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.

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