Monday 18 April 2016

Course Update #2

Having reached the end of the second term of my Masters at Queen Mary, I’m confronted with a mixture of scary and exciting thoughts.

- All of my seminars have now finished.
- My dissertation idea is now well-developed, and the fieldwork will begin soon.
- No more twice-a-week commutes up to London.
- I need to work on two big pieces of coursework due at the beginning of May.
- I am already two thirds of the way through my course after only 6 months.

This Masters has really flown by, and yet I feel like I’ve managed to squeeze so many activities into the last 6 months, especially since the new year. This post will attempt to do justice to the superb experiences I’ve had this past term, both directly within my Masters course and through extracurricular opportunities.

Artistic adventures

This term has seen me take the last of my optional modules, ‘Art Performance and the City’. By exploring a wide range of works by artists and cultural practitioners taking place in cities – especially in London – the module engages with the ways that urban spaces are imagined, contested and performed.
Between the 10 seminars, assessments and associated excursions (see the next section of this post), we covered a breadth of thought-provoking and interconnected topics, including:

- Socially engaged (and site-specific) art
- Urban exploration and play
- Walking in the city
- Spirituality and ghosts
- Psychogeography
- Social housing
- Material transformations in the city

We would approach each topic not only by considering their wider theoretical background, but by focusing on particular examples of real-life artworks, interventions and performances. To help with this, we were fortunate enough to have visits from practitioners who have actively created such engagements, and thus were ‘experts’ in their particular fields.  These visitors were:

- Richard Wentworth: A well-known artist who works with sculpture and photography to explore the everyday materials and encounters that shape urban life. Richard talked candidly about his vision of cities (and London in particular) when he walks through them, and what seeing the city as an ‘archive’ can teach us about how urban life operates.
- Matt Adams: Co-founder of Blast Theory, an artist collective that uses to technology to create interactive performances and games in cities. He gave us some fantastic insights into the process and rationale behind Blast Theory’s urban interventions, and what the group ultimately aims to achieve through their work.
- David Roberts, whose performance art has taken place in social housing estates, with the purpose of creatively re-enacting their histories and building collective knowledge and experiences within the community through collaboration. In the same vein as his work, his presentation mixed together poetry, images and personal testimonies to explore the connections between people and the places they live, and raise questions about the politics of housing in London.

Aside from these visits, there were provocative activities in every single seminar, including visiting Queen Mary’s St Benet’s chapel; watching a video taken during the exploration of a hospital ruin; as well as various lively discussions and presentations about the artistic practices we were studying.
We’ve been given the chance to explore the topics that we ourselves find most interesting during the assessments. For the first assessment, we were asked to write 1,500 words about a particular cultural practice or practitioner of our choice, discussing how they might foster a critical understanding of art and urban spaces. I chose ‘psychogeography’ as my topic, wandering through its vague and meandering tradition and ultimately arguing that it is the contingency of the practice that continues its significance today, as artists, academics and others apply its concepts to both explore and creatively change urban landscapes.
The second assessment is due at the beginning of May, and involves our active participation in an artistic project of our choice to discuss in 3,500 words ‘how the geographies of cities are imagined, represented, performed and contested’ through particular cultural practices. For my essay I’m going to be looking at geocaching, which is a sort of worldwide hide-and-seek game where people hide containers with logbooks (and sometimes tradable items) in publicly accessible places, where people can find them using GPS coordinates alongside clues given by the creator. After doing a day’s fieldwork in Canterbury, I’m going to talk about geocaching in relation to psychogeography, in particular the themes of re-enchanting mundane environments and channelling the memories and emotions embedded in particular places.
In this fantastic range of activities the Art, Performance and the City module provided, I feel incredibly privileged that I’ve had the opportunity to study and experience so many works that interest and inspire me.

East End excursions
Both as part of my new module and outside my Masters course, I’ve been lucky enough this term to do a number of exciting activities around London, particularly in the East End.
In February I spent a cold, rain-soaked Saturday attending a protest outside City Hall against the privatisation of public spaces. The event was organised by Dr. Bradley Garrett –  a geographer known for his work on urban exploration – alongside a host of other speakers and figures such as Will Self, Mark Thomas, Anna Minton and Sian Berry. Despite the weather it was a great success, as we cleverly flouted the rules of this particular privately-owned public space by gathering in a group of more than 100, taking commercial photography and protesting under the guise of a ‘walking tour’.
Less than a week later I found myself staying late after my seminar at Queen Mary to go to another extracurricular event. This was a theatrical performance called ‘Re: Home’ in a small, makeshift venue in Hackney Wick, which revisited the lives of residents of the former Beaumont social housing estate in Leyton, who were interviewed for a theatre project called ‘Home’ 10 years ago.
I was offered a free ticket thanks to the generosity of a friend’s flatmate who was ill, and I’m so glad I took the opportunity to go. The script ingeniously weaved together the stories of individual residents, while the four performers gave uncanny re-enactments of the body language and testimonies of the multitude of residents that the performance covered. Shifting swiftly between contrasting personalities, whilst bouncing around the pine and corrugated steel of the former warehouse into which the theatre was crafted, it felt as though the Beaumont residents themselves were inhabiting the room with their stories. Using clever lighting and stage design, projections then imprinted these stories on the space, gradually assembling to create a sort of community mural at the end that proclaimed like an anthem to all that Beaumont represented for the people who called the estate their home.
While the protest and the performance certainly related to multiple topics within my course, twice this term I’ve found myself exploring the East End as part of the Art, Performance and the City module. The first was based in the area around Queen Mary’s Mile End campus, in which we were asked in groups to play the role of archaeologists from the future, gathering found objects in locations marked on a map we were given beforehand. The goal here was to create an ‘archive’ of the city, thinking about what material ‘things’ would best characterise the urban spaces we live in today. As well as being a fantastic opportunity to spend time in areas around campus I hadn’t thoroughly explored before, we also found a few interesting objects, including a ‘g’ page from a very old dictionary, and half of a cannabis grinder. We then discussed what we’d found in a seminar a few days later alongside Richard Wentworth, talking about how the design of the future archaeologist task itself is a clever way to get people to think about their city differently.

The old dictionary page

An area we walked through, near where we found the dictionary page.

For a different Art, Performance and the City seminar, we were asked to explore a little further from home – in the area of Leyton and Leytonstone in East London. Armed with maps, receivers and headphones, we embarked on an audiowalk called LINKED, which leads participants through the communities torn apart by the construction of the M11 link road (the A12) in the mid-1990s. Dotted around the area are radio transmitters mounted on street furniture, which the receivers automatically tune into when they are within a close enough range. What can then be heard is an evocative mixture of personal testimonies, music and sound effects that tell the stories of people whose lives were directly affected by the road’s construction, as houses were demolished, police undertook forceful evictions, and vociferous protests ensuedby residents and environmentalists. Despite doing the walk on a very cold (but sunny) February afternoon, everyone in my group thoroughly enjoyed the walk. There was a certain thrill when the sounds and echoes of the transmissions started to filter through, and listening to the stories in the locations where they took place only a couple of decades before was a very powerful experience. It allowed you to imagine the how the landscape was before – through descriptions of the buildings, the people, the events – and think about the hidden histories that lie just beneath the surface of the environments in which we live our everyday lives.
The last London-based excursion I undertook this term wasn’t part of my course, but was advertised by my course convenor and touched on one of my course’s key themes, public space. After helping out at the Masters reception evening in Queen Mary’s School of Geography, I met my friend Rosa and we headed to Bethnal Green for a talk and discussion about public space, hosted by the London Anarchist Federation. As well as contributing my own knowledge on the subject from Geography, I was intrigued to hear what an ‘anarchist’ perspective on public space might entail. As a group who opposes both the forces of capitalism and the state, the main speakers predominantly evoked the idea of the ‘commons’ – essentially the ideal of public spaces that are owned collectively and accessible to everyone. They then pointed towards the numerous examples of privatisation of public spaces in the city, and why opposing these trends is crucial for social movements such as anarchism to make their mark.  After the two talks, we then chatted in small groups about our own understandings and experiences of public spaces, before thinking more collectively about what action can be taken to establish the kinds of public spaces we want. While I can’t say that my viewpoint aligned exactly with many of the group, there was definitely plenty of fruitful crossover, and the talk definitely gave me plenty to think about.
Although it’s sad that I’m no longer going to have the fantastic adventures that my course modules have given me, I’m still hoping to have a lot of fun, exciting and interesting experiences in London and beyond in the coming months – not least through my dissertation fieldwork.

Dissertation decisions
At the beginning of this term, I was still torn between two very appealing ideas on which I could base a dissertation.
The first idea was to extend my research from my undergraduate degree on the regulation of busking, but this time looking at how it’s being regulated nationwide through Public Space Protection Orders, rather than focusing on one particular licensing scheme.
This was enticing as I’d already done a ton of relevant reading on the topic, which would have saved me a lot of time and energy. Moreover, my supervisor has some very in-depth and relevant knowledge on the regulation of urban space, and it’s a topic I knew that I loved researching.
Despite all this I opted for my second idea – something I’d been itching to research and write about for a long time, yet hadn’t had the opportunity: looking at video game environments, and how they are designed and inscribed with stories that the player can experience through (psychogeographical) exploration. Not only was this a fresh and exciting topic for me, but also for geography as a discipline too. It asks thought-provoking and current questions – on the relationship between the virtual and the embodied, what agency players can have in heavily designed and coded environments, and on how places (both virtual and corporeal) can tell stories.

A pile of books in my room that encompasses my dissertation topic pretty well!

I’ve now done a fair amount of reading and planning around this topic, which culminated in presenting my dissertation idea to staff and peers at the Masters Dissertation Conference. It was well-received, and I was happy to see so many people enthusiastic about the topic and sharing their thoughts.
Throughout April I’ll be working on my full research proposal to hand in as a piece of coursework in May, and after that it’ll be time to start my fieldwork. This will consist mostly of autoethnography, where I’ll be playing walking simulator games myself and recording my thoughts, feelings and experiences as I traverse the game environments. However, I’m excited to say that I’ll say be doing interviews with game designers too, which will help me to understand their outlook when crafting virtual worlds for the player.
Having already made several contacts in the industry during a couple of game events that I went to last week, alongside people I know through friends, I’m really looking forward to getting started.


As you can see, this term has been an exciting and busy one for me. I’m actually quite sad that it’s over now, especially because now that my seminars have finished I won’t be spending as much time with the lovely, interesting and generally brilliant people I’ve met during my Masters course. Sharing seminars, lunchtimes and field trips has been such a pleasure that I’ve become accustomed to over the last two terms, which I’ll miss a great deal.
I’ll also generally miss learning about such captivating topics, and the teaching itself which has been excellent.
Onwards and upwards though, and I’ll be sure to do another update in the near future as I grapple with this next more independent phase of my Masters course.

MA Cities and Cultures class, 2015-16