The train to Prague and back – Prague Quadrennial 2019 #PQ2019

I realised this week that is has been two years to the day since Amy and I set out on our adventure by train to Prague. It is one my favourite experiences and I can’t quite believe it was whole two years ago now. The memory is even more prominent in my mind because the thought of such a journey right now, still in the midst of the pandemic, seems so alien now. Below, I revisit a blog post I wrote, originally for the SeriousGeoGames website, about it.

The Prague Quadrennial of Scenography and Design is a conference for theatre makers, unsurprisingly held in Prague every four years. It’s a huge event over 11 days where 15,000 people attend. My wife, Amy, is a Lecturer in Theatre and Performance and was chairing a panel at the conference, so I decided to tag along – I did so four years ago and found it inspiring, check out my previous blog from then.

Amy’s first book – Meyerhold and the Cubists – was long-listed by the conference

We have been conscious about our carbon budget so decided we would take the train instead of flying. Unfortunately, unless you pay out for an expensive sleeper train, the journey from Hull to Prague is a little too long to do in one day so we split our journey via Brussels. Our planned route was: Hull – London – Brussels – Frankfurt – Nurnberg – Cheb – Prague.

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Our route plan for Hull to Prague – Amy prepared us laminated journey cards

Day 1 went ok and we arrived in Brussels in time to grab some Crepe Suzette. However, despite a positive start to the Day 2, our first train inexplicably terminated at Koln. A guard suggested another route and marked our tickets as no longer having restrictions. Our new route involved a near seven hour train from Koln to Dresden, before a train on to Prague. We settled into our new train and enjoyed seeing a cross-section of Germany, including places like Dortmund and Hannover. All was fine until 40 minutes from Dresden when the train suddenly juddered to a halt outside Leipzig. We stayed, electric off, in silence for nearly an hour, missing our connection in Dresden, before the train limped back to Leipzig. There we were herded onto an overcrowded train to Dresden.

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The view from the train, outside Leipzig

We arrived at Dresden to see the last train to Prague pulling out of the station. The nice woman at Passenger Information pointed us towards the coaches and we ended up on a Flix Bus – a European-wide bus service popular with backpackers. We were comfortably the oldest ones on the bright green bus. We arrived in Prague just after midnight. Thankfully, our return journey along the planned route but in reverse went without a hitch, with all six trains on perfect time – a surprise considering the atrocious weather across the UK at that time.

It was stressful and long, but watching the beautiful European countryside whizz by the window was nice, especially across the Czech Republic. The journey took a lot longer than flying, and it did cost more, so I appreciate that it was a privilege that we were able to travel this way. However, it does allow us to reduce the impact on the environment and society from our travel quite significantly – according to ecopassenger.org we reduced the CO2 we produced by nearly 348 kg, producing less than 24% of what we would have done by flying.

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Calculated travel costs for London to Prague according to ecopassenger.org

The environmental concern did not end once in Prague – the city has excellent public transport and we travelled everywhere by trams and buying tickets via an App was super easy and convenient. Keep-cups and reusable water bottles are popular, and local shops have plastic bottle deposit schemes. We saw school students participating in the climate strikes, and public areas had information boards highlighting water issues in the country and worldwide.

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Climate protests in Prague

Information boards in central Prague showcasing water’s importance to society

At the Prague Quadrennial, or PQ, countries (and regions, like Quebec) are invited to exhibit the best in their scenography and design over the past four years in about a 6m x 6m space. How they choose to do this is up to each country and there is a lot of variance and creativity on display. I was pleased to see several of the exhibits making use of VR but was a little disappointed that most did little more than show flat, low resolution, 360 videos on them – Ireland’s was notable as using high resolution, stereoscopic video, interlaced with graphics (including a creepy eyeball) to show the work of some of their best designers.

Several of the exhibits featured virtual reality, including some with modified headsets

Several of the exhibits chose environmental themes. I was taken by China’s exhibit as it revolved around a long distance train journey Chinese designers travelled to get to past PQ’s – in contrast to today, it was more expensive to fly so had to go by train.

China’s exhibit used lighting, projection, and mobile phones to showcase design inspired by a long distance train journey from China to Prague

Quebec explored whether reducing our use of resources was at odds with creative freedom, asking whether the performing arts holds the key to renewed environmentalism. They showcased the best in eco-scenography and invited visitors to complete a questionnaire whilst powering a pedal-powered propeller.

Quebec’s exhibited highlighted their designs and use of eco-scenography

Switzerland used a ski-lift carriage and a canvas held on hydraulic rods to visualise snow depth data in three dimensions, responding dynamically as the data changed resolution on the screen – you had a different perspective whether you were on the ground or one the lift.

Switzerland’s ski-lift could visualise environmental data dynamically and in three dimensions

France was one of the winning exhibits and several I spoke to said that it had moved them to tears. On the outside, harsh lights displayed the warning “No Nature, No Future” and on the other side a smoke-filled room with haunting piano music was inhabited by shaking and shivering figures made of the waste of man-made materials. It was bleak and dystopian.

The French exhibit made the waste materials of the artist into human-sized living creatures. It asked what we would be without nature

The conference itself engaged with environmentalism, with espresso-sized Keep Cups for sale, and an awesome scheme where if you bought a plastic bottle then Soda Stream, one of the sponsors, would refill it for free with fizzy, flavoured water – this was 200 czk (about £7) well spent, and I really want to buy a Soda Stream now!

I love a conference sponsored by Soda Stream with flavoured fizzy water on tap

The way the exhibits are put together was really inspiring and we have incorporated some of the ideas we saw into the design of the Earth Arcade, particular The Forest. You can find out more about this work on our poster for the European Geoscience Union meeting in 2020.

Portugal’s exhibit, Windows, featured mirrored metal boxes with small holes to peer through – inside were lit up models of stage designs. I would love to use this to hide away scenes of possible futures based on climate scenarios – dare you look inside?

Portugal invited you to spy on miniature design scenes through small windows

Cyprus featured a board room table with a bubbling pool of water in the middle – what about hosting a dinner around this where the water rises and falls, occasionally floods, and dinner guests can choose to purchase food, wooden blocks to hold back water, or extra place mats to raise their dinner?

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A board room with a risk of flooding, from Cyprus

In Hungary’s student exhibit you had to walk through hanging plastic sticks and as they cascaded against each other it sounded like rain – through the clear floor beneath your feet were examples of design, details you cannot see outside of the ‘storm’. This was so simple, yet so effective.

Walking through a rain storm – Hungary’s student exhibit took you on a experiential journey through the clouds

I am always sad when we leave PQ, there always seems to be more to see and explore. It also means I have to leave Prague, which is a city I adore and would like to live in one day. With it being two years since the last PQ that means, all being well, we’re now half-way to the next one in 2023 – the organisers are now beginning to release details with an official announcement to be made on June 22nd. We plan on visiting again and by train, of course.

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