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The content is always the human imagination. This I regard both as historically constant and as universal among individuals. To present the geography of the human imagination is my aim, with real mountains and cities. (Claes Oldenburg)

We want to make a piece for the streets of London. A game. A journey. A show. Another way of looking at the city.

We want it to be about disasters. About the aftermath. About ghost cities. About the ghost of this particular city.

London seems to exist in permanent state of waiting for something bad to happen. It holds itself in the brace position, muscles tense, anticipating the next catastrophe. The air always has the faintest tang of anxiety to it.

I cycle down streets and this taste imbues everything with chaos. Ambulances, arguments, the muffled banging of rubbish falling down a plastic shoot. I constantly expect to be stumbling into a disaster.

I’m sure that’s why the city seems to deal so well with tragedy. It’s always expecting it.

We want people to imagine this disaster. Imagine themselves as survivors, wandering dazed through the empty streets. We want people to walk through the overcrowded city, along congested roads through bustling hoards of people, past Starbucks and McDonalds, high rise offices, busy bars and expensive boutiques seeing all this as nothing more than a past echo. A place they no longer inhabit. Themselves the last survivors. The designated mourners for a society that is no longer there.

BBC Transcript to be used in the wake of nuclear attack:

This is the Wartime Broadcasting Service. This country has been attacked with nuclear weapons. Communications have been severely disrupted, and the number of casualties and the extent of the damage are not yet known. We shall bring you further information as soon as possible. Meanwhile, stay tuned to this wavelength, stay calm and stay in your own homes.

Remember there is nothing to be gained by trying to get away. By leaving your homes you could be exposing yourselves to greater danger.

If you leave, you may find yourself without food, without water, without accommodation and without protection. Radioactive fall-out, which follows a nuclear explosion, is many times more dangerous if you are directly exposed to it in the open. Roofs and walls offer substantial protection. The safest place is indoors.

It’s interesting that this script was created in the early 70s , the heyday of the big budget, world-conquering disaster movie. The script was discussed from 1973 through to 1975. In 1974 the Towering Inferno was the biggest grossing film at the US Box Office, Earthquake was the third biggest. As would become all too cruelly apparent in 2001, these movies give us a way of talking about this inconceivable fear, they give it a structure and a narrative, heroes and villains. The movies gave us our only means of thinking about tragedy, so inevitably when it happens, it feels just like a movie.

The disaster movie is for me the ultimate 20th century genre. A century that began with one ultimate tremor and ended with another. Absurd, inconceivable moments of interruption, physically and psychologically reorganising the world beneath our feet while we attempt to retain our balance.

For a genre that dominated Hollywood in the early 70s and spawned several of the most successful American movies of all time (Towering Inferno (1974), Earthquake (1974), Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), arguable you could also add 1978’s Dawn of the Dead to that list as well), they are generally pretty brutally bleak. From the title and the cataclysmic images that adorn the lurid posters the disaster is foregrounded. We watch the movie not alongside these characters but from above, gazing down on them, or perhaps backwards through time, powerless to stop the impending catastrophe which we already know is about to engulf them.

There’s something very Brechtian about the opening scenes of these movies. We are entirely estranged from these characters. Frozen in the mundane trivialities of their everyday lives, any sense of involvement we might have otherwise felt with them and their romances and squabbles and hopes and fears fatally undermined by the enormous fucking Earthquake we know is about to smash everything to pieces. We know in approximately 30 minutes whether they are cheating on their wife or fighting to secure that big money deal or just walking along they are about to be hit by the most expensive special-effects-laden moment of interruption you can imagine, leaving them all scurrying about like ants just to survive. What would watching any episode of Friends have been like with the knowledge that one (or more) of them would die in an unimaginable act of terrorism at the beginning of series 8?

List of Major Characters from the film Earthquake:

Stewart Graff – retired pro-footballer stuck in a loveless marriage

Remy Graff – A lonely alcoholic attempting to hold on to her husband

Lew Slade – a tough but loveable police sergeant

Sam Royce – Wealthy businessman with a heart of gold.

Denise Marshall – Mother raising her young son alone

Miles Quade – A daredevil motorcyclist

Jody – A psychotic national guardsman

Rosa Amici – a beautiful, rebellious 19 year old

Walter Russell – a Junior seismologist who predicts a disaster is about to happen

We want to make a disaster movie out of the streets of London. The streets will be a become a liminal space, at once the before and after – the real people like shadows burnt into walls, ghosts haunting a landscape of imagined desolation. Yet all this is softened, made strange even playful, because it feels just like a movie. There will be stories to tell, characters to play, heroes and villains.

The disaster will never be stated (terrorism, flooding, war, flesh eating zombies, alien invasion). Maybe the audience will need to invent their own disaster. Maybe it will just be all these things. What is important is this relationship with the streets, with strangers, with the city, with each other: hauntingly local and epically (cheesily) cinematic, before disaster and after it, real and imagined, told and invented. Hopefully we’ll forge a space for people to renegotiate their relationship with this anxious city – to love it more, to fear it more, to pity it more, to laugh at it more, to play in it more, to make the landscape of the city a mirror of themselves.

This is, of course, at this stage monumentally theoretically – a mess of hopes and ideas. Any thoughts or contributions (or favourite obscure disaster movies) you have are massively appreciated.



  1. Ooh yes. You know that point in a cartoon, after a creature has been hit by a hammer but before it distintegrates, or in the few seconds after walking off a cliff but before falling? Maybe your game could be set at that point – before everyone (except the players) realise what has happened, so the people in the crowds are effectively the walking dead/ghosts.

    So maybe you could be rushing around trying to record the essence of buildings/places before they vanish completely, with the aim of rebuilding London somewhere else – not just taking photos and recording the dimensions but (and this is a bit literary) capturing what they are like – atmosphere, smell, who goes there, why.

    And I’m always astonished at how crowded London is, with all nationalities, all shouting into their phones in their own language on the bus or people in suits discussing business matters self-importantly on the Tube while wearing a conference badge left over from the day’s meeting. It’s as if they’ve come to barter at some post-apocalyptic market place. So, while most people in the crowds would be ‘walking dead’, not knowing what had happened to them, some would be on a mission to plead/bargain/trade/salvage something in the ruins of London and could be potential allies – or enemies. You’d know who they were by how busy or purposeful they seemed, how loudly they talked.

    Also, as for ghosts of people rather than buildings, if you imagine your own friends and family are dead but might be trying to come and help you somehow, you can look for character traits/physical characteristics in the crowds that might show you your friends/family are near and are trying to help. What message do they have? Etc.

    So in other words, you could be trying to categorise people in the crowds as i) friends ii)potential enemies or allies among the purposeful iii) those who are unaware or’zombies’ – while also trying to record the essence of London as a blue-print to rebuild elsewhere.

    Hope this triggers some thoughts. Must get on with my own work – interfering in other people’s ideas is always a much more attractive proposition than trying to get my word count up.

  2. More thoughts:
    Everyone who had survived your unspecified disaster (and knew themselves to be survivors) would have conflicting ideas about what to do about it, which might include:
    – maintain law and order
    – salvage beautiful/useful things
    – take revenge on those who had wronged you
    – make amends for past wrongs in a My Name is Earl kind of way, possibly using strangers as the recipient of the good deed if the wronged person is not available
    – end it all (Children of Men type suicide cults)
    – behave recklessly e.g. set free animals in zoos
    – commemorate the event in an artistic way (poem, film, theatre or painting)

    People would self-select and probably fit into more than one category, some would work alone and some in groups. Many groups would be at cross-purposes.

    One deed might fit more than one purpose.

    Normal information could no longer be trusted. Those freesheets might contain secret messages, advertising billboards might be talking direct to you or your group. All would need to be re-interpreted in the light of the recent disaster. Soothsayers would pop up and be able to use their insight to influence the actions of those around them.

  3. I think the answers you seek might lie in the show Iris Brunette. But then, I liked it so much when I saw it the other day, I’m inclined to think that the answer to pretty much everything lies in that show.

    Also, I was thinking, I really like the idea of games (and have followed some online) but hate playing them – I don’t like the competitive element or being in a team. I have noticed that even some very high profile games have relatively few active players (whatever they may say about numbers who have registered) and perhaps that’s because others feel like me.

    Maybe you can cater for lurkers like me by allowing people to follow the game (maybe even assign them peripheral roles like ‘witnesses’ or ‘gossips’ or ‘amateur sleuths’) and possibly comment on the action in some way without them feeling that the game/action is dependent on them in any way. They would be a bit like the audience members in Punchdrunk’s Masque of the Red Death, in other words – able to dip in and out, feeling included but not responsible.

    • lookingforastronauts
    • Posted October 25, 2008 at 4:42 pm
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    • Reply


    You are wonderful – thanks for all this.

    Radio silence due entirely to not being near the internets for the last 2 weeks, but this is all muchly appreciated.

  4. I don’t know if you’ve seen this but I thought it was very funny and relevant to your project. Of course, it would cost thousands to do something similar…
    I hope the link works:

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