“A Hush Descended on the City…”: Hidden Histories and Radio Remembrance
Is Hidden Histories a micro-FM station, a sound installation, an audio tour, or a local history trail? Perhaps it is none of the above, or perhaps all four. The existence of such a project in some ways exposes the lack of a critical sound-based vocabulary, especially when attempting to portray particular instances of the convergence of oral history and electronic media in their distinctiveness and social context.
The Hidden Histories project consists of ten USB-powered transmitter ‘nodes’ which continuously broadcast oral history excerpts from Southampton’s Oral History Archive (composed into mini radio ‘features’, with music and ambience, by Armin Medosch) on an FM frequency within the heart of the City Centre. The project employs what Barry Truax of the World Soundscape Project has termed “earwitness accounts” (Truax 20011); vernacular testimony of experiences in the city. For example, there are stories of seafaring, immigrant life (for example, a woman from India describing her first experiences of Southampton), working in the docks, hearing about the Titanic disaster, going to music hall shows or the cinema, supporting the war effort on the home front, and many others.
‘Cutting oneself off’ from the acoustic environment through portable headphone listening, or the deliberate use of radio to create one’s own environment, tends to be seen as symptomatic of a general trend away from environmental awareness and community involvement (Truax 2001), and toward technologically induced human isolation. As a freely accessible sound resource and micro-radio innovation, Hidden Histories is a small but significant example of the reversal of this trend towards ‘mobile privatisation’ (a phrase originally coined by Raymond Williams) of the electro-acoustic environment. Whilst the Hidden Histories trail can be poignantly experienced through a private mode of listening (headphones), a group of people can profitably enjoy their tour using at least one battery-powered (i.e. transistor) radio. The latter mode of listening is not ideal for large groups, due to the limitations of reception and audible range (the very weak radio transmitters have a range of about 10 metres). However, for small groups, this mode of listening may prove attractive, as group radio listening promotes discourse as well as consensus about exactly what has been heard.
It is also, in my opinion, undeniable that participation in the project actively promotes environmental awareness and community involvement, through the realisation of potential cultures of communication that exist in public spaces. The participant becomes sensitised to the contrast between the harmonious intimacy of the earwitness accounts and the often discordant noise pollution of the city streets, and engages with collective memory by listening to a cross-section of vernacular voices recalling and summoning a shared past. The participant is able to use her radio or mobile phone not as a ‘conversational avoidance device’ but instead as a means to reconnect with the grounds of her personal identity through interpersonal and community communication. To collect experiences from the audio tour via the radio dial is to find “recourse to subjective constructions of memory, and what it means to be a participant…the work of memory is in fact radiophonic” (Labelle 2006)2. To be confronted by ‘difference’ or otherness in the form of these migrant voices necessitates that we apply what Arjun Apparudai terms ‘the work of the imagination’, in negotiating difference whilst realising a relation to others (if only vicariously through mediated discourse), and remodelling the present (Apparudai 1998)3 in the light of this experience.
The time-binding properties (Innis 2003)4 of this media form allow participants to receive communications from, and about, the past, creating cultural continuity. The project represents a re-inscription of real time, but also real space. Taking the audio tour, I was also interested in the coupling of content (the oral history) and physical context or place, to achieve site-specific localisation. The primary examples are recollections of the Titanic and shipwrecks around the Titanic memorials, and of ‘home front’ life during World War 2 near the (WW2) Cenotaph. At Node 1, as I listened to an interviewee recalling her father, a seaman and Titanic survivor, setting off on his bicycle on the anniversary of the disaster to the Titanic memorial in East Park, I gazed across at the memorial, from my standpoint at the corner of Bedford Place. The poignant testimony was followed by a short burst of what sounded like a present-day recording of the soundscape at the present-day Titanic memorial, a hubbub of traffic noise drowning out voices, an echo of the ambient background noise an ordinary pedestrian would ordinarily hear in this location. This ambient sound might have actually been a recording of ships at the docks, and this would have been equally appropriate; the important aspect here is that the transmission of oral history from the nodes begins to work on the listener’s imagination.
When creating the audio pieces, Armin Medosch was careful not to be too ‘heavy-handed’ in editing the oral history to match spaces heavily influenced and imbued with the presence of commemorative memorials (Medosch 2008). The participant is quite naturally drawn to the synthesis between past and present and between the invisible sonic memorial (which is heard) and the physical, tactile memorial (which is seen and touched). Both the node and the memorial are “apparatus that configure distance in an intensive rather than extensive way” (Chandler and Neumark 2005)5. The aesthetic and emotional resonance of physical memorials is not in doubt, but we can also witness the ideological dominance and institutional silences of such “contemporary organs of remembrance” (Haskins 2007)6.
Conversely, the participant is also able to reflect on the way in which much of the city’s history has been has hidden or crowded out of view by modern development. I recollect feeling a sense of isolation, especially listening privately on headphones to public history, in my realisation that the Titanic memorial represents little more than a landmark for many joggers or passing drivers. It also led me to wonder whether any drivers stuck in traffic have been surprised to hear a ghostly ‘locally sourced’ voice recollecting the past, momentarily supplanting the ‘imported’ metallic tones of a relentlessly present-tense radio DJ they might usually listen to at drive-time! Another interesting instance of psychogeography occurred when I was listening to the oral testimony of an elderly man recollecting the exact costs of a day’s entertainment (a meal at a café, a cinema ticket and so on) during his childhood while I was stood near a queue of young peopling waiting to use a cashpoint (ATM) machine.
Such ‘locational’ experiences and imaginative speculations are perhaps evidence of the rooted and expressive culture of oral history as embodied witness inseparable from its place of origin. ‘Listening in’ is a licence to lived encounters with, and within, the city. As someone with only a very cursory knowledge of the history of Southampton, I wonder if residents of the city might find that the audio-tour resonates “the background of meaning which a landscape suggests to those familiar with it” (Berger 1991)7.
This project model represents an opportunity to promote the study of communities through oral history and new media. Crucially, it also hints at the prospect of ‘self-sustaining’ media forms, as the continued functioning of the project (the project is due to end in November 2008) involves a minimal degree of remote (self-) management. Hidden Histories exploits the increasing convergence of technology, short-circuiting the route between the (oral historian’s) tape recorder and ultra-local FM transmission. Bluetooth technology also enables new or potential participants to find out about the project, as each node scans the environment for phones with the Bluetooth function on. Once permission has been granted from the mobile user to allow further information to be sent, the node sends a text message, announcing the node, the FM frequency and information about the type of content which can be heard. It has been proposed that at a later stage the audio clips may be augmented with images and film clips.
The innovative use of Bluetooth technology points to the possibility of increasing the potential communicative reciprocity of the project. The project was designed as a non-interactive format of broadcasting on an FM frequency. Yet if access point services were created and the technology and software augmented, potentially the wireless network could broadcast responses to the oral histories uploaded by participants. Through this process, Hidden Histories could emerge as a real community effort in which participants effectively ‘tag’ the environment with invisible sonic content (Rueb 2002)8, embedding social knowledge in the wireless network of the city, and deepening the relationship between content and physical context.
Hidden Histories is a horizontal and open system, which has participants rather than an audience. The growth of the user community of visiting participants for such a project is slow and organic, building gradually by word-of-mouth, internet discussion, local publicity, and the possibility of other media outlets ‘covering’ the story and showcasing some of the project’s content. Hidden Histories, like mini-FM stations, has the potential to be magnetic, despite being ‘radio without an audience’ (Tetsuo Kogawa, quoted in Chandler and Neumark 2005), transmitting across distances easily traversed by foot. Unlike mini-FM stations, however, Hidden Histories is not a ‘manned’ or mobile radio station, and has no studio premises or conventional broadcasting equipment. Ten lampposts in central Southampton have been mounted with weather-proof compact boxes, containing repurposed domestic wireless hardware, and software programmed to repeat soundfiles containing the aural history. The ‘mesh network’ created by the boxes exists only for maintenance reasons, so that the boxes can be viewed remotely from London, and new content uploaded (Medosch 2008).
Alexei Blinov, and others at the London-based wireless collective Hivenetworks, have, in designing Hidden Histories according to Armin Medosch’s idea of an oral history trail, created an interesting paradigm of mediated radio communication. Conventional media technologies, when interposed, allow or enforce a physical distance between the parties, which tends to distort, reduce or eliminate communicative potential (Enzensberger 19769; Franklin 199910). Hidden Histories diverts from this unidirectional, space-biased model, and represents an example of local and dialogic ‘small media’ (Spitulnik 200211), which can be seen a means of exploring the secondarily oral (Ong 1980)12 bias of electronic communications.
There is something distinctly appealing and exciting about the idea of a modern wireless network giving voice to the voiceless through the use of oral history. A real synergy can be created when ‘custodians of lore’ such as archivists and oral historians are able to collaborate with those involved in broadcasting or wireless networks, due to a common interest in provoking access to and extending the artistic possibilities of vernacular speech and aural soundscapes. This has the function of subverting common misperceptions of the oral history movement as exclusively focused on recovering and recording vanishing traditions in static archival forms. Hidden Histories itself has already been recognized within the free software movement as proof of the “short-sighted forecast stating that oral tradition would have been wiped out by the computer society” (Campanelli 2008). Perhaps projects such as Hidden Histories thus pave the way for future collaboration between archivists, oral historians, wireless network collectives and media activists, academic groups, community radio volunteers, cultural agencies and, of course, interested citizen-participants.
Listen to the Titanic piece, node 1, Hidden Histories:
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