Playing in Cities

by Andy Field

in National Conference

Post image for Playing in Cities

(Photo Credit: Jonas K. This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.)

1.

I remember a street game we created in 2009 for a summer festival on London’s South Bank, a popular tourist destination. Promoted by the South Bank Centre the piece encouraged players to dress in one of three colours and meet outside the Royal Festival Hall, freezing for two minutes and then moving in a series of stuttering improvised patterns towards a nearby park where we had prepared as a finale a giant game of grandmother’s footsteps led by a performer in a giant papier-mâché grandmother’s head.

As the people playing the game started to move in fits and starts across grass dozens of other people, many local teenagers hanging out and drinking in the sunshine, noticed them doing so and tried to join in. These new people did not know the rules, they had not received the pre-event briefing emailed to players the previous day, they were not visitors to the South Bank Centre. In delighted exhilaration they rushed at Grandma. We didn’t know what to do. We hadn’t anticipated this; we hadn’t invited them to play. Responding instinctively to the danger posed to the performer braced inside the oversized costume we formed a cordon, a barrier, a strong line of defence; arms linked, we pressed into the crowd, forcing them backwards away from their immediate target. Behind me I could hear another supervisor using a loudhailer to encourage these new players to disperse.

This was not the kind of play we had anticipated, and not the role we thought we would find ourselves playing.

2.

In the summer of 2011 a black man called Mark Duggan was shot dead by police in North London. Little explanation for his death was given and the police briefings about the circumstances surrounding it inflamed the local community. Police told journalists that he had been killed in an exchange of shots, whilst the local community correctly claimed this was a lie; at the time of his shooting Mark Duggan was unarmed. Hundreds of people from the area marched on a nearby police station demanding an explanation. They waited for several hours whilst no satisfactory response was forthcoming; the crowd growing, the tension building.

Eventually there was a scuffle, then fights, and quickly things began to fall apart, or perhaps more accurately they started to be pulled apart. Violence spread like a meme – an idea, a pose, an action, a euphoric, irresistible carnival, carried on mobile phones and through the social networking sites. What followed was a flash mob of fierce chaos; an ecstatic, angry mirror to the corporatized incitements to dance in train stations or freeze in city parks that had infiltrated London in the previous couple of years. The same vocabulary of play and transformation shouted in furious voices by those who hadn’t previously been invited to join in.

Everyone else followed events online in states ranging from bewilderment to bellowing horror. Journalists interviewed people appearing from out of the darkness of a broken shop window. In the streets where I lived in Stoke Newington gangs of Turkish men with weapons appeared to defend their restaurants from the rioters. A fancy dress shop I once used to buy cheap costumes in was burnt down in Battersea. People I knew were trapped in a theatre in Camden. People I didn’t know watched as rioters broke through the window of an expensive restaurant in West London, as they climbed in the back windows of houses, as they ran across empty streets with scarves wrapped around their faces.

I watched this all unfold on the internet, from the privilege of safety at my girlfriend’s house in Birmingham, and as much as I was worried I was also excited.

And then it all seemed to end very quickly.

On the internet a riot clean-up was organised by people a lot like me. People who I have met at arts conferences. They encouraged people to get a broom and go out into the streets to help with the clean up. This call-to-arms too spread from person to person with zealous haste – another meme rippling out into the city. They arrived on the streets ready to make a point, ready to take something back. From the pictures it appeared that most of these people didn’t already have brooms, or didn’t want to use the brooms they owned for this purpose, so they bought new ones from nearby shops. By the time the crowds had assembled the majority of cleaning up had already been done by local council workers. With little to do but gather awaiting instructions these unneeded players stood in the street, posing for journalists’ photographs, holding their clean new brooms in the air like banners. They laughed, they cheered, they made play safe again. They swept away antagonism and reclaimed the streets as once again a stage belonging to those people who need one the least.

 3.

In 2013 at Forest Fringe, the venue help run at the Edinburgh Festival, we hosted a show called Walking Holding by the artist Rosana Cade.

The piece is for one audience member at a time and involves them walking hand in hand with a series of strangers on a pre-determined route through the streets of the city. The people the audience walk with are residents of the city who have agreed to take part in the piece, people of various ages, genders, sexualities – people to whom this kind of performance is perhaps commonplace and those for whom this is entirely new. As you walk with each of these people in turn, you share a conversation with them about how this walking together, this visible intimacy, makes you feel.

In these held hands, in these quiet conversations, were rendered visible some of the ways in which public spaces are policed and restricted; in which they are made to feel like they don’t belong to you. This game serves not to transform the streets into a playground, but rather to make explicit how privileges of gender, sexuality, race and class are reinforced in the freedom different kinds of people have to move around and play in contemporary urban landscapes.

One of the people the audience had the opportunity to walk with was a man called Laurie. Dressed in understated drag in a simple black dress and heels, he led each audience member along the high street and into a small Tesco supermarket before bringing them back out again and handing them on to the next performer. Very quickly however Laurie’s presence drew attention and, in the case of those employed by the supermarket, animosity. On one occasion whilst Laurie was walking with a female audience member, the security guard angrily suggested he was upsetting other customers, and that if he or the accompanying audience member were to enter the police would be called. Visibly shaken, both Laurie and the audience member walked on past.

When they returned to the venue, the audience member was in tears. An artist in 30s, she had never encountered unprovoked aggression of this kind before. She was shocked and upset, but more than that, she was understandably furious.


Andy3Andy Field is an artist, writer and curator based in London. He has created performance work on his own and with a variety of collaborators since 2007.

Alongside his artistic practice Andy has written about contemporary performance for national newspapers, arts industry monthlies, contemporary art magazines and academic journals. Publications include The Guardian Newspaper, The Stage, Total Theatre, Arts Professional, This Is Tomorrow and Contemporary Theatre Review. He has contributed articles to the last three editions of the Live Art Almanac and with collaborator Deborah Pearson recently contributed a chapter to the Live Art Development Agency and Oberon Books’ Programme Notes.

Andy is also the co-director of Forest Fringe, in which capacity he has led the development of one of the UK’s most acclaimed new performance organisations, creating award-winning festivals and events at the Edinburgh Festival and across the world, including projects in Bangkok, Yokohama, Lisbon, Dublin, Austin, Athens and Vancouver.

In 2012 Andy completed a practice-based PhD with Exeter University on the relationship between contemporary performance practice in the UK and the New York avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s. He has taught and led workshops on this and other subjects with Royal Holloway, University of London, the Central School of Speech and Drama, The University of Northumberland and the Lir Academy in Dublin.