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Storying a City - Labyrinth

Storying a City

by How to Hack

Every city is full of hidden stories that quietly enforce the rules we live by. Labyrinth uncovers those stories so that together we can rewrite the rules.

That’s a concise way we describe Labyrinth. But what does it mean to uncover hidden stories?

Sometimes it’s very straightforward. There’s a story about a place, or a person in a place, and it’s not well known, and we discover it and make it known. Or maybe there’s a story that is already well known, but people don’t know its connection to this place, so we discover that. Those are straightforward hidden stories.

But there are more complex, and more powerful, ways of uncovering hidden stories. Hacking is an art, and like any art you have to learn the craft. To open up a city and its meanings involves listening to a city’s ‘harmonics’.

Harmonics is a musical term. When sound waves align it produces resonance: both sounds strengthen each other and their force grows stronger. When sound waves work against each other it produces dissonance: the sounds jar and can even cancel each other into silence. Musically, harmony is produced by sounds that have some measure of resonance; they work well together. If sounds have dissonance we describe it as discordant; they sound uncomfortable together.

Symbols also produce their own resonance or dissonance. A national flag flying on the buildings of the Head of State usually produces resonance. But a national flag on enemy soil produces dissonance. We are used to experiencing the resonance and dissonance of symbols – it is a part of how we find the world meaningful. But what hacking does is to expose us to new symbols with new kinds of resonance and dissonance.

Take St Paul’s Cathedral in London, for example. If you stand on the stone steps under its giant pillars, you’ll see a statue of Queen Anne. She’s surrounded by four women, each of whom carries a symbol in their hand. One is for England, one for Ireland, one for France and one for North America. These are the regions that were part of the emerging British Empire when Anne was queen in the early 18th century. The symbols of imperial power are all very resonant in that place: big stone pillars, statues, empire, the Establishment. But if you walk down the steps you stand on the large paving stones where the Occupy movement camped in late 2011. They were protesting the wealth of the 1%, where vast power was concentrated in the hands of just a few – pretty much the definition of the Establishment. So suddenly there is dissonance in the space.

Good stories involve dissonance. If there is no problem to overcome, no crisis to survive, the story is boring. Stories are meaningful because they tap into the conflict that is part of our lives.

So encountering that space outside St Paul’s Cathedral involves the beginning of a story. There’s a tension created by the symbols of the Establishment and the memory of the protest. The permanence of the pillars and the transience of the tents. Then we remember that the Cathedral fought hard for several months to have the protestors evicted – and finally succeeded. So the story takes a turn, in favour of the Establishment.

Depending on who you are and how you view the world, that can be either a resolution to a crisis or a crisis that longs for a resolution.

Across the paving stones are some other stone pillars with carved faces on top. They wear impassive expressions and are the work of British sculptor, Emily Young. She describes her work as ‘giving form and voice to ancient stone’. The sculptures are her homage to the creator – by which she means Mother Earth. We come from the earth and will return there; the stones were here before us and will be here after us. You get the sense the faces will barely register humankind at all. We will evolve and die out before they have blinked.

So there is a kind of theology in that stone. And of course there is a kind of theology in the great stones of the Cathedral, and its dome that reaches to the heavens. So there is another kind of dissonance. To whom do we owe our lives: a creator from the ground or a creator from the sky? Maybe we owe it to no-one.

As these stories interact, they become more complex. Does the power of Empire owe its life to the heavens; is that why empires tend to trample the earth? Or does it owe its life to the ground, from which it literally takes its economic prosperity? Do the tents of protestors owe their life to the heavens, to some overarching principle of justice to which they can appeal? Or to no-one, leaving them free to move on?

In the play of these resonances and dissonances it is possible to tell a story – many stories, told from different points of view. About the history of this place and its present, its power and its potential. About what we hope for, and fear, and how we think our society is changing. About our permanence or our transience; about the meaning of our lives. It is not a story controlled by the Christian tradition of the Cathedral or the pagan lore of the ‘Angel’ faces, or the political force of Right or Left. It is one we ourselves can write, our own way.

Hacking city spaces is about uncovering hidden stories, but they are stories we write together through our encounters there. The places we hack might be permanent like the pillars of St Paul’s, but our stories are transient like the tents outside it. Before long they will be forced to move on. And search for the next chapter. Or return to reoccupy in a new way.

Matt Valler

Matt Valler

Founder & Director, Labyrinth

Matt lives in Cornwall, an ancient kingdom in the far South-West of the UK, colonised long ago by the English. He is also the Founder & Director of The Alchemy Project, of which Labyrinth is a part. Matt can often be found drinking good coffee, reading Continential Philosophy, and playing in the sea with his family.