Walkthrough in the City

Between the end of July and August 2013, CIID Research with CIID Research Residents Paolo Patelli and Ruggero Castagnola prototyped a series of variations on experimental research methodologies, involving voluntary participants, first-person-perspective video and practices of walking in the city.

Walkthrough in the City is an experiment in tinkering a methodology for Urban Studies, in investigating place-making in the contemporary city, as “it takes place on the move”. We drew from different approaches, from Anthropology, Cultural Studies, Design and Cognitive Studies — Cultural probes by Gaver, Dunne, Walking with Video by Sarah Pink and Walkthrough by Jakob Bak and David Gauthier among others — while exploring what specific sequences of urban scenes mean from (and to) a subjective point of view. We were concerned with the first person perspective, and with the qualitative relationships between gaze and narrative, habits and memories, places and the walks between them.

Theoretical Framework and account of the journey
Jakob Bak and David Gauthier had already tested the “walkthrough method” in museums, to understand how people navigate an exhibition space, “meta-curating” their personal narrative across the exhibited pieces. According to Lucy Suchman’s Plans and Situated Actions, accounts of actions differ significantly from actions. For this reason, Jakob and David gave a pair of glasses with an integrated camera to SMK museum visitors, and recorded their whole experience. Then, they sat together for an interview, followed by the reviewing of the video of the museum experience, onto which interviewee were prompted and encouraged to comment. What came out of the interview without and with the video was two slightly different narrations, and an emerging pattern. People would prefer seeing things already familiar to them, or that reminded them of something they already know or trigger their memories. With this in mind, we tried to conduce a similar experiment in the city, merging the walkthrough with something we were interested in. We set two key points. First: individuals are our main focus, and we wanted to see things from their own point of view. We learned from Participatory and Visual Anthropology methods, and, for example, from Sarah Pink’s accounts (Pink, 1995). Second: we wanted to know more on how people experience the small social spaces of the city, the places they inhabit; the traditional, monolithic and systematic approach to the study of city gave way to a desire to understand what Christopher Alexander in A City Is Not a Tree (1965), described as “a natural city [which] has the organisation of a semi-lattice”. Our first idea was to ask people who know the small social spaces of the city in great detail, like gardeners, or garbage collectors, street cleaners; we interviewed a few employees of the three companies involved in the maintenance of the city parks. However, obtaining the formal permission to interview them during work hours proved to be a process too long for the limited time available. For this reason, we focused on working with inhabitants of a specific area in Copenhagen, the fast-changing and varied Amager. Placemaking is a complex and multifaceted process, which includes a great number of interwoven layers. We decided to focus our attention mostly on three aspects: habits, bodily experiences and memento. Semi-structured interviews insisted on exploring activities one does fairly often, places one feels strongly with their senses, things that trigger personal or collective memories.

We had the chance to test our prototype with four people. The shorter interview took around an hour, the longest more than an hour and a half. We would tell our interviewees in advance that we would go on a walk together. Then, we would ask them to choose a place where to begin the walk from: “We would like to ask you to show us around a few places in Amager you have a strong relationship with. You may choose them because something particular happened there or because of personal memories, because they are changing fast, or because they look exactly as the first time you were there, because you like them or because you don’t”. We would meet them onsite on the day agreed. The interview would start by showing them a little booklet, and asking them to answer a quick set of background questions to learn more about them. We noticed that the ambiguity of some questions would stimulate our interviewees to talk about their neighborhood and relationships already from the first few questions. For this reason, we started video-recording also this part. Afterwards, we would ask them to wear the camera-glasses and start showing us around. We set the initial maximum time for a walk in 20 minutes, but each walk went easily beyond 40 minutes and most of them took around 60 minutes. This is a fairly long time and it poses technical problems for the memory and the battery of the camera, as well as it affects the willingness to answer to more questions, draw maps or review parts of the video after the walk, as both the interviewers and the interviewees would feel physically and emotionally tired. In the end, we would sit, possibly in a café, and the interviewee would draw three more maps of Amager, showing where their spatial habits unfold, where they recall feeling strong bodily sensations and where they have memories in the neighborhood. In the meantime, the videos of the walk are being downloaded from the camera and set on a computer. The last part consists in reviewing parts of the video together with the interviewee and comment upon what we’ve just experienced.

Notes on our interviewees accounts
We experienced quite different ways of being in place and telling about places. Narrations could be fragmentary, made of many tiny accounts, or more coherent, depending on the structure of places, the person, the imponderabilia of actual life, time spent there and activities carried out. People could walk all the time or occasionally stop in particular places to tell a story.

Adapting the Walkthrough method
We encountered several problems in our effort to adapt the Walkthrough as a methodology that can be applied for walks in cities. After an evaluation session with Jakob Bak and David Gauthier, we agreed on accounting what went wrong and how, and suggest possible target groups and improvements. The Walkthrough method has a precise structure that works for museums, and places and experiences that are synthetic, highly visual and coherently designed. People go there on purpose to see an exhibition that somebody has carefully thought through. To record the tour with a camera and to be able to review it has at least three advantages. First, the video just records a part of the visual field of the spectator, and doesn’t account for things that cannot be seen (caught with the corner of the eye) or the whole thought process that accompanies the tour. The interview is a chance to outline the first impressions, while the following video review shows the interviewee more precisely what they have done, even though the camera cannot be trusted blindly. Second, it’s easier to talk on a mute video, as audio doesn’t prompt any cue for the interview. Third, the tour of a single exhibition is often short and synthetic, and offers many cues in a brief time. When we tried to apply this method in cities and neighborhoods, on the other hand, we had to deal with chaotic environments, unorganically designed vast spaces, which occasionally are sensorially, culturally, politically hyper-stimulating . Vastness itself is probably the biggest issue. Even to do a small tour, posing questions and storytelling, takes a long time. Most of this time is spent in between, while walking from a first place to a second. The tours in these grey areas, especially on video, are often meaningless, boring to look at and offer few cues. Much more interesting are the stories told. Another thing we noticed is that the glasses will mostly record the interviewee looking at the interviewer, in front of them or on the ground, and only briefly around. Is it useful for interviewers to recall where they were when the interviewee was expressing a certain thought , but it offers few cues for the subsequent comments. Third, being the narration already in the audio recording, while playing it, most interviewees have no desire to add something or talk on top of it. Fourth, a significant part of the interview is conduced before the walkthrough, to help the interviewee understand what we are looking for, to introduce them to our work and help them open up to questions and thoughts. In conclusion, what we got is that the Walkthrough method is mostly effective with practices focused on a specific activity, which do not take more than 20 minutes, and unfold themselves in environments which are synthetic and visually rich. Most interesting findings come from evaluating one’s own tactics, performances, and remembering, against environments or experiences that are strategically planned, that should work in a certain way.

Walkthrough in the City by Paolo Patelli and Ruggero Castagnola.

Alexander, Christopher, A City Is Not a Tree, De Certeau, Michel, The Practice of Everyday Life, Feld, Steven, Basso, Keith, Senses of Place (particularly Casey, Edward S., How to Get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time, in Senses of Place) Gaver, Bill, Dunne, Anthony, Pacenti, Elena, Cultural Probes, Hill, Dan, Brickstarter, Kittler, Friedrich, The City Is a Medium, Lefebvre, Henri, The Construction of Space, Petrelli, Daniela, Whittaker, Steve, Family memories in the home: Contrasting physical and digital mementos, Pink, Sarah, Walking With Video.