Saturday 27 March 2010

Playing in a city

Following are my notes from a panel I spoke at in Tokyo as part of Connected, the British Council's expedition taking a bunch of interactive theatre artists to Japan. I was on the panel with Matt Adams of Blast Theory, Duncan Speakman of subtlemob, Yuya Tsukahara of Contact Gonzo, and Kensuke Sembo and Yae Akaiwa from exonemo.

The panel was on making art in cities, and followed the previous day's panel on the same theme from a group of producers and curators, including Andy Field of Forest Fringe who has already posted his notes here. I'm posting these 'cos Andy asked.


Coney is an agency of adventure and play
What does that mean?
It means we make live interactive play.
Live meaning that it is responsive and talks and listens to you, the audience, and responsive too for who you are and where it is happening.
And that it's all about the audience. You are it.
The story happens wherever you are and it might be all about you and you take the leading role.

Oh and part of the game of Coney is that it is led by Rabbit. Which might be this but more likely this. But more on Rabbit in my twelve noon presentation.

Coney and digital: Because the event is about the audience, we often talk to them using digital technology to bring them into the story wherever they are.

Digital infrastructure means that we can bring people to work that is happening in any place.
People were talking yesterday about flashmobbing. It's a tool to gather an audience together.
At the end of the adventure that we made happen in around and about the National Theatre, the playing audience were assembled on the north bank of the river facing the National.

They were waiting for a signal, they didn't know what it would be.

They were in the perfect place to see the gigantic illuminated sign on the front of the building that normally advertises the plays at the National suddenly changed to a message from Rabbit that led them into the adventure.

The National Theatre is a public institution with an architecture which reflects that role. An architecture that is used by people in particular ways.

We spent a while observing what the building is, how it is used and looking for its affordances for adventure.

This word affordance. I know it from perception psychology but it is also in interaction design. It is all the uses and properties of an object or an event or a place. Not just the ones that it is designed for. Some of them can be surprising, and you can make play with those.

With the National, another part was that Rabbit sent people on a little adventure into the story which involved them ringing a phone from a concrete symbol outside the building, going down into the carpark, finding their way into the lifts through a spooky door and going all the way to the top floors - which are completely empty during the day - and meandering down before going into the bookshop, buying an out-of-date leaflet on the history but knowing to ask the staff for it to be gift-wrapped with a wink, which gave them a package with...

By having an adventure in the building about the building we could transform the way people felt inside that place and the way they perceived the building.

It was really important that we used the reality of the building and its people in the story of the adventure, wrote the least possible fiction, because that meant that people wouldn't know what was real and what was Rabbit. Because the authorship is obscured, it means that everything could be part of it, and perceptions of your place are heightened and transformed.

After an adventure Rabbit led along the banks of the Thames on Valentine's night, one player wrote that their most memorable moment was meeting a busker who was playing Smells Like Teen Spirit on a banjo. They were almost certain that something so unusual and beautiful was part of the adventure. It wasn't. But it's the almost that's key, the uncertainty that is transformative.

This is public space. But that space is encroached by corporate space, private land owned by corporations who then determine the uses of that space. When Rabbit returns later this year it is likely in an adventure called The Green - SPOILER REMOVED - It's something that will start in London but then could happen in cities all over the world.

Here's something else about cities that interests me. Cities grow in similar ways so as much as they are different there are commonalities too. They may be uncontrollable but it is not without underlying principles. For example big cities are often on rivers, often by the sea. The areas near the docks will have been poor, with migrant communities refreshing every generation, unless the docks have fallen into disrepair when they will have first been transformed by artists, who always hunt for cheap space, and then by estate agents… You get the idea.

Buildings too. Institutional theatres, train stations, petrol stations, hotels, they have so much in common, wherever they are. They will have similar affordances for adventure and play, wherever they are.

And neighbourhoods. A little Coney seed piece made in collaboration by myself and Annette Mees in London with Hey Fan in Beijing, we have never met in the real world but over Skype. The piece is called Hutong. It's this red rectangle. You place it on a map of your neighbourhood at a scale of your choosing. And then you must walk the perimeter of the rectangle in your neighbourhood as best you can. Looking out for landmarks along the way - a place of books, a temple, a clock, happiness - landmarks that Fan saw when he made the first Hutong journey around the neighbourhood of Beijing that is itself called Hutong. And following other directions - on the south side, acknowledge all the dogs that you meet, on the east side, go into a cafe you've never been in before, ask the server what is their favourite hot drink and then have that. And anyone anywhere in the world can do their own Hutong. It makes you see the place in which you live in a different way and to make connections with strangers and strange places across the world, the beauty and mundanity of everyday life. Commonality and difference. The affordances of a place.

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