Tina Bastajian is a media artist and researcher born in Los Angeles and based in Amsterdam. Currently she is a lecturer of documentary film at Amsterdam University College and of media and culture at Webster University, Leiden. Among her works are “Jagadakeer… between the near and east” (2001), “A tree once grew on Pushkin” (2009), “Coffee Deposits: Topologies of chance” (an interactive documentary in collaboration with Seda Manavoglu, 2010). Last week Tina Bastajian started a workshop at the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies called “Geo-located Storytelling”. Hetq spoke with Tina about the project and related issues.
What is ‘geolocated storytelling’ all about?
Basically it’s connecting stories to places, and we’re going to do that via a very simple technology, which is called QR code which stands for “quick response”. Everyone sees them on billboards and for advertising. That way we can collect information and materials about city space, about inhabitants, about fantasy, about historical things. Actually, what we’re dealing a lot with is what we call subjective mapping. Students make their own maps of how they move through the city, what intrigues them. Maybe everyone goes to the same place but they’re going to have different emotions, different experiences, different sensory experiences – sound, smell, visual stimuli…
Right now we’re just gathering stories, and we have a few places we’ve located, ‘geolocated’. It’s tricky because we need open Wi-Fi for the students to be able to access the stories. There will be a blog, where they have like a map explaining the project. And then of course, on the location, there will be the QR codes with some explanatory, because people don’t want to read a lot of information. The QR code will access a URL and it would just activate either a clip or a webpage, a SMS message, a sound clip, a clue. We also might incorporate what is called ‘geocaching’ which is a high-low tech treasure hunt to find physical things hidden in the city, but we don’t know if we’re going to do that yet. We’re going to make the stories in Armenian; some students really want to make them bilingual.
Can it be interactive?
That’s the thing. That would be the next step; people can share their own stories. That is a possibility, but that’s a different level, not for a short workshop.
How does technology change our interaction with public places, because what you’re going to do is to invest technology in the perception of public space?
Obviously we have computers in our pockets everywhere we go, so mobile technologies are able to access anything at any time depending on their connection. That makes everybody connected 24/7 but at the same time, being in the city, you need to also disconnect. So even though the project surrounds technology, it also requires that you inhabit the space. Maybe the stories ask you to interact in a different way that has nothing to do with technology. But it’s because through the technology that maybe things become more apparent to you, because what’s being said or what you see or what you read, sort of directs a bit your attention.
Because the city is overwhelming, we have so many sensory things out there… It’s hard to compete with the city because there’s too much going on. As I’ve told the students, sometimes sound is better to interact with the city space, because the screen is too small, it’s too bright. People have their face in the screen and they don’t really see anything, whereas sound frees you of that. Sound takes you somewhere else, you’re able to multitask and kind of disappear and flow and imagine in a way that is difficult if you’re glued to screen. So there might be some videos but I think there’ll be a lot of audio things.
It’s not really a tour. We might connect it as a tour but right now we’re still collecting the pieces. It’s very short because of time and because of Wi-Fi access, it’s not like you’re walking all through the city.
Is it about rethinking of the place where we live but maybe don’t notice some things?
Exactly. I would say it’s activating space that you inhabit everyday but you see something different. Students might map or have mapped already subjective stories or incidents or paths through different parts of the city. Maybe they’ve all gone through the same path but obviously they have different viewpoints. That’s going to happen. But then when you start to nuance that, the students are to see that there are many layers to that and that they can play with that. The stories aren’t long, because, you know, it’s also about duration with the technology. Because the city is already a spectacle, we have to keep things short. They activate different things, maybe sensory, like I said before, senses and imaginary things that aren’t there. So we’re also playing with things that aren’t there.“A tree once grew on Pushkin” is about Pushkin street in Yerevan, once lined with tall trees and monumental buildings, and its demolition as a result of an extensive urban renewal project.
How has the narrative changed after technological innovations?
In some ways nothing has changed, the stories are still the same. It’s just how we receive them. We all want a good story. I think I said in my interview with TUMO I’m not the best narrative linear story teller. That’s why I gravitated towards what is called either ‘geo-located’ or location-based media in my work because they’re fragmentary and I like mixing these fragments together. There’s not one story, so I’m really interested in multiple perspectives. This technology lends itself to very much of multi-prospectival way of experiencing a work or stories or in the city.
I love the cinema. I’ve studied in 16 mm, I started with celluloid. I love sitting in a cinema and losing myself. But at the same time, I like the different aspects of what cinematic things can bring in different platforms or venues. I’ve done a lot of research on experimental cinema and performative cinema. So in some way this is also activating performativity, when students are on the street, they understand that suddenly people are watching them and they’re either embarrassed but they actually see the people want to know what’s happening. So they’re activating space in an analogue sense, not through the technology, just by being there and interacting with each other, talking to each other that people get curious.
This kind of play between virtual and public spaces is interesting and a lot of people have called it ‘hybrid space’. It’s these hybrid moments between being in your screen in a kind of virtual space and talking to someone and asking “Where is this?” So it’s this kind of affect that is really inspiring to me. I see it happens by itself, I don’t have to stimulate it. When the kids walk around the streets they see it happening and then they say “Ah, ok, I understand now”. You show them a picture on the first day of something happening on the street and they’re like “ok, it’s just an ordinary picture of people gathering around”, but then they start to realize the power of what that could bring to storytelling… It’s not about gaming but you can bring aspects of game logic to that, so you can give clues… I don’t know if we’re going to do that. I gave them a couple different approaches and we’ll see what happens.
In what kind of places and buildings are students interested?
They’re interested in a lot but in this short workshop time and with a big group it’s hard to do everything. We have 16 kids and so we have to be with them wherever they go. Right now we’re starting with Saryan Park, partly because there’s open Wi-Fi access and there are artists there and layers of stuff that maybe other parks might not have. Basically we have different points of interest (POI's), so it’s not scattered all over the city. So from Saryan park we might go to Paplavok as well, I’m not sure yet, then also maybe a few places here at Tumanyan Park which doesn’t have Wi-Fi but we still want to do it anyway because there is stuff that people don’t know. The kids are say “Hey, people should know about this, about the bridge or about this building over here”. People that have connectivity can access, it’s not impossible, it’s just not everyone has minutes on their phones.
Is it a precondition for students to have some basic knowledge, to know facts about a particular place or building, or it’s just about emotions?
It’s both. Some people are really more focusing on more factual, maybe even journalistic stuff. Sometimes they seem maybe to mix things. We’ll see, I have no idea yet of what will come up. A lot of them realize they don’t know enough. They thought they knew something, but then they realize – oh my God, there’s nothing on this and this in Yerevan at all, we want to add something to this that people should know. It’s not that they’re providing a Wikipedia page, but that they’re also adding something to general knowledge on the web by exposing stuff to Armenians and non-Armenians alike.
We’re trying to create an experience. We’re trying to annotate the city. Two words or rather concepts we use a lot in the workshop are annotation and augmentation. I mean it’s more conceptual sometimes cause we’re not doing augmented reality per se in a high-tech sense but I mean sound is augmented, you augment space, when you’re using sound. So they’ve realized that it’s not like you have to have VR glasses on.
Main photo from Tumo.org