Ports Fest 2022: Explore Portsmouth and discover new stories with Rider Spoke

I head south out of Victoria Park, gentle guitar music playing in my right ear, then the voice begins.

This is my guide for Rider Spoke, an innovative event which will help you see – and hear – the world around you anew.

Rider Spoke, created by arts collective Blast Theory, is running out of the Portsmouth park as part of this year’s Ports Fest, the city’s annual celebration of the arts.

Tying in nicely with the 2022 festivities’ theme of Remember, Reimagine, Reignite, Rider Spoke invites you on an immersive journey around the city.

The News' Chris Broom tries out Rider Spoke in Victoria Park, Portsmouth, with the help of Ausra Vaisvilaite, left, and Leo Lami Picture: Chris Moorhouse

Setting off with a smartphone attached to the handlebars for an hour-long ride – or on foot, with the phone in a shoulder bag – you are guided by the narrator and a delicate score to reveal the hidden stories of the people who live here.

You can bring your own bike, or borrow one of theirs, or walk.

Over the course of a thought-provoking hour, as I ride around Southsea and Old Portsmouth, I hear stories ranging from the hilariously disgusting (a party after a Green Day gig), to what keeps one father awake at night, to the heart-breaking (why one woman felt she had to leave her family home) and the tragic (a family secret of the darkest kind).

I also stop at various points to record stories of my own prompted by the narrator’s questions, and find myself in doorways and quiet corners sharing things out loud, things which in some cases I’ve not thought about in years. It’s all rather liberating.

The News' Chris Broom test rides Rider Spoke in Victoria Park, Portsmouth. Picture: Chris Moorhouse

Founded in 1991, Brighton-based Blast Theory makes interactive art to explore social and political questions.

Led by Matt Adams, Ju Row Farr and Nick Tandavanitj, the group draws on popular culture and new technologies to make performances, games, films, apps and installations.

Since its debut at the Barbican in 2007 Rider Spoke has been to more than 30 cities across the globe, from Adelaide to Athens.

When Rider Spoke was first created it was intended to tap into the emerging ideas of social media and user generated content (UGC) – Google had recently bought YouTube for $1.6bn.

Picture from Rider Spoke at ACMI, Melbourne, 200. Picture by Phoebe Powell

Nick Tandavanitj says: ‘User generated content was kind of an unknown. YouTube at the time was full of the classic cat videos, things that are funny and fun. But we were intrigued as to whether we could create something that was like a UGC platform that allowed people to talk in a way where they could be honest and open and sincere and heartfelt – create a moment of sharing and people talking about their lives in ways that maybe hadn't occurred to them before, and that was the genesis for Rider Spoke.’

With social media now more known for its ability to create arguments and polarise people than unite them, the team at Blast Theory recalled the start of Rider Spoke, and thought it would be perfect for our post-pandemic world.

‘We remembered when we did it first time around, the number of people who came back from the show with this glorious sense of belonging – of recognition of other people and the experience that other people have in their lives.

‘That makes it all sound very grand, because actually Rider Spoke is also just a fun bike ride!’

The launch screen for Rider Spoke as you prepare to head off. Picture: Chris Moorhouse (jpns 290622-40)

When you go to take part in Rider Spoke, the team will be on hand to get you going. Once you're set up with the smartphone and your earpiece in, off you go.

Nick says: ‘The narrator talks a bit herself and in doing that, gives prompts to find a place of a particular kind – so maybe a place where you feel comfortable, a place that's quiet, a place with a view of the sky, places that remind you of your father. And in finding those places, it also asks you to reflect on a question about your life, and so it's very open.

‘There are prompts to explore the city, but it's not didactic – it doesn't go: “turn left at this road”, or “go down this road” – it's much more about the feel of the city.

‘There's the sense that the city is a playground. It's where we all live out our lives, we have emotional journeys and have personal relationships and tragedies and failings.

‘The trick, or the goal of this work is to take you on this journey where you're kind of isolated because you're wandering or cycling around on your own, and you have an earphone in, but you're also hearing all these stories of people opening up.

‘You look about you and can see people going about their business.

Rider Spoke is part of Ports Fest 2022

‘But you also hear the voice of precisely the kinds of people around you talking about some of their... not necessarily their innermost secrets, but people tell witty stories, stories about when they were young, but they also talk about divorce and break-ups, or looking after older parents.

‘There's a couple of saucy ones in there. There's all kinds of stories in there.’

Any stories left by people are moderated by the team before being made accessible to others on the platform, and there is always the option at the end of your experience to have them wiped altogether.

‘It's breath-taking what people choose to share.

‘There are things where we go: “I don't think we can share that”.’

And people can participate as much as little as they like.

‘For some people, they go through the whole experience just listening to stories.

‘You can go to where you live, for example, or you can just follow your nose and look for stories wherever you like.

‘Some people come at it with a real sense of: "I'm going to go cycling to this place”.

‘Or, here in Portsmouth, you could just have a nice wander around Victoria Park, listen to some music and hear some stories, it doesn't have to be like a big race.’

As the event goes on in each location, the number of stories builds up. But to get the ball rolling, Nick says: ‘We take two or three recordings from each city which then become like the seed. We've just come back from two cities in Australia, so you should hear five or six stories from there, if you can find them.’

And you may even hear one of my stories...

Rider Spoke at Ports Fest 2022 runs 5pm-8pm on Friday, July 1 and 1pm-8pm on Saturday, July 2–Sunday, July 3. Rides last about 60 minutes and are appropriate for ages 16-plus.

Tickets are £15 for adults, £12.50 concessions.

Find out more about Ports Fest and to book tickets go to portsfest.co.uk.

Rider Spoke at Adelaide Fringe, 2022, by Israel Baldago Photography