Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Explorations of Place and Media - An Interview with Shawn Micallef

While researchin locative media and Toronto history and urban planning, I have frequently come across the work of Shawn Micallef. I first encountered his work through his locative media installation, [murmur] co-created with James Roussel and Gabe Sawhney. Murmur was one of the first locative media efforts. It began in Toronto and subsequently spread globally. The project placed plaques around the city which instructed people to dial a number to hear oral histories of that specific location.

I later encountered Shawn's work in his various writing about Toronto from the magazine Spacing to his book Stroll. His approach to discovering the city involves psychogeographic techniques pioneered by French theorist Guy Debord.

More recently, while waiting for a subway, I noticed Shawn's latest locative media project, Stroll City. Shawn and Toronto Transit encouraged people to tweet about places across the city, which were then broadcast across the TTC's digital signs.

I've read and cited Shawn work, but I've never had the opportunity to meet him. At a McLuhan seminar last month (which I blogged about), I finally had the opportunity to meet him. Shawn agreed to field some of my questions about his work and its intersection with my research.

Glen: How do you believe digital media has, or can, affect our sense of place?

Shawn: I think it's made place multi-layered now. Wherever we are we can expect to use a smartphone to access digital media left there by other people. When we started [murmur] there wasn't much of that, just some experimental art projects and the like. Now, it's widely accepted and as mainstream, nearly, as turning on the TV. From Instagraming a photo and linking to that spot and seeing other photos from that spot (so you see it at other times and, perhaps more importantly, you see the other people who have passed through that place) to other geolocative things whose spammy-value I'm not sure about (like Foursquare).

So, through digital media you get a sense of time in place now, as well as other humans. That's great. Or, you can turn everything off and experience it the old fashioned way.

Glen: How have people responded to your media projects such as [murmur], Spacing, and Stroll City on the TTC? Particularly, what feedback have you got on how it affects their experience of place?

Shawn: There was a learning curve for each (or acceptance curve, in the case of Spacing). When [murmur] began, there were few projects that used mobile phones as entertainment and culture delivery devices -- they were for work or talking only -- so to get people to think of them a little wider was a slow process. We just did the project, and hoped people called in to listen, and slowly they did. Feedback is probably similar to that of other oral history projects -- lots of relating to the story -- but here there's the added connection of being in the place where it happened, so it evokes another kind of connection. The hope is that for a brief few moments, the story will take you back in time in that spot, as well as to wherever else the story takes you. [murmur] really only capitalizes on the age-old power of story telling, just distributing it differently.

Spacing in a way created an umbrella for disparate areas and projects to be collected under one term "public space" -- now, 10 years later, public space is talked about at all levels of media and there are many local online efforts covering what we and a few others alone would chatter about. So that's given us the opportunity to pull back and think wider and talk more about the big picture of Canadian and global city issues.

Stroll City has been lots of fun - the first time we did it people needed a lot of encouragement to share their Toronto observations (it was also November) but the last two times, both in June, the Toronto stuff has been coming a lot more freely, and people observing the city in their own ways, not just doing it how I do it, which has been great. The continued growth of smart phones and Twitter account has probably helped a lot too.

Glen: You launched one of the first locative media projects, [murmur], but have subsequently focused more recent efforts on writing about place in print and online and have mentioned that you don't geocode. Why the switch and any plans for future locative media projects?

Shawn: Financial, somewhat -- doing [murmur] and other such project, outside of the Academy or a research institution, is difficult. But also I see writing as my main gig, and wanted to focus on it more, (but which is related to a lot of other stuff that I've done or will do -- [murmur] research, story gathering, contributed a great deal to my first book Stroll, so it all overlaps) The writing I do is often place-based in a very old-school way (talking about place) but indeed I'm thinking and talking with some people about projects that might connect words with places in easy, geocoded ways. Not so much secret right now as still in infant form, so more on this later.

Glen: What do you feel is the potential or future of locative media or
location-based media?

Shawn: More integration into our daily life and travels -- receiving media about place without even thinking that we're receiving media. With tech-advances it's hard to gauge where this might go, as content will follow tech, but I wonder if a language may develop around place and locative media in how stories and narratives are communicated. That will be fun to watch for.