of time passing continuously, inevitably, and without care. While it follows the course it has done for more generations than I can perceive, the judgements of worth that we humans make are as fickle and predictably changeable as the seasons. There can be no masterplan of the city, for there are always inconsistencies in resources, lifespan and interest.

Over the rooftops beyond the river, Canterbury Cathedral looms, half under a white blanket of covered scaffolding, camouflaged with the overcast sky. Sometimes, I wonder if, one day, even the city’s most famous landmark will be considered not worthy of repair; an eyesore, even. It’s funny, and perhaps a touch frightening, how a feature that seems so intrinsic to the identity of a place, object or person can seem so foreign, given time.

*

Back on St. Margaret’s Street on my way out of town, I pass the Slatters Hotel, where an excavation is underway. Archaeologists are attempting to discover and examine objects from the Roman and medieval levels, where they hope to find clues about life near the site of the Roman theatre (at the crossroads by the Three Tuns pub), and Roman baths on this same street.

The dig lies tantalisingly behind hoardings eight feet high, precluding participation. Meanwhile, the old hotel building rises above them, gutted and forlorn, hiding in plain sight. The receptacle of countless stories of lives gone by, now also consigned to history, waiting for the earth to envelop them. The past occupying the present in its most visible form.

I think you could call anyone an archaeologist if they observe what they find in the built environment and use it to form a narrative.

I amble back to the train station, another day done, ready to return home to my sleepy village and restore myself anew, turning my back on the glowing lights of the city as it does the same. Which artefacts of urban life will be unearthed tomorrow, and what stories will they communicate? Which will be lost and forgotten; which will remain buried?

Time will tell.



Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Exhume


They’ve capped the shafts
To the mines of hell
Rust and brick remain
Empty shell

New houses spring up
At the roadside
Fresh plots at the graveyard
Filled, in time

I crouch at the graveside
Your stone cage
‘Forever in our hearts’
Words worn away

Those untold stories
Whole universes lost
Diaries in boxes
Hoarding dust in the loft

The daily forgetting
Breathed out in sighs
Shrouding the silence
Our ritual disguise

So we play detective
Imagine their faces
House numbers, street names
Overlooked places

Filling the void
With clues left behind
Joining the dots
On maps of the mind

Under cover of darkness
We seek out their relics
Labours of love
Like citadels derelict

No lights in the windows
No glass left at all
Just pulses that throb
And canaries that call

At the edge of the mine
We hurdle the gates
The palms of our hands
Are astrolabes

Inside their halls
Of brimstone and fire
We stand still and listen
To a voiceless choir

Ducking the fence-gap
Wire pierces my skin
Seams fall unbound
Canaries don’t sing 

What life in the ruins
Our ancestors built
Like flowers in concrete
Bloom bright, then wilt

We witness it all
And emerge unscathed
For time is a healer
Our scar’s on the page

O land of the living
Dead, but for myth
Why summon a ghost
When you dwell there in spirit?


Sunday, 31 December 2017

GeoGuessr: Navigating real-world places, virtually




Have you ever imagined what it would be like to be transported somewhere in the world completely unknown to you? And how you would figure out where you are? In this post, I’m discussing a game that simulates this kind of experience virtually, using Google Streetview. 
GeoGuessr is a web browser game first developed in 2013, in which players are presented with a series of five Streetview images from five different locations across the world in turn. Based on what they see, players must guess the location that the images were taken by pinpointing on a zoom-able world map. After making their guess, they are assigned a score between 0 and 5000 based on the distance between the guessed location and the actual location the images derive from. The scores for all five rounds are then totalled at the end.
From a geographical perspective, GeoGuessr is thought-provoking for several reasons. The views of landscapes provided by the Streetview images give players the opportunity to see places they would not otherwise see, yet inevitably represent environments through – literally and figuratively – a certain kind of lens. Secondly, the act of finding and interpreting the information presented in the images is an exercise that reveals the individual processes and customs through which we make sense of what a place is like – the ways in which our relationships with environments are formed. And lastly, the design of the game itself works to turn the medium of Streetview images into an experience that – more or less successfully – enables players to engage meaningfully with different places across the world.
Let’s delve deeper into these three points of interest to unpick how and why GeoGuessr presents such valuable questions about what ‘places’ are in the digital age, and how we interact with them.
 
Exploring landscapes
As we consider the experience of ‘visiting’ locations in GeoGuessr and interpreting what you find, the key factor to recognise is that the environments you explore are communicated as images: moments in space and time, captured from a fixed point of view with specific equipment, with specific motivations.
Images are evocative tools for communicating information about places. So much so that, even if viewed a great distance away from the location in which the image was made, we can often still get a sense of what it is like to be in the place represented onscreen.
And it is their detachment from the moment in which they are captured that makes it possible for  GeoGuessr to expand the boundaries of exploration as a practice into the virtual realm. We are able to see places we would never physically visit in our lives, and get a sense of what it might be like to be there, at those locations. It is for this reason, in part, that GeoGuessr has been praised as an educational resource, providing learners with an extensive database of everyday scenes taken across a wide range of landscapes, and packaging it in gameplay that encourages you to pay attention to detail in your surroundings. With each guess, you can open your eyes to another small portion of the world that you are unlikely to ever visit in person.
Importantly, the Streetview images that GeoGuessr uses have their own distinct qualities. When viewed, the viewer can rotate the image nearly every direction from a fixed point, situated at roughly head height from the street. Additionally, the viewer can use onscreen arrows to navigate between the images taken as the Streetview vehicle moved through the site, as if you were travelling through the environment yourself. It is these two characteristics of the pictures that make the experience of viewing them more immersive than the fixed, linear perspective of traditional images. Unhindered by the borders of the image for both perspective and movement, Streetview pictures gives players a better appreciation for scale, and how nearby points in space are connected together. In short, the experience is much closer to how we would encounter an environment in the flesh.
Indeed, the creator of GeoGuessr, Anton Wallén, has said that the idea for the game arose from his enjoyment of visiting faraway locations on Streetview, and how the images could make the viewer feel as if they themselves are in the places photographed. On a more everyday level, many of you reading this will be familiar with the process of using Streetview to scout a future journey. For pedestrians and even those travelling by vehicle, the street-level perspective of Streetview’s images is often much more suitable for familiarising oneself with a route than the birds-eye view of a map.
And yet, navigating in Streetview is still a very simplified version of what we would experience by inhabiting a place ‘in real life’. Although we witness what is happening in a location through momentary scenes, the moving camera is largely detached from the realities of day-to-day life in the localities being photographed. As viewers, we are treated instead to approved snapshots taken at intervals along roads, taken during particular weather conditions, times of day, days of the week, and so on, which inevitably colour the mental model of the location that we develop in our brains as we navigate between the scenes.
And as we develop these mental models, we must not forget the context in which Streetview images are produced. Google’s cameras travel through the locations being photographed, and the images they capture are stitched together and uploaded to the Google Maps website for those with internet access to browse at their discretion. They are, first and foremost, images produced for the benefit of a multinational corporation and people living predominantly in the Global North, who more readily have access to the equipment needed to view them. That is to say, that the images do not represent a view of the landscape in accordance with the values of the community that lives there, but instead have been extracted for extraneous purposes.
In the same vein, there are many places that are ‘off the map’ because Google Streetview just hasn’t been there, for a whole host of political and logistical reasons.
So in spite of being a method of imag(in)ing places that is often construed to be more immersive and accurate than previous imaging/mapping techniques, Streetview ultimately reflects the same observations about landscape images that cultural geographers have made for decades. That is, that every instance of landscape representation is determined by relationships of power that influence the form used to develop the image, which places themselves are represented, the motivations behind these two details – and, in turn, how ‘knowledge’ about a location is produced.
 
Navigation and interpretation
The method of playing GeoGuessr involves a bit of detective work – using clues from the environments pictured, along with your own judgements, to build up an idea of where in the world the images have been captured.
Fortunately, because the game uses Streetview images, you can look in all directions and travel in any direction you wish (providing that the Streetview camera has travelled down the road in question). In nearly all cases, moving through the locality from the starting point is essential to get enough evidence to make an educated guess about where it could be. And it is this process of evidence-gathering, as you take note of significant details you find while moving through the stitched images, that you come to experience the intricacies which make any particular site unique.
It is a somewhat transformative ritual, because as well as learning something about the place being represented, we learn about ourselves – the array of memories, social norms, pre-cognitive experiences, and other sources of information through which we come to know a place.
That said, the characteristics of the information provided in Streetview (i.e. what can be perceived directly at street level) mean that certain kinds of details become more important than others for discovering your location. These are some of those most common types players use, which become familiar over time:

Road signs
Languages used on signs/buildings
Road markings
Climate
Terrain – vegetation, gradient, etc.
Cultural symbols – flags, icons etc.
Built environment – architectural styles, street furniture, etc.
Landmarks

The need to make these kinds of observations demonstrates how the gameplay encourages you to build up a relationship with the environment being shown. When the game begins, you are simply ‘dropped’ into a location with no instructions on where to go or what to look for. Instead, the incentive must come from the player. Every journey is different and personal – which roads to turn down, which details are noticed or ignored, and how those details are interpreted. You perform your relationship with the place into being as you navigate; a kind of cognitive mapping mediated by the screen. By the time you’ve made your guess, having found and deciphered what you’ve seen by travelling steadily at street level, you’ve developed a more deeply affective relationship with the place in question than if you’d just looked at it on a map, or read an encyclopaedia entry.
It is a combination of the instantaneous decisions and reactions the player makes, and their pre-existing paradigm of social norms and individual experiences, that is drawn upon to make sense of the world. By bringing together both of these elements within the overarching timeline of a virtual journey through an unfamiliar environment, GeoGuessr can quite effectively develop meaningful relationships between diverse players and diverse locations, which expand the players’ mental archive of geographical knowledge – albeit within the limits of solely visual communication, and the player’s willingness to keep exploring.
The capacity of the game’s design to grasp and maintain players’ interest is the subject to which I’ll now turn.
 
Design and technology
GeoGuessr is an example of a game that applies a very simple mechanic very successfully to create a fulfilling play experience. By setting the aim or ‘win condition’ of the game as ‘finding your location’, it inherently encourages players to think about what makes the place in question unique, and pay close attention to detail to find the relevant information.
In the time since its initial release, however, the game’s developers have fashioned new opportunities for players to interact with the photographed environments. In Challenge Mode, the player can limit their guessing time by setting a timer of custom length, forcing them to be more focused in how they filter information. When this mode is selected, the player is also given a URL they can send to friends. This URL gives these others players the same set of five images and same time restrictions, allowing them to compete to get the highest score. From there, it can be fascinating to compare how and why different players construed the information to reach the conclusions they did.
Additionally, using GeoGuessr’s Official Maps, you can narrow down the geographical area from which Streetview images are selected to individual countries, regions, and cities. If you are interested in exploring a particular country or region you have never travelled to, or perhaps want to test your knowledge of a familiar area, these game modes give you the means to do so. By giving the player more agency to choose where they want to explore, the gameplay can provoke a more deeply affecting experience.
In a similar vein, GeoGuessr now gives users to ability to create their own maps and publish them on the website for other players to explore. In the Popular Maps section, players can find numerous user-made, themed maps that allow them to explore the specific types of places that interest them. These include maps with a more generalised remit, such as capital cities, to more niche categories such as Premier League football grounds, or even locations from films and video games.
The downside of this creative feature – that it is behind a paywall. To be able to build your own maps – as well as getting your own personalised pin to drop on the map, and avoiding ads – is a privilege you can only benefit from if you pay $2.99 a month. Of course, many would be happy to pay such an amount for a game they enjoy regularly, and if you’re wanting to create personalised maps for others to try, you’re certainly someone who is more deeply invested in the game. But clearly a paywall can create barriers to engagement, preventing those who cannot afford/do not want to spend that amount of money on the game from becoming more closely involved in the GeoGuessr community.


Despite the possibilities for personalisation, it is important to remember that GeoGuessr is at the mercy of Google with regard to which places are included in the Streetview database, the extent of the imaging that takes place at these locations, and the quality of the final product. Coming across a grainy image – common when looking at parts of the US and Australia – can be a significant source of frustration for players trying to find out more about the place onscreen and make accurate guesses. Moreover, Google updates the images of some locations more frequently than others, meaning that the picture you’re presented with can be several years old. It is not something that can be easily resolved by the game’s developers; though one thing you can do at the end of each round is to give it a rating out of five stars, which then goes on to affect the likelihood of that location being chosen for future players.
One longstanding issue that affects which images are selected in GeoGuessr is the apparent over-representation of some countries compared to others. It is very common to be dropped, at least once in a game, onto a long, straight road in an almost-deserted landscape in Russia or Australia, with little or no locational information to guide you.         
This effect is down to how the game’s algorithms determine which images are shown to players. Countries with a large surface area that Streetview has captured extensively, such as the aforementioned countries, as well as the USA, Canada, Brazil and Scandinavian states, appear more frequently in Standard Mode than their smaller counterparts. While the customised maps are one way around the problem, this matter hints at the power of algorithms in determining which types of information we are exposed to, creating filter bubbles. The developers of GeoGuessr have openly discussed the balance of locations represented many times, and their aim to continue improving this aspect of the experience. But it will always be an intricate balance to ensure a wider selection of places to explore without unduly minimising the presence of other countries, cultures, and types of environment.
Design decisions ultimately have a significant impact within the fields of power that shape representations of places in digital games like GeoGuessr, and consequently how we come to understand them. Of course, it is simultaneously these very same algorithms that make looking through images of such varied environments to be an engaging experience. However, with the over-representation of certain kinds of landscapes, and the reliance on the effective (though repetitive) singular mechanic of finding your location, it is more debatable whether the gameplay can retain player interest continually, for more than a few hours of time spent in-game.
WIth the game’s reliance on resources produced externally – Google Streetview images – GeoGuessr is a particularly thought-provoking case study for looking into the range of power relationships that influence how landscapes are represented in games, and through digital media more generally.

_____

For academics, designers, and others with an interest in how we understand what places are when apprehended through digital technology, it will be instructive to see how these relationships are negotiated as GeoGuessr evolves in the coming months and years. Notably, in November, the game’s developers took to Twitter to ask players for ideas on new features to include, and how the existing gameplay could be improved. There has since been a considerable number of suggestions that, if implemented, could substantially change how the game is played.
In the same way that the evolution of Google Streetview has, exploring environments virtually through GeoGuessr provokes questions about what it means to locate and be located in the digital age. Where the game has been most innovative is in turning this relatively new medium of representing place into an experience that, through its very design, enables players to learn about unfamiliar places by taking their own journeys through series of images, making discoveries and interpretations based on their own perceptions. Where GeoGuessr has limitations, these tend to lie with the Streetview images themselves, and how they are produced, rather than the gameplay. However, the way images are assigned via the game’s algorithm is a pertinent consideration to make when considering how well the game encourages personal discovery and learning about locations.
With forthcoming improvements seemingly on the horizon, it will be intriguing to see how the game’s design branches out from the initial concept, and the effects of future changes on how players make sense of the screened representations of places they encounter through the game.