May 4 2011: A Report on Willi Dorner’s Anywhere, Somewhere, Everywhere (Nottingham, 25 April 2008)

This short piece was commissioned by the organisers of Willi Dorner’s Anywhere, Somewhere, Everywhere event in Nottingham in 2008 as a report of the experience from a participant’s viewpoint. More details on the project can be found here. The project was a collaboration between Broadway, choreographer Willi Dorner, Mixed Reality Lab and the School of Architecture at the University of Nottingham.

Anywhere Somewhere Everywhere (2008)

As I leave the Broadway cinema with a mobile phone in one hand and an instruction to ‘go anywhere’ ringing in my ears, the main sensation is one of curiosity. On arrival I’ve signed in, shown my ID, had a fingerprint and photograph taken and watched a film on a laptop, where a jerky hand-held video camera travels up and down stairs, in and out of buildings, while Austrian choreographer Willi Dorner’s disembodied voice questions a series of unseen authority figures about permission to use this or that building, or pass through this or that gated entrance, while receiving a series of reasons why each place is off-limits.

At the foot of the Broadway steps, I walk a circuit along Broad Street, back into the Lace Market along Heathcoat Street, but no further instructions come. I keep going, moving along Pilcher Gate, until, finally, the mobile rings as I stand outside a multi-storey car park. The accented female voice tells me to wait here, so I do. A moment later the phone rings again, but there’s no voice. Then again, and again there’s no voice. Is this a technical hitch, or part of the piece I’ve put myself into?

Anywhere Somewhere Everywhere is partly an immersive performance, devised by Dorner, using technology created by Nottingham University’s Mixed Reality Lab, and partly a variation on the psycho-geographic walk, a kind of pre-planned Situationist dérive, with the aimlessness removed. For the next hour I’ll be following the instructions of a ‘shadow’, though whether the female voice making contact now is hidden in a doorway somewhere in the street, or tracking my mobile on a Google map somewhere inside a building far away, isn’t clear.

There’s a Cold War feel to this, somehow, and on that first corner, answering a phone that remains silent, I feel a bit like a John Le Carré character, poised to carry out an assassination on some unwary, possibly random, passer-by. As I loiter, waiting for the phone to ring again, it feels like being suddenly caught in a film, keeping the secret of the performance from those walking by on the pavements, becoming suddenly self-conscious. When the voice finally gets through, it’s nothing so dramatic as murder required, though a sense of spying lingers as I’m sent to a nearby square, ordered to take a seat on a bench and watch the open doorway of a house.

There’s a sense of expectation, looking at the wooden banister curving away inside, the ragged carpet on the steps, but nothing happens before the phone rings again. I’m sent towards the town square, and on the way a series of text instructions begin to appear on the small square window of the handset: duck down between those benches, and watch a random individual pass out of sight; stand with your back to the cash-point, as though protecting it; stand in the doorway of the shop with the ornate Art Nouveau façade, spread your arms to touch the mirrors on either side of you, and look up. Above me, another mirror, my own face staring back.

There’s a tension here, the ‘shadow’ trying, I suspect, to push my behaviour into a realm of visibility I’m resisting, by integrating the actions into the most casual, low-key versions of themselves I can muster. Will anyone really know if I don’t crouch, but stoop a little, in the correct location? The wind cutting across the voice when the phone next rings, sending me down a rubbish-strewn alleyway towards a distant door tucked behind a rusting fire-escape, suggests I’m being followed rather than tracked. A man is putting cardboard boxes into a bin, blocking the narrow passage, so I wait for him to move. The ‘shadow’ is concerned, repeatedly calling to urge me forwards, insisting the end will be worthwhile.

On the door, when I finally reach it, a monochrome copy of my own photographed face has been pinned, looking startled in the camera flash against the wall at Broadway thirty minutes earlier, like a police mug-shot. I try the handle, step through, emerge into the busy kitchen of a café where staff bustle around – paying no attention to this anomaly suddenly in their midst – except to wave me forwards, out past the counter, into the café itself, and back onto the street. More text instructions appear: walk uphill backwards until you see the statue on the dome of the council house; look for the red marks on the pavement, then follow them.

A series of photographs become a treasure hunt – matching each new screen to a fragment of a poster-image, the face of a shop window dummy, Tutankhamun or a knitted Beatrix Potter rabbit – leads me along Bridlesmith Gate towards the Broadmarsh Centre, where I’m finally told to stop within sight of a particular lamp-post, cast-iron, Victorian, painted with a thick glossy blue paint that blurs the once-sharp definition of the leaves and vines that decorate its stem.

The handset rings again, almost a routine by now; the voice offers me a choice between celebrity and history, promising to tell me something I don’t know about one or the other. Having chosen history, the voice explains that the unremarkable wooden door behind the dustbins in front of me is the old main gateway through the city walls; a clip from Jack Cardiff’s 1960 film version of DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers appears on the handset to prove it, Dean Stockwell’s Paul Morel walking through the long-demolished arch from the vanished streets of Narrow Marsh, crossing the spot where I’m now standing almost exactly.

The voice orders me to enter nearby Willoughby House, the imposing eighteenth century building that now serves as the flagship store of local designer Paul Smith’s retail empire. As instructed, I seek out a member of staff, wave the handset vaguely in their direction, ask where to go next. The answer is through a door, descending a flight of cellar steps that leads, finally, to a flight of steeper, darker steps, and these in turn descend, until I’m standing, slightly startled, in a carved sandstone room deep underground, pillars and benches cut from the rock like the interior of some Biblical desert church.

The air is cool, a touch damp; passageways lead off in two directions, but seem blocked, impassable. Under my feet is the texture of a beach, while the walls sparkle with a salty glitter, presumably leached from the rock. I circle the cluster of pillars at the centre of the cavern, sit down, soak up the strange atmosphere of the place. The handset is silent, the light of its screen shuts down. When I leave this space, I feel myself walking slowly, calmed, slightly perplexed by the presence of this space hidden away beneath the streets, masked by the grand proportions of the town house built above it.

I look back at the façade as I leave, taking it in from the threshold before stepping back into the street, and am suddenly greeted by a young man pushing a tandem and carrying two helmets, who offers a lift back to the Broadway cinema. As we pedal uphill, and the tandem steers through the afternoon traffic, I become aware that I have control of neither steering nor brakes, and within that a sense dawns that this final stretch is perhaps a metaphor for the whole experience, in which for the last hour I’ve handed over all decisions to an unknown third party whose motives remained entirely inscrutable.

Back at the cinema, as I unravel the handset wires from around my neck, Dorner asks how it went, and seems curious about the precise nature of the meander we’ve taken around the familiar streets. “No two walks are ever quite the same”, he says, “and the shadows have their favourites, and make judgements about the physical abilities or levels of extraversion of their subjects. It all influences how the walk goes for each person who does it”. I admit, when asked, that I never saw the ‘shadow’ tailing me, or even thought to look where they might have been.

That evening, I think about all this again, when other participants mention things they’ve seen – including a dance performance in a city centre apartment – that hadn’t figured in my own circuit; in turn, some of my own notes surprise them. Yet some things seem to have been shared by all, not least the sense that we’ve learned less about the city itself and its hidden geography, but something, perhaps, about control. Each of us handed sixty minutes of our time to a stranger, and – absolved of responsibility for ourselves – willingly joined a dance, our movements choreographed by others, but our thoughts and responses still very much our own.

anywhere somewhere everywhere (2008)

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