Radio Without Boundaries: Crowd-sourcing history with personal memories

0 Posted by - May 29, 2011 - Blog, Conversations, Performance, Sound

The world of ‘sound art’ is a busy and eclectic place.

At Radio Without Boundaries in Toronto, this weekend, one of Canada’s preeminent sound art gatherings, the workshops and performances ranged from the beautifully abstract, to the bizarre, to more traditional workshops about using voice and narrative. Big Shed Square Dance falls somewhere in the middle, but with an extra dose of fun. Using a traditional form of square dance to prompt the sharing of memories, Big Shed Square Dance creates virtual landscapes from the sounds of voices telling stories.

It may not be the first thing we think of when we think of memory, but memories have places. All memories happened somewhere. And they also have characters – most especially, the people who we once were. The ghostly landscapes of places that no longer exist are filled with the people we once were, and needed to be, to get to where we are today. The ‘square dance’ memory workshop is part of the The Place and Memory Project, an initiative to crowd-source memories to recreate places that no longer exist through stories. Story-gathering takes place on the telephone. Big Shed has a memory hot-line 1.888.910.2555 waiting to take your call. Any story. Any place. The stories will be posted on the Big Shed website and may even make it to National Public Radio in the US.

Do it. Right now. Big Shed is waiting for your call.

The thing is, asking for stories is not the same as receiving them. According to Shakleford, getting people to tell their stories on the phone turned out much harder than they thought it would be. It’s not that people didn’t like the idea — they loved it. But even among the most enthusiastic supporters, the call-in rate was low.

Enter the Big Shed Square Dance. This is the workshop I attended yesterday at Radio Without Boundaries. Here’s how it works: everyone at the workshop forms up in two circles, one inside the other.  The inner circle faces out and the outer circle faces in, so that each person is partnered with someone. Shackelford has pre-selected lists of what he calls memory “prompts” — suggestions to get memory juices flowing. For example, prompts included: no place like home, a favourite job, a place you hung out, landmarks, stories near water, favourite vacations, somewhere on the way to somewhere else, a sporting event, etc.

Each person chooses a prompt and tells the other person a story from their life history while Shackelford plays the banjo. I can’t explain why it works, but as soon as that banjo music starts, tongues wag like everyone is old friends. After partners have swapped stories, then we do the ‘dosey doe’, partners switch, and the storytelling repeats on different themes, and so on, until each person has told four stories to four different people.

Here’s the surprise: after we’ve shared these crazy random details from our lives with virtual strangers, we reconvene as a group and Shackelford asks us to pick our best story from the ones we’ve told. And then, Shackeldford unveils the telephone number for his project, and he asks us to call in our stories. We all did — right there in the room.

The stories were funny, endearing and to a one fascinating. Stories about lucky spots on highschool bleachers where first kisses and first loves were found, mysteriously important motor boats fetishistcally pampered and cared for over years only to be sold one day by Dad without notice or ceremony, childhood sexual fantasies, roaming abandoned warehouses with childhood friends, weird jobs hunting for mushrooms in farmer’s fields … and on and on.

Talk about a way to get to know strangers. The workshop was expertly handled and quite fun. And it obviously works well.

One of the questions that came up for me was about the politics of memory — political trauma, for instance and the difficult stories produced by colonialism, racisms, sexism, poverty, exclusion, etc. These are the kinds of stories that usually get swept under history’s rugs, and I wondered if some of these tensions had emerged in the Big Shed. Here’s what Shea Shackelford had to say about the politics of memory and about Big Shed’s growing awareness of the possibilities for crowd-sourcing history.

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