Davenport, G. (2005). When Place Becomes Character: a critical framing of place for mobile and situated narrative. In _The Mobile Audience: Media Art and Mobile Technologies_, M. Rieser, ed. London: BFI.

Glorianna Davenport, MA from Hunter Collect, is Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Media Laboratory. She founded the Interactive Cinema group (1987-2004), as well as the Media Fabrics group, which she directs. She is a trained sculptor and documentary filmmaker, and is internationally renowned for her work in digital media forms. Her recent research explores the creation of customizable storyteller systems, able to serve and adapt to a wide audience.

“New technology has brought new opportunities for overlaying real physical spaces with active agencies of history, culture, and personal storytelling. . . . The participant audience can become immersed in an evocative sensory surround or can gather bits and pieces of surrogate experience to be later used in acts of creation, consumption, and sharing” (6).

This essay explains places’ rich characters and stories, and gives a few examples of her work. For Davenport, places in stories often express the driving psychology of that tale. It can be imbued with a sense of everything from hope, to trauma, to horror, and back around to romance. Likewise, in new media art works, “place can and often does take on an active role approximating that of a character” (2) and audience members transform into agents who can influence the path and its stories through “acts of navigation, selective gestures, or other methods of communicating desire to the responsive system” (2).

1978’s The Aspen Project was among the first projects wherein the digital recreated real place so much that participants could develop their own cognitive maps of a place they didn’t otherwise know. Still, none of them registered space with time, a four-dimensional approach. New media, such as mobile, wireless, and sensing technologies allow us, through “augmented reality’s” layering of the synthetic within the real, to see point-of-view within a place’s sociological, historical context.

In 1999, Davenport and Larry Friedlander started a series of”situated context” works examining how they might “create an augmented reality of place for the mobile audience” (3). Some were “mobile cinema” projects, others embodied the “collect and reflect approach” (3) of “embedded cinema,” and some gathered narratives from multiple participants over time, offering a layered view of that place.

Situated works embody “place as character.” Their MIT experiment, “MIT in Pocket,” acknowledged and embraced “the specialness of this place” (4) from the start. Student participants scripted action scenes for specific times of day, and were equipped with GPS, 802.11b, video, and audio-enabled handheld computers. Early problems included the in-exactness of the GPS positioning, lack of 802.11 transparency, and the fact that the screens “were virtually worthless in sunlight” (4).

In Dublin, Davenport and colleagues undertook “HopStory,” an investigation into story-making in historical places, specifically an old brewery. Four story workshop-generated characters included a foreman, a planner, a young boy seeking work, and a laborer’s young girl. They imagined, in the first- and third-person perspectives, what the characters would be doing, where they’d be doing it and why, all in the moments leading up to an accident. Contemporary day audience members navigated the store, encountering these stories and brewery cats (I love this part) who’d trigger story fragments in their handheld computers. At the end, the audience members would download their locations (cat-triggered) to view the day’s incidents from their unique perspectives.

“With these technologies, we can begin to integrate a rich layer of imagined narrative onto physical place while responding to the needs and desires of the peripatetic participant engaged in a multiplicity of realities” (2).

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Filed under Annotated Bibliographies, Media Arts, Minor Field, Research Fields

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