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radioELO: 34 North 118 West Remix

This aural narrative was created by John Barber from original project sound files. The bookending of the audio with the train is brilliant and says so much. I love the sequencing he has used with the audio and how it expands out from the audio we had at the start to one of my most poetic narrativizations before ending with the train. Brilliant.
—Jeremy Hight

34 North 118 Weset

34 North 118 West

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Overview | Background | Statement | Resources

Overview

34 North 118 West (2003) created by Jeremy Hight, Jeff Knowlton, and Naomi Spellman, combines audio narrative, digital media, and GPS technology to create an interactive story centered on the railroad freight depot situated at 34 North latitude and 118 West longitude in downtown Los Angeles, California, early in the 20th century.

Background

The idea for location-based audio narrative projects evolved from a proposal to produce wireless guided tours for a Los Angeles art museum. Hight, Knowlton, and Spellman wondered how they might utilize GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) technology and wireless digital technology to provide access to an infrastructure in a way that participants would enjoy.

The answer was storytelling. Hight, Knowlton, and Spellman investigated the half-square mile area around the former railroad freight station for more than a year, digging through the histories of the buildings to learn about people who worked there. They crafted narratives from the hidden / lost information they recovered.

For example, at the site of a former tire factory, a worker describes how bits of rubber rained down on Los Angeles after the plant caught fire. A "Harvey girl," a waitress at the train station restaurant, talks about the harried passengers she serves. A railroad worker tells about cleaning the tracks after people committed suicide by stepping in front of trains. A cook, the station clock inspector, and others provide more narratives.

To experience these narratives, participants walk through the area, now a bleak industrial area, with a tablet computer, a GPS device, and headphones. GPS tracks their position in the neighborhood, a map of which is displayed on the tablet screen. Easily identifiable hot spots trigger audio narratives by voice actors. Trigger spots for sound effects—squeaking wooden cart wheels and musicians entertaining on busy street corners—are hidden, waiting to be discovered by wandering participants.

Physical elements /details at each location augment the narrative, providing metaphors and symbols for interaction(s) with the characters and history of 34 North 118 West.

More than just chaos, this approach to storytelling helps organize forgotten historical and cultural information into meaningful narratives about a place, a time, and people. Hight, Knowlton, and Spellman call these narratives "sonic archaeology in the urban landscape," or "narrative archeology." The work is also called "locative narrative" and noted for its use of "portable, networked, location aware computing devices for user-led mapping and artistic interventions in which geographical space becomes the canvas."

Wandering through 34 North 118 West, listening to the narratives, participants quickly gain an appreciation for the hidden / forgotten history of the area, as well as the immediate cultural impact provided by the audio narratives and sound effects. The landscape becomes the interface; the participant's movement the input. The streets, the buildings, the ghosts of former residents, all provide audio fragments that, taken together, provide a deep and rich narrative of this place. Wandering about the area and evoking multiple narratives, many lost or forgotten, one can uncover the hidden history of this once thriving part of downtown Los Angeles.

Artist Statement

I will always remember that message among the wrong numbers, hang ups and holiday greetings (ah the good old days of the primary land line). Jeff Knowlton had left a message saying "I think there might be some connection between railroads, telegraph lines and signal and GPS . . . oh and happy holidays." I must have played it back a dozen times as confusion shifted to curiosity then that thunderous yet tiny sense of there is something really interesting possible here.

I was a year out of grad school (MFA in Writing/Critical Studies at Cal Arts) and was working with disabled kids and trying to adjust to life after school and new places to take my creative work. I had hit the cliched brick wall (in this case triple thick) a few years before pushing my experimental poetry, text and image poetics and prose seemingly as far as print work could go. I had worked with text as code form like HTML, had done work with blank space as time intervals in texts, theory infused with metaphors and drawings and on and on. It had been an interesting journey from studying science, etymology and critical theory and philosophy as a kid and teen (reading 3 books at a time . . . a sponge). The journey had also hit a point where it felt like it was nearing an end, a place of increasing frustration.

I was a wee 26 and it felt like the other ideas, odd tributaries like stories made of materials in abandoned houses in the deserts east of Los Angeles, of texts made by aligning the pragmatic texts in hotels and museums, paintings with holes in them and records embedded that you could run an object along to make texts and sound works in paint, the novel I made in junk drawers and showed no one, the stories to be told by sand and stones on dry river beds, etc. . . . were vestigial almost, just not quite far enough, not there.

I got really into hypertext poetry and prose around this time (1996/97) and the possibilities of taking the linear and non linear, space and where text could move out from the page to where digital spaces might have form or open space to explore. It was fascinating and inspiring and led to a vivid daydream one day at Cal Arts that I have rarely talked about but was a huge step toward later works and paths. In the day dream a text had trap doors that led to spaces with tasks and challenges, films, video games that had to played, other texts, all in sort of deep basement semi-soaked in a kind of digital water old and rich with decay and age. It was intriguing as it was text, elements of hypertext, but also games and space and location. It was never made but got some synapses firing for quite a while.

Another huge influence on making 34 North 118 West was a history professor early in undergrad. She taught history as a massive singular organism, this living entity with countless ways to approach and portion large to minute based on angles of approach, context, connectivity and interest. It took away the memorization of high school courses and instead brought in how an event and place in time could be tied to things far before in a dozen lines or more to all the things that made elements of this thing come into possibility and being. The Vietnam War led back to the history of rubber trade, of muskets, the invention of gunpowder and other threads and the threads ahead and out in time from it as well. Sadly she passed away a few years later. The humble adjunct professor had hundreds of former students paying respects to this amazing person and lecturer at her funeral. She showed how history, time and information are not static, are multi-dimensional, malleable by context and shape and amount of information and connective tissues therein. Fascinating.

The first few meetings with Jeff Knowlton and Naomi Spellman were fairly uneventful really. We knew there some germ sitting before us, something there to explore but what was beyond the initial comparison was not clear. We began a long period of research at the L.A downtown library and began to collect artifacts of past iterations of the city, of interesting events and oddities of the city when I had my first major epiphany.

A work of fiction can take a room and based on details selected, how they are described, what metaphor or simile might be used to describe tone and symbolism and word choices, and make it anywhere from bright to dark, of evil portent to rich with hope and joy. It is all in the details and how they are described and used to construct the picture of the place in text (take the clichè "a picture tells a thousand words" and invert it). GPS could allow the same concept to be applied to the actual physical world and story could be text and its deeper dynamics and symbolism now tied to the world itself, to an actual place. It was as though all of those years of frustration with experimental (and traditional) writing forms and their dynamics and possibilities had hit ore, had removed the barrier. My mind spun with the possibilities for a few days.

A story could be told using walls, buildings, streets, trees, a dry river bed, a lake edge etc. It was now possible to write with physical world. This was the initial realization of the possibilities of locative narrative. The story could be almost a collaboration with physical spaces as though suddenly the keyboard could write with functions for river, sea side cliff, broken wall and so forth. Geo-location could allow for writing to some day skin the Earth with narratives, could take readings and books to mixed spaces and shared works in physical places. Stories could be collaborations between text, physical spaces and how people were to move in them. This clearly was something exciting and the range of possibilities was beyond just what was in view at this point in this one project. The bigger epiphany was to soon come while almost being hit by cars crossing the street one warm afternoon.

After months of research at the library something larger was building. It was a sense that something more elemental surely was at play. The writing element was still exciting and I had begun constructing narratives based on research of early Los Angeles. That something more hit one day as I crossed the street leaving the library after hours of looking at old forgotten newspapers on microfiche.

It was at first the image popping of a really odd metaphor. It was a microscope having the little entities on a slide look up at the eye peering down. It was the realization that the writing was a layer to add to the earth by geolocation and a possible mixed reality of space and symbolism and story but that the inverse of this, the space being given voice was a much deeper thing to explore.

I stood in place as the light began to turn red as the weight of the idea begin to hit with greater force. Places could "speak." Data could be placed as signal and voice of things past, things hidden, things thought erased or even suppressed. I called it "narrative archaeology" as the artifacts of place could be explored by movement in a place horizontally like the vertical dig of an Archaeologist in the lore of things like Indiana Jones or other more dramatic digs in Archaeological history. Information could be laid even later on like channels, but of different contexts, different areas of study laid over a location so the information was not far off in books or memory, but were physically coming alive where they happened. The possibilities were clearly quite huge. It was a very exciting time and an odd feeling sensing all this with only a few friends knowing about it at all as our work went on to now make a project.

We laid out the narratives and sound effects onto a map to lay them out spatially. We had the narrativized bits of historical data recorded as sound files (paid the actors with sandwiches and cheap lunches as it was all we could afford). The approach was a fascinating sense of my former work as a literary magazine editor being thrown into a wild new place as it was not page numbers but alleys, streets, avoiding a potentially deadly electrified fence, looking at places current and what may have different in the past. We fought the urge a few times to use photos and a video of a lost utopian homeless society long razed as sound was clearly more powerful to use as it avoided aesthetic hierarchies and related bias (oh wow . . . a video . . . then it superseding the humble next sound triggered). Sound allowed/caused past and present to collide instantaneously as people had one person holding a map on a laptop that followed their movements in the augmented space (it has later been referenced as a sound based augmented reality work as well as locative media for this reason which is accurate).

The project takes a roughly four block area and adds a layer of "hot spots" that trigger narratives or sounds as one approaches. The map is a subtle play on layers in time as it is actually a very old map of the area but the buildings overall (famous lost la grande station being one big exception) are still there, some around a one hundred years old. The map also has a corner that triggers the estimated date of each narrative/narrativized bit of information. Most will miss this detail which was intentional as it makes it one more aspect of how the past is forgotten or broken apart into artifact over time and for many out of view. We initially built it with a very old laptop and a small gps device used by hikers and fishermen.

During testing, several of us had moments where the sound was so immersive that the real world seemed to be the avatars and fiction. To experience 34 North 118 West was to wear headphones connected to the single laptop and listen for audio triggered at hot spot locations. I jumped when the loudest train sound triggered even as I saw no train nearby. The power of the audio as immersive was such that it seemed imminent. I also had a woman ask me a question while listening to a narrative at the end of an alley and she seemed surely a fiction, a jarring unreality. The power of sound proved as we had hoped to take the present to more of a visual backdrop/wallpaper while sounds took deep root as one moved through this portion of the city.

It was fascinating to watch groups of people leave to experience the work knowing that they would each take different paths, take different amounts of time and would still have a cohesive experience that equaled the work. I worked on what I call "weighted narratives" at certain intervals to add a bit of meta-text and overview at points that people may hit but it still was a completely experiential interface and end user compiling that was out of our control as artists. This was, of course, part of the design and plan. The project was a joy to make and it is thrilling that it still resonates and that those hunches about something interesting about narrative and physical space and places being given voice have proven to be valid and real.

Resources

  • Narrative, Oral Histories, and the Interpreting of Place
    A focused discussion on locative media edited and organized by themes which emerged in the course of the discussion. Includes remarks by Jeremy Hight.
  • Hight, Jeremy. NeMe: Narrative Archaeology
    Also available here at the academia.edu website
  • Other locative narratives:

    The LA Flood Project (Christy Dena, Jeremy Douglass, Juan B. Gutierrez, Jeremy Hight, Marc C. Marino, and Lisa Ann Tao, 2010), a locative narrative about a fictional, epic flood in Los Angeles, California; a flood simulation; and a collection of oral histories about crises in Los Angeles. Participants engage using their mobile telephones, calling from their locations to learn the latest flooding developments. Their voices spill over those of characters in the narrative. As a result, Los Angeles becomes a narrative space where crises oral histories are tied to fictional accounts of flooding, all encouraging participants to experience the narrative in the common geographic space. Listen to this audio sample.

    The Interpretive Engine (Jeff Knowlton, Naomi Spellman, and Brandon Stow, 2004) relies on Wi-Fi to tell a three-chapter story specific to the participant's location. No matter their location, participants can download the first chapter, "Santa Fe Depot," and experience the narrative on their personal computers. The other two chapters can only be accessed via Wi-Fi from their respective locations. Six characters provide the audio narratives.

    InterUrban (Jeff Knowlton, Naomi Spellman, and Jeremy Hight, 2004) is an interactive narrative that unfolds with participants' movements. Location, distance traveled by participants, time of day, compass heading, and proximity to hypothetical or historic events determine how the narrative is constructed.

    Mobile connections 04 was the first major international exhibition on mobile, wireless and locative arts. The exhibition was staged by Futuresonic at the Urbis museum in Manchester, England, 28 April-8 May 2004, and featured participants from more than twenty countries, including InterUrban. The exhibition probed new horizons in wireless and mobile media [radar, sonar, GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth, cellular, GIS, etc], and looked at the diverse ways in which artists and technical innovators are pushing the limits, and soliciting unexpected or unforeseen results from communication media past and present, from the radio to mobile telephony and wireless LAN. Some are seeking to make visible and audible the signals and transmissions that fill the air around us, exploring the potential of interfaces unfettered by wires and cables for performance or interaction, or the kinds of communication and creative expression that emerge within networks with no fixed center, but rather multiple, mobile nodes.

    [murmur] (2003) is a digital storytelling initiative that began in Toronto, Canada, and has since expanded to eleven cities worldwide. People walking neighborhood streets find signs with a telephone number and access code. If they dial the number and enter the access code they can listen to an audio narrative regarding the very spot where they are standing.

    Right As Rain (Jeff Knowlton, Naomi Spellman, and Jeremy Hight, 2001), was a weather-driven narrative where the participant chose from a list of cities to update the love sonnet according to the weather in that city.