Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Imag(in)ing California: Farmhands


One of the most influential books I’ve read during my studies in Geography is by American professor Don Mitchell, discussing the California landscape. In it, Mitchell explains how the idyllic image of California as a place of beauty and opportunity masks the struggle that has gone into producing this landscape throughout history – the toil of almost exclusively migrant agricultural workers, and the (sometimes violent) confrontations with their employers regarding wages, rights, and living conditions. Revealingly, the book’s title is The Lie of the Land.
Since I read the book in the summer after my first year of undergraduate study, I’ve had the opportunity to go to California twice, most recently in the first two weeks of May. My older brother lives and works there as a residential designer in the Sonoma Valley, giving me not only somewhere to stay and family to visit, but an insider’s vantage point into life in this slice of Northern California.           
The Sonoma Valley and neighbouring Napa Valley, known as the Wine Country, are famous worldwide for the produce of their vineyards, and the experience of wine tasting amid the scenic backdrops of wineries. According to Google and local anecdotes it’s a very desirable area to live in, with plentiful countryside, nice restaurants, and being a short drive away from the West Coast and the Bay Area with its larger cities. The median listing price for houses is between $650,000 and $700,000.  
Early into the trip, my brother drove us up a winding road to a house peering across the Sonoma Valley from the side of its western ridge. Behind an electronic security gate, the driveway leads down to the main house building, and the remainder of the property which includes a natural lake that’s about 50 metres wide, and next to it an outdoor swimming pool flanked by deck chairs and a tree-sheltered outdoor dining area. Steps from here lead to a balcony overlooking the scene, while commanding views of the misty North Bay further south. Through sliding glass doors is an expansive modern kitchen currently being refitted, which connects to a living area with adjoining bar. Downstairs there are three bedrooms and two bathrooms, a utilities room, another living area, and a library, all elegantly furnished.
This house is worth about $2 million.


You can experience part of the culture that attracts such wealthy homeowners to this area by taking part in local wine and olive oil tasting, which we did on a couple of occasions. The first time, in downtown Petaluma at a wine club, we were directed through the five S’s of tasting wine. The first is sight: carefully turning and tilting the glass in your fingers to observe the wine’s hue in the light. Secondly you swirl, hand lightly clasping the rim and gently spinning the liquid inside to fold in oxygen. Thirdly, you smell, inhaling deeply to draw the wine’s aroma into the nose’s olfactory receptors. The fourth step is sipping, letting the liquid roll over the tongue’s terrain and interpreting different fruit and oak flavours present in the wine. Finally, savour, swallowing and noting the strength of the aftertaste, while contemplating the experience as a whole.
We put these principles into practice on a second occasion at a place called Jacuzzi, a ‘family vineyard’ whose tasting room has one side for wine and the other for olive oil. Tasting here was free but most visitors leave with at least one bottle of something. The staff there were exceptionally friendly and knowledgeable, clearly familiar with the products they offered on a personal level. Rather than talking about ingredients, prices or other facts, they would explain what the olive oil tasted like when they drizzled it on popcorn while watching a film the other day. On this basis, it would be hard not to find something you want to buy out of all the experiences you’re offered. It is a trend in personable customer service you encounter everywhere you visit in Northern California.
As we were leaving Jacuzzi with our buys, I spotted a small group of fieldworkers tending to grape vines near the roadside. Bent over and dressed head to toe in blue like surgeons, their gloved hands operated on the plants with precision and care. In that instant, it was impossible to make out what arcane knowledge or instincts they applied as they manoeuvred the stems of the vine, for as swiftly as the farmhands came into view, the image was swept away when we turned onto the highway.
If wine tasting is a method of deciphering experience, road travel – rural California’s default way of getting from A to B – is a routine of abstracting. The car window frames the world in motion, blurring and flattening the creases and inconsistencies of nearby things into the shapes and colours of the land behind. Like looking in a crystal ball, these journeys leave you with a mixture of crystal clear vignettes and foggy silhouettes. If we extend the metaphor, the practice of tasting wine is akin to palm reading – subjective yet with a careful attention to detail, and blessed by the wisdom of pseudo-science. What both these behaviours have in common is a curious fluidity between reality and imagination.
We parked up in downtown Sonoma, an orderly square of boutiques, historic buildings, eating and drinking establishments, to shop for souvenirs. Before leaving, bags fully loaded, my brother led us into a wine tasting room to show us its unique style of interior design. Shelves of dark wine bottles cascaded down one of the room’s lofty walls, behind a well-populated bar that was surrounded by plush leather armchairs and round tables. Everywhere sharply-dressed patrons smiled across tables with glasses slouched in their hands, sipping sparingly as if they were at a church communion. I remember wondering about the chain of events that transforms what happens in the fields into this highly curated ritual; the process by which a fruit of the land becomes a social and cultural event, a vision of grandeur.


Partly out of necessity and partly out of intrigue, Mum then decided that we should stop by the American equivalent of Poundland to get a few bits, a shop called Dollar Tree. To get there we headed down unfamiliar roads to a small retail outlet somewhere in the suburbs, Dollar Tree nestled in the corner as if it were hidden furthest out of sight from the casual visitor.
The first detail that struck me about Dollar Tree was the clientele. About four in five of those queueing at the tills were Latino, compared to – from my observation – zero in downtown Sonoma or in the wine tasting venues. The store clearly anticipates this, because when entering your eyes are met with the incongruous vision of helium balloons littering the ceiling, many with the words ‘Feliz cumpleaños a tí’ printed brightly on the silvery plastic.


The decorum of the boutiques was abandoned in Dollar Tree, as items spilled out of their shelves and baskets onto the thin green carpet. Above rows of soda bottles stacked up on shelves was a sign announcing Million Dollar Brands, printed in a goofy font next to the frozen section. When queueing for the till, we saw children stretching their tiny fingertips towards the shower of ribbons, eyes wild with glee as they jumped and clutched at the balloons.
The friendly community feel that permeated every establishment we visited in the Wine Country was here too, though it came across more like camaraderie. One exhausted staff member had just finished her shift as we waited at the checkout, and joked her goodbyes to each colleague with a weary smile. Till workers and customers all seemed to know each other by name, asking how so-and-so was and telling them to take care. It felt like a Californian outpost in a distant land, where old customs remain even as conditions differ, and people make the best of what they have.
Until recently in the neighbouring Napa Valley, immigrant farmhands slept by the rivers in tents, rented garages to crowd into with other workers and their family members during the season. Napa now has three farmworker housing centres, where $13 a night gets you a bed in a shared room, three meals a day, a shared washroom. Sonoma Valley has none of these centres, though the same problems exist with farmworkers being unable to afford local housing. I never got to see where these people live.
They don’t adorn the wine bars. Instead the grape’s fluid seeps into the cracks of their palms, colonising the exhausted body until it becomes one with the landscape they tend. While the lifestyles of some Californians mirror the pristine portraits of smiling faces that you see in the foreground of Visit California adverts, others are content with finger-painting the greens and yellows of rolling hills and neat rows of vines if it means that they can live. Their livelihood relies on the consistency of this image.


There is an immense irony in how all the local boutiques we entered were so keen to sell paintings of fields and vineyards with their iconic rusting metal barns – all devoid of the people without which this much-loved landscape would be unrecognisable. It’s akin to how tourists deftly turn their cameras away from human subjects in the photographs they take, as if the existence of these individuals in the picture would somehow reduce the authenticity of the landmark they’re trying to represent. As much as landscape images can give viewers a potent dose of a sensory environment, they stink of absence – of what lies outside the border; of the events and actions that led up to that moment.
Like the picturesque uniformity of a theme park, in California we have an image of living that entices everyone; a friendly sociability that everyone aspires to, in spite of material differences. The image repeats itself again and again and again in the acts of ordinary people, because it is a beautiful illusion. Whether their hands are grasping for helium balloons or the door to the balcony, fondling for grapes in the vines or stretching down to the wine fridge, it’s California they’re reaching towards.

 

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Places of Interest: Corner of Best Lane and High St., Canterbury




It has become part of my everyday routine in the last two years to eat my lunch while sitting on a singular bench that overlooks the corner of Best Lane and the High Street in Canterbury. As well as being located conveniently close to the public library, it turns out that this bench offers a narrow vantage point for peering out onto the high street; a snapshot of different characters acting out their days before disappearing behind buildings to the left and right, like performers exiting a stage.
On my way to the library one morning last October, I was surprised to see, outside Patisserie Valerie, a large figure covered in cloth, taped off from the gathering pedestrians. A short distance down the road in the Three Cities Garden, the usually quiet patch of grass buzzed with an audience of suits, dresses and heels, listening intently to a speaker I couldn’t see. Some detective work on the internet revealed that I’d stumbled upon the unveiling of a bronze statue of Geoffrey Chaucer, author of Canterbury’s most famous literary output, The Canterbury Tales. The statue saw his figure raised high above passersby on the high street, like a preacher in a pulpit, on a plinth also cast in bronze.


 

My view from the bench had been doctored; a permanent scene change. Watching how visitors react to the statue is a study in the social life of everyday spaces. What had previously been a blank space of paving stones, whose only function was to be stepped on and splattered with gum, had suddenly become a spectacle: a landmark to be photographed, a surface to touch and interpret. Where people once walked and stared straight ahead, only diverting to avoid the flows of oncoming traffic, people now turned their heads to gaze at the intruder on his platform; the speaker who speaks no words. The words come from the voices surrounding him.
Since his introduction, Chaucer’s statue has already undergone some transformations. On the first day of spring he was decorated with a flower on his ear, another time with a traffic cone for a hat. Chaucer just stands there, voiceless, but for the expressions of the diverse personalities gazing up at him. The tales of Canterbury are being re-written from below, in the acts of ordinary people.

__
Even the most mundane spaces can become meaningful through action. The evidence is all around us, if you discover how to find it.
For me, this happened on Best Lane two years ago, at eye-level on an unremarkable drainpipe.

 
The meaning here was not only in the eye-catching image, but how this rectangle of space now led to an alternate virtual reality. The drainpipe was a magician’s sleeve, disguising a portal to another dimension as slight as a playing card.
Other interventions here can transport you in a different sense, perhaps to a corner of the brain occupied by your giggling 5-year-old self.

 
Everywhere time and space is warped and stuck like gum on the pavement, pockmarking the outer surfaces of our lives with parallel worlds and their abnormal rules. In the Three Cities Garden I have found the most unexpected creations, lurking in what were nondescript spaces and times in my life; throwaway situations recycled and built anew.

 
 
 
 
The inventions never hang around for very long – these were gone within days. I can only assume that an active citizen or street cleaner of some kind saw fit either to steal them or throw them away. After all, the line between art and rubbish can be difficult to distinguish when you are using materials that have exceeded a given purpose. But looking at their appearance was enough to know that these objects were man-made achievements; that materials with natural properties had been bent and moulded to achieve some human aim or aesthetic.
Meaning, like a sticker on a drainpipe or gum on the pavement, is attachable and detachable; though it is much easier to attach than detach. For it always leaves some trace of its presence in a physical mark or residue, a record or memory, waiting to be rediscovered by fresh eyes and reshaped by the hands of time.

__
This corner is home to more than just human inhabitants. From the rooftop and awning of the West Cornwall Pasty Shop, a gang of about 10 pigeons survey proceedings, swooping down when they spot pasty crumbs and unsuspecting sandwich-eaters. In fact, given that they eat, sleep and hunt there, the pigeons probably have a greater claim to calling the space ‘home’ than humans do.

 
 

You wouldn’t notice how much they influence the area’s activity until you have sat and watched them at work. They become instant prey for staggering toddlers who chase them from the ground; the subject of laughter from tourists and teenagers who look down in amusement as the birds waddle frantically out of their path. I’ve honestly started to admire the lengths these birds will go in pursuit of food, flying straight into oncoming human traffic which, when you’re a bird, must be like a human walking in front of a herd of galloping giraffes.
Occasionally they gather round me during my lunchtimes, edging as close to the crumbs at my feet as they’ll dare, the slightest movement sending them spiralling away in panic. If this is their home, the pigeons are insurgents, risking everything by demanding a place to live in a citadel of concrete, bricks and mortar. We might see them as vermin; the breeding masses of an urban underclass. Yet ironically it is they who look down upon us. The streets may be ours to borrow – to pass through or stop awhile – but they rule the rooftops.

__

 

The Three Cities Garden was given its name in 2010, to celebrate Canterbury being twinned with Bloomington (USA) and Vladimir (Russia) for 25 years. Appropriately, this unassuming spot is also an attraction for international tourists, who sporadically flock to take photographs beside the red telephone boxes that are located inside.
Even as a local I can appreciate the symbolism. On rainy days, as I sit on a wet wooden bench, eating a packed lunch under an umbrella beside the red phone boxes, I feel unusually in tune with my English heritage, as if I’m sending a postcard to myself. I feel at home but in an abstract way: it is home through the lens of cultural icons that are recognised and cherished way beyond the bounds of my little life.
For some, this garden really is their home in a pragmatic sense. Located in the heart of town, close to public toilets, the public library and other local amenities, the spot is a favoured place of leisure for the homeless or those otherwise unoccupied. Usually once a week or so, a group turns up with a Bluetooth speaker and occasionally a tennis ball, and the garden unfolds like a toy box into music, cans of lager, raucous laughter and play; a kind of outdoor living-room party.
To others in this community, it is more like place of refuge; somewhere to seek the quiet company of a stranger who could maybe lend a listening ear or a cigarette. The person that comes to mind is Bernadette, a homeless lady who told me how she missed her sons who live away from Canterbury. I asked her if she could see them; if they could help her. For someone who has so little, her response was strikingly selfless: she didn’t want to trouble them.
This place to all, it seems, is somehow more than itself; multiple cities folded into a space no larger than an average back yard. It is home, but at the same time it is elsewhere, above, beyond and outside. It is both your relationships to others – however close, however far – and it is the lofty heights of wherever your own thoughts lead you.

__
Regularly immersing yourself in a space can be an effective way to make sense of the cacophony of rhythms that make places as complex as they are. It allows you to find patterns in the noise; witness actions carving into everyday reality like a caveman’s etchings, revealing a past, proclaiming a future, and letting them bleed into the present.
Apart from a small plaque and some concealed gravestones hidden in the corner of the Three Cities Garden, there’s little to show that this whole corner of Canterbury – up to the edge of the garden and extending down the high street almost to the bridge over the River Stour – used to be occupied by All Saints Church. A church had stood on the site since medieval times, being uprooted and upgraded successively and most recently in 1878, before it was demolished in 1937. The garden itself used to be the churchyard.


 

Yet even long after its demolition, the rhythms of church life are recalled like echoes from an unseen choir – in the music of homeless citizens gathered together, and the solemn, contemplative lunchtimes of those breaking from the demanding patterns of work and responsibility. Many will be familiar with the presence of ‘Canterbury Healing on the Streets’, who set up deck chairs in the space in front of Patisserie Valerie every Saturday. The church building may be physically absent, but its presence lives on in the mindful, reflective acts of pilgrims who seek out this corner of the city and its vibrant habitat.
‘Healing’ may be the wrong word, but my lunchtimes have revealed to me how taking the time to be aware of your surroundings – mindful of the chorus of relationships channelling into a place – teaches you more about yourself, but not in an introspective or narcissistic manner. It gives an ‘outrospective’ view of the self: being receptive to the environment and your place within it; appreciating what is larger than you alone, but also the part you play as an individual in the symphony of everyday life.
It is a religious experience.
And so the corner of Best Lane and the High Street is as significant as any other place you could think of, which is to say that it is part of a conspiracy far more widespread than you can ever know. Yet still you cannot help but participate in the illusion. For everywhere there are cathedrals sprouting from cracks in the pavement, seeding and flowering like eternal spring in the gardens of the mind.


Friday, 31 March 2017

Busking and Public Space in the Busybody State


Earlier this month, Havering Council announced their proposals for a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) in Romford town centre. If their plans go ahead, busking with an amplifier, or anywhere apart from locations designated by the council, would be a criminal offence punishable by a £100 Fixed Penalty Notice or a fine of up to £1000 if taken to court.
What might seem like an exceptionally draconian response to performing in public space is an increasingly familiar story in towns and cities across the UK. Not only has busking been regularly included in plans for PSPOs, but two London councils – Camden and Hillingdon – have opted to regulate the activity using licensing. The former, often considered the beating heart of London’s diverse arts scene, requires buskers to pay a non-refundable fee of £19 (acoustic) or £47 (amplified). If approved, a performer can only busk at the times and locations printed on their licence.
Busking has been a feature of our public spaces for centuries, from the minstrels and troubadours of medieval times to today’s digitally-minded contingent. It has seen the birth of countless careers in music and performing arts, providing a consistent yet constantly evolving creative atmosphere in our high streets. With such an established place in our culture and everyday lives, the current clamping down on busking demands the question: what does this trend mean for our public spaces, and for the craft of busking itself?
 
Public space in the busybody state
As we go about answering this question, it is important to remember that public space has never been ‘free’. There is a tendency in contemporary discussions of the subject to imagine a time in the past when people could do anything they wanted in public space.
Yet this perspective ignores a past in which public space has been the setting for a wide range of social exclusions, alongside more formal regulatory measures based in law and authority. For example, public spaces have consistently been less accessible (let alone usable) for women, ethnic minorities, the young, LGBT people, and other marginalised groups throughout the ages. The ancient Greek agora – often upheld as an icon of free political debate and social mixing – was a space largely out of bounds for slaves, women and travellers. Time and again, freedoms for one group in public space have meant restrictions for another.
Even formal busking regulations have a surprisingly long history. In the Middle Ages, Guilds of Minstrels were established to both protect and regulate their members. In Canterbury, it was ordained in 1526 that all minstrels be part of the city guild, whose rules restricted the playing of instruments on Sundays during mass or evensong, in taverns/inns unless hired, or in houses unless the instrument was being tuned. Later, in the Victorian period, the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 prohibited the use of ‘noisy’ instruments within the Metropolitan Police District ‘for the purpose of calling persons together, or of announcing any show or entertainment, or for the purpose of hawking, selling, distributing, or collecting any article whatsoever, or of obtaining money or alms.’
So it is important not to be overly pessimistic about the supposed decline or ‘end’ of public space, because public space has never attained the standards of ‘freedom’ that are often associated with it.
What is different today, however, is the style of regulation. There is now a whole network of officious mechanisms and actors that define the boundaries of acceptable conduct in public space, including forms, licences, codes of conduct, environmental health officers, private security guards, public liability insurance, health and safety guidelines, and more. Though each serves a slightly different purpose, they are mutually reinforcing. The terms of licences for public activities may be based on the latest health and safety guidance. Forms must be filled in to ensure compliance with codes of conduct, and the possession of public liability insurance. Together, these devices provide a ‘toolkit’ authorities can draw from to micromanage even the most mundane public activities.                                                      
The issue with this new form of officious regulation is that it tends to categorise which behaviours are acceptable or unacceptable in public space according to very arbitrary distinctions, which are then enshrined in law and policy to become the official standards. Licences and PSPOs dictate the exact times, locations, and even which types of instruments or performances are suitable in public spaces. Context becomes irrelevant, as the appropriateness of activities is specified by a series of absolutes. Busking with an amplifier becomes unacceptable by definition, regardless of how quiet the instrument is, or how loud the ambient noise in an area. Rules are enforced by officers and security guards because they are rules, not because they make sense in a given situation. Indeed, it becomes harder to justify your activity when you are arguing against a written statute rather than a person’s judgement.
The result is that you can no longer assume that what you’re doing is allowed until you’re told otherwise. Rather, it is a person’s responsibility to ensure that they fulfil the official requirements for their activity beforehand for it to be deemed acceptable.
So although public space is not necessarily less ‘public’ today, it is evident that our relationship with it is, in many places, becoming more formalised and less open to spontaneity.
Which, as we’ll see, may not be the kind of public space that we want.
 
Busking culture
If regulations are leaving less and less room for the spontaneous and unpredictable, it is perhaps unsurprising that busking is now a common target of officialdom. Busking is now so synonymous with non-conformity that the verb ‘to busk’ has taken on the alternative meaning ‘to improvise’. In their comprehensive history of street entertainment, Cohen and Greenwood explain that “the essence of street music is not in its technical perfection or tonal quality, so much as its spontaneity and freedom”.
“The busker is important, not merely because he brings us music on our way to work, but also because he represents the unpredictability and freedom that have been lost in most people’s regimented lives. The footloose musician has always been around and his different perspective on life can give a fresh point of view to that coming from masses of people all trained to think the same way.” Cohen and Greenwood, The Buskers: A History of Street Entertainment
In the world of local government bureaucracy and law enforcement, though, it’s often hard to convince those responsible for maintaining safe and functional public spaces that spontaneous art has any inherent value. Any use of public space that is not for the purpose of unobstructed movement, particularly between commercial properties, is seen as disorderly or even threatening. In fact, the Metropolitan Police have made the claim multiple times – without evidence – that busking encourages crimes such as pickpocketing. Following Wilson and Kelling’s influential ‘broken windows’ thesis, this judgement probably reflects the perception that signs of disorder in a neighbourhood can create the conditions for crime and other social problems.
Nonetheless, buskers can point towards other benefits of their craft that demonstrate its wider social value. One particularly evocative term that has been used to describe buskers is ‘civic lighthouses’, encapsulating the idea that buskers provide safety and reassurance on our streets, as well as being cultural landmarks in themselves. Not only can buskers act as eyes on the street to deter or witness wrongdoing, but also friendly sources of local information and confidants for people in need. Due to their shared presence on streets, buskers tend to forge a close and mutually supportive relationship with homeless communities, for example.
Those with purely commercial interests also have plenty to thank buskers for. By creating a vibrant atmosphere in urban centres, buskers can encourage higher footfall from which local businesses can benefit. Stories abound of buskers being offered free food and drink, money, and gigs based on their performances by establishments such as restaurants and pubs – an indication of the value that these businesses attribute to buskers. Additionally, the money earnt by buskers will often be invested back into the local economy when it is spent.
Perhaps the most meaningful impact of busking, however, is how it cultivates awareness of the different kinds of people and lifestyles that exist in our communities. Through their performances, buskers bare part of their soul; sharing a piece of their identity for others to freely access. Different voices, different styles of music, different appearances, different acts. Many will be familiar with the cheerful sight of a child utterly transfixed by a street performance, as if they’re under some magical enchantment. Busking for many people is the closest they get to experiencing live music and spectacle, particularly from diverse genres.
It is precisely this interaction with difference – and the social, cultural, and economic benefits these relationships create – that risks being stifled through the officious regulation of busking and public space more broadly.
 
What kind of public space do we want?
Fortunately, there are numerous organisations committed to making the case against the hyper-regulation of busking and street culture. Among the most prominent is Keep Streets Live, led by professional busker Jonny Walker, who advocate for freedom of expression in public spaces by engaging with local authorities, creating petitions, responding to PSPO and licensing consultations, encouraging support for busking using social and traditional media, and organising protests where necessary. Larger organisations including The Musicians’ Union, Liberty, Equity and The Busking Project have all stood alongside Keep Streets Live in their various campaigns, while smaller groups such as Buskers Unregulated have used social media to encourage the recording and sharing of interactions between buskers and officials, providing legal advice to performers who need it.
And in many cases, it’s working. After a long campaign by Keep Streets Live in 2012, Liverpool City Council backed down over their proposals to introduce £20 permits and compulsory public liability insurance costing £100 for buskers in the city. Now, Liverpool is a model location for unregulated busking, having worked with Keep Streets Live, the Musicians’ Union and the local Business Improvement District (BID) to produce ‘A Guide to Busking in Liverpool’. Informative rather than authoritative, this guidance outlines a simple approach to managing any issues arising from busking, encouraging amicable conversation rather than regulation. It is only when buskers consistently refuse to engage with affected parties and fellow buskers that intervention will be considered as a last resort, using the existing Public Order Act 1986 and Environmental Protection Act 1990 legislation.
Apart from resolving issues, the guidance also offers useful advice for buskers on choosing where to perform, and how to be considerate in their performances. While for residents, businesses, and local authorities, the document explains clearly what busking is and why it is considered a valuable activity.
Recognising the positives of this approach, other councils have followed Liverpool’s lead. Now York, Chester, Birmingham and Canterbury have adopted the same guidance, all after having originally planned to introduce stringent regulations for buskers.
The lesson to take from these outcomes is that councils are often willing to see the values of busking that is not formally regulated, but to be successful it needs methods that attempt to bring together all stakeholders to discuss what we want from our public spaces.
Understandably, co-operation can be difficult for some buskers. Many will have painful experiences of authority figures such as council officers and PCSOs, and many more will simply want to get on with their art rather than attend meetings. Equally, residents and businesses may struggle to sympathise with buskers if they have suffered at the hands of an inconsiderate minority. But being antagonistic towards other stakeholders tells people that their point of view is not being respected, which will only make them more likely to resort to the impersonal system of legal and officious channels to make their voices heard – a system that inherently leaves little room for negotiation and compromise.
That’s why the issue of busking regulation is not just about the loss of vibrant street culture, or the supposed ‘end’ of public space, but about what kind of public space we want to have. Do we want public spaces where every single interaction must go through official channels to be deemed acceptable? Do we want public spaces where every conflict of interest is resolved by complaining to council officers or the police, or taking legal action? Or do we want public spaces that are open to difference and free communication; that welcome diverse and creative users because all stakeholders understand the positives that these activities can bring, rather than assuming they are inappropriate until informed otherwise?
It is here, in the decisions that determine the future of our public spaces, that we can all learn a little from the openness and conviviality of the busking art form.
 

Monday, 27 February 2017

Passing Through


Once upon a grey weekend morning
I found myself at a large station
Catching a train to a nearby village.
 
As I ambled through the grand terminal
Important announcements filled the air.
Excursions to Paris, London and Brussels
Where towering structures dominate
And historic monuments of undoubted significance
Compose all-encompassing city skylines.
 
Disoriented, I stumbled onto a concourse
Deciphering signs and thinking aloud
Though all at sea and as yet unheard
I’m swept along by the ushering crowd.
 
Hustling, bustling
Footsteps quickening
Bumping of suitcases
Scraping, pattering
Clicking of heels
Clean polished floors
Mechanical clunking
Locking of doors.
 
Away from the frantic crusade
In some other reality
My train crept up to a platform.
I slipped on
Unnoticed
And the train disappeared into the fog.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Pokémon Go and Pervasive Games




When I try explaining to people my interest in pervasive games, I’ve found that my most common starting point has become “You know, like Pokémon Go, but…”
It’s fascinating how, since only last summer, Pokémon Go has effectively come to define a whole genre of games that merge the physical and in-game worlds – a genre that has existed for at least two decades. Digital technology has seen numerous transformations in this period, including the opening of GPS for civilian use in 2000, and the development of smartphones with high-speed mobile broadband from the end of the last decade. As these technologies have become more accessible, brought together in singular devices and now adopted to satisfy popular culture, pervasive games have evolved from niche, experimental art projects to a mainstream leisure activity.
I myself am a regular player of Pokémon Go, having continued playing after the initial surge of excitement in the summer. I still load up the game each day to catch Pokémon, obtain items from Pokéstops, and try to hatch Pokémon eggs as I walk. During this time I’ve had lots of opportunity to think about how Pokémon Go sits within this wider context of pervasive games.
Here, I want to focus particularly on what Pokémon Go does well and could do better with the current technology; and what we can learn about the potential of pervasive games from different examples of how digital technology has been used for playful purposes.
 
What are pervasive games?
Traditionally, playing games has entailed demarcating spaces, times and people to which the norms of everyday life are temporarily suspended, and the game rules dictate action. Participants enter these zones voluntarily, and agree on a range of activities – which may seem abnormal, socially unacceptable or pointless in real life – that are interpreted as playful and given new meaning in the context of the game. Johann Huizinga referred to this phenomenon as a magic circle – a separate world within the ‘real world’ that created new opportunities for imagination and stimulation through play, without being unnecessarily restricted by existing social norms and behaviours.
The distinctive quality of pervasive games is how they expand the magic circle to incorporate elements of real life. This expansion can be:

Spatial: Not geographically limited to spaces such as the playing field, the board or the games console. The game space can be very large (e.g. worldwide) or confined to a small area, and integrates the real-world environment in which people play.
Temporal: Not confined to certain times/time limits. The game can be ongoing – always in progress and with no envisaged end point – or can occur over long timescales such as weeks, months and years. Players often fit the game around other events in their lives.
Social: Not limited to a defined set of willing participants. Not only may players come and go from the game, but bystanders may be unwittingly implicated in the game’s activities. Players may be uncertain as to who is playing and who isn’t.                

Pervasive games therefore embrace the real-world context (spaces, times and social life) in which the activity takes place, while also re-interpreting it through the rules of the game, giving everyday things new meaning or relevance. Rather than marking out a separate realm for imagination, then, pervasive games can enable players to engage with the already-existing world in a critical and creative way, re-enchanting ordinary aspects of everyday life.              
 
Engaging with place
My main issue with Pokémon Go is that it misses out on much of this creative potential, because the gameplay’s interaction with the real world is largely superficial. When playing, I’m not engaging with the distinct and diverse features of the place I’m walking through. Instead, this complexity is flattened; reduced to cursory characteristics such as the presence of landmarks – notably, not their (hi)stories – distance walked, and locations where Pokémon spawn. I learn little about the qualities that make the places I visit unique and interesting. In fact I’m discouraged from looking up from my phone at all, in case I miss a Pokémon.
The result is that I have effectively the same level of engagement as when I play a Pokémon game on a games console, in which I can also visit landmarks, walk my eggs and find Pokémon. This is because I’m still mostly reliant on a world represented on-screen to be engaged. The only significant difference is that I can get exercise and fresh air as I walk around, which is positive for health purposes but not for creating innovative experiences.
One potential positive is that, by bringing me outside and encouraging me to walk around, the game gives me the option to explore places further if I want to. But this choice is largely independent of the game itself. Nothing about the game's design makes me want to look away from the screen and interact more mindfully with the environment. The desire to explore has to come totally from me.
An example of a pervasive game that provokes deeper interaction between the player and their physical environment is Geocaching. Geocaching is a GPS-led treasure-hunting game where players hide containers (‘caches’) in public places, sharing their coordinates and hints online so other players can look for them. Once found, players mark their discovery by signing logbooks located both inside the containers and online.
Here, the technology only takes players so far. Once players are in the vicinity of the cache, they must look away from their screens and use their senses to investigate the smallest details of the site; physically interacting with the environment to uncover the hidden container. Meanwhile, each cache has an online description that describes interesting details about its location, often including historical context, wildlife, things to see and do nearby, or personal stories that the cache owner wants to share about the place. On the same webpage, geocachers can share their own experiences of the location during the search for the cache. The virtual and physical components of the game together enable participants to interact with places in an insightful and exciting way.  
So while the technology in Geocaching is used to reveal what is remarkable about the place, the opposite is true in Pokémon Go, where basic details about the place are crudely extracted and mapped onto the player’s smartphone screen to coordinate the gameplay.
 
The limits of technology
Indeed, the technology is everything in Pokémon Go. When that fails or isn’t running, the game fails – it is unplayable. Yet in Geocaching it is the unreliability of the GPS itself, which varies depending on the device and quality of the satellite connection, that makes the treasure hunt a more thorough, challenging and ultimately rewarding task. The game acknowledges the limits of the technology and uses them to foster a more mindful and sensual interaction with the physical environment.
Blast Theory’s work has taken the idea of addressing technology’s limitations a step further, using the medium of pervasive games to explore what digital media can and can’t offer us for interacting with places and other people. In Uncle Roy All Around You – one of the early examples of pervasive games back in 2003 – individual ‘street players’ are given handheld computers that show maps and instructions from Uncle Roy, which they must use to find his office located somewhere in the city.  At the same time, online players at computer screens are shown a virtual representation of the street players’ surroundings, and can help to direct them to Uncle Roy’s office by sending them messages. Once the street player has found the office, both players are invited to participate in a further act of trust – would they be willing to make a year-long commitment to be there for a stranger in a moment of crisis? If a player agrees, they are paired with another consenting player and their contact details are shared.
The dual online and physical components of the gameplay juxtapose the immediate, detached characteristics of computer-based interaction with the complex, messy world of real-life places and relationships. Online players are unable to account for the range of obstacles and events that street players could encounter as they navigate the vibrant urban landscape, such as traffic and other pedestrians. Moreover, simply sending anonymous messages is a far cry from providing the emotional support needed to help someone in a crisis. Yet by interrogating these boundaries of interaction in the game, Blast Theory managed to enlist over 250 pairs of players to commit to being there for each other over the period of a whole year.
It was the hybridity of the experience in Uncle Roy – the uncertain attempts to traverse the real and the virtual through communication technology – that gave players the opportunity to think critically about trust, support, and the boundaries between reality and fiction in a society increasingly mediated by online relationships and digital representations of the self. Whereas in Pokémon Go, the experience is so subservient to the smartphone that thoughtful engagement with these boundaries is dwarfed by the absorbing on-screen gameplay.
Pokémon Go could learn from a variety of mixed-reality artworks produced in the last two decades, including audiowalks (e.g. The Missing Voice; LINKED) and oral history projects (e.g. [murmur]), which have demonstrated how careful balance between virtual and physical components enables each element to reveal something extraordinary about the other. The title of another Blast Theory work – A Machine to See With – encapsulates this idea of a widened perspective on social relationships and narratives, rather than a vision narrowed to the space of the smartphone screen.
 
Community building and innovation
To Pokémon Go’s credit, however, the format of the game has had some intriguing and mostly positive effects for building community. Many who have played the game will be familiar with the experience of spotting, and even making conversation with, other players of the game when in locations that host Pokéstops and Gyms. For a while in the summer it felt like the game had completely revolutionised public interactions, as an array of landmarks and spawn sites for rare Pokémon became hubs of player activity.
The more long-lasting impact, however, has been the establishment of online groups of Pokémon Go players within local areas. Although these groups are independent of the game, it is the game’s reliance on information sharing – to help players discover previously unfound Pokémon – that has encouraged players to talk to each other, share anecdotes and even meet up in real life to socialise. Being a member of one such group has taken me to places I wouldn’t have gone otherwise in search of rare Pokémon, leading to some memorable days out with my sister and five-year-old nephew. This certainly represents a social expansion of the magic circle; one that is creative of new relationships between people and the places they visit.
The game’s extensive social influence has meant that, unlike any other example, Pokémon Go has led to unprecedented awareness and interest in pervasive games. For me, this has been Pokémon Go’s most important intervention. The game’s popularity has hopefully enabled those in the creative industries to consider digital, mobile and locative technologies more seriously as tools for crafting innovative interactive experiences.
The reason why I’m particularly keen to draw attention to past examples of pervasive games is to enable prospective artists and developers to appreciate the creative potential of the medium, rather than just attempting to copy Pokémon Go’s formula or applying it to other franchises, which no doubt could also be lucrative. There is already talk about developing a Harry Potter Go game – a prospect that has excited many fans of the series, and will have left plenty in the games industry seeing dollar signs.
But as mobile digital technologies and our relationships with them continue to evolve, it would be more beneficial to see developers experimenting with pervasive games, exploring the range of human experiences they can and can’t offer. For playful art gives us unique opportunities to test different configurations of virtual and physical activity in an engaging way, as our everyday lives are increasingly distributed between the two.
Let’s use these lessons from Pokémon Go as a step forward in the pursuit of this ambition.
 
Further reading
This very useful summary of what pervasive games are. If you look on the same blog, you’ll also find some interesting discussions on the design and safety of pervasive games.
An excellent academic paper about Geocaching and re-enchanting the city by Maja Klausen, which also talks about the expansion of the magic circle.
This insightful article written when Pokémon Go was first released by Professor Steve Benford (who has collaborated with Blast Theory on a number of projects) on the wider context and issues around pervasive games.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Welcome to Blast Theory


Artist Ju Row Farr's most welcoming smile
 
This November and December I’ve been working as a volunteer with Blast Theory, a 4-times BAFTA nominated art collective based in Brighton. Their work uses interactive media and live performance to explore social relationships, contemporary culture and politics, and the boundaries between fiction and reality.
Despite being around since 1991, winning a long list of awards and being internationally renowned, I’ve noticed that there are still many people with interests in art and digital technology who are yet to be acquainted with Blast Theory. Here, I want to introduce you to the community by sharing my experiences of their work over the past year – as an academic, an audience member, a participant, and now as a volunteer.
Guiding you through the moments in which the group’s work has shaped my life in these different roles, I’ll be demonstrating how Blast Theory has something genuinely constructive to offer everyone.                        
___
My first steps into the world of Blast Theory were slow and inquisitive. Starting my new Art, Performance and the City module during my Masters, my attention was instantly drawn to the title of one of our upcoming seminars – ‘Playing the City: Performance, Technology and the Public’ – with none other than Blast Theory’s Matt Adams as a guest speaker. The seminar promised an exploration of how play, games and their associated technologies can expand our understanding and experience of cities – a topic that magically welded together my budding academic interest in video games with my earlier work on public space.
I was filled with that buzz of anticipation that is the addiction of countless researchers and knowledge seekers. Eager to find out more, I couldn’t resist taking an early dip into the seminar’s reading list, where I discovered a couple of papers written directly about Blast Theory’s work by digital media scholar Marcos Dias.
The subject of these papers was A Machine to See With, a Blast Theory production from 2010. This locative performance sees participants become protagonists in a live heist movie as they walk through the city. Using mobiles to make and receive calls from an automated phone system, they are guided through a series of ethically questionable tasks towards the eventual fictitious objective of robbing a bank, believing that every action they take is being filmed.
Mindful of the fiction behind the event, participants scrutinise everything they encounter in the real-world urban environment: hyper-aware of the smallest details in their surroundings, the subtle acts of strangers, and their own performances as they are being filmed. Yet at the same time, the participant is made aware of the limits that this technology imposes on interacting with the city. The automated voice on the end of the phone is oblivious to the predicaments participants face as they negotiate the urban environment in real-time, including potential dangers, mishaps, and even past participants attempting to interrupt the story for others. By the time the event reaches its climax, the real and the fictional are blended almost beyond recognition. It becomes a performance for the participants themselves.                            
The themes from this piece are reflected in much of Blast Theory’s repertoire. The artists are keen for participants in their works to interrogate the interactive potential of technology, encouraging them to explore the intricate relationships between the virtual and the material, anonymity and surveillance, agency and control in our mediated social experiences.
The critical ethos behind their work is strengthened by how the content of their projects often engages with current social and political issues, encouraging people to re-think what worlds are possible, probable, or indeed morally desirable. Taking place shortly after the financial crisis, the bank heist story in A Machine to See With was in part an exploration of the agency that individual citizens can have in the face of the seemingly impervious forces of global capitalism.
So although their methods are playful, it is mostly play in the sense of re-imagining; momentarily allowing people to loosen the rigid boundaries that govern their social interactions to illuminate – and potentially change – how they are conventionally understood.
___
Our seminar with Matt Adams in March introduced me to more examples of this, including the live storytelling productions of My One Demand, a film broadcasted in one continuous shot; and The Thing I’ll Be Doing for the Rest of My Life, during which a team of volunteers push a 30-tonne boat through the streets of Nagoya, Japan. I was intrigued by the way that Blast Theory used interactive methods to allow people to share experiences in ways I’d never seen or considered before, with such striking and enduring impacts on those who participate despite the short-lived nature of the practice itself.
I became increasingly keen to experience a Blast Theory project for myself.
So later on in June I downloaded Karen, Blast Theory’s ‘life-coaching’ app in which users take part in short ‘sessions’ each day, answering questions posed by Karen, your life coach. It soon becomes clear, however, that your relationship with Karen goes beyond the considerate professionalism you’d anticipate. As she shares some quite personal details about her own life, her interest in you also becomes unnervingly intimate. She seems to know a little too much.
This is because Karen uses your answers to build a profile, based on a series of psychological profiling tests, which then determines how she interacts with you. When you complete the experience, you are given the option of buying a data report generated from the answers you submitted, which exposes how the intricate systems used by the app created your personality profile.
Like so much of Blast Theory’s work it was an unsettling yet revealing experience, uncovering how digital and data-based communication profoundly affects our interpersonal relationships and our identities – the ways we understand ourselves and others. Although I’ve used a wide range of helpful apps for information, entertainment and communication, I learnt more about the boundaries of my relationships with these technologies and other people through Karen than any other app has taught me.
I didn’t wait long before making my next foray into the familiar unfamiliarity of Blast Theory territory, having learnt that Operation Black Antler – a project that previously took place in Brighton – was coming close to home in Chatham for three days in late June. This would be my first live Blast Theory event, and one that immediately sent me outside of my comfort zone. My task: to play the role of an undercover police officer at a party, attempting to win trust and information from members of an extreme right-wing group.
It was the day after the EU referendum result. Wandering through unfamiliar territory in Chatham town centre, on my walk I encountered a stumbling, drunken middle-aged man who slurred a futile request: could I educate him? The sodden streets still tender from the fiery rhetoric of the referendum coverage, I felt disconcertingly out of place: a university-educated arts student in working-class Chatham.
I received a text telling me to meet the rest of my team outside the Argos on the high street, where we were silently shepherded into a nearby abandoned building. Splitting into small groups with people we’d never met before, we were briefed on our targets, the event, and our objectives. We only had a short time to devise our undercover alter-egos before being swiftly thrusted into a poky bar a short walk away, barely remembering the details we’d heard only minutes previously.
It was an uncompromising introduction to life undercover, and one that taught me as much about my moral compass as the fictional far-right group I’d attempted to infiltrate. Unlike watching a documentary or reading a news article, I had to come to terms with the ideology by living it; spending time with its advocates, sharing their spaces, and taking on a new persona. It radically expands your perspective when you’re forced to argue from – and empathise with – a point of view that you’re not acquainted with, or maybe even opposed to.                         
At the end, the groups came together to decide if a full-time undercover operative should be sent in to monitor the group. We now had to judge whether the kind of people we’d pretended to be, and had socialised with for an hour, were dangerous enough to warrant such invasive surveillance.          
This is interactive art’s superpower. By putting you in situations you wouldn’t normally encounter and inviting you to participate in them – whether by playing roles, making decisions, or taking actions – Blast Theory are giving you the chance to learn about and develop your unique sets of instincts and moral boundaries as an individual. It is a process of rediscovering yourself.
___
Around this time I’d been carrying out research for my Masters dissertation on video games, and I couldn’t help but be struck by the crossovers between Blast Theory’s work and the interactive artworks I was studying. Both typically involve assuming a different identity or role, entering new environments, and interacting with what you find there to guide your experience. Though in the likes of Operation Black Antler and A Machine to See With, this identity play manifests more as a process of provoking the transformative potential in existing, real-world people and places than attempting to create whole new fictional worlds with their own distinct characteristics. This is why such experiences are often referred to as ‘augmented reality’ – an area in which Blast Theory has been widely recognised as a leading light, long before the fanfare that accompanied the recent arrival of Pokémon Go.
I’d been fascinated by augmented reality for a while, writing a whole coursework paper on the subject earlier in my Masters study. Though it was through Blast Theory’s work that I became acutely aware of how this area of interactive art seemed to encapsulate my academic interests in studying the relationships that make places meaningful; yet also inspired me creatively as a powerful method through which these stories could be told in an immersive, engaging way.
So when I saw Blast Theory’s callout for volunteers to work with them between July and December, I realised how the programme was an exceptional opportunity to learn how such creative projects are developed on a day-to-day basis, and draw on this experience as I pursue a path towards making my own interactive art.
Being accepted onto the volunteer programme felt like the most encouraging welcome I could possibly receive as a newcomer to working professionally in the arts sector. After all, Blast Theory is a registered charity, and their commitment to supporting aspiring artists and innovation in the creative industries is clear to see from the range of talks, mentoring, and other opportunities they continue to provide both inside and outside the studio.
Since I began volunteering in early November, I’ve come to witness this benevolent impetus in their creative work first-hand. Blast Theory’s most recent project, A Place Free of Judgement, empowered a group of 30 young people to live broadcast a 9-hour takeover of three libraries. Exploring and celebrating storytelling as an art of sharing experiences – and libraries as sanctuaries for this practice – the young participants led viewers through their imaginations of these spaces; directing the camera, having fun, and sharing something of themselves. Online audiences were able to contribute their own stories, which took creative physical form in the libraries as our performers read aloud, drew pictures, sang, and wrote the words to hide between books.
At a time when funding for both libraries and the arts is dwindling, Blast Theory have sought to use their artistic endeavour to enable, support and inspire others to cultivate their own creativity. That is an art to be admired in itself.
It’s also a motivation that extends beyond the short-term impact of single events. In upcoming project 2097: We Made Ourselves Over, the group is aiming to encourage conversation about our collective future over the coming century by teaming up with Hull UK City of Culture 2017 and Aarhus European Capital of Culture 2017. Workshops are being hosted with residents young and old in each city to hear their ideas about what the future of our cities could/should look like, alongside insights from experts attempting to answer these questions for issues as broad as climate change, infrastructure, and spirituality. What is our capacity for self-determination in an uncertain future? What can our minds and technologies offer us as we plan for the forthcoming decades?
In this role Blast Theory are like toolmakers; intricately crafting the instruments with which people can discuss, design and build their ideas of the future.
___  
Making art can often seem quite a selfish pursuit. Not only do we devote significant quantities of our own time and resources to expressing ourselves, but we sometimes ask for other people’s too. In this respect, maybe the most valuable lessons I’ve learnt from Blast Theory are the ways that art can be selfless. While their projects are perhaps the most visible sign, this spirit reaches out continually through the Blast Theory community, a vast but close-knit network that draws from and works with artists, researchers, organisations, freelancers, and keen participants from all walks of life.
I’m touched by how warmly I’ve been welcomed into this community over the past year, and I hope that this piece can encourage others to join in the experience.
Believe me – you’ll get as much out as you put in.