Using cellphones to make oral history come alive
It started with one question: what impact does a narrative have on a physical space? To answer that artists Shawn Micallef, James Roussel and Gabe Sawhney created [murmur] – a community art project that uses the cellphone to make oral history come alive. The project was launched in 2003 in Toronto’s Kensington neighbourhood, Vancouver’s Chinatown and along St Laurent in Montreal and has continued to crop up in new neighbourhoods: wherever you see the [murmur] signs, you can dial up a number provided on the sign and listen to recorded stories ranging from literary histories to tales of neighbourhood transitions to the purely personal. The narratives create a connection to place that “counteracts the sense Canadians can have that ‘this is nowhere,’” says Micallef.
[murmur] has expanded yet again, with a Hart House installation that launched March 15. “It’s not the formalized history you might hear from other sources,” Hart House program advisor Jenifer Newcombe emphasizes. “Hart House has a long, rich history but it’s also a transient place – students come and then move on.” The connection to the past, to the people who have passed through, can be fractured – and [murmur] helps counteract this. “This big institution becomes really personal; it’s a human-scaled way of understanding it,” says Micallef. Part of the house’s Creativity Conceived programming, the anecdote-sized narratives (which run from one to two minutes) are being recorded by students involved with the Hart House Art Committee. Twenty to 30 stories will eventually be available in eight to 10 locations around the building – both the expected (such as the theatre and the Great Hall) and the unexpected nooks and crannies (such as the third-floor hallway). The process is ongoing, and stories will continue to be collected after the launch.
[murmur] is a people’s history, but those people will include a few of Hart House’s famous friends. Atom Egoyan (BA 1982 TRIN) will contribute a tale about his experience with the Hart House Film Board. Trinity College provost Margaret MacMillan (BA 1966 TRIN) will also share her story of dressing up as a man to get into a Hart House debate she wished to attend. (Women were prohibited from becoming members of Hart House until 1972.)