– a guest blog by Rachel Henson

I like finding ways through an unfamiliar place. There’s a shift to a kind of all-around alertness which charges the location. It’s like a film I’m walking through, a visceral, and felt-in-the-body experience. I need tools that use this shift; that work with, rather than suspend, our heightened outdoor senses; porous tools which deliver crafted moving-image, sound and navigational cues, yet allow the spontaneous cinema of walking.

Smartphones are great for playing video triggered by location, yet the act of near-focusing on a small screen suspends our sense of where we are, whereas looking outwards and far, towards the vanishing point of a path or a distant landmark, turns up the volume on our peripheral vision, our heightened outdoor sight.* How can we position moving-image in our field of vision so that our seeing stays alert to the peripheral; is it possible to place a figure constantly at vanishing point?

Listening to a soundscape in headphones we immediately connect into atmosphere and emotion, yet we often close our eyes to listen, our awareness drawn inside our head. Is there a way of tuning into our heightened outdoor hearing while listening to recorded sound?

Interpreting an aerial view map by relating it to the point-of-view landscape in front of us is a kind of cognitive interruption. How could we make orientation more instant? How might I find my way to a particular location using felt-in-the-body or sound-based feedback? Is there a way the feedback could relate to how we feel the adrenalin of exploring?

Neil Manuell and I spent two weeks at Blast Theory, inviting three other artists to help find solutions. They were real catalysts, helping me to rule out possibilities, confirm gut feelings and come up with odd, sideways connections that led to breakthroughs.

Nikki Pugh gave us a head start, teaching us not just the basics of physical computing but specifically how to make direction-finding devices and animatronic/felt-in-the-body feedbacks. Clara Garcia Fraile got me to refocus on the narrative and experience of walking the site, which led to a breakthrough around placing recorded moving-image in our field of vision. With Dan Belasco Rogers we started out to see if binaurally recorded sounds could act as directional cues, soon discovering the true complexity of that question, and, in the process, coming up with a way of listening to site-specific binaural recordings through live ambient sound. Lastly, we skyped with Simon de Bakker, co-director of digital craft duo, Commonplace, about making a moving-image device that fits with outdoor vision.

This was my first chance to work with Neil Manuell without the interruption of a work day curtailed by the school run, and for sustained period of time. It was brilliant. I realised we need defined time outside home to work on the project together. It felt so good to throw out ideas and hone in on definite lines of inquiry. By the end of the residency we had clear contender solutions for sound, haptics and vision. We now know the role of each kind of sensory feedback, and ideas for not one piece of work but many.

More about the process and findings here.

*This framing is indebted these researchers of night-walking.

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