Homing is an interactive sound art work commissioned by In Certain Places, created by artists Jen Southern and Sam Thulin with the Media Innovation Studio at the University of Central Lancashire. Accessed via an app and headphones, the immersive experience begins in Preston’s Market Square, at the Roll of Honour in Harris Museum & Art Gallery, before moving out onto the Flag Market and the Cenotaph.
The sonic artwork is responsive to movement, creating an immersive landscape which tells the stories of Preston soldiers serving in the frontline trenches of World War 1. Based on the original letters, Homing explores the physical and emotional distance between the soldiers and their loved ones at home in Preston.
Starting with a sound composition from the cemeteries at the Somme, the interactive artwork takes participants from the Roll of Honour to the Flag Market and Cenotaph. The listener is closed off from the busy streets of Preston as their device picks up stories based on their movement. They hear fragments of stories from the men in the trenches – a stilted marriage proposal, a thank you for kippers sent through the post – before these words are disrupted by ever-intensifying GPS interference. This distant, targeting technology of modern-day warfare creates a sonic fog through which individual voices can no longer be heard, reflecting the difficulty of communication through the constant battle between signal and noise.
The critical twist in Homing is the interference of static when one approaches the Cenotaph. Here, the silenced narrative affords a unique moment of contemplation for the listener: an opportunity for a deeper personal understanding of the reasons for the existence of the memorial.
One visitor described the experience: “Just as you are being drawn into a line of dialogue, a few steps forward can bring interference, overlapping tones and a new narrative. It is as if the conditions are just right to pick up distant voices on a shortwave radio. This creates a sensitivity to your surroundings and movement through space. You slow down, stand still and listen carefully.”
An additional sensory layer was added by the physical objects on display at the Harris Museum: photographs, letters and drawings of the soldiers.
The Homing experience took place between May and November 2016 as a special commission by In Certain Places and Preston Remembers, developed with the support of the Lancashire Infantry Museum, Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts and the Centre for Mobilities Research at the University of Lancaster.
The technology behind Homing was made in collaboration with the Media Innovation Studio at UCLan, who was involved from the conception of the idea. This meant they were able to contribute to the creative form of the work as well as develop the technology to realise the artists’ vision. The result was a bespoke mobile application using ‘Estimote’ Bluetooth beacons as a way of triggering audio experiences in both indoor and outdoor spaces. The operation of the beacons in situ was not completely tameable, as their response to weather, other networks, and the devices carried by passers-by added an extra layer of interference to Homing, extending the tension between clear communication and its inevitable fragmentation over time and space.
In order to arrive at this solution, the MIS team investigated and trialled a number of solutions. They combined off-the-shelf items and built prototypes to test different approaches in collaboration with the commissioner and artists. This enabled their evolving and technical solutions to be in synergy with the aesthetic and conceptual outcome of the final piece, according to Professor Charles Quick, Professor of Public Art Practice at the School of Art, Design and Fashion at UCLan.
He continues: “Working with sited projects in exterior and interior spaces, which involve interaction from the public, can prove to be problematic, particular with so many interfaces. The Studio made a particularly strong contribution in responding to this changing environment while re-evaluating the technical challenges through the length of the project.
“Without the Media Innovation Studio’s involvement from the beginning, it is hard to see how the work could have been achieved in its final form. They contributed to a piece of artwork which profoundly moved and significantly changed people’s perception of both architectural spaces and which was latter presented at a conference at Tate Britain London.”Collaboration: an artist’s impression
Artist Jen Southern said the collaboration with the Media Innovation Studio was a “crucial” element of the project.
“We came with initial ideas, and through discussions of technical and user experience aspects decided to work with Bluetooth beacons to locate sound in different spaces in the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, and the Flag Market. Their dedication to the project led to producing the work for us on three different platforms, iPhone, Android and Raspberry Pi.
“I have worked on artists apps before, but have never found a team who were willing to develop a small project like this across multiple platforms, which we hope will lead to greater accessibility. The Studio was able to work with our changing creative ideas, and to suggest and implement innovative ways to generate the sense of mobile interaction we required. It was important to us that users’ interaction with the work was through their feet, and the path they were walking through the space, rather than through an on-screen interface.
“The Studio team understood this motivation and were able to design a system for us that gave participants a coherent and responsive experience, fine-tuned through multiple tests and trials.
“As artists, it is important to us to work with technologists that can explain how things work and respond to our suggestions, so that we can creatively engage with both the content and the participant experience. We found the Studio to be fantastic collaborators!”
Collaboration: a tech perspective
“The Homing project is a great demonstration of a transdisciplinary approach taken here at the Media Innovation Studio,” explains March Lochrie, the researcher and creative technologist who translated the artists’ vision into a physical/digital representation. “This formed the foundations of the interactive experience, which was designed to be simple to use to make it widely accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds visiting the museum.
“The project sought to explore questions around connecting physical buildings with a digital narrative and how war memorials change over time in terms of their architecture, rationale and prominence within our cities. It explored the question: What does a 21st-century war memorial look like?
“The research continues to explore these questions. Through qualitative practices we are able to gain further insights into how local people, museum visitors and millennials see the future of museums and war memorials. It is through works such as Homing that as researchers we can test theories and apply prototypes to either probe ideas to impact wider communities or to provoke a response to wider society issues.”