Murmurings: An interview with members of the [murmur] collective
> Caitlin O'Donovan

[murmur] is an interventionist public art project by Shawn Micallef, Gabe Sawhney and James Roussel that is now the toast of Toronto. Recently recognized at DigiFest with the 2003 New Voices People's Choice Award and with an installation on the horizon at Harbourfront in Toronto, I caught up with Shawn and Gabe to get the details on this exciting project.

Caitlin O'Donovan: Let's start from the top... what exactly is [murmur]?

Shawn Micallef: [murmur] connects people with their city by allowing them to listen to stories about particular locations while standing in those places. People walking past these sites notice a sign which indicates the presence of a story and provides a number they can dial using their cellular phone. This allows the user to hear the story of that place in that place; the details will come alive as they walk through, around, and into the narrative. Using audio instead of text, the user is free to wander throughout the space, touching the objects and structures described in the story.

C.O. The term "psychogeography" is one that's often mentioned with your project. How do you define psychogeography?

S.M. There is considerable thought on defining psychogeography. One could look to the Situationists and their seemingly endless texts exploring the psychogeographic experience and practice. I prefer a simpler explanation: psychogeography is an exploration of the urban environment for it's own sake. Discovering how the city changes as you stroll through it excites us and that by stepping outside of the daily routine - a psychogeographic dérive - and approaching the city from a different perspective than the usual, a richer perspective can be achieved.

C.O. And what would you say makes [murmur] a psychogeographic experience?

S.M. [murmur] is very much a flâneur experience, updated and augmented with modern technology. While drifting through the city, accessing a [murmur] story gives the user another perspective on a given space - whether it is the past, present or even a futuristic interpretation of that place. Hearing these stories, like a psychogeographic walk through a city, can give one a new appreciation of places that may have seem nondescript or banal.

C.O. What brought you to the creation of [murmur]? What are your backgrounds?

S.M. I spent a long time in University finally ending up with an MA in political science. I tended to drift towards the social and theoretical side of things: studying the things people do, how they do them and why they do it. I also spent the first 26 years of my life in Windsor Ontario, which is a lovely city but terribly suburban inside and out. I long harboured an intense Toronto fixation, a real city full of nooks and crannies hiding all kinds of secrets. Once I completed school, I moved up here and began exploring the city from top to bottom, something I haven't stopped doing. A group of us go on city walks one evening a week - we pick a starting location and just go. Not one of these walks has failed to expose some new thing or element of Toronto I wasn't familiar with, even in areas I thought I knew intimately. It has been a great comfort finding all kinds of other city nerds who share these feelings.

[murmur] blends my fascination with cities, urbanism and social movements with my desire to do something neat with technology that regular people can actually use and enjoy. We wanted to provide the means for other people to get their stories out and on the streets for others to hear. And it's really fun to get out of the ivory tower and do something at street level that is tangible and relevant.

Gabe Sawhney: I studied architecture in university, and in doing so, I discovered that I was really much more interested in urban design, and questions like, how do different physical environments impact people's use - and enjoyment - of a place? Living and interacting in the city is as much about places as it is about people... so what intangible things can turn a space (a word so loved by architects) into a place? [murmur], I believe, is in part an experiment in this.

As well, having been dealing with technology for many years, it's refreshing now to work on what is so far a relatively lo-fi 'technology' project.

C.O. You created [murmur] at the Canadian Film Centre's new media lab Habitat. Can you describe the creative process that lead to this project?

S.M. The 3 of us came together as a team at Habitat's Interactive Art & Entertainment Program last year. The last 4 months of the program are dedicated to production where residents form teams and work on their own prototypes.

G.S. The idea for [murmur] grew organically, but was firmly rooted in the strong feelings the three of us have for the city, and the agreement that a computer screen is just too far from the street to have any real emotional impact when talking about the city.

The faculty at Habitat provided an environment where anything is possible and no idea is too wild or fantastic to be explored - and while this can be REALLY daunting at first, the faculty are really good at poking and kicking around those ideas, getting us to think critically and figure out how we could make the "intangible and unwieldy" a workable reality. Without their knowledge, suggestions, experience and mentorship, there is no way [murmur] could be as advanced as it is now.

C.O. Is there something about Toronto, in particular, that makes the [murmur] experience compelling?

S.M. [murmur] can work in any city, and we hope it one day will - but Toronto is a great place to start because it's the kind of city where people think nothing happened. Toronto's long had the reputation of being a boring, straight city. But it's not true! Even a cursory exploration of the city reveals layer upon layer of interesting social and civic history - but people either don't have time or access to the information needed to peel back these layers. It doesn't help that Toronto has been on a rapid march of progress for the last 50 years, and many of our greatest structures have been torn down, erasing any memory of what was there, giving Toronto a "clean slate" sort of feel. Though people like Michael Ondaatje have made great steps towards creating Toronto's myth, the city is still perceived as "nowhere." We love this city and are committed to, in a small and humble way, helping expand Toronto's myth by providing people with easy access to these hidden histories.

C.O. With regards to your process, how did you determine which stories were suitable for inclusion in the project? What filters were in place to make the project coherent?

S.M. Each story must have a link with a particular location, so that part of the process is easy. A little more difficult is getting people who aren't traditional storytellers to find a universal element that other people can relate to. For instance, if a person wants to tell a story about the park where they walk their dog everyday, and nothing more, it's not particularly interesting. But if they, in their story, demonstrate why that simple act of walking their dog has some huge meaning for them, well, it might be something other people want and even need to hear. As well, while some wacky stories from certified eccentrics are certainly welcome, we want tender, sweet, happy, sad and intimate stories from the regular ordinary people with whom we share the city. We also want our stories to be diverse, and reflect the make up the community we're working in. Once the project is more established, we'd like to set up an editorial board made up of community members, much like a newspaper editorial board, who will help us ensure whatever personal innate biases we might have do not skew story selection in a particular direction.

C.O. How is the relationship between the physical space and the story negotiated? In other words, how do you determine that there has been a 'good match' created?

S.M. It's difficult to say how we control the negotiation between story and space. I want to say it's not our place to determine what fits and what doesn't - and leave it up to the story itself to make its own case. Sometimes it will be an uncomfortable (discomforting) fit - stories about great happenings in wonderful buildings that are now parking lots might spark a lot of dissonance within the listener. Yet even as I say that, dissonance and even outrage created by a [murmur] story would be a success to me and that phenomenon speaks to the activist edge the project has.

Much like story curation itself, a good fit occurs when people can relate to the story and the space itself, and perhaps think differently about it from then on. If the story is such that a person can run their hand along a façade or ruin, walk through portholes and passages described in stories or relate physically with elements of the story ... well, we could hardly ask for a better experience.

C.O. So what's next for [murmur]?

G.S. We're currently working on a small-scale demo in Toronto's Kensington Market, which will launch in July. We hope to get a lot of feedback on it, and this fall and winter we'll be refining the system, adding more stories, and focusing on securing funding to do a large-scale launch in the spring of 2004.

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Images and logo courtesy of Shawn Micallef, James Roussel, and Gabe Sawhney.

Related Links:
[murmur] website