Milano master-class

25. The Art of Being a Guide: Soap and Eels

#lesson4 #the3rules #documents #voices #symphony #theater #ambiguity #stendhal

Nicolas : Today, I’m forty-five years old and I’ve managed to summarize this practice into three rules.

The first rule, which is extremely important since we’re in an urban setting, is there need to be restrooms. Often. If there aren’t any, people get stressed out and distracted.

The second, is you always need to improvise. Otherwise, whatever, we could go to a museum and pay somebody to give us a tour. It’s an art! It’s an art …. So, it’s empathetic and polyphonic. You always need to improvise because your audience is always different: for the athletic types, give them something athletic; for the “culture junkies”, give them “culture”; so you always need to be attentive to expectations and try to meet expectations, but in a more ambiguous way so they can chime in and broaden the discussion. So, you always need to improvise because that invites your audience to participate. And this is about shared individual learning.

The last rule is: you have to be funny. Otherwise, what’s the point? If there are restrooms, you’re welcoming, and you’re funny, then everybody should have a good time.

Baptiste: How does it work when you set up an event? Imagine someone who wants to organize a group event but doesn’t know how to go about doing it. Where do you tell people to meet up? It’s from what time to what time? What logistical considerations would you share?

Nicolas: Logistically speaking, it’s a lot easier to plan loops. It also depends on participant expectations. I have an average speed, so I can more or less read my speed on a map. I go about 1 km/hour. I can go faster or slower. It depends on expectations—and you adapt. A more intense pace for walking through a city is about 2 km/hour, rarely more; and then I can also do 100 meters/hour, which is fun (like “The Canebière in 3 Days”) but it’s hard on the back. People who have sensitive backs prefer walking. Walking is actually comfortable; not walking is what’s hard.

Concerning the meetup place: when you communicate a place to meet up, you need to think as if you were the person reading your instructions. You should anticipate how the reader could misinterpret them. For example, I tell people to meet on the bridge in the Aix-TGV train station, and I’ve had people ask me, “Okay, but there are a lot of bridges in the station”. Actually, there’s just one bridge in the station; the others are outside. I hadn’t anticipated people would misunderstand my instructions, that they would think of the large overpasses, which also makes sense. But I was thinking of a small pedestrian bridge, and they hadn’t seen it.

Baptiste: Sometimes you bring archive documents with you to help illustrate your descriptions. Is that something you would recommend? Or is that just something you do?

Nicolas: Yeah, I have a hard time imagining myself without any materials. What about you, Boris? Do you bring documents with you?

Boris: Sometimes I do, but sometimes not.

Nicolas: Right, same here. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It’s part of my nerves as an actor. Having papers with me is reassuring. I remember when I went on vacation with my parents as a kid, I would always pack my dictionaries. It was reassuring. Obviously it adds to whatever I’m saying. It’s scholarly. Books are also useful. I’ve developed a way of using them. For a long time, I dreamed of having a “computer tablet” where I could store all my images, and it would be big enough so I could illustrate my talks …. But every effort I’ve made in that direction has been disastrous. Tablets are small; the image disappears in sunlight; they’re useless.

So, I have literally a ton of paper at my house—twenty years of photocopies. I have a whole filing system. I file my photocopies by postal code, by geography, and that, that gives me huge piles. For instance, I have “Marseille” on one side and “outside Marseille” on the other side. In Marseille, they’re organized by district. Outside of Marseille, by postal code. I also just love paper, its creases and folds, as we have in maps. Maps are vital documents. That’s what was sorely missing yesterday: a map. When I’m on a walk, I’m more engrossed in the map than outside the map. I like to look at the map and then, at one point, I raise my eyes and say, “right, so that’s what it looks like”. Maps are one type of document I use.

Outside of that, anything goes. Let’s say I’m doing a thing on Firminy, so what do I have on that? I have a personal passion for reading aerial photos and old maps (not everybody’s thing, right?). I spend a lot of time poring over photos and looking at building rooftops to see when things appear or disappear. You can also look at tree growth and think about when they were planted. And why were these ones planted and not other trees? Studying the evolution of a space is fascinating. Truths are hidden everywhere.
Sometimes I wind up in a place I’ve never been before (I had a request for Saint-Mitre-les-Remparts not long ago), and I’m asked to give a tour of a place I’ve never set foot, and people from the city are there, and whatever, I say, OK, I’m there. And so, I prepare a lot of maps, one on top of the other, in my home. It takes me a couple hours, layering the maps over each other, and that gives me a kind of sense of the place. So, I see how it works, and when I get there, I’m not totally unequipped. With my expertise, I am able to speak with people who are already familiar with a space, even when I am not; I bring pieces of information that interest them.

Baptiste: As a guide, you tend to speak really loudly. Is that an important ingredient in these walking tours—your physical presence?

Nicolas: That came with time, but I really like it. There you are, barefoot in the grass: it completely changes your relationship to the environment. Knocking on walls: well, yes, it’s real. Knocking is a way for my body to test and come into contact with matter. It’s a sound. We hear it. The brain mixes the tactile sensation with the sound of knocking and it gives us a certain empathy with the physical matter.

The voice, for instance, is linked to the fact that we’re dealing with large groups. I want my voice to be heard, you know? It’s a skill that actors learn. You have two modes: the clown and the troubadour. The troubadour is all about being in the street: occupying space and being funny. With this very simple recipe of reverberation off walls: you shouldn’t project your voice onto the audience; if you do that, it’s a kind of assault, since you’re speaking loudly. Your voice should be directed at a building so it can reverberate off it and come back to the audience. That way, they hear you twice. At the same time, the sound is twice as loud. That’s the troubadour.

And the actor, that goes with bringing papers or not bringing papers. It’s a way of managing stage fright, accepting your inner clown, and owning your image. Some people I know are shy, and so when they do walks they have a hard time making their voices heard. They aren’t comfortable with their appearance. It’s not easy. And I don’t have a recipe for that. I’ve met some actors, especially in improv, who aren’t concerned with their bellies or their look, so there’s that.

Baptiste: It might be useful to know if sometimes your walks don’t go well or if sometimes you aren’t happy with them. And could you explain why?

Nicolas: In terms of appearance, there’s the famous red umbrella. Tour guides hired by travel agencies carry red umbrellas because, even if they’re not leaders per se, there needs to be someone whom the others can follow. The red umbrella is a simple beacon. You need to stand out in some way. That’s crucial when you’re in a big group. When you have more than twenty-five people you’ve never seen before, they absolutely need to know who the leader is.

There’s also a rule I learned from Yves Clerget that I really appreciate, and it’s: “Those that don’t follow don’t follow”. And that’s really useful, because what he means is: “You’re the guide. You’ve done a lot of work to prepare, digested a lot of words. You’re focused and doing your best for your audience. And to maintain your focus, you need to forget your talents as an organizer. You’re not the group mom. You’re not there to wait on the stragglers. You’re not there to make sure everyone has understood. So, you can free yourself of all that. Those who don’t follow don’t follow. You’re doing your job. Your audience is doing its job, which is to pay attention, be open-minded, and participate.

There will always be walks that “don’t work out”. There are misunderstandings. For instance, you plan a cultural hike for more athletic types. They come with their walking sticks, encumbered. They get bored.
And then there’s politics. You have to be really careful. Twenty years ago, you could talk more freely, but these days we all have a tendency to overinterpret. It got pretty difficult during the Sarkozy years because you were either for him or against him. I remember one guy in particular who thought I was spreading anti-Sarkozy propaganda. But he couldn’t have been more wrong: I was talking about the trees on the street. It’s really tricky. It’s like when politicians in Marseille claim we’re “bashing Marseille” when we do sociological documentaries.

So, things can go wrong when you misinterpret your audience’s expectations. When it’s your audience that has misunderstood, there’s nothing you can do; that’s just life. And another misstep was when I’d planned a long and rather intense morning and forgot to stop for the restroom break I’d initially planned in Parc Borély. So, to get back to my first rule: there need to be restrooms.

Loïc: I’ve heard you use the term “symphony”.

Nicolas: When I say “symphony”, I mean a “comprehensive format”. You can have a comprehensive, multi-course meal and you can have a comprehensive walk. It’s experimental and empirical, but I have a kind of classic formula that I call “symphonic”, since in classical music a symphony is a kind of gold standard. A symphony is like a meal: you have everything—the appetizer, something savory, and something sweet. You have everything in a symphony: a beginning, a middle, and an end. There’s a climax, a way of opening, a way of doing things, so there are four movements, and then there’s a way of ending. There’s a savoir faire to ending which I find amusing. There are techniques for managing a group: for instance, you make them laugh and laugh and then you take your leave and you don’t say another word. There are lots of ways to end. It’s theatrical. There are ways of compressing and decompressing time, and there can be nothing. A tunnel of nothing, since everything from before and everything after is awesome.

And when I say “chorus”, I mean it in an empathetic and participative sense. Because the thing is, everything I am telling them comes from something I’ve learned from somebody else. So, it’s important for the others to speak and for me to listen. There needs to be space so that people who want to participate can participate.

There are also the “annoying” types. This is a big issue in Marseille, and I’m not great at handling them, so I make do. Sometimes when you’re with a group in a city, there are outsiders that want to join, and they don’t really mesh well; they take up space. I don’t know what to say, you have to make do. But you should never resort to violence, aggressiveness, or meanness, because if you do that, you tank the vibe.
Then there are external contributors who can be a real asset. People in the know who open your eyes about something. That’s something to respect and encourage, so you smile and you say, “oh, interesting,” because this is really about enjoying each other’s company, no matter our political leanings or fixations. On the Saint-Mitre walk, there was an elected official with a bad attitude, a depressive type for whom “everything is dysfunctional”, and so on. But in the end, I really enjoyed his company. And one of my roles on the walk was to absorb his “nothing works, everything is rotten” attitude, since he had fixated on me, but it didn’t bother me because he was really knowledgeable about why things were “dysfunctional and rotten”. I was happy to listen to him because there was substance to what he was saying. And that also meant that he didn’t ruin the atmosphere for the group.

Finally, I’m a big fan of children. I’ve been giving them more and more space. They are a good example of everyone having a right to participate. They tend to be relaxed and spontaneous in a way that we aren’t. I’ve noticed that being open to children helps you be open to adults. Children are a tool for creating openness.
Dogs are also an asset. They are walkers just like the rest of us. They have their own experiences, their own points of view. They are more enthusiastic walkers than we are.

Alexandre: How do you see what we do compared with museums? Because on our walks, we do something we aren’t allowed to do in museums: we touch, we walk over the artwork, we can run around. It’s not the same experience. What’s your relationship with museums? Is walking antithetical to museums? Or a new type of museum?

Nicolas: There’s a history to considering the ordinary, the “already there”, the things that exist without a frame, things with intrinsic value—but that’s rather philosophical. And when it comes to these questions, Stendhal is very interesting. It intersects with invention. It’s Enlightenment thinking and the invention of objectivity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Stendhal was after that. And in the meantime, museums were created with objects taken from aristocrats, giving a general public access to luxury. And then in the early nineteenth century, there was Stendhal, who went to museums and wept; he left the museum weeping. He wept with emotion because he was too sensitive to things. He was moved by the adorable doorknobs, by everything inside and outside the museum. And that’s exactly what I think: the inside and the outside of a museum are the same thing. The inside and outside of my head are the same thing. It’s all one. I don’t have much of a theory of museums. I’m not entirely convinced by the idea of walking over the artwork. For me, the experience is more theatrical.

Paul: People just starting out with these walks tend to have stage fright because they need to talk and say things. They think, “I need to give them facts”, and at the same time, the more I do these walks, the more I think we can relax over the idea of what’s true or not true. Guides can be, as Denis would say, “gonzos”, which means to “say things”, but knowing that what’s important is to be there talking and not to be afraid to err or say half-truths that may elicit more of a response. What’s important is the moment and the eliciting of group response.

Nicolas : Exactly. The quest for the truth is futile. The truth doesn’t exist. Things are as we want them to be. If I come here alone with you, I have a way of talking. I try to be nice to you so you trust me, and then I say, “this is the best example of urbanism in the world,” and I explain how the ground treatment will allow three frogs to provide species variation and so on, well, you’ll believe me, because things are as we want them to be; we bend them to our will. It’s hard to explain my relationship to truth: there’s an emotion to understanding. There is no single truth. There’s an understanding that we cannot understand
(that’s wisdom), and once we understand that we can’t know everything, well, we are ourselves a mystery in a mysterious world. And we share this ambiguity.

That’s one of the big messages of the arts, painting, and architecture. If you want the things that don’t speak, don’t move, or not much; if you want them to send a message (they will never send one message), then the spectator needs to believe that the message is intended for them, so it’s important to encourage the spectator to be open to ambiguity; that way, they can create their own vision of things, something that matches their desire to see. So, ambiguity is the key here. On a radio program on France Culture, some Casanova specialists argue that it’s very difficult to distinguish fact from falsehood in Casanova’s
memoirs. Why might that be? Because what interests Casanova isn’t historical truth, but a compelling
story. He wants us to buy his books, to be seduced by him and his words. And specialists say that there’s
one way to be sure if Casanova is lying: when you think he’s lying, that’s when he’s telling the truth.

And one last thing from the writer Aurélien Bellanger which I find interesting: “Poetry is to poetry what irony is to prose”. So, poetry should remain unnamed, because if you name it, then it’s not there. Prose is not poetry. Together we’ll describe things and share in that description: that’s prose. A description is an assignment of quality and intensity. That intensity is a mode: irony. Which is to say that when you say we can play with the truth, or that Casanova plays with truth, what’s interesting is to spend a nice moment together, to share the ambiguity of things. And so, “irony is to prose what poetry is to poetry” means that when you describe things, if you ironize and conditionalize, and if people don’t know if what you say is a truth or a lie, then the listener will want to play the same game, and we can play together. Inversely, the absence of irony and the quest for truth is an impenetrable wall. Irony helps us move forward. This perhaps brings us to the political. Taking a political stance is a way of deforming the ambiguity of things. It is to force a point of view or frame, and it should be avoided. We should always be slippery like soap and eels.