Saturday, 15 October 2016

Is that you??? practiced on 01/09/16


at around 09:30 in the morning I went to Rotterdam's Eendrachtsplein and
I waited for a specific stranger who I didn't know (and who didn't know me). He also didn't know that I would be waiting to meet him. I did know his name and I knew what he looked like. I sat in a café and started waiting.

In total I waited for an hour or so. He didn't show up (this is as expected), but some ideas did pop into my head and I have been telling people about them since. A new chapter for GIR should consist of talking to people about urban wanderings and wonderings and hearing their feedback, such that GIR becomes conversational.  I've been getting some feedback I liked. I heard my roommate, for example, describe this waiting exercise as "supernatural". It is very flattering. I blush.

these are the ideas I've been talking about:

I found that when I am waiting for a specific person, the way I pay attention in public space adapts to my immediate purpose. My attention spikes when someone enters my field of view. As soon as I can see someone, my attention locks onto him as I evaluate whether he is the one I have been waiting for (and an anticipation builds up). As soon as I confirm that he is not (and feel a slight disappointment), my attention shifts to the next person who enters my field of vision. I don't notice anyone who exit my FoV because it is irrelevant to my immediate objective.

I also found that I was paying specific attention to people who looked like the guy I was waiting for. This was a 20-something brown-skinned Asian guy with black hair. Every time such a person appears I notice my anticipation rising. Even though none of them was my target-person, just the fact that they share some physical features makes them more likely to be him. On the other hand, every person who do not meet these physical requirements (anyone who would be female, white, black, blonde hair, red hair, elderly, children etc) were quickly screened out and ignored. Because of my immediate purpose, so many had become effectively invisible, while those who fit my criteria become extra-visible. I know that in this hour I saw a lot of brown Asian men at Eendrachtsplein. I have no idea how many black women walked by.

I think the key meta-observation is that, were the subject of my wait to be a different person, my experience of waiting and seeing people in a public space would also have been completely different. The experience of being in a public space and watching people could, therefore, be designedby giving the observer a specific purpose. With different sets of purposes, being in the same location in the same city watching the same pedestrians could result in different sets of feelings and conclusions. If you want yourself or someone else to feel a certain way about a city and its people, you could design a waiting exercise to achieve this goal. ( The skin/hair features is just incidental in my practice but one quick idea for a desirable goal would be, for example, to combat or study racial profiling.)

I didn't apply a narrative to the exercise because I wanted this session to be simple. But it is of course possible to do such a thing. I could pretend, for example, to be my subject's long-lost childhood friend. Maybe he had saved my life in the local swimming pool. Maybe he owed me a lot of money but I have recently decided to forget about it. With plot-devices such as these, the waiting (and the anticipation-disappointment cycle) could become much more emotional and theatrical.  Alternatively, I can also pretend to be an assassin with a contract on someone's head. Or, as per the assassin trope, I could be an assassin who has a contract on another assassin's head, and I anticipate to strike him at his most unsuspecting moment: as he makes his kill on a target (who is the person we both wait for).

Designing a narrative for waiting would be, in many sense, like directing a movie , only that the movie exists both in the urban physicality and in your head, and you are directing and watching at the same time. For me this also implies an experience that is super-immersive, super-entertaining and super-satisfying (or super-under-satisfying as the target person will most likely not show up). While I am interested in virtual reality and augmented reality via technology, I think I am even more interested in augmenting your own reality via an internal head-theatre. 

The other thing I noticed during my practice was that a lot of other people were also waiting for someone. I can tell from the way they look around and pay attention and from their body language of patience and expectation (and slight boredom). Public space, especially those near hubs of transportation, are also waiting space. These are locations that people would typically arrange to meet. You could also say that they are meeting space. Indeed, in any kind of meeting, unless ALL parties arrive at EXACTLY the same time (which is unlikely), there is bound to be some waiting. The wait could be very long or very short, but it is almost inevitable, and therefore all meeting space are also waiting space.

And then, in the English language at least, "meeting" could have two meanings: 1) It could be an arranged appointment where people physically gather, 2) or it could be people getting to know each other for the first time. In both kind of meeting some waiting is involved. There is tremendous poetry in imagining the city as a place where people wait for and meet each other. Did I just say tremendous poetry? Did I mean to demonstrate that my imagination of romantic urban feelings are still those of hazy and blurry teen dreams?

When I was a teenager I had this fantasy that people would be able to find a kind of soulmate who match the exact quirks in their personality, such that when they arrange a meeting, instead of being on time, they would both be early or both late, but exactly as early or as late as each other. In my more recent fantasy I think the city is a complex network of waitings and meetings and what is late for one person could be early for another person. What is late for one meeting could be early for another meeting, etc etc. Waiting, therefore, is the consequence of every unique mismatch between people, and the fact that they eventually manage to meet at all is them counter-balancing this mismatch by making the effort to catch each other in the flow of space-time.

My father has a story of when he was young, he had arranged a date with this girl he really liked, but on his way to that meeting place he got into a traffic accident and his motorbike was wrecked. On that day he never got to go and meet her. There was also no mobile phone in this time, there was no way for them to contact each other, and he wondered how long she waited for him (minutes? hours?). He never saw that girl again. He felt pretty bad about this. And then, some time (maybe years) later, he met my mother.

There is beauty in the kind of waiting where the other person never shows up. The city is full of people waiting for and meeting or not meeting other people, and the city is therefore both a complex network of human intersections and a complex network of human mismatch. As I practice the exercise I participate in these networks and they become overwhelming.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Urban Poetics #1: "Is That You???"

In this series of Urban Poetics, I describe urban experiential exercises and I go perform them in Rotterdam. Some of them are inspired by existing theories and practices. Some of  them will be my own invention. Most of them will be some kind of play that induces an atypical experience of the city. You could go do them (and modify them) and record your findings too. These are acts that could possibly generate rich inspirations, or poor inspirations, or an overwhelming-ness or underwhelming-ness, or regeneration or other forms of urban satisfaction.

My current approach is to take the plunge and hope for the best.

This first workshop entry, "Is That You???",  is an exercise in "waiting for someone to show up" as it's own independent cycle of means and end.

The exercise is inspired by Debord's notion of the "possible-rendezvous." but specified for our time and for (I think) a more incisive effect on the practitioner.

It is a meditation on the city as a place where people meet each other (both in a cosmic-fatal sense and in a day-to-day arrangement sense), supplemented with a meditation of the internet as a place where people meet each other (also both in a cosmic-fatal sense and in a day-to-day arrangement sense). As the ties between urbanity and the internet become tighter and thicker, these meditations become increasingly relevant (in the same ways that meditations are ever considered to be relevant).

The exercise is described in 3 (+1) steps.

Step 1.
Go on Facebook and choose a random person using a random-selection method.

The least complicated way I came up with is to use a random name generator . Generate one name (first name), and search for this name on Facebook.

The first person that comes up should be the person you wait for.

Step 2.
Go to a location where people usually arrange to meet up with each other, i.e. some sort of urban gathering point. You could choose a landmark or a station of public transport (e.g. bus or metro station).You could also go to a café, but then you probably have to order. Any other location where you would meet up with someone is possible too.

Imagine a reasonable time for a meet up and go to this location at that time. This is dependent on your personal interpretation of reasonableness. (I wouldn't go at 3 AM but you could do that if you're okay with waiting for people at this time).

I chose to go to the famous Kabouter Buttplug in Rotterdam at 09:30. This is a most typical location for people to meet. I've met with many people here countless times.

I drank coffee when I waited.
Is there a better waiting-drink? What about waiting-food?

Step 3.
Stay in that location and wait for that randomly selected person to show up at the pre-imagined time.

You could bring a book or listen to portable music, just do what you would usually do when you wait to meet up with someone at a specific spot. Remember, though, to keep your eyes and ears open enough so that IF this person actually shows up, you could notice him/her. Wait until the meeting time, and then wait for as long as you would like to afterwards. I suggest waiting for a minimum of 30 minutes and maximum of a million years. Leave whenever you want to, but try to have some patience.

Step 4. (optional)
blog about it

I'm off to talk about this exercise at the TEDxRotterdam open mic. When I get back I will type up a full post about its outcomes and other thinkings. First I need to sort them in my head to be spoken.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

National Exhibition of Bollards

I still remember the first time I saw these poles from across the street, and my immediate reaction was that "duuuude this is GIR as fuuuck". Maybe I should work on being able to pause this GIR-radar from my urban perception.  Maybe it distracts/distorts a direct and natural interaction with the city. Writing this blog had, in some ways, influenced what I tend to pay attention to when I walk on the streets. And as you know, to pay attention to something is also (by definition) to ignore something else. Attention is psychic energy and I only have so much. When will I get omniscience? I wonder if King Solomon had that. I wonder if ultimate wisdom can enable one to simulate omniscience. I wonder if the Masons know some techniques in the art of maximising psychic energy and experiencing the universe as built space.

I digress! These poles, or as I've since learned are called 'bollards', convene on a street corner at Vierambachtsstraat in Rotterdam's Nieuwe Westen. The open space is labelled  "Landelijk Tentoonstelling Voor Paal", or "National Exhibition of Bollards". The bollards of  different shapes, sizes and purposes are brought in from various cities in the Netherlands and collected in one location here. I read that the local resident's organisation set it up in 1994. Whoever that dreamt up this idea must have had a charismatic and affective mind. Building something like this really is an act of empowerment. It is one thing to travel around the country, taking mental pictures of different traffic poles and proclaim that your brain contains a National Bollard Compendium. It is another thing to build the compendium into a physical museum, so that anyone in the presence of the collection has immediate experience to the national variations of this specific street-furniture item. How different can Dutch cities be, when it comes to small details on their street sides? Here is exactly how different they can be. Look. You can see. You can even touch. Feel the difference. Go on. Yes, that IS concrete with extra gravel.

I don't think I have a favourite, although there are some specific ones that I liked.

This thing with a little blue house is nice. It could be a shrine. Maybe as an impromptu mini temple, you could place a small idol in the house and quickly say a prayer. Next person, next sacred item in-house, next god, next religion. Modular micro-worship spot for a multi-religious community. Utopic!

This one is made of wood and looks like it belongs in water. I'm quite sure I've seen others like it in canals and the sides of lakes. It is extra exceptional, then, to see it on land. 

"Chaining totems". Ok that doesn't really sound like Channing Tatum. Forced jokes are embarrassing. I remember one time I've seen a toddler trying very hard to step over a chain hung between two poles just like this. I watched the kid struggle for a while, and then, in demonstration of my adult manoeuvrability, I walked up and gracefully hopped over the chain, or anyways I tried. The chain caught my foot, I tripped and fell and almost face-planted on the pavement.  Hahaha.

I'm not sure what these guys are supposed to be. A couple? Two dancers shortly before a duet? Rival swordsmen? Two raindrops one millisecond after impacting the ground? All of the above?

This pyramid is kind of like a centrepiece of the exhibition. I like to imagine that it is a live-size pyramid (like those at Giza), and the other poles ancient skyscrapers made of metal and stone. The entire site become mythological and epic from the perspective of an ant-size observer. That's the magic of proportions, no? If you imagine your "true self" resting in an infinitely small centre core of your body, then your physical body becomes like the size of an universe.

I should probably stop demonstrating my imaginaut manoeuvrability before I trip myself some more. The exhibition could look like many things (a chess game frozen in time, a graveyard, a system of sun dials etc etc), but there is tremendous charm and wonder in what it already is. It's just visually amusing to see all these poles hanging out here. I read that local people sometime use this space as a meeting spot. You can even sit on some of the shorter bollards. It's basically brilliant. I dunno if GIR can ever be a physical museum as great as this one, but I hope that these words at least offers an urban mental space for you guys to hang out. I'm hanging here all the time. Jeez, who needs omniscience when you have GIR? Why would I ever pause my GIR radar? I fucking love it.