Are we Walking Visionaries?

Tales from the Towpath is in the running for another award: this time it’s the Walking Visionaries Award, part of the Walk21 conference in Vienna in October 2015.

Once again, you can vote for Tales from the Towpath if you think the project should win this award. Voting opened today (26 May) and runs until 16 June.

There are a lot of other interesting projects in the line-up, so make sure you take a bit of time to check them out.

More from the Cache Logs

The six geocaches created for this project are still in place in Manchester, and being found on a regular basis by local and visiting geocachers. The Zappar codes are also still in place for at least the near future, so if you are in Manchester, check the map and go and have a look.

What’s great about the geocaches is that we get messages from the people finding them – both in the paper log inside each cache, and digital logs on and Many people take the time to write a little bit about what they were doing that day, how they found the cache, whether it needs maintenance, and some very nice comments about the caches themselves and the story. Some people also upload photos. You need to be logged in to see the logs, and we know not everyone wants to do that, so here’s a selection that we’d like to share with you.


“A quick easy finish to the series for me and mum – amazingly, the GPS was in cooperative mood here, and the updated coords led us straight to where the cache was neatly tucked away . Thanks to those responsible for setting this series – I really liked the quirky containers and informative cache pages .”

“Found yesterday after spending the day in Manchester whilst visiting relatives. Interesting stories about the river. Loved the city. Tftc.”

“Quick find with no gps required. We liked the container decoration! must have taken some time. Interesting to see the Medlock through the crack at the end of the wall. Back in Manchester for more caches, beer and shopping. TFTC.”

“Another day in Manchester so another lunch break spent on this interesting new series. GPS was bouncing around as usual but it got me to an area where I could have a look around guided by the hint. Soon spotted somewhere suspicious… and sure enough that was the hide. Another distinctive container too. Thanks for the cache.”

“A very appropriate container for Manchester and her canals – loved the milestone/boundary stone thingy nearby too, have never noticed that before!”

“Love the theme, enjoyed the walk down the canal. Thank you.”

“With the rest of the Tales From The Towpath series popping up yesterday, and the frustrating DNF that followed, was chuffed to see another new cache in the city centre! Thanks must go to the series COs for providing so much information for each one – and for this one in particular, never even knew the People’s History Museum existed despite living in Manchester for nearly 15 years. A nice quick find on a blustery autumnal day, was really pleased to see the blank log in another lovely little container    “

The Narrow Stage


It was a marathon – all thirty three feet of the narrowboat’s aisle: three shows in one evening. The first was still in daylight, the second two after dark, which was when the show really came alive. We had the most minimum of lighting, and as we read the story of Tib, Dan and … (best not spoil the story as caches and zap codes are up until the end of the year at least), I was reminded of reading under bedcovers at night, and how totally absorbing and encompassing that was for my imagination.

Whatever I was told, or, in this case, was telling, seemed totally believable. And so it seemed to our audiences. They all entered into the spirit of building the possibilities of what and who could evolve from the original premise.

We had one rehearsal in situ although had the boat’s dimensions taped out for a day previously. Add people dotted up and down the stage and we were really dancing in the crowd. Making the most of the boat’s length was always central to our performance (arff arff), to bring the intimacy of the spoken voice close to everyone there, which may be uncomfortable for some, but I am sure they’ll all have left with certain phrases and images spinning in their heads.

Inevitably the lighting emphasized this, focusing on our IMG_0048mouths in the main, freeing me, at least, to forget the external, my physical presentation, and pour all energy and focus into the voice and its delivery. The contained space of the narrowboat added to this aural dynamic, as well as providing a challenging screen for Helen to project images and text on to. Wood everywhere – what a wonderful acoustic.

Each performance had a very distinctive character – perhaps created by the audience’s personality, aided by the start time. This difference really altered the peaks and curves of the story, where the humour or sorrow emerged, and, perhaps most crucially, how much detail we got on opening a lock. One day. Next project.

Projecting in the rain …

central_library_01We four have gathered once more in Manchester, for the final climax of our tale. The story trail has been underway for the last 10 days, taking participants to interesting places around Manchester where they are discovering digital and non-digital surprises, and fragments of the story. On Friday evening the story will culminate in a live performance on a canal boat, and our current task is to refine the script and rehearse the performance.

Maya has been giving guided tours of the story trail, which have been popular with people who aren’t familiar with the technology (which is most people, since we are using the very new Zappar codes and geocaching which is quite a niche activity) as well as with those who appreciate the personal touch and extra information they’re able to get on the tour. At the end of each tour Maya has been doing a microprojection, usually onto the dark canal waters. This evening it was too wet for the tour, so we went to a poetry reading at the Manchester Central Library and afterwards did the microprojection outside the library as the audience left.

central_library_02It was still raining heavily, which meant we had to take care to keep the projector dry, and people weren’t going to stand around very long looking at it. But the rain did provide a nice wet concrete surface on which the projection showed up very nicely. As people walked over the text they did a double-take and looked back to see what it was, some bemused about where it was coming from.

I’ve also learned how to fold an origami narrowboat as part of this project. It’s harder than it looks! But now that I’ve got the knack of it, I’m finding it very meditative. The boats, which give another fragment of our story, have been distributed around various festival venues and will also be available at the performances and guided tours.

Tomorrow we will mark out the performance space of the boat on the floor of our rehearsal room at Z Arts, make the final tweaks to the script and rehearse for the three performances on Friday night (book now if you haven’t already – the first two are nearly full!). And on Saturday, Sarah and I will give our workshop, which follows on from the workshop Maya and Michelle gave last Saturday – reviewed here by a participant who can’t wait for the next part.

central_library_04So, we are in the busy and exciting days as everything we’ve planned and prepared is finally realised. I just hope that the weather will be kinder – rain is not so nice for going around the story trail – and that this annoying cough I’ve got clears up before Friday …


Loving the logs

geocache_log_reducedOnce of the nice things we’ve discovered about using geocaching in our project is the feedback: when someone finds a cache, they write the date and their name on a paper log inside the cache, and they can also post a digital log to the cache’s listing, via their geocaching app.

Most of our six caches have been in place for a week already, since we needed to be sure the listings would all be approved in time (both and rely on volunteers to check and approve all new caches – thank you!). As soon as each cache was approved and appeared on the site, keen local geocachers were out there hunting for them – sometimes within an hour or so of the cache being made public. And as they found – or did not find – each cache, they entered logs and we received email notifications. It has been hugely satisfying to get this instant feedback – especially as many have cottoned on (pun intended!) to the fact that it’s a story series. Many have also complimented the design of the containers.

It was also very helpful for us to learn that one of the caches was too well hidden; its log contains several “DNF” (did not find) entries, and the cachers responses to each other’s difficulties. You’ll be pleased to know we’ve moved that cache and now it is finable. We were also a bit out with the coordinates for a couple of caches, and have updated those thanks to information provided through the logs.

Even before it was officially open, the story trail is clearly a hit with geocachers. The challenge ahead is to get the geocachers interested in the other parts of this multifaceted project, and to encourage non-geocachers, or rather new geocachers, to leave a digital log as well as sign the paper – and go on to find other caches if their curiosity is piqued. Cross-fertilisation between Manchester’s literary and geocaching communities may be about to take place!

You can view the caches here and scroll down to read the logs. You can also view the caches on – but no-one has posted a log here yet. Why don’t you be the first?

View the map of where the caches and Zappar codes are.

Where Water is its own Performance

With the story trail being previewed this weekend and ready for the public on Monday (eeek) our attention turns to the performance. Following our site visit we were able to finetune the piece to embed it to its narrowboat stage. And with the story trail episodes all in place we were also finally in the position to insure the live performance connected with all the other elements of the story – as well as the contributions from participants.

towpath_night_03The performance is another layer to this many layered story. Plus it has the benefit of us all engaging fully with you, the joys of liveness that comes from performance. This immediacy is what makes the performance, especially with its focus on the present timeframe of the story – the past and possible futures being covered elsewhere. It will also feature the origami boats, more projections and fleeting references to text from caches and zap codes.

As with everything else about the story, it has only been possible because of being made by four of us. The fabric of humour, politics, fantasy, improvisation and theatrics gives the forty minute show a real energy. We’ve written it so it doesn’t matter whether you trail before or after the performance.

With it being on Friday evening, there’s the weekend in which to explore the rest of the story. Equally we’re imagining people will have trailed the other episodes before coming to the story. Just like the trail, it won’t matter where your entry point is, just how to piece it together and what you take away from it. Just like water, it has a cycle, where there is no start, no end.



Creative collaboration, or how to build a narrowboat*

We decided early on that we wanted to create some kind of printed object as part of the Towpath project, something that people could take away with them. Sarah quickly came up with the idea to create an origami narrowboat: a simple and elegant fold that leaves space for text, and fits perfectly with our focus on canals and water transport.

One of the first prototypes was a ‘ghost boat’ made from semi-transparent paper, which ended up being very beautiful but structurally unsound. Transparent paper doesn’t like to fold, unfortunately, so we had to leave the ghosts behind and go for something more solid and crisp.

Once the right paper was found, the design process involved a LOT of finicky work on millimetre bleeds and text placement. Many, many files passed back and forth until Sarah and Helen had the draft worked out and ready for testing. This was a print project that absolutely required a hard proof copy from our printers. Small blips that were unnoticeable when the piece was flat became glaring once it was folded into shape.

Folded up, the boat looks like this –

a small flotilla, moments before they blew across the garden

It’s got text on all sides, but take it apart and it’s only a few lonely lines on a mostly blank piece of paper. Not much room for writing. As a piece of sculptural literature (is that a thing? If not, I hereby designate it a thing) the boat needed to justify itself not only in form, but also, of course, in content. It needed to hold pieces of the story, as well as being coherent enough on its own that it would mean something to people who might not have encountered any other parts of the Towpath story via the trail or the performance. A lot for a small boat.

All of this brought us back to the core of the story – an extreme edit, which now sits in the middle of the boat, with quotes from our two main characters running along the waterline on each side.

This extreme editing process also produced the surname of one of our main characters – Tib Aberforth – which impacted the performance script, and the trail text. Like the collaborative process we’ve used to write the text, the different formal elements of the project have grown together, influencing one another as the story has emerged. This little boat actually carries far more than its size would suggest.

We printed 1500 origami boats to distribute around the Festival venues, and I personally have folded about one hundred so far. Better get cracking…

*In the spirit of our collaborative venture, I’m using discussion and notes to write about the piece of the project that was largely led by my co-conspirators Sarah and Helen.

Untangling the Tib

What you have above is the inner workings of our collective mind. Hmm. Step away, and be grateful you can. We’ve just had to get closer and closer to the swiggles and arrows, to comb them out and smooth out their relationship to each other. Which reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s description at the beginning of Slaughterhouse 5 of how he writes plot:

I used my daughter’s crayons, a different colour for each main character. One end of the wall paper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle part, which was the middle. And the blue line met the red line and then the yellow line and the yellow line stopped because the character represented by the yellow line was dead. And so on.

character map june dev labWhich in turn reminded me of this arch Vonnegut explanation of writing stories. He makes it seem so simple. Which of course is how you want it to appear. So perhaps foolish of me to reveal the minds-map. Especially as it may only serve to confuse: the characters you may be able to read of here, if you squint, do not appear like this in the story. Like all people they’ve changed in some way, certainly they do not entirely represent their early incarnations.

Let’s take the purple line, called Clown in the above. No longer. Nor is the ‘she’ ‘he’ ‘we’ idea we sketched out. Instead we have a fluid character call Tib, who might (you’ll have to follow the story trail) carry all the elements of he/she/we. Tib is also the name of a river in Manchester. Once a river, then a sewer, next… ?

It’s all zapping together

I’ve been on a learning curve over the last few weeks, teaching myself how to make Zappar codes. The process is something between making a little web site (in terms of interactivity) and a short film or animation (in terms of narrative progression). I’ve had a few frustrations – it is after all a new platform, and there are bound to be some bugs, plus some things i just don’t know how to do, like transparent videos – but I am getting there! And it’s satisfying to begin to see the results.

One concept I didn’t immediately get was the tracking image. This is like a background image which you can use to anchor the posiition of your elements, but it’s not actually part of the Zappar code – it’s the actual image that viewers are seeing through their device’s camera as they scan the code. Since our Zappars are located outside and we want people to be looking at the environment around them, our original idea was to use photos of the location as tracking images. However, I soon realised that unless someone was standing pretty much exactly where the photo had been taken from, and pointing their camera in the same direction and at the same angle, the tracking image wouldn’t really be identifiable. Other variables such as the weather, light and traffic would perhaps also alter the image. Tracking images should really be a static image such as a poster or card where the viewer is aiming their camera to scan the code.

sticker_making_3This weekend, as I made the stickers that we will use to place the Zappar codes in our chosen places, I had one of those sudden moments of revelation: here is the tracking image! We want people to be looking around at the environment but they will have to first point their device’s camera at the sticker, so that can be used at least initially for the AR to emerge from. It seems pretty obvious now … but that’s the thing about working with technology: there will always be exciting revelations, large or small!

So, I’m about to remake the 5 Zappar codes with new tracking images. At the same time, I’m going to improve some of the graphics and make timing and size adjustments now that I’m more familiar with how it all works. Maya has sent screenshots of two codes tested on location, which has also been very helpful in thinking about how it appears in the actual site. I’m testing on a tablet, however probably most people will access it via a smartphone, so I need to think about the size. We’ve also added a line to the stickers advising people to use headphones, since traffic and other ambient noise makes the audio hard to hear – and the audio is very important!

It’s all coming together now – I’ve got the concepts clear in my head, a good understanding of how the media elements are going to work and interact; and I’ve also had friendly and helpful support from the people at Zappar when I’ve needed it. It will be interesting to see how the public respond …