5 small groups of students were sent off into Lancaster town centre with a question and a task. The objective: to get a member of the public involved in their discussion; to see how long they could engage with a total stranger; to see whether anyone would respond to the groups’ requests for a discussion at all.
The piece addressed a number of key ideas: Do we ever take on difficult questions in life? Are we all just selfish, ignorant people who completely reject anyone outside of our close circle of friends? Are we scared to ask for help? Would you ever ask for help? Would you ever stop and ask for a stranger’s opinion on something?
Town centres are often considered to be busy, social places filled with engaged and interesting people. In reality, they are quiet, lonely spaces where people refuse to break the social norm and talk to strangers. Even talking to a homeless man is considered to be radically against the status quo: “why are you talking to that man? You don’t know what he might do.” Admittedly, we were all taught as children to not talk to strangers. But perhaps this statement is outdated; meaningless in our 21st century society. In this new world of technology and networks, of communication and involvement, maybe talking to strangers is inevitable. You could be talking to a stranger on Facebook right now. How well do you know that girl/guy you’re talking to? When’s his birthday? What’s his favourite meal? Where does he live? This piece attempts to create this conversation with members of the public to address the notions surrounding the town and the boundaries of social conversation. How far can one go when talking to a stranger?
The 5 groups were given the following questions, some more challenging/comical than others:
Each group received different responses from the public. The first group found that the person they asked gave a scientific answer, but also changed the conversation. The second group noted that the group they asked were adamant that an extremely intelligent child would be more beneficial and refused to change their mind. The third group stated that people were not willing to talk about the question, but described the answers that people did give, noting that the response they received from the homeless man was moving. The fourth group found that the wood carver that they asked was willing to engage in conversation with them, perhaps because he had been working at his stall all day, which would ultimately require him to be social. The final group found that they drew agitated responses from members of the public. They found that people were irritated that they had asked them such an obscure question and a few did not even stop walking to answer the question.
What is interesting to note from these results is how strangers often refused to give the groups the time to discuss their questions. They, instead, stated that they were in a rush and went on with their day, perhaps to avoid having to answer the questions and finding themselves in an awkward situation. Especially in the case of fifth group, strangers did not even stop to engage in conversation. The results show the extent to which the phrase “don’t talk to strangers” is still enforced and reiterates the notion that the town centre is a quiet space filled with people who refuse to break the social norm. People would much rather be enclosed in their own social bubble than open out and talk to others, partly because it is seen as an odd thing to do, specifically in our culture.
The piece was originally intended to be conducted in Lancaster train station but was moved to the town centre after concern was expressed by the Station manager. Each group was also originally intended to have their own microphones when talking to members of the public, but for reasons of consent, it was decided that we would interview the groups after their conversations instead.
The audio recordings from the interviews with the groups can be found below: https://soundcloud.com/harryjamesmcgill/sets/btsinterviews
The transcribed interviews can be seen below showing the group members, their location and the question they were given.
The sped up video below shows Sara and I brainstorming the idea for this piece in our studio space. This piece was a collaborative effort between the two of us.