A new public wireless interface: Hivenetworks successfully launch 'Street Radio' in Southampton

On Friday the 14th of March 2008 ten 'street radio' nodes went live in Southampton narrowcasting Hidden Histories -- stories from Southamptons Oral History Archive selected and arranged to correspond with the location of the 10 nodes.

Participants started to meet at around 11 am at the gallery cafe in Southampton's Civic Centre. There they received maps of the Hidden Histories trail and those who needed them could borrow little FM radio receivers. Here you can get a digital version of the Hidden Histories map and here you get a Hidden Histories Guide

The underlying technology has been developed by Hivenetworks over the past 3, 4 years. The technologically creative mastermind behind the project is Alexei Blinov. For many years he has supported artists by finding technical solutions for their ideas. This time it was the other way round, as the basic concept behind Hive Networks is based on ideas and research carried out by Blinov, supported by a network of collaborators and friends. Blinov conceived the idea of a network that is not just a carrier of information but one that sees hears, smells, and which automatically adds new nodes and drops them if necessary, a hive of little devices which interact with each other and the public. While similar ideas have been emanating from computer science labs such as the MIT for the past 20 years, only now, through the drop in hardware prices and the collaborative efforts of free, libre and open source software developers, it has become possible for garage inventor outfits such as Blinov's Raylabs to experiments hands on with a DIY approach to ubiquituous computing. The concept of Hivenetworks was created by the artist-engineer Alexei Blinov with the proposition that it should enable media artists to create complex public art works without having to get into the deep end of technological development. Here you find an article about the deep history of HIvenetworks.

This is where I come in. I have been involved from the very start, not as a technical developer but as a close observer of the project and as a respondent to Alexei's ideas. From the very beginning I was convinced that Alexei was on to something with huge potential which also overlapped with my own interest. When the first seeds of Hivenetworks were sown I was involved in a research residency provided by Scan networks, lead by Helen Sloan. In the course of this residency I came across the Oral History Unit of Southampton Council heritage services. Since the early 1980ies the Oral History Unit (OHU) had been collecting life interviews from the people of Southampton, many of whom had been very old and had worked in the docks and on ships between World Wars I and II, some even earlier. Knowing about Alexei's ideas about Hivenetworks, I wrote up a concept about creating an Oral History Trail in the centre of Southampton. It took 4 years and several other people to get involved to make this happen. First, independently of me Alexei's old friend and collegue of Raylab times, Cieron Edwards, had a very similar idea, which he started pitching towards Paul Grover of the Solent Centre. Still involved was Helen Sloan who supported conceptual development at an early stage. While the technology matured, supported also through an Arts Council grant in 2006, the Solent Centre's efforts to get local financial and organisational support finally succeeded in 2007 by receiving funding through SEEDA and Southampton Partnerships and in autumn of that year we could start seriously with implementing the project with the help of Rosie Danby as our project manager for the Solent Centre.

Hivebox on light pole in front of former Tyrell and Green building

On a tight budget and close deadline, we were very happy to be able to deliver. On 10 light poles in the centre of Southampton on Above Bar street weather proof little boxes have been mounted which contain repurposed commercially available hardware. The unique hard- software combination implemented by Hivenetworks is playing soundfiles in a loop on FM radio on 89.0 MHtz. The very low powered USB FM transmitters are said to have a range of about 10 to 15 meters. Thus, around each lighhtpole in a radius of 30 meters approximately you can hear one particular radio art piece created by me with excerpts from the Oral History Archive. The boxes also scan the surroundings for mobile phones with the bluetooth function on. Asking the carrier of the mobile phone to accept a message first, a short bluetooth text message is transmitted announcing the node, the frequency and its content. The Hiveware contained in the boxes also creates a mesh network based on the OLSR protocol. Currently we do not provide access point services, the mesh is only there for maintainance reasons. Via the net we can 'see' the boxes from London and check if they are working and upload new content.

Snapshot of the mesh network topology

I have been working on this project since the beginning of last autumn but the past two months in particular I was in oral history universe. I could never have finished the 10 short audio pieces on time without the support of Sheila Jemima and Padmini Broomfield from the OHU. They know the archive very well and have carried out already many projects where they made selections and put together specific excerpts of the archive, from Titanic to maritime workers, female seafarers and early memories of cinematic experiences. In the remnants of the bombed out Holyrood Church they have created a different type of oral history station, a piece of hardware with buttons to select different audio extracts from. Their advise and expertise saved me a lot of time and provided valuable guidance and inspiration. So for about 2 months continuously I spent under the headphones, listening through the archive, becoming intimate with voices and the tales that they told. After such an intense phase of work in seclusion, me and the voices from the past, spending together hours and hours, it was a particular type of joy for me to see and hear this project launched.

First of all, it worked. To be precise, 9 out of 10 nodes worked. One, the 10th and last node by chance, had a technical failure which could not be solved by means of software or frequent restarts -- the whole box has to be replaced which we will do shortly. For a pilot project with such a smalll budget 9 out of 10 was not a bad achievement. Moreover, the FM reception in the vicinity of the nodes was generally very good. Because of traffic noise it is advisable to use headphones, yet by using those the voices are coming through quite clearly and very well understandable. Some of the nodes have a slight high pitched buzz at the background, but it is not loud enough to diminish the experience and other nodes are totally clear. The bluetooth function worked but very very slowly, which is something to be addressed in the future.

But technical functioning aside, the project also worked as a whole. I simple loved drifting from one node to the other, headphones on, radio in hand, listening in to one story and then, after a while, moving on to the next. There was a specific effect that we had hoped to happen but could not count on because at the end of the day this was the first time that something like this was done. We placed the nodes in such a distance that ideally the covered areas would overlap just a bit so that you could drift from one story to the next and even have an area where both nodes were audible. And this was exactly how it turned out. Between node 6 and 5 for instance, or node 7 and 9, you could walk away from one node, its signal slowly getting weaker, while the other soundbytes would start coming in, gently interfering but not wiping out the first signal, until you were close in reach and only listened to one node again. It would be very tempting for the future to use this effect to ask sound artists to create compositions for specific areas.

When I created the pieces, I took care to chose topics which would relate to the surroundings. Thereby I tried to be not too heavy handed regarding the 'meaningfullness' of the pieces. Sometimes the spaces are very heavily connotated by memorials. Simply doubling those connotations would probably be too much. Also, the material of the Oral History Archive can be pretty hardcore. Take for instance the wars. The archive contains stories from both World Wars which are so sad that you could make everyone depressed listening to those. The same with Titanic, or with poverty, or hardship concerning the labour conditions in the dock. If you wanted to you could portray life before WWII for the working classes as endless misersy and hardship. Yet although it was tough, hard and unfair, people also found ways of entertaining themselves which maybe are lost to us nowadays and they talked about memories of good times as well. Therefore, in my selection, I tried to find a balance and mixed in some of those positive tones. I would not want to be seen to try to make things better than they were, but I also didn't try to hammer home some politically correct message about the suffering of "the people". The people are a pretty divers folk, I learned from working with the oral history archive.

Here you can listen to a Hidden Histories sound example, The Sinking of the Titanic

That said, the work creates a sort of temporal spatial narration. As you walk through the city space of Southampton, you dive into those stories from the past. The history is suspended in the air, so to speak. Sometimes the imponderabilities of the wireless medium carry a wave from a far away node unexpectedly mixing in with where you are on the trail. The chosen technological set-up makes it easy for the audience to experience the piece. I am quite aware of the genre of the audio walk, without having researched it so far in any academic sense. Most audio walks which I ever tried made it necessary for the audience to borrow quite heavy and expensive gear to experience it. Only a couple of years ago at Futuresonica that would be a aluminium rucksack containing a gps and a computer. The street radio set up deployed by Hivenetworks on the other hand uses technology which people already carry in their pocket. Most of the newer mobile phones have bluetooth and FM reception. Having headphones, even small ones, really improve the experience. But that's it, oiff you go and listen to stories from Southampton's maritime past while taking a walk through the city, smelling the air, seeing radio masts of ships in the distance, being 'disturbed' by some live seagulls. What struck me as particularly interesting is this overlapping of the visual sense with the profane ongoings of Southampton on a weekday morning and the audio sphere with the voices from the achive. It creates a new layer, a new public interface through which to experience the city.

This should not be of interest for tourists only but even more so is an experience which the people of Southampton should try to give them a sense of ownership of their own history and present. The voices of the people of Southampton telling an unfiltered version of subjectively experienced history are being trasnmitted into public space. Little squares and corners are being enriched with a civil society version of history profoundly different from the media manipulation which we have to suffer with today's electronic media landscape. For me and the Hivenetwork crew this is a beginning, not an end. The technology can still mature and improve and is capable of more and other things. But for the time being I think we can be proud a little bit.

Note: Hidden Histories on Street Radio is currently running and will remain active till November 2008.