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A tale of a city, told by your phone

Changing the way we move around.

I am walking behind the churchyard of St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol. The weather is filthy but I am bustling along Colston Parade, listening on my iPod to an eery cascade of organ music, seemingly coming from inside the Gothic structure across the yard. As I step along the parade, the music stops and a voice asks me to look at the church and think about the people who built it. The narrative connects the first master builder, Jack Henderson, and his daughter who, despite her sex, knew more about carving stone than any worker. Then it tells me how she tragically drowned at the nearby quay. After the master’s funeral his wife was said to have scattered mourning widow seeds, plants of which still grow throughout the neighbourhood like weeds. I pause and wait for the voice to finish and then move off, following my route on the screen in my hand.

Missorts is an art project devised by the novelist Tony White, alongside the Bristol based art organisation Situations. The project was commissioned by the Bristol Legible City initiative. Taking its cue from Bristol’s literary explorers such as its native authors Thomas Chatterton and Angela Carter, it is an intriguing adventure in the relationship between technology, art and the city. Guided by sounds, the city became a canvas for an alternative experience. This is not prose, or theatre or art as I normally appreciate it, but the technology – my iPhone, audio recordings, GPS locators, the 3G network – combine to provide a way to look at the city anew.

In November last year, Everything Everywhere (EE), the 4G network owned by TMobile and Orange, launched across 11 cities in the UK. Most people would have barely noticed except for seeing Kevin Bacon’s adverts discussing the finer points of network theory. However, by summer 2013 all major networks will have adopted faster download connections for most smartphones and tablets. The ways this may change how we live in cities and experience art is profound.

Artwork such as Missorts is competing in a cramped digital space. The techno-prophets have been heralding the dawn of “smart cities” for some time. Millions have already been invested in dividing up this virtual marketplace among the major corporations, even before the 4G networks are up and running. IBM, Cisco, Philips and Siemens are all investing heavily in smart city technology, at a price. The free wi-fi that was available on the London Underground network last summer, is now only open to Virgin, EE and Vodafone customers.

How will this change our cities as places of the arts and culture? GPS offers opportunity for creative exploration. While there have been numerous maps showing the most popular jogging routes (at least for runners sporting Nike trainers) in London and New York, there is also, which allows you to use GPS to draw your route upon the map, sharing your regime alongside others who have run through the streets to create the shape of a rabbit, dog or Christmas tree. There is also a community of GPS artists using the city as a canvas. At the launch of EE in Liverpool, the artist Brenden Dawes collected the data for the first three days – 29-31 October – dividing up the main topics discussed and then transformed it into appealing patterns.

Mapping can also change the way we move around the city. Street Museum, devised by the Museum of London, allows one to see historical photos embedded in real London locations. GPS travel guides such as Pocket- Guide offer apps that include walks, audio tours, video and text to enhance a city break. Chris Speed at Edinburgh College of Art has been using GPS to layer historical maps on to the present-day city. In the Walking Through Time app, one can switch between Edinburgh in the present, 1950, 1939 and 1919.

At the moment, we experience these innovations through our smartphones but Apple, Microsoft and Google have developed “augmented reality glasses”, which will allow information to be layered across the horizon as we circumnavigate. So far, Google is forcing every developer who wants to create an app for the glasses to pay around £1,000; so it is clearly aimed at commercial enterprises rather than writers or artists.

The coming of 4G networks means that we will be relying more and more on technology to mediate our experience of the city. As a result, who owns the virtual information space of the city will be as important as who owns the actual fabric. But is there any virtual space for creativity? Drawing on the soundscape in Bristol, let’s hope that artists, writers and film-makers will start to exploit the new networks to deliver different types of writing and performance.

Though the technology offers the possibilities to expand the cultural city, these are still dangerous times. Already it is clear that the promise of freedom within the new networks are going to be surveilled by both business and government. As 4G gives us access to more information, we will become more watched. To repeat the great Silicon Valley open secret – if you are not paying for the product, then you are the product and will be handing over information about yourself, even if you don’t know you’re doing it.

In the age of 4G it become easy to access whatever you wants wherever you may be, and this also offers new ways of production, development and exploring new art practices. But there is a huge gulf between the promise and the reality: as the internet becomes increasingly free, it is also ever more controlled by commercial gatekeepers. The corporatisation of the virtual world may just prove to be the biggest threat to face our cities.

Leo Hollis is the author of “Cities Are Good For You” (Bloomsbury, April 2013)

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis