I've just had one of the best weekends ever with a small group of NNF volunteers, working with X-TNT theatre group on a series of social experiments as part of their current project, 'The DeDriving Code'. This is, in, effect, an antithesis of 'The Highway Code'.
Whereas 'The Highway Code' is a book of instructions of what we legally must do whilst out on the streets and highways, 'The DeDriving Code' will educate, enlighten and reawaken citizens to their right to reclaim and reuse public space.
X-TNT is a French company, and exactly what you would expect from the country that invented 'liberté, égalité, fraternité'. On Thursday afternoon the volunteers are led into a vaulted undercroft beneath Augustine Steward House on Tombland to meet with Ludovic Nobileau and Antonia Taddei, directors of the company. The building pre-dates the French revolution by two hundred years, although it is best not mentioned to our Republican friends that, in 1549, it was also headquarters to the Royalist forces that crushed Kett's Rebellion.
Celine, our Event Manager for the three days, has given nothing away, and we are still under the impression that we are here simply to steward the event (although the word 'rehearsal' on our volunteer rota perhaps offers a salutary clue). Ludovic soon puts us straight.
X-TNT main man, Ludovic Nobileau
X-TNT are here in Norwich to perform a number of social 'experiments' as part of their pan-European project to examine what it is possible to do, and what not do, in public open spaces. As their arrival topically coincides with this country's General Election, Ludovic has devised a number of simple experiments based around the concept of voting, and voting booths. The experiments will be performed over two days, and four of them will require participation of us, the NNF volunteers.
We discuss our roles, examine the props, and throw together a crude rehearsal of what to expect on Saturday and Sunday. As is appropriate for any trans-European collaborative meeting, the rehearsal is great fun, but still ends with a degree of confusion and uncertainty, partly caused by the frequency and number of Gallic smoke breaks, and partly by the vagary and volatility of the English weather. The afternoon ends with a photo-call on the roundabout opposite the Maids Head Hotel.
Photo from EDP24
Saturday arrives, and the volunteers gather mid-morning on Gentleman's Walk in front of the market. We are here for the first 'experiment', the Disco Voting Booth. Looking to all intents and purposes like a standard electoral voting booth, complete with blue curtain, the X-TNT booth concertinas outwards, claiming space as it does so and allowing the public to indulge in a spot of disco-dancing, whilst maintaining confidentiality and protecting their identity from surveillance.
Ludovic explains the booth to the gathered audience, and company member Natasha duly places her vote before commencing the dance as the music plays. We are then led, one at a time, into the booth as it grows in length, and we continue the party. At its peak the booth holds twelve boogieing voters, complete with rotating mirror-ball. Then, as the booth contracts to its original size, the volunteer revellers leave one by one, having cast their votes and having helped to reclaim the city as a place to party, under the terms of The DeDriving Code.
Photo - Celine McKillion
Whilst Ludovic and his crew went off to the War Memorial to prepare for their 'Observation Booth' experiment, we volunteers were given a break for lunch before reconvening outside St Andrew's Hall at 2.00pm. giving me a chance to wander across to The Forum to catch a few minutes of 'Bill & Bobby', a tribute to the dance partnerships of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and their comedic masterpiece 'Swing Time'. Performed and choreographed by Lucy Bennett and David Toole from Stop Gap Dance, the short except that I caught was together entertaining, comedic and inspirational.
Lucy Bennett and David Toole from Stop Gap dance perform 'Bill & Bobby'
Back down at St Andrews Plain and Celine has managed to persuade the builders refurbishing the former Delaney's Irish Bar to move their van out of X-TNT's planned performance space. Agnès, the set manager, is climbing up and down a ladder like a monkey on heat, fanning yellow cords from a surveillance camera to the ground to indicate its range of vision. This is a popular pedestrian thoroughfare connecting the city centre with the Norwich University of the Arts and the Playhouse Theatre, so each successive strand potentially increases the likelihood of a public garottage from strolling students or theatre patrons.
Photo - Celine McKillion
The 'Umbrella Experiment' is intended to demonstrate that, by wearing a polling booth style 'umbrella' it is possible to reinforce our right to perform legitimate leisure activities without fear of reprisal instigated via a CCTV camera network. To confirm the theory a number of volunteers are allowed to 'perform', under the beam of a CCTV camera, a range of activities including 'Dancing Like a Mama', 'Singing Out of Tune' and 'Simply Being French'. The 'DeDriving Code' will give further examples of behaviour that is allowed in a public space.
The final experiment of the afternoon which, for obvious reasons, did not require the participation of Festival volunteers, was the 'Striptease Booth'. Designed to challenge the prevalence of CCTV surveillance to which we are subjected to on a daily basis, and under the direct gaze of a pole-mounted camera, this experiment turns the tables on the watchers, and attempts to invade the privacy of the monitoring station. Or it might just be an excuse for Natasha to get her kit off for the benefit of a solitary police officer.
Photo - Nikki Davies
The blustery wind provides a challenge for the curtains of the specially converted voting booth for the experiment, threatening to reveal to the audience in Chapelfield Gardens a lot more than just Natasha's voting preferences. Some last minute weighting of the fabric copes with the wind, but not necessarily the backlighting effects of the afternoon sun. As first the boots, and then the dress and remaining clothing were removed and thrown over the booth, their were definitely glimpses of proportional representation, despite the masking effects of the red smoke canisters.
Four more experiments are scheduled for the Sunday, but these are preceded by a 'DeDriving Class' in The Curve Auditorium of The Forum, presented by Ludovic Nobileau. We are shown video excerpts of other X-TNT projects, and we are briefed in Gallic antipathy towards authority and loss of liberty.
The first experiment of the day is the 'Demonstration', in which an anonymous group, shielded by the blue curtain, parade around the city centre, chanting indecipherable slogans and displaying placards consisting only of digitalised 'QR' codes, and the ominous disclaimer 'To be decoded at your own risk'. After a little prompting, some of the Norwich audience did pluck up the courage to point their smartphones at the placards and decode the messages. As I was inside the curtain, working myself hoarse as part of the volunteer platoon, I had no idea what the codes translated to. Interestingly enough, it appears that some of the public did think that we were a genuine post-election 'anti-austerity' demonstration!
Photo - Polly Rayns
'Demonstration' had a serious point to make. In most countries demonstrations have to be registered with the police in advance. By remaining anonymous, and providing protest by proxy, X-TNT prove that a spontaneous gathering can still provide a platform for free speech in public spaces.
The 'CCTV Shower' provided a moment of light relief outside The Forum, where a 'We Are Washing You' sign positioned beneath a surveillance camera proved to be more than a simple typographic error. As anyone approached the camera it sprayed a shower of water in lieu of its more usual invasion of privacy. Even the Festival's Artistic Director, William Galinsky, was persuaded to investigate more closely, even if he was anoraked up and provided with an umbrella first.
One of these is NNF Artistic Director, William Galinsky
The 'Privacy Booth' involved us creating an island of calm at the bottom of London Street, much to the bemusement of the busking saxophonist at the invasion of his 'pitch'. Surrounding the circular bench outside Gap with a large blue curtain, we re-claimed a small part of Norwich city centre as a temporary oasis from the hustle and bustle of a busy afternoon, and invited in members of the public for a quiet moment or two of rest and reflection. We then decided to take our curtain across Castle Meadow, where we attempted to instil the same peace and tranquility to a pedestrian crossing. Unfortunately, Norwich taxi and bus drivers do not appear to share our passion for reclaiming a slice of urban serenity, preferring instead to sound their vehicle horns as an appropriate soundtrack.
Finally, we all retire to St Gregory's Alley, opposite The Birdcage, so that Natasha can take a refreshing and cleansing visit to the 'Shower Booth', proving once again that city spaces can, and should, be used freely and according to the needs of the citizens. The grass lawns and benches can also be used for drinking strong cider, or enjoying cod and chips from The Grosvenor Fish Bar, but that's democracy!
Photo by Gavin Sargent
Photo by Sue Allison
For more information about The DeDriving Code, and all other projects by X-TNT, including the wonderfully quirky 'StreetReView' (a reinvention of the Google Street View set amidst the streets of Mons) go to http://www.xtnt.org/index.html
Don't forget, the Norfolk & Norwich Festival runs until May 24th. Pick up a programme or go to http://www.nnfestival.org.uk/
Thanks to NNF staff and volunteers for their photographs.