News (and stuff) from London E3

Tuesday 28 July 2009

The big topple

Rewind to Sunday, East London. Thousands of dominoes, scores of volunteers, one arty event. Part of the CREATE09 festival. A line of concrete breeze blocks running through Mile End, the Isle of Dogs and Greenwich. A moving sculpture. Or, as the blurb had it, "linking diverse communities in a symbolic as well as physical chain of cause and effect." Never mind that - the crowd who came to watch just wanted to see the whole lot fall down. Preferably, I suspect, by accident.

dominoes in Mile End ParkMile End Park, 3-ish
Approaching from afar, one lonely pallet of concrete blocks was the only clue that something was afoot. That and the lady stopping everyone cycling along the canal towpath in case they got in the way of the performance. But a hive of activity was hidden beyond the tennis courts, planned to within an inch of its life, as an army of t-shirted volunteers grappled with their unlikely raw material. 540 breeze blocks in total, laid out in a sinuous line along the footpath, across the grass and over the edge of a wall. Every 10th-or-so block had been placed lengthways rather than upright, to prevent any premature topplage causing the entire line to collapse. It rained.

Mile End Park, 3:30-ish
No sign yet of the signal for the off. A small crowd had gathered along the line, most of them near the start beneath the trees. One retired couple had brought a camera to record the magic moment, but had discovered to their cost that you can't replace a rechargable battery with an ordinary one. One of the lanky straggle-haired sportsmen hanging out on the tennis courts emerged to ask what all the concrete was for, and seemed duly impressed by the response. As time ticked by, the line was at increasing risk from volunteers and members of the public nipping oh-so-carefully across and through it. Only once did an accidental touch cause a block to wobble and fall, but the cascade didn't get far before a quick-thinking volunteer halted the flow. One especially elderly lady watched from a wheelchair, and waited, and waited, and nodded off, and had to be wheeled back to her flat without seeing a thing.

dominoes in Mile End ParkMile End Park, 4-ish
I could tell that the performance was finally imminent when the last gap across Copperfield Road was bridged with bricks. 'Get ready', yelled the man in the yellow waterproof, and his t-shirt army raised the 10% of blocker-blocks to the upright position. I had a good position lower down the line with a clear view of the snaking line. Or at least I did to start with. Once the first brick had tumbled and a merry cheer been raised, the crowd spontaneously followed the ripple downhill [video] [video]. They charged towards me, like a human tsunami, enveloping the phenomenon they were so keen to see. It was easy to outrun, so I could only work out roughly how far the topple had reached by observing which way the joggers were looking. At last it passed into near sight, each brick precisely knocking the next ...click click click click click click click... and I grabbed one underwhelming photograph click.

Mile End Park, 4:01-ish
At the edge of the park the first risky bit. The line passed through the railings, then a sheer drop down to street level, then across Copperfield Road and back up onto the pavement [video]. A carefully positioned block raised the flow up to doorstep height, then onward through the ground floor of Matt's Gallery. Unseen by the crowd it exited through a window along a beam above the canal, then fell into a boat conveniently tied up along the towpath. End of part one. Everybosy rushed round to the narrow road bridge to try to glimpse the boat as a few cracked blocks set off downstream. There'd be no more toppling for a few hours - this was no long unbroken domino chain - but momentum was maintained. The organisers smiled, job well done, and within 15 minutes all 540 blocks were back on their pallets.

Island Gardens, 6:30-ish: I didn't hang around to watch this bit. However, thanks to the wonders of the internet, I can offer you this photo and this video.

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, 9-ish: Nor this bit. Looked good though. Down the spiral staircase, along the edge of the tunnel and then (cor) up the other side.

Old Royal Naval College, 9:30-ish: Nor the finale. But I can tell it rained a lot, and it was a bit dark, and there were a lot more bricks.

A warehouse somewhere, autumn-ish: They'll be splicing together the entire performance to make a film, and then all the blocks are going back to the manufacturer to be be recycled. Ain't art fun?

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