Geo location: A New Canvas for Storytellers

Place-making. Making place. It's a funny concept: the notion that a place needs to be made. When they just are. A place just is. But the stories that surround these places and the connection we have to places, these come and go. Here is the realm of the storyteller. Some places are full of mystique, others are laden with history. But a place with no stories (a new subdivision is what comes to mind), now there's a concern. I'm not a developer, or a cultural heritage architect or a town planner, but I do appreciate the role we all can in this notion of making a place, that is creatively connecting into an a place, and an honouring of the lives and stories that are folded in and around it. I also believe that the art of place-making through immersive storytelling is at an all new tipping point. When it's going to tip or how it's going to tip, I don't know. But I do know that the bedrock of storytelling and place-making is going to change thanks to locative technology.

I have a background in writing. I did a masters in creative writing and for a while there in my late thirties I thought I was going to be the next big thing in novel writing but that never transpired. I also have near twenty years working as a radio documentary maker. And while geo locative storytelling has commonality with both radio and fiction/non fiction, some crossover by way of the likes of narrative, storytelling, sound design, characters etc, and the associative tonal world of audio and voices: the geo locative audio storytelling experience is a profoundly different creative canvas on which an artists/jounalists/tour operator/sound engineers etc., can play.

This I know:

  • The geo locative place-making experience is principled on mobile technology and this in itself is constantly changing
  • Geo locative apps have both a front end (public face) and backend (where producers upload content)
  • Each apps present opportunities and limitations by way of functionality, ownership, branding, content and production
  • Because apps can track our movement from point A to point B, the storyteller is able to deploy information, sound bytes, images etc., at certain places across a location
  • The act of triggering stories and sounds at specific locations, and in a variety of ways can (if done well), affords a rich and embodied experience for users on site 

For four years now I've worked with hundreds of people building sound experiences through Soundtrails. When I work, I feel like I'm not only bringing a place alive, but I'm bringing the people alive. I try to work with the people who have a legitimate connection to the site and the stories that circulate locally. I reckon we've heard enough of the grand narratives of tourism and there's a growing interest from cultural tourist in on-site experiences that are not only well produced but are authentic to the site and community and locally born. The stories I am help tell in small tin-pot towns like Warialda or Walgett rival stories from any other places. By dint of being off the metropolitan radar they are often overlooked. I am often met surprise when I invite someone to tell me their stories. Why wold anyone want to hear my story? My ears prick up.  

When I return from my time out in the field recording with Soundtrails, I come back to my computer with my bits and bobs and I fire up my computer. I lovingly load my sound-files into my hard-drive and breathe a sigh of relief when I've got them saved. For when I am out in the field I carry with me a great sense of responsibility - not unlike when I worked for the National Library of Australia on important oral history recordings. For I don't want to do anything to disappoint those who have trusted with me with their lives and their stories. I fall in love a little bit with their voices and what I carry, and a carry with me a deep sense of duty by way of the control I now hold to shape something that is befitting of their world and their life. But unlike novels that are written for the page for line breaks and chapters and take place in people's imaginations half way around the world from where the story happens, geo locative audio storytelling is happening there, next to the drum, outside the servo, on site and not in isolation. Download an app and walk a trail and there's the time of day, the peripheral noise, the tracks and paths, the people around you. Then there are the associations that we bring to these places we vsit that are built up over many years. For instance, the Myall Creek memorial in remote NSW (arguably the most famous site of an Aboriginal massacre in Australia), with its yearly memorial day, its signage, monument and suite of writings and novels about the massacre, affords a very different set of associations to say a cultural heritage tour of neighbouring Tenterfield. Add into the mix the mobile app interface, the audio production, positioning of stories and how the experience is choreographed over time and place, and the principles of storytelling that we currently know and love, are turned on their head. Meaning making and the experience itself is made on many levels here.

Beryl Hepi and Hilda Dunan at the former Goonoowigall camp and standing next to the site of their childhood house

Beryl Hepi and Hilda Dunan at the former Goonoowigall camp and standing next to the site of their childhood house

From the Aboriginal Diggers Soundtrail in Moree to small town Bingara to regional Nambour in Queensland, I have listened to and shaped so many pieces of audio that each carry a little moment in someone's life, let alone their voice, their breath, and their place in relation to a certain place and the scheme of things. Having worked in radio documentary making with Radio National, I have a deep appreciation for the tonal qualities to voices.  I love the regional, sometimes near-forgotten element in the places I'm working and the fact that no one is trying to be somebody. My map of northern NSW and southern Qld is less roads and place-names and more voices, anecdotes, stories and encounters. Each street corner, each theatre street frontage, small shop or steel bridge  affords another opportunity for sound and story. Thanks in part to their audible nature, these voices are forged into my mind and are as real as the country itself. 

Outside the RSL in small town Bingara, population 1300, comes the nasal twang of Pat Brown, shortly before she passed away: telling how her five brothers headed off to war amidst, how one went back again to avoid a white feather and then never returned. I know that moment when she holds back the tears. Or outside the Nambour railway station, is the voice of local Aboriginal man, Lyndon Davis, telling of the day he set out from Nambour leaving behind his beloved Nan who's raised him, and headed south to Brisbane, and boarding school and the rich white kids who became his friends. Today Lyndon's story occupies a place on the Soundtrail app directly outside the bus stop. Many homeless today wile away the time here, heads down. Fights are not uncommon. I want everyone to hear that Lyndon's story is here, waiting for someone to download the app and fire him up. But this is the realm of marketing. That's for another day. 

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HOT OFF THE PRESS: from our up and coming Goonoowigall 'Aboriginal Fringe Camp' Soundtrail. Listen to Beryl Hepi, Hilda Duncan, Erol Connors and baby sister, Doris Connors (aka the Connors Kids) talk about their life growing up in a humpie.  LISTEN HERE!