Voices from Beyond: Ephemeral Histories, Locative Media and the Volatile Interface

Voices from Beyond: Ephemeral Histories, Locative Media and the Volatile Interface

Barbara Crow (York University, Canada), Michael Longford (York University, Canada), Kim Sawchuk (Concordia University, Canada) and Andrea Zeffiro (Concordia University, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-152-0.ch011
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The Mobile Media Lab (MML) is a Canadian interdisciplinary research team exploring wireless communications, mobile technologies and locative media practices. By developing interactive mobile experiences, we observe and reflect on the dynamics inherent in wireless immersive environments connected to a growing tendency towards ubiquitous computing or pervasive media. Our projects, whilst rooted in digital ephemera, treat physical territory as an active and volatile interface creating networked situations to connect the physical to the virtual. Our intention is to use media to quietly augment everyday life and to initiate novel ways of telling stories of the past by harnessing digitally rendered images, text and sounds. In our chapter, we will focus on two projects, Urban Archaeology: Sampling the Park and The Haunting, which were part of our work done under the rubric of the Mobile Digital Commons Network (MDCN, 2004-2007). We will use the phrase voices from beyond as a trope in our reflections upon the deployment of mobile media technologies and use of locative media practice to intentionally blur past and present moments. As we argue, archival fragments and ghostly images can be presented via handheld devices to use the power, potential and public intimacy of media dependent upon the presence of electromagnetic spectrum. In addition to key texts on locative media, we draw on Benjamin’s understanding of history as a sensibility whereby the past and present co-mingle in the minds and embodied memories of human subjects, Darin Barney’s notion of the “vanishing table” as an alternative means for engagement in technologically mediated zones of interaction, and writing on communications theory that deals with the spectral qualities of new media (Sconce; Durham Peters; Ronell).
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Sound of phone dialing—ringing—answered. Houdini speaks:

It’s Harry Houdini. Be careful who you trust.

Things are not always as they seem, my friend.

Never trust the dead.

[sound file in the digital version]

In Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication, John Durham Peters (2000) draws upon the literary insights of Franz Kafka to offer these thoughts on the ghostly qualities of communication:

As Kafka notes in an epigraph to this book, those who build new media to eliminate the spectral element between people only create more ample breeding ground for the ghosts. A cheerful sense at the weirdness of all attempts at communication offers a far saner way to think and live. (pp. 29-30)

It is with attentiveness to fostering a new media practice that is haunted by the past, imbued with a sense of place, and rooted in an exploration of the weirdness of communication that we offer our reflections on two locative media projects created in Montréal, Urban Archeology: Sampling the Park and The Haunting. Urban Archeology was produced for Parc Émilie-Gamelin, a highly contentious and socially charged small urban square in a densely populated downtown Montréal neighborhood known as Centre-Sud. The Haunting was devised as a game of ghost capture for the large urban greenspace of Mount Royal Park that is at the heart of the city. These were conceived within and created as a part of the work done under the rubric of the Mobile Digital Commons Network (MDCN, 2004-2007).

In both projects our desire as designers and researchers was to use hand-held media devices networked to global positioning systems to initiate novel ways of telling stories of the past. While the past was brought into the present in both Urban Archeology and The Haunting, an important narratological difference distinguishes them. Urban Archeology, with no discernable teleological goal, acted as a location-based experience akin to a site-specific installation. The Haunting, a location-based ghost capture game, was predicated on a clearly specified set of objectives for users, conceived of as players, and was scripted within the parameters of game design (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004). By creating the possibility for users to access digitally rendered images, text and sound our intention was to quietly disrupt and supplement the habitual uses of these spaces.

In the sections that follow, the phrase voices from beyond will as act as a trope (Burke, 1969, p. 503) to structure our self-reflections on these two projects for it captures three elements essential to our design approach: the use of historical documents to animate the present, our adoption of user-testing and participatory design methods in our locative media practices, and our ethics of place. These places, which were ‘seeded’ with content at various global positioning coordinates disrupted the users’ sense of being in a present moment. Images, texts and sounds revivified the past, if only in a glimmering instant that soon faded away. In this sense, we take a page from the book of Walter Benjamin (1968) who suggested that: “[t]o articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was”’(Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger” (p. 255).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Ubi-comp: Mark Weiser coined the term “ubiquitous computing,” while working at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). He argued that in the third wave of computing, technology would recede into the background of our lives. By deploying a network of small task specific sensor based computational devices embedded in the environment we can create ambient aware or smart environments. Using mobile devices we can interact with ubicomp environments what is sometimes referred to in physical computing as the “Internet of things.”

Site-specific Installation: A site-specific installation is a term derived from contemporary art, which refers to a work created for a specific space or place in time, which is often 3-dimensional and includes performance elements. The work takes into account the viewer’s entire sensory experience coupled with the specific geographic, historical, and cultural significance of place. There is an ephemeral aspect to site-installations in that they are often temporary and once removed from the site in which it was installed can only be accessed through documentation.

iPAQ: The iPAQ (International Physical Activity Questionnaire) is a hand-held portable digital computing device with wireless capabilities such as Bluetooth and GPS. It is also referred to as a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). It was created by Compaq in 2000 and later bought and further developed by Hewlett Packard.

GPS: The global positioning system (GPS) is a worldwide satellite-based radio-navigation positioning system that was developed by the United States Department of Defense and is conveniently operated by the Air Force (Monmonier, 2002, p. 12). This worldwide MEO (medium or middle, earth orbit) satellite navigational system consists of a constellation of 24 satellites, which orbit the earth twice every 24 hours (Monmonier, 2002, p. 13-14; Brain & Harris, 2006, p.1). A GPS receiver acquires positionality using two pieces of information: 1) the location of at least three satellites; and 2) the distance between its position on the ground and each of those satellites (Brain & Holmes, 2006, p. 2). This operation is based on the three-dimensional triangulation of intersecting circles (Monmonier 2002, p. 12, 174, 181), and each circle expresses a range of locations equidistant from one of the satellites. It is the point of intersection shared by the circles that situates the location of a receiver.

Locative Media: Locative media attaches digital media to global positioning satellite (GPS) coordinates accessed by mobile communication technologies. Locative media is an artistic sub-branch of ubiquitous computing research initiated at a “Mapping the Zone” workshop held at RIXC in Riga, Latvia, 2003. Its early practitioners, such as Marc Tuters and Karlis Kalnins, were interested in the relationship between the military developments of this technology and the types of proximity or relationality it can reveal about spaces and places. To date, it has been taken up by a number of artists, researchers, and activists interested in extending the shared potential of the technology by creating applications allowing users share local histories and community based information.

Electro-magnetic Spectrum: Spectrum refers to the transmission and regulation of airwaves into frequencies. The electromagnetic spectrum is organized by frequencies according to the length of the waves carrying long or short communication signals. These frequencies are allocated in bands referring to services on an exclusive or shared basis (ITU 2004). There are extensive regulations regarding service category (fixed service, mobile service), and service type (this describes types of transmissions and emissions).

Location Based Media: This refers to fixed media artifacts that take into account both the specific geographic, historic and cultural significance of a place and our cognitive interaction with that place. In other words, our understanding place is informed as much by “how” we experience a place as “what” we experience in that place.

Bluetooth Beacon: Bluetooth technology is a short-range radio technology that allows the wireless networking of computational devices, data can be exchanged between mobile technologies (i.e. Mobile phones, PDAs, laptops) which can be linked at a distance up to 10 meters. Traditionally, a beacon serves as an aid to navigation. For The Haunting project, a Bluetooth radio, coupled with a microcontroller, a power supply, and an LED, was placed “in-situ” in the park. The beacons were used to help users identify content hotpots and navigate the park at night. As users approached a beacon with a cell phone, the phone would discover the beacon via Bluetooth, which in turn would trigger content on the phone and switch on an LED for the duration of the interaction.

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