‘Brilliant and insightful’
‘We’re going to get arrested’
‘This is definitely a like a religion’.
‘How do I convert to Free Seeing?’
Today’s Free Seeing walk had the feel of accidentally cracking open the universe and glimpsing the inner workings of its invisible interior. Still Walking events have had some great responses from guides simply sharing their view of the world but this was the first time a group has said they felt they were ‘changing’ or that by merely looking they were doing something that could get them arrested. Fascinating to think that the act of looking can invoke such a response.
Francis’s background is in film making and animation and his language in describing the urban fabric and our ways of seeing it borrows from a film makers lexicon. Our movement while walking through the city streets is described with pans, tracking shots and reveals. Beyond the transposition of techniques from screen to the real world are a host of games and experiments that engage the curious and willing free seer.
Free Seeing at Grand Central Station met outside Cherry Reds on John Bright Street but immediately wrong footed participants (and myself) by walking through the Birmingham Weekender festival crowds, Grand Central shoppers and Rugby world cup fans to a car park on Livery Street. Here the traces of Snow Hill Station’s grand former entrance still stands, an impressive gateway in glazed brick and terracotta, with rich ornamentation and ships in full sail but conspicuously bricked up in recent years and out of use – an instantly rebuffed invitation. A half-hearted preservation out of a vague sense of civic duty. An ugly large hole has been sliced through the beautiful glazed bricks which reminded Francis of the hole cut in the basement wall of the recent daring bank vault heist. Brutal, precise but presumably necessary to for someone to do. This old doorway was the portal to the Free Seeing walk: sight seeing of sorts but in order to see what was beyond this door (and to understand free seeing) we needed to be creative. To view beyond the wall, we ascended the bunker-like concrete stairs and emerged at a walkway at an upper level. The revelation of what lies beyond the doorway from above is banal – no secret garden or Narnia here just the meaningless, invisible inner stylings of the car park’s edge lands. But the act of being curious and planning a means of discovery is the real revelation. No-one was ever meant to see this space and as such is the ideal way to begin the tour. Next door, the overhanging mirrored surface of a building unintentionally reflects the rubbish accruing in a open topped buttress – what may have seemed dynamic and beguiling by the architect perhaps needed greater fore-thought. This is free seeing in one of its many forms – seeing inside the design intentions of the city and suggesting edits.
The next destination is a sight seeing tour staple: St Phillips cathedral. In all the guided tours I’ve been on, no-one has really explained how to look at buildings the way the architect intended. It’s not difficult, but it helps to have a guide to take observers beyond the process of merely identifying buildings for navigation means. The front of the cathedral invites the eye to move upward through tiers of decorative symmetry including the (then) fashionable rococo warping of normally straight lines into sweeping concave curves. Our eye is not allowed to stay still, but its movement is carefully directed by the architect. Francis’s free seeing technique is to be aware of these intentions and to contemplate it all from a horizontal position. Yoga mats are provided and the free seers lie in formation to get the ideal vantage – just you, the sky and the elevation. No neck ache from craning and the free seers relax into it it’s what this game is about: treating yourself, and the position of the eyes in your skull, as a flexible apparatus. Not being satisfied with the factory settings. A further wrinkle involves looking at the elevation as it is reflected in the back of a reflective owl sculpture set away from the building. A queue of free seers sit in position in front of the owl (there is only one vantage possible) to the fascination and bemusement of those in the church yard, and indeed it looks like a religious act of supplication. From their perspective, no explanation of this activity is possible.
We take the opportunity for the group, now warmed up, to test out a fringe theory: can people sense when they are being stared at? A seated newspaper reader is selected and the 15-strong group watch him intently. While we don’t manage to rouse him from his studies, we greatly perturb the group of teens on the next bench. Passers-by voluntarily join the group stare – without any coercion it seems to them to be something worth doing.
Members of the group quickly adapt the techniques and volunteer ‘free sees’ as we move through the city. A gap between buildings reveals a sliver of the remote Cube, iced with a line of foliage, counterpointed by the Victoria’s C19th self surety and the framing anonymity of 1960s Birmingham Metropolita. This scene appears to have a title too: an advertising billboard reads ‘Nothing Artificial Makes It In’.
Naturally, we take in the reflective steel cladding of the new New Street station. I feel this building is the architect’s solution to the impossible task of sensitively responding to the environment here – the many ‘news’ of New St. There is no unified townscape, just a city cycling through styles, endless alterations, featureless brickscape, and brutalist expanses. The only way for this building to land comfortably here is to literally reflect its surrounding as a distorting hall of mirrors, throwing the buildings into fractured disarray while casting delicate rippling arcs of sunlight across the scarred urban surface. For the mobile free seer, it allows Inception-like overhead self-viewing in triplicate, a ‘free selfie’, backed by the city folding in on itself. This surely will become the TV or filmic establishing shot – you have now arrived in Birmingham. We note the absence, after even a few days of their arrival, of two plane trees positioned near the Eye Screen – it takes a free seer to be that tuned into the environment.
Inside Grand Central’s concourse, we reflect on the subject of watching, surveillance and the omnipresent CCTV camera. From one spot, we count 37 ceiling and wall mounted cameras in a 360 degree group pan. Our attract the attention of the station staff – can they be of assistance? ‘No thanks, just looking around’.
The walk is followed (after a break in the busy bar beneath the Evil Eye) by a free seeing workshop that devotes more time and considered practice into some of the techniques. It too is a success and allows a deeper understanding of the technique. Indeed Francis will lead one more of these workshops before the festival ends. Please join us at the foot of the grand staircase, Grand Central at 3pm on Sunday 27th September – we’ll be the ones with the yoga mats.
Naturally, the workshop is free! Book below.