Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Locating Overlooked Histories: An Interview with Queerstory Founder

As part of my doctoral research on locative media and its role in our relationship to our places, I interviewed the founders of the locative media app, Queerstory.  Queerstory is Toronto's first LGBTQ geolocative history app and I would argue of the most effective geolocative history apps anywhere.

The Queerstory mobile app points users to nearby points of interest in a map or list based view. How Queerstory differs, however, that rather than just having text descriptions the app includes video oral histories, interviews, and artistic interpretations. Users can also refine the content based on various themes, such as activism, culture, and culture. The app is free and available on Apple, Android, or the mobile web.

I interviewed both of the Queerstory's founders, Michael Alstad and Janet Hethrington on their work with Queerstory and their ideas on the role generally of locative media. As a sneak peek from my research, here are some Q&As from my interview with Michael.

Glen: What motivated you to develop this application?
Michael: Year Zero One (YZO), a media arts organization that curates digital art projects both online and in public space,  has been producing locative media projects since 2003 beginning with the pioneering Teletaxi project. We produced a locative history app in 2012 in affiliation with the Textile Museum of Canada called TXTilecity. TXTilecity is a mobile app that leads users on a self-directed tour through sites relevant to Toronto’s garment and fashion industry history through a series of site-specific short video docs and a commissioned media artwork.

With the success of TXTilecity, I was keen of adapting the locative history concept to produce Queerstory – an app and website exploring over a century of Toronto’s LGBT history that was launched to coincide with World Pride in 2014. Toronto is a world leader in progressive LGBT policy and has a rich and diverse queer political, social, and cultural history that is somewhat understated and hidden in comparison to other international centres like New York City where sites like the Stonewall Inn are marked with plaques.

I see the Queerstory app as a digital placemarker that commemorates and preserves queer history. It allows for a more multidimensional and sensory-based experience of lived history as it relates to the urban environment.

Glen: What has the response been from users?
The response to Queerstory overall has been positive. App users have been impressed by scope and diversity of stories and histories. Some users were intrigued to discover several sites and neigbourhoods not traditionally associated with the gay community and its history.

It was noted the number of overall sites might be too ambitious for one continuous tour and also the amount of video content consumes a lot of data for limited cell plans.

With my personal user experience with Queerstory, I felt the media artworks by Keith Cole and Caitlin Fisher – where the artists led you on their unique individualized tours and interpretations of queer history – I explored and engaged with the physical surroundings and places more.

Glen: How is experiencing a place with your app different than without it?
Michael: I think the process of walking through the city and exploring these sites is an experiential and fun way of discovering and learning about queer history.

Most of the mapped sites in Queerstory could easily be overlooked. For example, the site of the Barracks Bathhouse, a heritage house on Widmer, a narrow street in the entertainment district lined with old Victorian row houses, is a key historic queer space linked to one of the most important events of Canada’s gay liberation movement - the 1981 Toronto bathhouse raids and riots. The mass arrests and ensuing riot are considered to be the Canadian equivalent of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City.

Also an important place related aspect of Queerstory is the in-situ interviews. We noticed a pattern with our interviewees - that being situated in the sites where the histories occurred triggered their memory with renewed insights and reflection on the events.

I believe that the layering of hidden stories, rare archival material and on-site interviews creates a unique sensory experience of place.

Glen: Mobile media is criticized for distancing people from places. Can you comment on this?
Michael: On one hand, I see mobile media as physically distancing people from one another in public spaces and cafes where individuals are cloistered with their mobile devices, headphones, and laptops. On the other hand, I personally see the value in information layers, alternate narratives, and digital annotations on places are useful and beneficial as long as you’re objective and can filter the info to enhance your personal experience of place.


Queerstory was recently recognized for their innovative use of media to document and share Toronto's history by winning an award from Heritage Toronto.

Visit the Queerstory website for more information on the app and their content.