Experiencing Ciudades Paralelas – Cork Midsummer Festival, June 2012 (part 3 of 3)

Ciudades Paralelas: Shopping Centre: The First International of Shopping Malls

On my second day, I took part in the Shopping Centre event. We met at the Cork bus station at 3pm, where a double-decker bus was waiting to bring us to the venue, an undisclosed suburban shopping mall, the kind of fully commodified/pasteurised shopping experience that shuns the messiness of the city centre urban fabric and is comfortably accessible by car (not by public transport), surrounded by a vast parking space area. There were between forty and fifty people taking part. On entering the bus we were given a radio transmitter with headphones. They asked us for some ‘collateral’ as a deposit, I gave them my student card.

I was hoping that we would be taking part somewhere in the city centre, perhaps even the famous English Market where the Queen recently paid a visit. However, as the bus kept moving away from the city centre I knew straight away that we were going to the ubiquitous suburban shopping malls that are an ubiquitous presence in all major cities and towns across Ireland. I’m not particularly fond of them. They all have the same shops, usually chains of stores selling mobile phone contracts, white trainers, perfume, videogames, cheapish clothes, fast food, cinema with the mandatory box-size packet of popcorn… Clichés aside, this is exactly the kind of space where the narrative of the Shopping Centre event (created by Ligna) thrives with its transgressive theme that suggests to us that we were about to join the ‘First International of Shopping Malls’.

Shortly before exiting the bus we were prompted by the organisers: not to mention the location avoid spoiling the experience of further participants (the shopping mall was completely unaware of the impending performance); if we were confronted by the security, we should just pretend that we are listening to music on our transmitters; if – in the worst case scenario – we were asked to leave the shopping mall, we should obey. However, according to them there shouldn’t be any reason for that, as the performance was designed to avoid breaking any ‘rules of common behaviour’ in shopping malls (is there such thing?).

On exiting the bus, staff adjusted our radio transmitters to the right frequency for the narrative transmission, and then we were told to freely roam the shopping mall and wait for instructions. There was a sense of anticipation, and it was quite uncanny when the white noise of the radio transmitter was interrupted by the start of the narrative. It started by describing the building as a living character composed of several other characters. The roof, glass facades, walls, and in particular, the products on sale all ‘spoke’ to you during the narrative.

The narrative initially takes you on a psychological journey exploration of these non-human characters and the objectives of the First International of Shopping Malls . It suggests an approach that involves “altering the space in a subliminal way”, comparing the mall to a prison and the commodities on sale to hieroglyphs of society, waiting to be deciphered. It argues that the mall is a place where commodities are venerated and where “visitors are meant to loose sight of any objectives”. It asked the following question: “When does a collective movement become a demonstration?”

As part of our membership of the First International of Shopping Malls, it suggested that we carry out a number of ‘tests’. The tests consisted of slightly transgressive acts: giving secret directional signals to fellow participants; yawning as a secret signal indicating you were an active member of the First International; hiding from passers-by and observing the surroundings; walking backwards; walking at different paces for different effects (“Walk fast until the facades become a blur”); walking while holding a coin in your extended palm and standing still against one of the shops facades; discretely exchanging pieces of paper with other participants – where you had written an alternative function for the space of the shopping mall; clapping, joining and rejoining other participants in random walks; and at the very end, bouncing up and down to the sound of music.

I found myself a bit embarrassed to carry out some of the demands. I also noticed the same on other participants. But at the same time, I wasn’t going to simply give up on it, so I went with the flow. It was amusing to see the reaction of unsuspecting security and passers-by as they started noticing strange occurrences of isolated members of the public walking around with earphones plugged in. I particularly enjoyed the clapping, and the joining and rejoining other participants. They were clearly noticeable against the random trajectories of shoppers. These left both security and passers-by baffled.

When participants started clapping from different locations along the main corridor of shops, the security swiftly moved towards the centre of the corridor, unable to pinpoint the action. Passers-by copied some our actions: when the narrative asked us to look up, they looked up, wondering what we were seeing that they couldn’t see. At the very end, when the narrative asked us to started bouncing/dancing in random fashion, passers-by looked intrigued. I saw the security approach one of the participants, but they didn’t intervene. After we all bounced up and down to the sound of happy music for a minute or so, looking slightly loopy, the narrative ended by asking everyone to return to the bus. As we all moved towards the main door, a security guard followed, looked towards the bus, radioed a colleague, then went into the manager’s office that was just next to the main entrance. They were left without a proper explanation. The bus left, and the shopping mall went back to its normal routine.

I spoke to one of the Ligna artists afterwards and he said that the mall was quite big and that it might have been better to conduct the event on just one floor. I agreed, and mentioned that when the narrative asked us to lean against the balustrade, I was on the ground floor and there wasn’t any balustrade to lean onto. He also mentioned that the radio transmission wasn’t particularly good, making it difficult at times to listen to the instructions. I noticed that there was a lot of interference as I approached the cinema, and also near the radio station cabin on the opposite end of the mall.

I enjoyed the experience, but felt slightly uncomfortable at times. I overheard someone saying on the bus back that they would love to take part in the event in a foreign country, where they would feel more comfortable doing it. Perhaps they were worried that they would be spotted by a friend? Having said that, I witnessed one of the participants bouncing and dancing at the end, in a sort of uncontrolled fashion; an individual form of expression triggered by the narrative. In comparison, I felt that I was doing too little to justify my membership of the First International of Shopping Malls, but nevertheless it was thoroughly enjoyable to be part of a slightly surreal moment in a place where, despite the lack of rules of ‘engagement’, people seem to perform very similar, established routines (browse, buy, eat, repeat).

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