James Wallis levels with you

Sudden Sway: a Walk in the Park

Cities change all the time. They are constantly altering, growing, modernising and putting in speed bumps. They’ve been at it since before we were born, and they will be digging up the same bit of road every few years long after we’re dead or moved to the seaside. “It’ll be lovely here,” goes the standard London joke (and Sydney and Paris and New York and everywhere else), “as soon as they finish it.”

But not parks. Parks, surely, change only with the seasons. Why would you update a park—particularly one of the Royal Parks like Regents Park? The great swathe of green, bracketed by London Zoo and the Regent’s Canal to the north and the Marylebone Road and the Circle Line to the south: surely it doesn’t suffer the indignities of a new skateboard park or refreshments kiosk? Surely it is, as Vivian Stanshall described Rawlinson End, “English as tuppence, changing yet changeless as canal water, Miss Havishambling opsimath and eremite”?

You’d think so.

Imagine therefore the confusion of Kevan Davis and myself as we, standing by the appointed gateway into the park, simultaneously switched on our MP3 players for the Klub Londinium ‘Mystic’ walk and were greeted with the words ‘Take the first turn to your left, passing the small wooden hut’.

There was no wooden hut.

‘As you pass the first bench to your left, look beyond to the cream mansions and the vista southwards.’

There were no benches.

We gave up and went to the pub.

No! We persevered. The park furniture may have disappeared since the Klub Londinium walks were recorded and first organised in 1990, but the path is in the same place, and it was there to be followed.

This was the Mystic walk, one of four created by the experimental pop group Sudden Sway as part of a psychogeographical system for putting people into the heads or at least the mindsets of people mostly unlike themselves. I did the Outsider walk in 1990 and blogged about it recently here. Our journey was an attempt to see how the walks had survived 22 years, and whether it stood up to other, more technologically advanced or better funded experiences along the same lines.

Audio-based walks have been around a while, but they seem to be going through a resurgence. This morning an email from Meetup alerted me to a new group meeting in my local park for walk-and-tell experiences, and Improv Everywhere has just announced Audiogram, an ‘interactive audio adventure’ in collaboration with the Guggenheim in New York, following on from its annual MP3 Experiments. James Bridle reminded me about the Janet Cardiff walk for the Whitechapel Gallery, ‘The Missing Voice (Case Study B)’ (2001), which crosses some of the same terrain as Sudden Sway’s ‘Outsider’ walk, geographically if not artistically.

The Klub Londinium walks aren’t just geographical, they’re explicitly psychogeographical: they show the walker a part of London as it would be experienced by someone with a different worldview. It’s an interesting approach, interestingly executed. In 1990 it was not like anything else. Today, with transmedia a part of every digital agency’s basic toolkit, how would it have aged?

‘Mystic’ was not as I remembered ‘Outsider’. The recording was mono, not stereo (I had been sure that the narrator was in one ear, the voice of the persona in the other). The background music is not bits and fits but a continuous 45-minute piece, and very good indeed. The thing that struck me was how meticulous the timing is: not just the voice track but how well it’s synced to the music, and the music to the walking pace. A great deal of work went into this.

The narrator is more obtrusive, less ambiguous than I remember. It’s not a dry voice giving the general background for the persona to filter and interpret. They collaborate on creating the tone and mood. Given that ‘Mystic’ is a 22-year-old tongue-in-cheek take on new-age mysticism, it’s a mood that hasn’t aged terribly well.

There are three places in the walk where there are references to actors or stooges along the way (I only remember two on the Outsider walk). One is a simple call to observe someone doing something. The second is an interaction, and it’s not clear from the recording exactly what that interaction would have been. The third is—sadly—a repeat of a splendid piece of theatre that had been part of the Outsider walk. I say ‘had been’, though actually the Mystic walk was originally executed before the Outsider one. I know this because I remember people talking about it in the pub after I did Outsider, which brought me the only anecdote I know about the whole Klub Londinium experience.

A bit of context: the Mystic walk takes place almost entirely inside Regents Park. Mostly it’s along wide and well-trodden paths, but there are a couple of bits where the route is more secluded. Along the way the voices on the recording have worked hard to put you into a different state of consciousness—not a trance exactly but a different headspace, one where everything you encounter has a symbolic purpose and position. It’s definitely entertaining, but it’s definitely not a normal state of mind.

So back in 1990 participants were experiencing ‘Mystic’ as intended, walking ten minutes apart, each in their own little bubble of headphoned space, and expecting to meet agents along the way. One of the walkers is a young lady. And in one of the more isolated spots in the park, a flasher leaps out of the bushes and exposes himself to her.

She, of course, has no idea whether this is meant to be part of the experience, and freaks out quite badly.

That’s the anecdote.

The moral of the anecdote, for those of us who plan large-scale game-events, is that there’s always some bastard, whether a player or a member of the public, who will do something you never anticipated. Usually it’s obscene. Even in pre-internet 1990, a walk in the park could have a time-to-cock measurable in minutes.

‘Mystic’ is a journey in space, but also a journey in time. The park had changed, as I said: objects like huts and benches had gone, but less obviously some of the paths had changed their position. We got lost at one point, trying to work out which direction around a pond we were meant to take, and had to stop the audio and re-sync our players. The fact it was late summer meant that the trees were in full leaf and some of the views the Narrator told us to look at were blocked.

And at one point the walker is told to look at some graffiti on a wall, to read the words ‘Infidel’, ‘Hypocrite’ and ‘Sinner’. These words are long gone, but we found them over-written—probably not by a Sudden Sway collaborator but who can tell—with the motto ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’. Faced with such synchronicity, should the modern walker believe the words in their head, or take this new information and assimilate it as a new layer of the experience? We did both. Also it made us laugh.

All in all, it was a very pleasant way to spend a late-summer evening. The gist of the experience survives, transformed by the passage of time, but also changed by the user’s own understanding of the spaces they’re passing through. The walk concludes on Primrose Hill—I don’t think anyone is going to call me out for spoilering a transmedia experience almost a quarter-century old—in an atmosphere of uplifted joy. However my personal memories of Primrose Hill involve my ex-wife, and there’s no way that couldn’t add its own colour to the climax of ‘Mystic’. It’s all grist for the psychogeographic mill.

Do try the Klub Londinium walks, if you get the chance. There are MP3s of most of them, if you know who to ask, and I suspect that walking ‘Hedonist’ (through Leicester Square and Soho) and ‘Materialist’ (the Square Mile) would be fascinating for the student of London’s swift-changing urban landscapes. As experiences they’re still thoroughly engrossing and entertaining, whether you take them at face value or accept the changed city as part of the experience.

In the last post I talked about the walks being an early form of transmedia. Thinking about it more, I think they were actually part of a proto-Alternate Reality Game, based around an exploration of the extraordinary universe created by Sudden Sway over their ten-year career, from neuro-activity modules and the single ‘To You With ReGard’—a dot-com style mid-word capitalisation there, but this was released in 1981—to the finale of their last album Ko-Opera, which to my shame I have never actually heard.

The albums, their related materials, the ICA shows, the sporadic interviews and appearances all link together in strange and lovely ways. For example: one of the tracks the band recorded for their second Peel Session in 1984 is called ‘A Walk In The Park’, and documents a man taking a futuristic dreamlike and decidedly ARG-like guided walk—a ‘hypnostroll’—through a park. Six years later appears Klub Londinium and the ‘Mystic’ walk, and suddenly you are that walker, moving through and into the future.

Extraordinarily imaginative, bizarrely prescient and musically quite wonderful. And a product, so we’re led to believe, of Inprac, a research division of Conseptat, the Idea Agency.

The material’s still out there, for those prepared to dive through digital record bins and the dustier bits of Myspace. Here’s a couple of links to get you started.

The band’s old Myspace page, including recordings and photographs of the legendary Spacemate boxed set

An entirely different Sudden Sway Myspace page, with recordings of the second Peel Session (never formally released) including A Walk In The Park



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