Tuesday, 31 August 2010

My SubtleMob Experience

This was my first ever blog, back in 2010.
Wendy Kyle, Young Persons Development Worker

I first learned of Subtle Mobs as part of the Engage programme.  We met Duncan Speakman, creator of "As If It Were The Last Time" and were totally enthused by his rationale for and description of a SubtleMob. To my great excitement, one was planned for Edinburgh on Friday 13 August as part of the Fringe Festival. I signed up immediately, with the promise to report back to my fellow Engage participants.

My thoughts were that this could be an ideal way to take young people from the online environment to engage in the offline. In particular young people  who feel isolated and alone. The concept of engaging with places and people in a non threatening, subtle way could be a step towards more positive social interaction.

For the next few weeks, I told LOADS of people about the SubtleMob and 2 of the young people who I work with also signed up to participate. You have to go in pairs, so I "recruited" my lovely boyfriend Andy with the promise of a night out at the Fringe, food and beer, last train home etc.

A few days before the SubtleMob, the MP3 was available for download. After checking it worked, I resisted the temptation to listen, so I would experience it in "real time" (as if for the first time!). The location was announced on the Friday morning - The Grassmarket. Then disaster - couldn't find one of our Ipods. Wasn't sure how to set up laptop to send MP3 to phone. Anyway, with taxi waiting to take us to train station, got it sorted in the nick of time and off we went.

The Grassmarket is a busy square of pubs and restaurants on one side, shops on the other and pedestrian area in between. It was heaving with people, enjoying a drink and the Fringe ambience on a lovely summers night. Our instructions were to play the MP3 at 7pm so we'd synchronised our watches  to the speaking clock.  As the minutes ticked by, we played a guessing game - who else was doing it? We looked for couples, arty young student types, anyone with earphones in.

At 7pm we hit the button. A ladies voice ("Jess") guided us through the experience. Some of the time we were just watching what was going on around us, at others we had to play our part and become the "actors".   The clunk of an old fashioned tape recorder signalled a different voice, that of a man, reflecting, as if speaking to someone he'd loved and lost. The most beautiful, haunting music was interspersed throughout.

Jess told me I was not alone, that there were friends and strangers all around. Take it all in, savour the moment  ... as if it were for the last time. She described what people were doing on the street - a girl looked lost, a man on his phone, a couple waiting expectantly. There were so many people that it was easy to spot them. Ordinary people doing ordinary things, not realising they were part of our "movie".  Thinking the  humdrum thoughts we all think - of work, of love, of family.

Now it was time to start playing my part. The anticipation sent butterflies flying round my tummy - what would I be asked to do?

OK - find a shop window.
Quickly had to cross the road.
Nothing embarassing (phew). Grab Andy's arm. Look at him. Stupid grins, smiling at each other.
Walk on. Stop. Look. Listen.

We could see other people taking part - earphones in, walking together or standing listening. Mostly people in their 20's I would say. I tried not to make eye contact but it was hard

Find another window.
Look, fix my hair, adjust my jacket, think.
Where's Andy?
Walk with confidence
Smile at people and when they smiled back - stop.

This was a bit weird, especially in such a busy street with people coming and going from all directions. At one point Jess described a man running down the street shouting "Shellie". A millisecond later, this happened, right behind me. Goosebumps!!

And so it continued.
Grab your partners arm.
Get out of sight of each other.
Run back.
A slow dance in the street.
And always a commentary or music to keep you in the moment, to set the scene, make you think, focus your attention.

I so wanted to immerse myself in the whole experience, to focus on the audio and connect both emotionally and physically. But this was difficult with Andy an unwilling participant. I wanted him to run towards me as instructed, not meander his way through the crowds. Other people were doing it. Why wasn't he? This bugged me. I wanted him to share the experience with me, to broaden his horizons, open his heart, connect with his emotions, immerse himself in the moment. But it was all a bit arty farty and out there for him. He was humouring me till it was time for the pub then on to a comedy show.   :-(

The Grassmarket area itself was a bit distracting - with street performers doing amazing acrobatics on top of a bus shelter and buskers playing in the street, it was easy to lose focus as you are encouraged to look and take it all in.

At the end, I met my two young people - all smiles and bright eyes, they had loved every minute of it.  I felt envious, wishing I had shared the experience in the way which they had. As we parted company to take in more of the festival, I noticed a couple, earphones in, still dancing.  As if it were the last time.

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