Oct 14, 2007

Rider Spoke at (or indeed around) the Barbican

What do you get when you combine renowned performance collective Blast Theory with a cutting edge media lab at the University of Nottingham? Ralph McTell's Streets of London on a Bicycle, apparently, or at least a beautiful concept undermined only by the technology required to realise it.

Like Wrights & Sights' Misguides and Forced Entertainment's Nights in this City (as well as my own modest addition to this little family of pieces), Rider Spoke dispatches its audience into the heart of the city, asking them only to look and listen, to acknowledge the stories and the theatre and the people that drench the streets with character.

At twilight on Saturday night I took a bike with a touch screen console strapped across its handlebars and set off into the clean grey expanse of the city. Listening to an appropriately folksy plinky-plonk score fed through a pair of headphones I wove my way through a concrete labrynth of wrought iron gates and cobbled back streets graced only by the occasional streetlight and the gaze of CCTV; a empty paradise trapped somewhere between the 1960s and the end of civilisation. This in itself was a wonderful experience, one entirely devoid of creative input from Blast Theory other than the bike and the music, reminding me once again of Tim Etchell's words; Sometimes it seems as if all we have to do is gesture to the window and ask people to look.

After a little while through my headphones a soft, sad female voice asked me a question, requiring me to find a hiding place and record my answer. Once this was done I could listen to the responses of other players who had been ask different questions nearby. Then I cycled on again, the same process repeated as I weaved my way with aimless glee across London, finding myself inexplicably (as it seemed so many of the players did) at St Paul's, before all too soon being required to return to the Barbican.

On this almost particular empty evening it seemed to me that the questions I was asked and the answers I heard worked best when their startling intimacy was juxtaposed with the grey anonymity of the city -the fuzzy warmth of recalling holding hands with an ex-girlfriend as I stood against a barred security gate; listening to someone describing with stumbling honesty how a secret had ruined their life just a little bit while I gazed into black windows of an empty office block. At these moments the show seemed to be mining the same melancholic seam that has made Postsecret and Found Magazine such a phenomenon; a desperate, sentimental longing for personality and honesty in the bustling, overpopulated, celebrity obsessed western metropolis.

The whole thing seemed a quiet and faintly sad experience; disembodied, lonely voices scattered across a disinterested city.

Yet while conjuring this divide between The City and those individuals that fill it, the technology the show relies on places it awkwardly between the two. Despite the valiant attempts of the company to imbue its chic handsets with a bit of handmade friendliness, the touch screen lit up by cute hand drawn cartoons and patterns and the aforementioned proto-Sufjan-Stevens plinkyplonk, it still felt false; like an orange advert or a innocent smoothie.

The interface is slow, with the music frequently giving way to 'Please Wait...' screens that leave you in a kind of limbo, not cycling around engaging with the city around you and or with the stories we are telling/told. This limbo takes up far too much of this hour long experience; which wouldn't be such a problem if you weren't constrained by such a limited amount of time. And despite the claims for some kind of personal responsiveness from the handsets, which tell you when you have found an appropriate hiding place to record your answers, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a generic timer, arbitrarily informing you that you have found a good place to hide regardless of where you are or what you are doing.

It felt to me like the company wanted this show to be more than the technology,or the logistics of doing a major show at the Barbican would allow. For their to be more engagement with each individual player than their generic devices were capable of. There was a yearning here to create a beautiful journey through the city, a delicate network of small voices listening to each other. To a degree the show achieves this. And yet, the time limitations and the sense of alienation from the technology, make you feel less like a player in a game and more like an audience member consuming a product, spending 60 minutes experiencing something that has the potential to be so much more.

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