Uncertain Eastside presentation for Performance Fictions symposium

Sadie Plant invited me to contribute to her presentation on ‘psychogeography and the city’ as part of the Performance Fictions symposium held at the Electric Cinema yesterday.

‘Performance Fictions’ is the fourth event in art-writing-research network created by researchers from BCU, Goldsmiths, Reading University and University of the Arts London. Article Press, BCU, will publish the papers and contributions from the various events in Spring 2010, to be distributed by Central Books. The volumes will constitute series one of Article Press’s art-writing-research publications.

After Sadie explored Birmingham’s historical rootlessness and uncertainty of place – its location at and function as, a junction – I gave a 10-minute presentation about the Uncertain Eastside work in progress. Below is a transcript with images.

___

When I graduated from BIAD about 3 years ago, it was to emerge into a lot of talk about plans for a brand new cultural quarter covering a chunk of one side of the city. I was concerned and confused by the apparent desire to suddenly plonk a fully-formed artist-led space into position amongst the warehouses.

Detail from THE ANTI-TALENT ZONE

Detail from THE ANTI-TALENT ZONE

My response was to wipe the streets of the designated area free of their existing names. And to add one.

The politics of regeneration is beyond the scope of today’s presentation, and I have little patience for it anyway, but I want to take the opportunity to use this image to show you how closely the borders of the City Council’s Eastside regeneration area are linked to the major traffic routes in and around the city.

In green, as we go up the left hand side is the ring road, going up, just out of shot to the roundabout where it meets the A38 on its way to spaghetti junction. Coming down via Corporation Street, the pedestrian routes of Hight Street and the Bullring area, and the across Digbeth Deritend back to the ring road. The criss-cross of roads and pathways are again being used to define parts of Birmingham.

In 2006 this was mostly all unknown territory to me. By 2009 it was still mostly unknown territory, but now with small incursions around Digbeth and Curzon Street. When I decided I wanted to return to some of the questions raised by the area’s regeneration, it was apparent that my first step should not to be to research it in an academic manner, and subject myself to all the spin, but to get out there and experience it directly.

Bench on roundabout on Coventry Road

Bench on roundabout on Coventry Road

Construction site with sort-of graffiti

Construction site with sort-of graffiti

Greasy spoon internet café

Greasy spoon internet café

Shops and bus stops under the railway lines

Shops and bus stops under the railway lines

Socks

Socks

Subway rambler

Subway rambler

I’ve spent the last month and a half repeatedly walking around the perimeter that defines Eastside, paying attention to how these spaces are being used at different times and by different groups of people. I’ve also been wrestling with how I might fit into the picture.

I wanted to document the process of walking this line, so on each 90-minute circuit I took with me 2 satnav GPS devices that I have programmed to log my position once every second. Rather than doing a straight-forward trace of my journey though, I was interested to see how the cityscape affected my position as seen by the machines.

GPS drawing from two laps around Eastside

GPS drawing from two laps around Eastside

Detail from previous slide

Detail from previous slide

Each of these lines joins my position as determined by the machine in my left hand to my position as determined by the machine in my right hand. The longer the line, the more they disagree.

Despite what we are led to believe, GPS is actually pretty flaky. All sorts of things can affect its accuracy. There may be 3 rather than 8 satellites overhead at that particular time; my body may be blocking the satellite signal; and large buildings and areas of concrete can bounce the signals around. All these affect the perceived position.

Errors and glitches

Errors and glitches

Errors and glitches

Errors and glitches

Looking at the results from any one walk I can see a whole host of different glitches and errors. To be honest, they’re what make GPS an interesting thing for me to work with.

Composite drawing from 6 laps around Eastside

Composite drawing from 6 laps around Eastside

Through overlaying the traces of several laps, however, you can start to filter out the anomalies … or at least start to read which of them are caused by the fabric of the city-scape.

Here’s the cumulative result after 6 laps…

Stood near the base of the Rotunda

Stood near the base of the Rotunda

This detail is from the area at the base of the rotunda, at the edge of the Bullring shopping centre. The long, haphazard lines caused by the tall, closely-packed buildings.

Ring road

Ring road

By contrast, the comparatively open space of the ring road gives shorter, much more uniform lines, occasionally buffeted around by a large warehouse building.

Ashted Circus

Ashted Circus

Here is Ashted Circus, where I momentarily loose contact with the satellite signals as I go through some underpasses.

The Other Side

The Other Side

Whilst walking with the satnavs I was given glimpses of other sorts of errors – biases towards the car, roads I couldn’t cross, residential areas the other side of seemingly impassable road boundaries.

Beautiful scary

Beautiful scary

Sunken oases inside the rings of roundabouts – beautiful but also possibly harbouring great danger.

However, due to restraints in using the GPS logging, I could only observe these in passing. I had to keep moving at a steady pace. I could speculate, but never investigate.

Participants document a building in Digbeth

Participants document a building in Digbeth

So, last Sunday I invited others to join me for an investigative walk. Nominally following the route around the edge of Eastside, but allowed the freedom to drift from it to explore things that caught our eye.

Walk

Walk

Look

Look

Touch

Touch

Climb

Climb

Dare

Dare

We walked, we explored, we looked at stuff, we touched stuff, we climbed on stuff and we dared to cross to the in-between places.

Blog post on Digbeth is Good, http://digbeth.org/2009/10/a-walk-around-uncertain-eastside/

Blog post on Digbeth is Good, http://digbeth.org/2009/10/a-walk-around-uncertain-eastside/

Pete Ashtons blog post, http://peteashton.com/2009/10/eastside_is_uncertain/

Pete Ashton's blog post, http://peteashton.com/2009/10/eastside_is_uncertain/

People are now starting to post their photos from the day online, and their accounts of what happened are starting to appear on blogs where the stories and viewpoints overlap. We also exchanged stories between us whilst we were walking along the route. In situ. It’s my feeling that we needed the 3.5 hours of walking to get to the point where we could gather around the ‘map’ at the pub and have an in-depth conversation about what it signifies. I find this happens a lot – that you need the group performance before you can get to the meaty discussion.

I guess that in terms of this symposium, we’re talking more about performed narratives, rather than performed fictions per se, but I’m expecting the edges to blur somewhat, especially as we move into the phase where we compile the accompanying publication of thus chapter of the project.

After unfurling some of the stories, we will gather some of the images taken by the participants into a publication with the aim of making a document to record this face of Birmingham before it reinvents itself again.

___

From here, Sadie speculated that this sort of drift along a route defined by roadways, exploring the details, progress logged by satnav devices, might be psychogeography 21st Century style.