Sounds of the Sea: Making a Mixed Reality Oral History Application for the St Ives Archive
Archives can be esoteric places that are difficult to access. Augmented Reality applications tend to focus on visual experience. How can pervasive mobile technology be used to make oral history archives accessible to a wider audience in creative and playful ways? For a community archive with almost no budget?
Memory Bay is a Heritage Lottery Funded oral history project, begun in 2008. A partnership between St Ives Archive, Tate St Ives, the Leach Pottery and Porthmeor Studios, it consists of over a hundred recordings of voices of the community talking about their memories of the artists, writers, craftspeople, makers and designers associated with St Ives.
Walking around a town is often the best way to get an idea of what a place is like, its history, identity, its many senses of place. This paper looks at how re-performing the archive using pervasive media can be used both as a way of making the archive more accessible to the wider public, and as a tool for research.
We wanted to play with the idea of searching the archive. By relocating memories in place around the town and extending the archive outside its walls, this would create an embodied mobile experience of the serendipitous archival encounter with memory, a rhizomatic memory treasure hunt with fragments of voices from the archive. Just as the space of the archive is both intimate and public, the experience of being in a public space can be intimate; sound, and wearing headphones, can intensify the experience of place, making you more aware of your surroundings, more present in the moment. Where other modes of augmented experience can often necessarily remove one from the immediate experience, whether reading a guidebook, or looking at a screen, sound has a more immediate, phenomenological effect.
Many iterations and variations of the memoryscape were created and tested between July and November 2011, initially using HP iPAQ handheld computers and HP Labs m-scape software. Following much experimentation and user feedback, a full version was realised for iPhone in December 2011 using Bristol-based Calvium’s appfurnace.
Using site-specific field recordings of St Ives, composer Philip Reeder created layered ambient soundscapes which the user hears as a background to their walk. The participants put on headphones, start the application, and start to wander the streets of St Ives. Each time a user then encountered a GPS region, they would hear an extract from an oral history recording specific to that place. Poetic rather than didactic, there are multiple rhizomatic possibilities of encounter with different voices, as opposed to a walk that is linear, singular, one-way, directed. Each user creates their own narrative of place by moving through space. This phenomenological experience of place and memory is both out of time in place, and in time and out of place. It is an intertextual encounter with memory that invites links and associations between the textual of the oral history archive and the materiality of place through embodied experience.