Playable City Tokyo

Playable City Tokyo

I was recently one of four British participants selected to take part in Watershed’s Playable City project in Tokyo. Working alongside 7 Japanese counterparts and an awesome support team from the Pervasive Media Studio and British Council Japan, we spent a week exploring the theme of playful welcomes:


In 2020, the world will focus on Japan for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. In the run up, the construction period and during the games themselves, thousands of people will visit the city who have not been before. With the theme of  a ‘Playful Welcome’, seven Japanese and four UK participants will collaborate and develop playful ideas to connect visitors and local people to each other and to the city, during this exciting time.

…The Playable City Tokyo 2016 Creative Lab and Forum programme is part of the trial research project for the governmental “Basic Policy for Promoting Measures related to Preparations for and Management of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2020”.

Further details about who was involved can be found on the Lab’s page on the Playable City website.

It was an intense week with a lovely group of intelligent, observant, generous people all riffing off each other and their surroundings; poking at gaps in language and disjoints between cultures, asking many questions and exploring even the smallest of details alongside the big questions.

Some of the very many things we packed into that too-short amount of time included some of the following…

Looking up

A map-making exercise of the area around the WIRED lab in Ark Hills where we were based. These maps led us to complete creative activities, to seek out the deity hidden in plain view and to chase after leaves. The one I made was effectively a prompt for people to slow down and to look up: a sort of treasure hunt of details and views.

Looking up

We also concocted small games for each other. Jo and I were set the Chopsticks Challenge which comprised several tasks that had to be completed working together elbow-to-elbow to make a pair of chopsticks with our forearms. I’m quite impressed with our portrait of Hilary!

chopstick drawing

As the week progressed we were allocated to different teams and we began the task of a more focussed critique of Tokyo and the processes of interaction and integration we might like to see happen as visitors start to arrive as part of the upcoming Olympic Games.

group sharing

We filled many ginormous sheets of paper with notes and diagrams like this:


(I can assure they all made perfect sense at the time!)

Gradually the concrete room we were colonising became covered in the traces of our thought processes and we began to distil out key themes and assemble them into a proposal for things-that-might-be.

With limited time and resources, prototyping was very lo-fi …but fast, and full of energy. Also little magic moments like this demonstration of a restaurant queue enlivened into a collaborative dance routine by responsive light panels in the floor!

magic moment

Other experiments took place outside.

We only got into trouble with the local security guards twice in the whole week…


As our ideas got bigger they also started to ask more questions about the types of interactions we wanted to nurture, the places we wanted these interactions to happen and how we wanted to mediate these.

Our group repeatedly grappled with the ideas of gateways, rabbitholes and entrances, so when it came time to take our prototyping outside to include real people and places, we chose to take things right back to basics and to do some experiments questioning how the very first invitation might work. What does it take to bring someone over that line between playing and not playing?

To focus in on the invitation we had to choose play that was familiar enough that we wouldn’t need to explain the rules. One thing led to another and suddenly we were armed with a selection of signs and an escalator in the nearby shopping centre.

pick one

Our aim was to use the fixed space and timespan of the journey up the escalator as a space in which to recruit people to playing a game of Rock, Paper, Scissor (or Janken Pon) at the moment that they reached the top.

janken escalator

We tried different signs in the approach to the escalator and also on and alongside the escalator itself, but without much uptake at all. It wasn’t until we ‘rebranded’ the escalator as The Janken Escalator that things started to turn around.

Perhaps not at all unsurprisingly, the real change came when we had a person waiting at the top of the escalator, ready to start throwing shapes. Up until then we’d had a poster with a pre-made choice that the player ‘played’ against by making their choice – and grabbing a piece of paper representing it – on the way up.

Playing with a real person is just loads better!

(c) British Council, photo by Kenichi Aikawa

© British Council, photo by Kenichi Aikawa

Again I think we raised as many questions as we answered, but that’s when you know things are interesting. Alas we were out of time, though, and the following day we were presenting our research to a room full of people before wrapping up and saying our goodbyes.


Also traces

You can see my Flickr album of photos from the workshop here:

It was a wonderful, challenging, stimulating workshop to have been a part of and it’s left me hungry for more of the same. It’s also been interesting to have had the work flow structured by someone else – making me reflect on the processes I would normally work though and highlighting aspects that I find more or less important to me in my practice. For example, in particular I felt the lack of having a specific place to be designing interactions for. What was interesting though was that I also felt the lack of having a technological system to work with too.

Normally I’d be reciting a mantra of “don’t start with the technology”, but Playable City is ultimately about being playful with the infrastructure of a place (rather than just being playful in a place) and it felt like that was missing a bit from the ideas we explored.

I wonder both how I would approach the brief if I tackled it by myself, but also how we would build on what we did in that one week if we tackled it again as a group.

I think even if I did do a solo project I’d be carrying the Playable City cohort with me: my perception of Tokyo is now mediated through the eyes and experiences of everyone in the group and the things that they shared.


Welcome to Stirchley (Take me; I’m yours)

Limited edition laser-cut plaques for those who know where to find them.

Welcome to Stirchley

Welcome to Stirchley

Mis-fitting at Birmingham Institute of Art and Design

This term I’m doing some Visiting Tutor work teaching into a project for the second year BA Art & Design students.

The original idea was ‘Body Architecture’. Here’s what the brief evolved into after my recruitment:

Creative Mis-fitting

Watch the following music video:

We see someone wearing a succession of body sculptures (is it fashion? art? architecture?) as they walk through the city and prompt a variety of responses from the Normal People.

When we work in the bubble of an art school, it’s easy for us to forget the world outside and how our work might be perceived by those who have not encountered similar things before. We’re going to take our work outside.

Starting at the Margaret Street school of art, walk, run, slide, skate or use an alternative mode of locomotion for 3 minutes 50 seconds (the length of the music video). The place where you find yourself at the end of that time period is the place you will locate your work. Make sure you have arrived at your own space and are not within 20 metres of another Mis-fitter’s location.

Your brief is to design, construct and ultimately wear a body sculpture that responds to and in some way fits your location, whilst at the same time misfitting people’s expectations of what they might encounter in that place. Find a niche or other point of leverage at your location for your construction to echo – a bit like how the guy in the video’s costumes echo the things that are thrown at him. You will be wearing your work, so you also need to consider how it relates to your body and how you will move whilst wearing it.

You will document the process of arriving at your location, finding the bit to riff off, constructing your attire and any interactions that arise out of you and your costume inhabiting your location.

The project launched yesterday and I joined them in the afternoon to give a lecture on the-sort-of-stuff-I-do-and-the-things-I-think-are-interesting-about-working-in-public-space. This included: an overview of Dust, leading on to the importance of interfaces; objects as permission-givers; magic vests; triangulation; vibrant social spaces; interactions with/between strangers; Urban Sensation Transformers; silly hats and the implications of different design aesthetics; city as playground; rule-bending and transgression; comfort zones and accumulation of actions.

Following this we went outside into Birmingham city centre (Victoria Square and Chamberlain square for some blindfold work and giving the students a way in to working (and being vulnerable) in front of an incidental audience.

Working with one blindfolded person and one chaperone, they were given the following exercises:

  1. Blindfolded person to describe everything they sense/notice/feel/are aware of as they walk around.
  2. Chaperone curates a series of sense experiences foe the blindfolded person.
  3. Try to facilitate some interactions with stranger by making the first approach – ask people for the time or for directions etc and see if they then come back with questions or conversation.

We’ll be unleashing works in progress and the final pieces onto the streets around the school of art over the next few week, so keep an eye out for any unusual goings on …and don’t be afraid to say “what are you doing?”

A city kind of a moment

I’ve been going back through my notes from the Guggenheim Lab events and workshops I was involved in last year and following up on various references. Currently I’m digging deeper into triangulation.

A sign of a great place is triangulation. This is the process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between people and prompts strangers to talk to each other as though they were not.[source]

The video below is an extract from William H. Whyte’s ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’ and at 42m29s there’s some discussion and examples of triangulation. The whole video’s worth a watch if you’ve time, though…

William H. Whyte: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces – The Street Corner from MAS on Vimeo.

I’m thinking of some of the urban spaces I encounter on a regular basis and wondering what sort of triangulation + mayor combination it would take to inject some social life into them.

I’ve been tempted before to adopt a non place and make it the subject of my projects until it becomes adopted by a wider community, this film has added fuel to that fire.

What space would you target?

Still Walking

The last 5 months have largely been dominated by my involvement in helping organise the Still Walking festival. All this work recently came to fruition with the various tours and events wending their way across the city.

There are many more words and pictures on the Still Walking blog and Flickr pages, but a few of my photos are gathered here by way of marking these happenings.

Birmingham Gothic

A gathering on New Street looks up, causing The DHL Man to stop, linger and say "thank you"

On Location // Mark Wilson

Opportunities to osmose between the inside and outside of tours; to be swept up in the passions contained within, but also to observe them from a distance

Eyes at Rest

Trust and exploration

Walk the Queensway

Taking the road less travelled

Radial Truths tour for Still Walking

Saying goodbye

Digbeth Listening Walk

Causing people to stop and stare whilst we stopped and listened

Walking & Art

Gathering around shared interests

Big Brum Love Tour

Standing out from the crowd; talking to the individuals within the crowd

Brumicana — Urban Myths and Memes

Cinematic moments

The Sanitised City: How Public is Public Space

The podcasts of Alistair Donald‘s and my scene-setters for the recent Birmingham Salon are now available online.

I wasn’t able to show my accompanying slides on the night, so I’ve superimposed them over my audio in this video:

Many thanks to the Salon for inviting me to take part: it was a good opportunity to push some of the things I’ve touched on before a little bit further, particularly what I might mean by “ownership”.

Do make sure you listen to Alistair’s recording too.

The Sanitised City: How public is public space?

Birmingham Salon – a friendly bunch who take ideas and debate seriously – has invited me to speak at their upcoming event “The Sanitised City: How public is public space?

[…] what could bring our sanitised cities back to life? What represents acceptable behaviour, and who should decide and how? Is the way forward to be found in better design and new models of ownership? As from Cairo to Tunis and from Athens to Madrid, civic space has recently been thrust back into the spotlight, this session asks ‘what is public space?

The main speaker will be Alastair Donald: associate director of the Future Cities Project, and co-editor of The Lure of the City: From Slums to Suburbs. He is an urban designer, researching mobility and space at the Martin Centre for Architectural and Urban Studies, University of Cambridge.

Then there’s me. I’ll be responding to Alistair’s introduction with my Splacist hat on and exploring what implications thinking about mass participation and the organisation of cities has for the Splacist manifesto and vice versa.

Hannah and I still very much see the manifesto as an ongoing work in progress as we debate and experiment to find out what it may mean. Feel free to add a comment if you have any thoughts to share on things such as:

  • rules and regulations
  • accepted/expected civic behaviour
  • homogeneous city centres
  • commercialism
  • privately-owned public space
  • occupation
  • surveillance

What is public space? Join us on Wednesday the 8th of February at The Studio, Cannon St, Birmingham B2 5EP. 7.00pm until 8.30pm and in the pub afterwards.

Presentation for Mobile, Location and Games panel, Hello Culture

A few days ago I was on the Mobile, Location and Games panel at the Hello Culture conference.

Along with Oliver Williams (chair), Jon Bounds, Katie Day and Jason DaPonte we were tasked with talking to cultural organisations about “developing a new generation of mobile and location-based experiences and services”.

The audio for the whole session is available (very quietly) on this Hello Culture site. Below is the audio for my presentation alongside the slides I used. I gave an overview of the main things that get me about working in this area, with illustrations from various projects and experiences.

Looking at them now, the slides seem to be mostly people pointing and gesturing towards the things around them – I think this is A Good Thing!

Two events at MADE: What are the Splacists? // Who are the Splacists?

bursaries for architects

MADE are offering five bursaries of £200 to enable architects to participate in the 'What are the Splacists' CPD day on the 30th of November

Some time ago I was approached by MADE – an architecture and built environment centre based in Birmingham – to design and deliver a day of CPD for the cohort of artists on their ‘Learning Spaces Living Places 2’ programme.

Plans are now well and truly afoot for this and we’re so excited about it we’re opening up the day to a limited number of architects interested in collaborating with artists. Further information can be found at, please email to register your interest.

Alongside the daytime activities where we’ll be questioning exactly what the Splacist manifesto might mean in practice, there’s an evening event open to all interested in this sort of work.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what we mean by “this sort of work”. On the MADE blog posts it’s illustrated by Mr Pete Ashton stood in an alleyway gently holding a bundle of bubblewrap that vibrates in response to GPS data. This indeterminacy is in part why we felt the need to write the manifesto: to try and begin to mark out the territory…

So, to be part of the conversation, please do join us:

Who are the Splacists? // 5:45pm – 8:00pm // MADE 7, Newhall Square, Birmingham. B3 1RU // Free, registration required

We’ll be describing the context and development of the Splacist manifesto as well as reporting back on the outcomes of the daytime experiments. We will also be presenting an as yet unknown thing…

MADE have commissioned Hannah Nicklin and I to make a work in response to the manifesto. This is all very exciting for a number of reasons!

In the weeks leading up to the 30th of November, Hannah and I will be challenging ourselves to put our art where our mouths are and make a Splacist work. In three days.

We don’t yet know what will emerge from this collaboration, but we’re very much looking forward to finding out! If you bring warm clothes suitable for the weather, we’ll provide the talking points and a few mulled somethings. Please register here so we know how many people are coming:

We will own this city.
We will take it back.
We will link and shift; across time, space, people, places and processes
We will weave throughout the fabric of people’s lives.
We will unpick it.

We will affect and be affected.
We will glory in the moment, the collage, the marking and then passing on.

We reject your shopping centre, your pavement, your cultural quarter;
We will under mine pre-defined spaces. We reject them.

We will reclaim the city, not for you, but with you.
We are you.

To a Great City (and magnificence)

Whilst prowling the corridors of ITP yesterday, I chanced upon a second great project by the Guggenheim: stillspotting ( ) nyc.

The current iteration is located in the borough of Manhattan and features a collaboration between composer Arvo Pärt and the New York City and Oslo-based architectural firm Snøhetta.

Five sites have been selected, each with a musical piece and one or some large weather balloons installed at them. Each provide space for contemplation and slowing down.

The magazine at Fort Jay, Governors Island

Fort Jay, Governors Island

Fort Jay, Governors Island

The labyrinth at the Battery

At the Woolworth Building

7 World Trade Center

Each of the locations were something special in their own right – you can see a slideshow of all my photos – and the addition of gorgeous compositions resulted in some moving experiences.

Several times I was also aware of how we looked from the outside – particularly at those sites where the musical accompaniment was secret to us, listened to via headphones.

It brought to mind recent conversation with Hannah Nicklin about creating ‘magnificent moments’, but I’m still trying to decide if these were they or not…

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