Location: Train (Strangers)

Communal spaces of waiting are where you get to see an honest portrait of a person. I take trains and buses regularly enough to be in these zones. People have no choice but to fill time: often it’s with a phone or newspaper. Coffee or tea is a popular choice. Something is needed in the hands to justify your position in time and space. That sad, half-drunk cappuccino is filler for something else. The froth all sits in the middle of the milk and no matter what angle you try and drink it at, it always floats away from you. It’s an introverted buoy. The bubbles that have clung to the side have started to go slightly solid, forming a lumpy, spotted skin. There is a ritual of trying to wash it away, turning the cup 90 degrees with each sip. It’s lukewarm, of course. Station platforms are always too cold to maintain the temperature for long. Or you are stuck with a cup of tea that tastes like wood because of the stirrers that are provided, and are always too milky and too weak because the tea cups are like buckets compared to the tiny tea bags that float idly in that soup of water and milk. They’re the lone boat in the middle of the ocean off a quiet, off-season coast.

Peering is something which happens a lot. You can always tell who is not familiar with getting a particular train because they often look in both directions. It is choreographed. They wait, eager for something to change, for some stimulus. Then they take a few steps forward, closer to the platform edge than everyone else, and rotate their head from side to side. They lean slightly forwards. Their body is willing the modular slug to arrive. It does not. The garden path is empty. They straighten and take those few steps backwards. They have returned to the start.

Leaning on one leg is popular. People also slouch forward, staring aimlessly at the floor. One old woman I once met in Wrexham General station decided to tell me her whole life story, including her mistrust in dentists and her suspicion of her long-standing neighbour, desperate to fill this non-time. Sometimes people sit on the sad benches that exist at every train station. Their body forms a question mark and the question is always ‘how much longer do I have to wait for this train?’

Summer is easier. All train stations have a greyness and desaturation to them that makes them a cold, lifeless place to wait. By osmosis the life-force of passengers moves through the membrane of the train station and into the train network itself. Trains are powered by the lives of their passengers. But in Summer, when the weather is warm and things have slightly more colour to them. The life-gradient is too small for spirit to drain from passengers. The train station nearly becomes pleasant.

I had the strangest thought today: Maybe I should move to the Midlands so I get to use the London Midland train network again. I have no idea where it came from, except that I used to use it a lot as a teenager when I would go on day excursions to Birmingham in the Summer. I would go alone, walk around the city, hit all the bookstores with a severe sense of longing. Clearly there’s a want for a life I don’t live anymore. I’m still longing, just for something else, for something intangible.

The network’s colour is green, and the accents of the train are a vibrant green that you’d see in a premix bottle of paint for kids. There is something about the network itself that asks you to remember. But it is also heavily authoritarian. On the wall is a poster threatening strong legal action if their staff is given grief. Of course they should expect good treatment of their staff by the public, but the assertion of strong legal action is a very aggressive move by a train network. Even New Street Station is aggressive. It constantly reminds you to be vigilant, to look out for things that are suspicious, to be mistrustful. It’s Orwellian. It makes you police. In this space, authority figures – the police – are unnecessary. We police each other. It is divisive. It’s also a commercialists wet dream, where the glamour and abundance of the shops tries to distract you from this unease. Something is wrong but don’t think about it, just buy more. The architecture of the building makes it feel like it would be at home at the bottom of the ocean. It has an aquatic feel to it: the glass ceiling furthers this. You could be in a fish bowl. Knowing you must wait they indoctrinate you with these messages: don’t trust, don’t think, just consume.

Other things I think at train-stations: In the Truman Show all they needed to do is put scenery on a rotating screen and put Truman on a train in front of it so he thinks he’s going somewhere different. Like old films where the background in the car is a rotating screen. Then he could have his holiday, be proven wrong about his (not quite)conspiracy theories, and he would be trapped there forever. I then go on to wonder if that’s what’s happening to me. Am I actually Truman? This thought is usually concluded by the argument that if I were Truman I would be the most important person in this simulation, and I’m not quite self-obsessed enough to believe that the world revolves entirely around me. There are certainly mechanics at work moving the narrative of my life forward in the direction I want it to, but I am the one peddling on, moving the screen. I’m building my own illusion of agency.

Trains are also an excellent place to make work. In waiting, in being forced to fill time, you are inclined to make something happen. Being an artist and writer, with a toolkit of ways to fill time, it becomes natural to do something. My first best piece of work, a poem called Mono Log, was written on train. This was when I knew my work needed to be performed, and not just exist as a small, polite object. Making work on trains makes you get to the content of the thing rather than the form.

Working on trains, and working as a poor graduate, means your work takes a certain shape. My performances and writing are both low cost, low-resource activities. As someone with zero budget for my practice, it means I am still able to make work. I have thought about what it means to have money, and what I would do with money for my practice if I had it. To be honest, at this point at least, I can’t see what more money would give me. I would like a modest budget for my work, to produce books, but that is not pressing. The content is available for free to everyone online, and until the production of books is important for the work, this is fine. I also think about being a responsible artist – I am anxious about the consumption and use of objects in art practices, as they take resources to make. Often objects are made and then destroyed afterwards in the kind of pop-up exhibitions I’ve been part of, and the waste of this makes me uncomfortable. On trains, with writing and with minimally-stage performance, there is little access or need for resources, and so there is little consumption. Only time is needed. This is funny, as anyone who knows me closely knows my obsession with time, with spending it wisely. It’s why I don’t tend to socialise much, except with those I am very close with: I’m terrified of wasting time. Train journeys are perfect because they’re time which must be spent, and in a situation where you can do nothing else but concentrate on something, they become ripe opportunities to produce.  

 

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There are moments when, looking at the face of someone you know well, your eyes readjust (or rather, your brain misrecognises them), and you see their features as those of a stranger. Not those features of the person you know. Their body, in that moment, is not a 1:1 map of the personality it exists as part of. It is only a body, with proportions, functions, particularities, objecthood. Perhaps this is specific to those of us who have studied the human form, those of us who have that repository in the back of the mind of how to deconstruct a body in order to recreate it. On first meeting a person, you are too busy trying to familiarise yourself with them – a bodily and intellectual them—to be able to study the face properly: you are encoding onto it. This is why I like public spaces: public transport, parks, city centres. In them you meet strangers with whom you will not form a relationship, and so with a disinterested eye you can study faces. People tend to have a different look to them because of this.

This is why my game in London is so easy to play. The game is simple: Any time you are on the Tube you allow yourself to fall in love with a stranger. You work backwards, encoding a personality on the stranger, indulging in a reductive act that meets at the crossroads of stereotyping, whimsy and idealism. Then they leave the carriage and you will never see them again. It is a temporary romance. This indulgence is an optimists game. If you are apt to judging negatively, or on shallow ideas of beauty, it is not the game for you. The best people to fall in love with are the people with something in their face or mannerisms or dress that you’ve never quite seen before, or, alternatively, remind you of someone specific that you love very much.

My weakness in this game is very defined noses: roman noses, or big flared nostrils, upturned noses, big strawberries, or noses like beaks get top points in this game. They’re my favourite. To be specific, my favourite type of nose is the slightly thinner nose, long (almost beaky), with a an arched bridge and delicate nostrils. Perhaps it’s because they’re my favourite type of nose to draw that they’re my favourite type of nose in real life. I also fall in love with legs that make this shape: ( ) where the knees look like they are repelled by each other. I don’t know what it’s called (not bow-legged, like I thought for years), but it gives individuals such a unique gait, and their legs must be using whole other set of minuscule muscles to balance. Their physiology is singular. It solidifies their individuality. This makes the imaginary other life much easier to depict, as I get a stronger feel of who they might be. Then once they step off the carriage to their real life, I forget them immediately. It’s a flirtation with another life, one where I could be anyone, and so could they. I have a similar feeling of escapism with shopping. I enter shops, hold an item, turn it in my hands, if it’s clothing I’ll even try it on. And then, once I’ve entertained the idea of a life with this object, I’ll put it back and immediately forget about it. Perhaps the London Game borders on objectification, as it has a similar form to what I do with products, but I like to think of it more as a love for other humans and expecting the best of them — the focus is not on the appearance but what they might be like. What their personhood is. The only problem is the forgetting. But due to that I do not impress my imaginings on them, I do not ask them to bend to my will. It is just play, like children do, imagining something other than what the reality is – waiting on a cramped metal coffin, underground.