Unpeeling the city

Posted in cities, culture, digital by thenextwavefutures on 3 October, 2016

Starting out

The first modern theorist of the city, Henri Lefebvre, said a couple of things about the city that seem relevant here. I found these in the anthology Restless Cities. First, that to understand the city one must “situate oneself simultaneously inside and outside of it.” And second, that to understand the rhythms of the street, “it is necessary to get outside them, but not completely; be it through illness or a technique.”

A technique, perhaps, like Remote London, an experiential artwork that journeys through the city, and which sets out to unpeel layers of the city by making the familiar strange. It is the latest of a number of “Remote X” events held in different cities in Europe.


I’m going to be vague about the details of the journey, since the sense of discovery is part of the experience, but we arrived at a park in central London to collect a set of headphones and were guided along a route that dropped us off an hour and three quarters hour later at a location south of the river, having gone part of the way by train.

The experience: there’s some kind of mix of the derivé, a touch of ethnomethology and quite a lot of sound design. The voice we hear is computer-generated, and the script makes much of the relationship between the machine and the human:

I’m not human but I shall try to be your friend.

City as backdrop

Remote London uses the elements of the city as a backdrop. For example, at King’s Cross station, we were invited to treat the station entrance as a proscenium arch, with the actors and the extras on the stage beyond playing the parts of people on a journey. South of the river, some silent dancing around a plinth in a park, surrounded by benches, thereby also constructing an “audience”; before that, an impromptu demonstration, branding objects of personal importance to us.


Starting out

It was striking, though, that people seemed unfazed by a group of a dozen people or so with identical headsets acting in an unusual way in public spaces. The only place where this wasn’t true to any extent was when we used our hands as binoculars to study our immediate surroundings.

And this called to mind another influential book about the city, Jonathan Raban’s 1970s Soft City, in which the city is a sponge that is able to absorb endless degrees of difference.

The crowd and the individual

The mechanics. One of the critical ideas in the history of the city is the relationship between the crowd and the individual, and the event plays with some of this, locating us with the others on the journey as part of the same “horde” (their word), and then pulling us apart again as individuals. Spoilers, but the demonstration was followed by a treatise on shopping; the silent disco, a shared in group experience, was followed by a footrace.

It’s a labour intensive event. Without spoiling the experience, there are multiple stories and multiple storylines; it became clear towards the end that not everyone was hearing the same soundtrack. From time to time the horde is fractured into parts before being pulled back together again. A small number of animateurs is mediating, live, between the technology, the group and the experience.


Starting out

“Automated dictatorship”

This is just as well, because the unexpected does happen. A church had an unanticipated meeting, and unexpectedly one of the Remote London sound channels crashed the sound circuit that the speaker at the church event was being broadcast on. So just as well that the animateur crashed out of the story at that point, and regrouped outside, since the audio line has a distinctive Biblical subtext at that point.

With a futures lens, one of the purposes of futures work is to make the present strange. There is certainly something strange about having your experience of the city managed and mediated by a computer-generated voice embedded in sound design.

As we got off the train, our guide, Rachel, told us to “say goodbye to the trapped people.” As we crossed the road: “Remember, every traffic light is an exercise in automated dictatorship.” Similarly, it will be hard to look at the entrance to King’s Cross station in the same light again. At a personal level, some of the moments created by Remote London were both strange and magical.

Remote London runs on selected dates through October. More information here. The photos are by Andrew Curry, and are published here under a Creative Commons Licence.

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