Street to Screen and Back: Wick Speaks!

What do you do when your whole ethos is about engaging people on the street? If IRL (in real life) is the territory you have spent decades exploring? When Hackney Tours collaborated with The People Speak in the summer of 2020, this was exactly the problem we both faced.

If you’ve seen the long-established Talkaoke format pioneered by The People Speak (see my guest post on their blog), you’ve seen them bring together every kind of person: from festival goers and academics to random locals walking past their Aberfeldy office in Poplar. Conversations ensue. Connections are made. People see and hear each other in a way that screens just can’t compete with.

My own practice as Hackney Tours has been to cover the streets of East London for more than a decade. The insights that really stick in my mind have come not from books or archives but from conversations with people I meet when I’m roving this part of the city. Someone casually drops that their father was in the 43 Group. Another reveals that they used to go to the pub with a Baader-Meinhof fugitive. Someone else tells an ironic tale in a photography talk about an error at work; their forgetfulness saved the local council from an even deeper level of international embarrassment when a demolition job went famously wrong in Hackney Wick.

The walks I do are almost a kind of promenade theatre, increasingly interactive as my confidence grows and I feel more enable to create a space for others to contribute to important debates about what kind of city we want to live in – and who it’s for? Traditionally, walking tours are a kind of ambulatory lecture, albeit a hopefully entertaining one with a charismatic leader. But the journey for me – and I’m sure I’m not alone – has been the realisation that the temporary community we form in those moments is a powerful phenomenon, one that can become a form of co-creation. In that space, we grow collectively and become greater than the sum of our parts.

So when the community cohesion project Wick Speaks! (see a recording here) got the green light this year, I had to sit down with partners The People Speak and we had to think about how to adapt our traditional methodologies to the new Covid landscape. Fortunately they had already moved Talkaoke to an online format. I assumed they had done it like this for years when I joined my first virtual debate in May discussing – appropriately enough – how the Arts might respond to these new challenges. In fact they were, like so many of us in 2020, reacting in the moment to the new world of lockdowns and tiers. We put our heads together because a rethink was required: Mohammed could no longer come to the analogue mountain.

The result was a multi-platform experience where we took to the street in small teams and interviewed anyone we found who declared a connection to Hackney Wick. We recorded material in a vox pops format to tease out recurrent themes and preoccupations: space; change; gentrification; personal security and more. We then went back to the street in the same format but this time with a popup outdoor studio. Here our anchor could switch the live feed between roving teams and pre-recorded contributions cued up. All the while, visuals in the background of the feed responded in real time to the conversation. This is another key element of the Talkaoke experience, which recognises our need for visual stimulation. Communication isn’t just about words.

When we began, we didn’t really know what we were going to get, as with all emergent styles of working. Emergence may be an en vogue term, but people have been ‘working organically’ forever. But we had a container and a lot of good content and interesting contributors. The result was a rich mix of layers in a non-linear format that had a little structure but not too much to stop it evolving naturally over the afternoon of 17th October 2020. If you want to see it, just click here and see for yourself how IRL interactions can be adapted to create a Covid-safe space where people can still meet, connect and exchange.

We all still love meeting people in the flesh, of course. We’d be the first to admit it’s not the same. But as the pandemic continues and the future of public life is still uncertain, it’s better than nothing. 2020 was the year of, as we discussed in several editions of Talkaoke, reacting and adapting to new circumstances. Working on the fly, dealing with sudden changes to rules or technical difficulties – it’s the ‘new normal’ for now. See you on the virtual street.

Wick Speaks! was funded by the Mayor of London Creative Enterprise Zone.

Thanks to The People Speak for the invaluable project management that made Wick Speaks! Possible.


This Wed 17th Feb you can join ‘Meet the Artist’ with myself and Grow Hackney.

I’ll be cohosting Talkaoke Thu 25th Feb. Come join the conversation.

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