Andy Field reckons your life doesn’t have enough randomness in it – but don’t worry, it’s not your fault. “We’re sitting right in the middle of the problem,” he says, gesturing out of a café window towards the Olympic Park in east London. “No one is explicitly telling you don’t do this, don’t do that. But there’s no scope for the visitors to this park to be able to determine its meaning, which is the true joy of any park. It’s like: this bit’s for sitting, this bit’s for walking and this is for exercising.”
It sits in opposition to more traditional public parks that are blank canvases, providing a ragged “geography of openness and possibility”. These places invite, say, a pickup football game, a dog let loose, a blanket spread on the ground which can all lead to the kind of human encounters we are increasingly cut off from. But the Olympic Park is a place, he says, that seems to exist mainly for users to be ushered through as swiftly and easily as possible without lingering, except in strictly designated areas. The opportunity for valuable random encounters has been designed out, to our detriment – and it’s something that’s affecting more and more of our public spaces.
Field, 39, a “slightly undefinable” artist and writer, is fixated on the idea of these random human encounters – good, bad or indifferent – and has written a book on the subject, Encounterism: the Neglected Joys of Being in Person. At its heart is the idea that in seeking to make our public spaces frictionless and our gadgets ubiquitous, architects, town planners and tech designers have left us little opportunity to do the things that allow us to connect with others. We no longer linger in public spaces and even if we are able to, we’re inevitably locked into our phones, isolated and unapproachable. In this way the opportunity for random, chance encounters has been removed. And an encounter, he reminds us, is so crucial because it offers the possibility to “sit with the discomfort of our differences until something new blooms out of them”. It’s how we learn to live with each other.
But the poor old Olympic Park mustn’t carry the can for all our ills. From gated communities and privately owned squares to shopping centres peppered with disapproving security contractors or streets designed purely to accommodate cars at the expense of human encounters, it seems we are being wedged in ever tighter by encroaching pseudo-public spaces.
“These spaces are a threat,” says Field, “because they are much less visible than a sign that simply says ‘keep out’ – but the effect is the same in terms of limiting our capacity to meet one another.”
You might argue that Field and I have met – encountered – one another just fine. But our encounter has been steered into a defined space and behaviour: sit here, buy a coffee and interact in an approved manner. We speculate what might happen if we decided to interact in a different way by, say, trying to climb one of the park’s many impeccably manicured trees, like we might have done when we were kids. But we’re too nervous to give it a go and, besides, all the lower branches have been lopped off to discourage such disgraceful behaviour.
Climbing trees might be the kind of randomness he would approve of, but Field, who grew up in a village north of Cambridge, isn’t harking back to some imagined rural idyll. He loves London. “Although it feels instinctively that living in the countryside brings you closer to nature and is somehow more environmentally friendly, in reality it’s big cities that are probably the future.”
He cites cultural theorist Stuart Hall: “‘Cities condense difference.’ They connect and divide. Nowhere is difference more tangible, more uncomfortable and more apparent than in cities. And just being aware of difference and inequality doesn’t change anything, but it does make change more likely. It forces empathy.”
The idea of empathy runs through the book, but there is also anger. Anger at what he sees as the misuse and misappropriation of our public spaces and therefore our private destinies. At times, it reads like a howl released after years of buildup. Was there a moment of ignition?
A defining moment came, he explains, when an artist duo from Canada, Mia and Eric, enlisted his help for a project in Birmingham. “I’d been making art projects, theatre projects, sound walks, weird interactive theatre shows, slightly undefinable things since 2006, and I was struggling to understand what the connection was between these disparate things. Mia and Eric arrived in hi-vis vests with clipboards offering to provide a message service if people wanted to say something to their neighbours. It involved knocking on doors. I remember the absolute visceral discomfort of standing on a stranger’s doorstep. The very first door we went to, this guy answered, a young Indian student who had just arrived in the UK and he asked us inside. We stayed for 25 minutes and it was incredible. That moment of connection was so thrilling. It was an elevating dopamine hit that didn’t involve a screen.”
That experience, he says, helped smooth the journey from thinking about how we meet each other in the context of art to thinking about the way we meet each other in the world. “It dawned on me that the thread was the idea of the encounter – everything I was making was about trying to create opportunities for people to meet each other.”
He was inspired by other artists, especially Abigail Conway, whose work borrows from the everyday to make us think about neighbours and neighbourhoods and how we interact with the other people living around us. “I realised that, often for the sake of comfort, we avoid the difficulty, the complexity, the nuance of those encounters. Not every encounter you have is going to be comfortable and wholly satisfying, but when you approach them with care and intention, then you can begin to learn from that.”
Does he see the way these encounters – these moments of randomness – have been designed out of life as a sinister conspiracy or merely a result of natural human desire to make the world as easy and non-threatening as possible?
“There’s a degree to which we are being optimised,” he says. “We are being driven to be as efficient as we can be for safety and comfort, but also for profit-driven reasons. I think it’s less a Matrix-like desire to separate us off and subjugate us and more the forces of capitalism – the easiest and most efficient way of sorting things out for profit. You don’t want people lingering in a space, because you don’t know what they might do. Capitalism in general is always trying to design out those uncertainties.”
Field points to the ways in which we exist online, how we are pushed into digital spaces to consume more of what we already have and meet people only like ourselves: “Our attention is held in this very limited, narrow way.” Even headphones, another ubiquitous design with pernicious consequences, become in effect a “do not disturb” sign hanging from our ears.
But no matter what you say about the benefits of bumping into strangers, approaching people is hard, isn’t it? Do you need to be an extrovert? Is Field an extrovert? He grins: “If I arrive at a party, I will probably stand towards the edge. My friends would say I’m certainly loud enough to be an extrovert – and I think if I’m in print saying I’m introverted, they would give me a hard time about it – but I’m certainly not a super-confident person who is going to waltz up to every person I see.”
I wonder, though, if this isn’t simply amped-up nostalgia? People of a certain pre-digital age getting all rose-tinted and irate about kids not looking where they’re walking as they swipe through private worlds swaddled in noise-cancelling headphones rather than talking to the greengrocer?
“It’s easy for someone like me to look back on my time growing up in the 90s and think it was fabulous, because we didn’t have phones and our attention was drawn by so many varied real-world things. There never has been a utopian era in which people of all kinds were able to move freely through the world and encounter one another and grapple with the complexities of their differences, but you can see these insidious forces all around trying to design out the possibility of randomised human encounters.”
How do we get better at encountering people?
“We just need to invent more ice breakers. More invitations.” But not digital innovations? “All the apps are about efficiency and compatibility, pushing you towards like-minded people when you need to search out non-like-minded people.”
How do we do that? Get a dog and go dancing, it turns out.
Field’s dog came four years ago. “The great thing about a dog is that it’s the most brilliant kind of invitation for people to come up and speak to you. You immediately break down that suspicion, this fear that we all carry that people are different to us and wouldn’t have anything to say to us,” he says, going on to reference a study at the University of Warwick in which a researcher recorded every human encounter she had with and without a dog for 10 days. Without the dog she had three encounters; during five days with the dog, she had 65.
Field is also a child of the 90s so clubbing and dance music looms large, and in his book he talks of clubbing as a kind of pilgrimage: “A journey that takes us out of the confines of ordinary society and our everyday lives, enabling us to experience a collective joy in the temporary community.”
From the queue outside to the dancefloor itself, the experience is communal, joyous. “In these darkened rooms, as we move together, we are teaching ourselves how not to be afraid of one another,” he writes. “Any really good dancefloor is an empathy machine – a place where anonymous people of every possible kind can find a shared rhythm, a collective effervescence.”
That word empathy again. “Encounters force empathy,” he says. “All it takes to reimagine and negotiate your relationship to the people in the world around you is a bit of a different quality of focus – empathy – and a bit more care. Take care how you move through the world and pay close attention to the details of the interactions you’re having.” Or the ones you’re avoiding.
Encounterism: the Neglected Joys of Being in Person by Andy Field will be published by WW Norton in July