Ports Fest 2022: Rider Spoke will take you on an immersive cycling or walking adventure around Portsmouth

DISCOVER the city anew with Rider Spoke, an innovative event which will help you see – and hear – the world around you in a completely different way.

Wednesday, 29th June 2022, 3:05 pm

Rider Spoke, created by arts collective Blast Theory, will be running out of Victoria Park in Portsmouth for four days as part of this year’s Ports Fest.

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

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

Rider Spoke by Blast Theory is at Ports Fest 2022. Picture from Norfolk Wonder, 2021, by Malachy Luckie

Bring your own bike, borrow one of theirs, or walk, and take time to reflect on the people and moments in your life that mean the most.

Stop to record messages and share them with strangers you will never meet as you search for the perfect place to hide a secret.

Founded in 1991, Brighton-based Blast Theory make interactive art to explore social and political questions. The group’s work places the public at the centre of unusual and sometimes unsettling experiences, to create new perspectives and open up the possibility of change.

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Rider Spoke by Blast Theory is at Ports Fest 2022. Picture from Rider Spoke at ACMI, Melbourne, 200. Picture by Phoebe Powell

Led by Matt Adams, Ju Row Farr and Nick Tandavanitj, the group draw 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. The early version ran through Nokia internet tablets and the team had to first teach people how to use its touchscreen – now an everyday part of modern life.

Nick Tandavanitj says: ‘It's always been one of the most popular shows with our audiences, and when the pandemic came and we were looking for a project we could make in the wake of that, or thinking about what’s resilient to Covid, we came back to Rider Spoke.’

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.

Rider Spoke by Blast Theory is at Ports Fest 2022. Picture from Adelaide Fringe, 2022, by Israel Baldago Photography

‘User generated content was kind of an unknown,’ explains Nick. ‘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.

‘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!’

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, Nick says: ‘We give you a little earpiece so you hear a voice and music in one ear. The voice prompts you to begin cycling with no particular direction or destination.

‘Then she 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. I guess it's influenced from psychogeography - that work of thinking about cities and the emotional landscape where different kinds of places have different moods attached to them because of the things that happened there.

‘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, but when you're on the bus, you’re all sitting in silence and looking at our phones, it's really hard to elicit that we do all have these emotional lives.

‘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, 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 kind of stories in there.

Any stories left by people are moderated by the team before being made accessible to others on the platform.

‘It's breath-taking what people choose to share, and there have been stories where people have talked about an horrendous break-up, or having been out of touch with a parent for 20 years and the process of coming back together again, or reflections on suicide.

‘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”. When we did it at London in the Barbican, we had people saying: “I live near Battersea”, so they would be in their Lycra and all their gear – go off to their neighbourhood, record a load of stories and then come back again after being gone for two hours.

‘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, of people talking about their lives.’

Rider Spoke at Ports Fest 2022 runs 5pm-8pm on Thursday, June 30–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.