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Field Notes: Findings from Crocus Valley

…Site ‘]][392: Croydon, Crocus Valley
Many people live here. We are
interested in the social dynamics of such a
space and the ground is healthy and fertile; it
grows flowers which produce spice
We have questions that we would like to find
the answers for.
…What will our borrowed senses tell us?
…. What is the temperature?
…How loud is it?
…How would we move around?
Is there enough nature?
Will we feel safe?
…//Can we breathe
…how do we feel?

— excerpt from OFFWORLDERS: THE CROYDON CHRONICLES Produced as part of Theatrum Mundi Restaging Croydon 2023

Part 1: Worldbuilding

19.03.23 – Sight
One by one, we arrive from scattered corners of London. Some have ambled over from East Croydon Station, weaving in and out of the concrete and glass skyscrapers on Wellesley Road. Others stepped off the Overground and hurried from West Croydon Station, marvelling at the sea of buses and the bustling crowds on North End. We all come to Turf. Tucked away in a corner of the dilapidated Whitgift Centre, it is the home base for our explorations and forays into the town centre. A multistorey playground for creative expression, its vibrancy is at odds with the failing retail graveyard around it. Scaffolding props up leaky atrium roofs, empty shopfronts hint at a previous prosperity that is long gone.

At first we deal in broad strokes. We craft characters that embody our initial assumptions, seeing the town centre through their eyes. Is it a lost brutalist utopia? A sanitised environment that promotes fear and homogeny? An extractive landscape where outsiders take whatever they please and give nothing back? Our characters walk a fine line between veracity and caricature.

15.04.23 – Sound
We split off in pairs and trios, taking our characters on a walk to one of the five sites of inquiry in our explorations. Travelling in silence, we absorb the sounds that flow around us as we walk. In the playscape of Queen’s Gardens children laugh, shriek and loudly assert their independence as they frolic. We then encounter the roar of traffic from the flyover as we cross Park Lane. Reaching Fairfield Halls, Croydon’s answer to the Royal Festival Hall, the din recedes as we enter the carpeted lobby.

Back at Turf, we layer our recordings to create soundscapes that evoke our experiences on site. Rhythmic and pulsating, the audios offer a new way of interfacing with each site – a concentrated dose that immerses us for a short burst. A picture is emerging, but it is still hazy.

13.05.23 – Chronoception; Play
The age of the settlement once known as Crocus Valley becomes ever more apparent on a walk that takes us to the site of the Whitgift Almhouses. Built in 1596, the building has marked the corner of George Street and North End for centuries. The once grand department store Allders languishes next door, part of the ill-fated Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield regeneration project.

At Turf we generate a suite of stakeholders as part of a game of Top Trumps, determining the economic, political, creative, collective and ecological power of each one.  Saffron flowers and pigeons are pitted against the Croydon Local Plan and Mayor Jason Perry. In a town hall meeting discussing the future of Allders, we perform as these new characters, seeing how those with the least economic and political power are often powerful in other ways that are not valued.

17.06.23 – Touch; Proprioception
A walkshop invites us to score our movements and body positioning through space. Delicate lines scrawled in notebooks become notation as we traverse North End, restricting our sight to act as cameras and documenting everything that moves in the street scenes in front of us. A little dog yaps, pigeons strut, balloons sway in the breeze. Prams are pushed, leaflets are passed out, shopping bags are carried.

Our score leads us to the sterile courtyard at Saffron Square. In silence we form statues on the granite sets and raised beds. We touch and trace the tactile stone sculptures, enveloping them with our bodies.

Part 2: Synthesis

The discomfort of being in a new place and trying desperately to make sense of it never really leaves us. As newcomers, how can we unpack and grasp the nuances of a place in a matter of weeks, let alone communicate this to others? As locals, how can we convey the shorthand for the layers upon layers of references, shared histories, and folklore in a pithy and digestible way? Despite these challenges, our sensory explorations revealed to us a complexity and richness; a town centre that is vibrant with contrasts and contradictions.

We try to reconcile these differing perspectives, realising that Croydon’s identity is not static but constantly shaped by the interactions between its spaces, its people, and their myriad activities. We lean further into the exploration of sensory experiences as a valid way of continuing to understand and document this place. If we had never come upon this location before, how could we comprehend it using our bodies and our emotions? How could we design experiences to facilitate this comprehension? Our evolving insights suggest to us that the true essence of this place might lie in the very uncertainty we embrace.

Part 3: Festival

The festival begins with an invitation to journey “off-world”, a thematic continuation of our sensory exploration. In this interactive mission, we embody extra-terrestrial life forms, encountering and navigating Croydon Town Centre for the first time. Employing a variety of devices, we navigate the urban landscape devoid of familiar senses like sight, smell, or sound, or alternatively, with altered physical forms — some of us larger, others burdened with additional weight. This surreal procession past weekend revellers and people returning from work and school draws little attention, a surprising reminder of Croydon’s unassuming acceptance of diversity. A similar thing happens when we go on a sensory walk in Park Hill and move through the space without sight, deepening our connection to our other senses.

In momentarily relinquishing our human senses and perspectives, we gained unprecedented insights into the multifaceted character of the town centre. The festival became more than a showcase of our findings and experiences – it was a testament to the idea that understanding a place extends beyond the physical and into the realm of the imagined and the empathetic. The essence of places like Croydon lies in the rich tapestry of experiences it offers — seen and unseen, heard and unheard, touched and untouched.

This is a commission from Theatrum Mundi as Part of PolyVocalCity: Restaging Croydon. All copyright reserved to Theatrum Mundi and the artist. Funded by The City Bridge Trust and first published as part of Urgent Pedagogies Issue #10: PolyVocalCity

Betty Owoo

is a Croydon-based spatial designer and writer interested in the complex challenges of designing in an urban environment. Trained in architecture, she uses design and communication to tell stories and solve problems in the physical and digital realm. She was a member of the Theatrum Mundi PolyVocalCity: Restaging Croydon cohort, 2023.

Lou-Atessa Marcellin

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