In 2019 I attended an Oral History Society networker event at the British Library and was impressed with work that the Library had done with students from the Royal College of Art School of Communication. In particular, a ‘sonic quilt’, created by Karthika Sakthivel, used sensors in the fabric to trigger oral history sound clips from a loudspeaker. I decided that, given the chance, I wanted to do something similar that would use our collections at the East Midlands Oral History Archive (EMOHA).
In 2020 Leicester City Council successfully bid for money from the High Street Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) scheme, and started a four year project to regenerate areas in the city centre. This involved outreach work with both local community groups and students from the University of Leicester. The Leicester Institute for Advanced Studies (LIAS) have a rolling fund for supporting the formation of new, or further development of, co-created interdisciplinary partnerships with collaborators in the city of Leicester, which seemed ideal for this project. So, in the winter of 2021/22 I applied for money to buy an ‘Interactive wall kit’ from Bare Conductive. The kit is able to work with electric paint to play sound and audio-visual material from a small processor and loudspeakers.
Leicester City Council contributed more funds and I approached Focus Charity, where a group of young people agreed to work on the project. The aims of the project were:
- To use the interactive sound technology to enable young people to create a sound map that shows aspects of Church Gate and Granby Street in Leicester (these streets are part of the HAZ).
- To engage the young people, and the public, with the history/heritage of Church Gate and Granby Street.
- To encourage the development of more interdisciplinary partnerships between the University and Leicester City Council.
We started with a series of walks along Church Gate and Granby Street, listening for unusual sounds and identifying buildings and businesses that we thought were interesting. In some cases we recorded street sounds, or the sounds of the young people in particular buildings e.g. the Y Theatre, and sometimes we went into the shops and recorded people who worked there along with sounds in the shops. One of the young people wrote a short ghost story, as the Focus building is said to be haunted. We also recorded a round table discussion about shoes, tattoos, ghosts and other subjects our street survey had brought up. Along with a couple of recordings from EMOHA’s archives, these were used to create sound clips for the map.
A graphic designer, Dan Poynton, helped the young people to create a 2m x 1m vinyl map of the area along with representations of the places associated with the sound clips. The young people used a variety of styles and techniques, and the end result was a colourful, fun, map that plays sounds when certain parts of it are touched.
Each of the areas of black, electric paint covers a screw that connects to a sensor on the back of the map. The sensor is connected to the processor and triggers one of 12 sound clips that is played through the loud speakers. When another area of the map is touched, the sound clip that is playing stops and another one starts.
As it happened, Focus were already doing some work with the City Council on the HAZ and the sound map was displayed, along with photographs and other material created by young people, at the Beta X venue on Church Gate, in July 2022. The young people had recorded sound and interviews, written scripts, recorded voice overs, and created the map. As one of them said, “Interviewing people was a challenge, but one I enjoyed doing nevertheless.” The reactions to the map were very positive. The staff at Focus felt, “The map has being a great success and we have had number of positive comments from users and other community agencies.” I was very pleased with the results. The process of creating the map involves a range of skills that the young people handled really well, and the end result is exactly as I hoped it would be. I’m hopeful that we can use this technology in future projects as it enables us to use oral history, and engage with sound, in a fun, creative way.
Thanks to LIAS and Leicester City Council for funding, to the staff and young people at Focus Charity for their work and creativity, and to Dan Poynton for pulling it all together in time for the exhibition.
Now that the project is over we would like to display the map in other venues. There are issues with attaching such a large item to walls though, so we are still looking for suitable places. In the run-up to Christmas 2022 the map is back on display in Beta X, but suggestions are welcome for the future!