In the eternal daylight of the viciously overlit shopping arcades beneath Canary Wharf underground station, a queue has formed outside a shop unit positioned between a healthfood outlet and a supermarket. The glass frontage of the unit has been sealed off with a dull metallic surface that sends back smeared reflections of the group waiting outside. A dark portal swallows chunks of the queue peristaltically.
Once inside, the effect is like arriving backstage at an avantgarde theatre production: a chilly breezeblock antechamber with two concealed exits opposite the entrance, each lined with black curtains. As soon as we come in a steward hustles us to one side of the room as if something many-headed and malevolent was about to make an appearance coming the other way. A solitary computer printout tacked high up on the wall next to us states imperiously: ‘Please Do Not Touch’. Touch what? The wall? One another? People edge away nervously from both, which is not easy in the circumstances.
The steward is barking at us now in a wretchedly disgruntled tone as if our particular wave has finally ruined her worsening day. She tells us we have to be prepared to move fast, that we only have two minutes inside the next room and that that is where we will find the things we are not to touch. A scatter of surly individuals issues from the righthand opening at the back of the room. This is our cue. We are hustled through the lefthand opening and into the sanctum.
Adults glance at one another in mild confusion and in that subtle way we have in this country of acknowledging a frail temporary solidarity
Now we are in a grey room with one wall covered in chrome hemispheres like some terrible eruption in the building’s epidermis. These will not be explained. Instead the focus is on the floor, upon which are several plastic domes covered in filaments. These domes pulse slowly, drifting between colours: hot pink, lime green, rancid purple, unearthly gold – neoliberalism’s standard palette for signifying happiness. Two of the larger domes are fitted with a pair of stalklike antennae protruding upwards to waist height. As we absorb these details, a second steward or sanctum attendant chops the air with her hands, insisting that we press ourselves around the perimeter. Stand back, stand back, she insists. Alarm now on the faces of certain more sensitive members of the public.
The sanctum attendant rants at us our instructions. Please do not, I repeat do not touch any of the objects you see. I will explain to you now how they work and what will happen. Lady, sir, with your assistance please, if you would be so kind as to step forward, please do, yes you, please step forward and put out your hands, that’s right, put your hands above the antennae. No do not I repeat do not touch them. Just hover your hands above them. That’s right. You see? Hold them there. You see? You see the effect? Step back please. You see how that works. Now you sir over there yes you and lady if you will please do the same over there, place your hands above the antennae, do not I said do not touch them, that’s right, closer please, that’s right, higher with your hands, yes, now step back please. Sir, sir step back I said, back! That’s right. Thank you. So that is how it works. You can take photographs but there are so many people waiting you really only have about thirty seconds so please go ahead.
The rant ends. The nominees comply but no change in the behaviour of the domes can be discerned. Children look upset. Adults glance at one another in mild confusion and in that subtle way we have in this country of acknowledging a frail temporary solidarity. Then we are forced back out into the light, blinking at the placard that explains our experience. It is, we are told, ‘an exploration of the role of play in creating social bonds and how [sic] technology increasingly shapes our ideas of public space and the way we interact with one another.’Our group shuffles apart dejectedly. People in the queue try to read our faces for some indication of what awaits them and whether they are right to volunteer for it. I walk away along their line, wanting to warn them off. In the end I say nothing. Probably better they find out for themselves.
Online exclusive published on 29 January 2020